By Terry Culpepper
In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s death and passage into eternal life, it seems to me rather natural to consider his book, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. Even though it is a dense academic work originally written for his graduate students, the then-Joseph Ratzinger offers us many reflections that we ought to incorporate into our own lives.
In particular, I would like to highlight two key ideas that, in my view, sum up the essence of all the late pope’s theology: first, the conviction that we must devote our lives to unity with Christ; second, that salvation inherently involves the whole community of believers. Taken together, these ideas help us understand Benedict’s thought and offer great material for prayer and study.
Ratzinger’s first idea challenges the seeming bleakness of human life. Despite the hope that the Gospel professes, our world is undeniably filled with tragedy and darkness. This is obvious on a large scale, when we see the calamities of war, genocide, hatred and a general disordering of what is considered good and true. But this also trickles down to the personal level when we see families in disarray and virtuous people suffering for seemingly no reason. How can this be if the Gospel is true? And with the world the way it is, why should we focus on Christ instead of our own prosperity?
Ratzinger turns to the book of Haggai as a meditation on this same question. Upon returning from exile, the Jews attempted to rebuild the temple but faced many roadblocks along the way. Because of this, they instead focused on building their own houses, trying to bolster their own prosperity before they returned to tackling the temple. But Haggai provides a stern refutation: focus on the house of the Lord first! Put aside your material wants and remember that God is your highest priority!
At the time of Haggai, many Jews were born in the Babylonian empire and likely considered it their home. They lived there for years until the Persian conquest, which allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Yet, the returning Jews had no direct experience of Jerusalem and had to trust that returning was worth the beating sun, robbers on the route and overall discomfort that comes with uprooting one’s life. Finally, the Jews arrived at Jerusalem only to find crumbling walls, squatters wandering about and ruins where the temple once stood. With morale already low, why wouldn’t they just give up on rebuilding the temple? Why not focus on material possessions instead? Suddenly, Haggai’s message to place God at the center of our lives doesn’t seem so obvious.
The path of the returning Jews essentially mirrors our path to heaven. We have no direct, sensory knowledge of heaven, and we are met with many obstacles on the path to getting there. It’s understandable why so many people turn away from Christ to look for answers in worldly treasures. But like God in the book of Haggai, Ratzinger reminds us that such an approach cannot fulfill us. Instead, we must center our lives on Jesus, for our existence points to Him as our supreme good. As St. Augustine put it, “Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
How does one achieve this unity with Christ? The most effective answer is through prayer. When possible, Ratzinger recommends using nature, art and other materials that help us most directly experience God’s presence. Prayer, especially silent meditation on God’s will, becomes the purest form of love for Him: when we unify our will with His, even when it seems unpleasant to us, we truly love God for who He is as opposed to loving Him for anything He can provide.
This leads us to Ratzinger’s second idea: salvation is an interconnected reality for all humanity. The temptation to think about “my own salvation” is mistaken, because God didn’t make us to be autarkic beings. Likewise, the notion that Christ’s second Great Commandment is fulfilled simply via corporeal acts of service is not enough – it begets a materialist attitude that doesn’t help others find the true Good. Since we are creations made in God’s image, all our social actions should be ordered towards helping others love God.
But just as we must help others cultivate their love for God, we should trust that they can help us in our walk, as well. In a May 2012 address, Pope Benedict provides the example of Saint Peter, who in Chapter 12 of Acts had been imprisoned by Herod Agrippa. Luke writes that “earnest prayer was made to God by the church,” and that “many were gathered together and were praying” for Peter. Meanwhile, Peter slept despite the grave danger he was in. Peter trusted in God, because he knew that God was helping him through the intercession of the Church. This illustrates Ratzinger’s point in Eschatology that “heaven is a stranger to isolation.” Although Christ brings each individual to heaven, heaven is only complete in the perfecting of the entire body of Christ. Hence, “the individual’s salvation is whole and entire only when the salvation of the cosmos and all the elect has come to full fruition.” A life centered around Christ necessarily becomes centered around all of Christ’s Church.
Many will remember Pope Benedict’s brilliant mind, but at his core the Pope was a prayerful man as well as an academic. His Eschatology, like so many of his works, offers us great food for prayer and reflection on how to love God and our neighbor. After Benedict’s passing into heaven, there can be no better way to honor him than to follow his advice and live our lives according to his lessons.