Ghosts in the Light of God
In an imaginative story called, “The Great Divorce,” C. S. Lewis brings us on a journey from purgatory to paradise.
In this story, a man wakes up in a shadowy country, full of dingy houses, mean streets, fog and rain, and overall, a very dreary atmosphere. He wanders about the streets until coming across a group of people waiting in a line to board a bus. Eventually, the crowd shuffles into the bus, which then lifts up and soars off towards the heaven. When the bus lands, they’re in a very different kind of country than down below.
But C. S. Lewis, in his genius, doesn’t show us the kind of heaven that we might expect.
The narrator tells us:
“I got out. The light and coolness that drenched me were like those of summer morning, early morning a minute or two before the sunrise.... I had the sense of being in a larger space, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before… It gave me a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger.”
Paradise, he finds, is bright and beautiful, as we’d all imagine, but at the same time, there’s something daunting about the place -- overpowering. Then, when he looks at his fellow-passengers, he jumps in fear.
“I gasped when I saw them. Now that they were in the light, they were transparent -- fully transparent when they stood between me and it, smudgy and imperfectly opaque…They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.”
He bends down to pick up a flower, and is unable to. Even the blades of grass are like diamonds in comparison to them, for he too is no more solid than the other wraiths. When he looks a second time, it all becomes clear. He and his companions hadn’t changed at all. Quite simply, they were now in a country so real and beautiful and solid, that in comparison they were mere wisps of air – ghosts and phantoms. The grass is so solid that it cuts; the sunlight so bright that it stings. It wasn’t a nice discovery.
They had arrived in heaven. But once there, they weren’t all sure they liked it.
The light of paradise exposed their ghostlike existence, and some returned to the bus. They found heaven to be so foreign and different that once there they preferred the shadowy existence, as will all of us here on earth who haven’t spent our lives preparing.
But there were others who, though it wasn’t comfortable at first, pushed forward – perhaps they were a little less ghostlike than the others – and the rest of the book describes their adventure.
Today begins pre-lent, and our scripture readings are all preparing us for a task.
We read from I Corinthians: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it…I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (I Cor. 9:24-27).
Paul continues: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea…all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink…Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
It’s a sobering note, and not something we like to dwell on too much. We live in a culture of instant-gratification and entitlement, and we tend to think of heaven in the same way. “I’m not like those other people…I’m a good guy…Surely I can expect good things in the next life to come…” The notion, ‘once saved always saved,’ would have scandalized nearly all Christians in the past, but it’s so widespread in our times that it’s hard to shake it off. We’ve forgotten that sin is really real. We forget that our sins, as little as they may feel to us, turn us into ghostlike people like the ghost on C. S. Lewis’ bus. Yes, maybe evil exists somewhere in the Middle East, or closer, in the white house perhaps, but certainly not right here, buried deep in my heart.
In historical Christianity, the weight of sin in our souls was taken much more seriously.
Jesus Christ taught, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man" (Matthew 15: 19-20). He didn’t preach Joel Osteen’s gospel that, “You’re okay. I’m okay.” He preached repentance. In the Book of Revelation, God declares to the Christians, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” But in the 21st century version of this gospel, we have a different attitude about God, and assume He looks down at us thinking, “Ah, well, a little sin here, and little sin there, no big problem…who am I to judge?”
Fr. Alexander Schmemann tells a story of when he was visiting a church in Pennsylvania. After hearing the confessions of over 50 people, he sighs, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”
We all breathe the same air, and indifference is so thick in our culture that you can hardly even recognize it. Another contemporary, named Fr. George Morelli, has pointed out how widespread this sin is, indifference, and calls it the most serious sin of our generation. We’ve forgotten how very real sin is -- how it chokes us and keeps us from living life the way God desires. We’ve forgotten the profound truth that something isn’t right in our heart and needs to be purged here and now while there’s still time to repent.
Otherwise, when we find ourselves in heaven, perhaps we too will discover ourselves to be mere ghosts, and will prefer the shadow lands.
This is the purpose of Lent.
“Run in such a way that you may win [the prize]…I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (I Cor. 9:24-27).
What is St. Paul telling us? Well, that’s something we all have to think about.
It’s all summed up in the parable, which we’ve read this morning. Our Lord teaches: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” From dawn to dusk, the landowner calls more laborers to the field, and at sunset, he gives them their reward, a denarius.
Immediately, you see that the landowner doesn’t call people out into his field to sit around. He has a job for each and everyone.
According to the Church Fathers, this field is the life God has given to us Christians, where we’re called to persevere in godly works, to live a life of praying, fasting, and serving, and first and foremost, a daily struggle to purify the soul and draw closer to God. St. John Chrysostom teaches, “The vineyard is the life of justice in which the various virtues are planted, like vines in a vineyard…mildness, chastity, patience, and [all] the other virtues.” The vineyard is our soul, which God implores us to work on and nourish. The vineyard is you and everything in your life, which is famished for God’s Grace. This is the work that we have to do, for which St. Paul tells us to “run in such a way that you may win [the prize].”
And finally, the landowner’s payment to the hired laborers is very profound. He gives them a denarius.
Not just any coin, on each denarius was engraved the image of the king. What is the reward of a life spent serving God? His very image restored in our heart.
Why toil in the field through the day: so that our brokenness is healed, our dirtiness cleaned, our hunger quenched. The truth is, we are barely living – mere ghosts and wisps of air compared to God’s plan for us – like the ghosts that got off of the bus from purgatory. Day by day, our work now is to become more alive, more heaven-like, more fully human,
But the real problem isn’t that we’re flawed.
God knows this, loves us nonetheless, and waits for us to turn to Him for help.
The real problem is that we don’t really admit that we’re flawed, or if we do, we aren’t aware of how deeply we are flawed, how serious is the sin in our hearts, and how grave the distance between me and God. C. S. Lewis called his book, The Great Divorce, to describe this schism between humanity and divinity, and wrote the book not out of meanness or negativity, but with great gentleness and hope – to inspire a few readers to take repentance seriously.
This message should never be a cause for despair. It’s a message of encouragement.
The Church gives us now, as we prepare for our Lenten journey, an invitation…to slow down, to be honest with ourselves and look into our heart. Is it really so good after all? What excuses are we making? What is it that we know we should do, but aren’t doing? Are we giving God 100% or just 5%, and how can we bring that 5% to 10%?
If we can be brave enough to do this, and honest enough to plead guilty, then all we have to do is get on our knees and go to work.
It’s no coincidence that we’ve read these scriptures today.
This the packing season in the Church Calendar. Before you go on a trip you need a couple weeks to pack all your supplies and tools, so that when the bus takes off, you’re ready.
A runner preps and trains before a marathon, so we too need to start preparing for the 40-day journey.
What is going on with your soul?
How strong is your love of God?
Are you suffering from anger, bitterness, or disappointment?
Is there anyone you haven’t forgiven?
Most importantly, do you feel indifferent?
In his 1st Epistle, St. John writes, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Indifference is the greatest sign of delusion. It signals, like a red flag or a lit firework, that there really is a gulf separating you from God. And, truth be told, we all suffer from indifference. To admit this is the beginning.
When God looks at you at the judgment what will He see? A ghost, or a man?
This is why the Church begs us to come to church as often as we can, so that we might drink the living water that wakes up the soul. This is why Sundays and all the great feast days are days of obligation, such as Wednesday before last and Ash Wednesday ahead of us. To miss them is a mortal sin. The Church doesn’t call them such because of a bunch of grumpy bishops. Far to the contrary, a day of obligation is called a day of obligation because of the Church’s great mercy and condescension. She knows that we’re busy and are tired, and so sets aside these particular days as a way of saying, this is the least that you need to do to really live a Christian life. From 2,000 years of experience, the Church has seen again and again that a life built around the calendar is the only way to live a life built around God. The calendar exists to arrange our priorities in the right order – it changes us, making Christ first in our lives, and everything else second.
When God looks at you at the judgment what will He see?
This is why the saints, through every century of Christianity, and our own bishops today throughout the world, implore Christians to go to confession as often as possible. It can’t be taken lightly. It’s a matter of life or death.
In his own words, our shepherd, Metropolitan Joseph, teaches:
“As Orthodox Christians, Confession is not an option which we can choose or not choose to do. It is absolutely necessary for our spiritual healing and well-being, and those who think they can go without Confession for long periods of time are setting a trap.”
The longer we go without confession, the more we become sleepy people, somnambulists, walking about unaware of everything really going on in our souls, and dragging on our shoulders a deadening weight, which all along Jesus Christ is waiting for us to give to Him.
Our soul’s need healing, and the sacraments are the medicine and tools available to us.
The Church calls out to us in these ways, inviting us to prayer and the sacraments, not out of a sense of duty, nor from a sense of guilt. She calls out like a shepherd who sees his sheep dying of thirst and guides them along to living water, or like a tender mother, patiently teaching her babe how to live life. With gentle love and burning hope for us, the Church paves the way for us to start living more fully so that we can experience the joy and transformation of a life in Jesus Christ.
C. S. Lewis was right after all.
The degree to which we will enjoy heaven in the next life, comes down to the degree in which we open up our hearts to God now.
Lent is coming. Now is the time to look at one’s heart and to go to work.
How is your soul?
Now is our opportunity to bring whatever is impure – whatever is immature, whatever is hurting or broken, whatever refuses to forgive, refuses to love, or refuses to thaw – to bring all that you are to the divine physician, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.