Monday, May 26, 2008

A bit on the last things

The source of the chill might have been an understanding that our only choice is pyre or pyre, that we live and breath to be consumed by fire or fire, not just now and at St. Bartholomew's, but always and anywhere. Consumed or purified by fire. ~Dean Koontz, Brother Odd, c.5
I've been thinking about the four last things a bit lately. I remembered the preceding quote from Dean Koontz's Brother Odd, and since I had written it down in my notebook market "Quodlibet," which is currently sitting on my desk, I thought I'd use it as a place to begin.

I think, when you get right down to it, that our only real choice is how to burn. Will we burn like great saints, full of the fire of the Holy Spirit, the tongues of flame that fell on the Apostles and Our Lady at Pentecost? Will we burn with the fire of the Fathers, the Doctors, the Martyrs and all the other great saints whose learning, mysticism and, most importantly, love of God and faithfulness to Christ Jesus the Church holds up to us as examples to follow?

Will we burn in the purifying fires? Will we burn with a mixture of pain and joy? Pain from our purification, but joy from the knowledge that every moment of this pain brings us that much closer to seeing God face to face.

Or we will burn forever, in the fire set aside for the devil and his angels, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched?

In the end, this is what all our choices in this life boil down to: how will we burn? Will it be with the fire of eternal life, the fire of sanctity and purification, the fire of the Holy Spirit and the burning bush, the fire of divine love, the Flame Imperishable? Or will we burn with the fire of eternal death, the death of joy, the death of hope, the death of love, the fire that consumes every illusion we thought was good and leaves us only with pain and the knowledge that we have freely chosen it?

How will we burn? For burn we surely shall.


Anonymous said...


What a fine work you are doing in the blogosphere! I just discovered you by accident. Magnus est Thomas et praevalebit.

So . . . why four last things? Why not 3 (the number any one individual gets to experience), 1 (the number that perdures forever), or 5 (including Purgatory, between Judgment and Heaven)?

Stan, Thomist in Alaska

brendon said...


Purgatory isn't included among the last things because it isn't permanent. Everyone in purgatory will eventually see God face to face, though they may have to wait until the consummation of the world, depending on how much temporal punishment they are due and how much intercessory prayer is done on their behalf.

I suppose that the tradition of the number comes from the fact that they are often discussed together since they are so interrelated. Everyone will die (well, those who are alive at the time of the Parousia and the consummation of the world might not, but none of us can ever know if that will the case, and if it isn't, then we are going to die). After death we will all immediately be judged, and then we will be sent on to our final destination, either heaven or hell. Purgatory is really just the long way to heaven. No one should want to take the long way if they can help it, but at least you'll reach the goal rather than fail to achieve it.

St. Thomas certainly is great. In fact, I'm now rather inspired to write a "Why I am a Thomist" post. Hopefully I'll have time in the next few days.

Thank you for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Brendon! Xena Catolica here. Like your blog--many of your favorite books are mine, too.

The author I was refering to was Stephen Donaldson. He wrote two trilogies of Thomas Covenant. They start with "Lord Foul's Bane" and are excellent. It was reading his stuff that made me realize that fantasy could allow the author to frame complex ethical questions any way he wanted. The hero is an anti-hero & seriously deluding himself about some key things--part of the narrative pleasure is seeing how the anti-hero's thoughts and actions don't jibe. It really rocks; I kept my copies when I got rid of my Tolkien.

Donaldson never tips his hand in interviews--he never talks about the more serious content of his work. I respect that he lets the reader discover that. He's written some sci-fi, too, but I couldn't get into it, though he has a little essay at the end of "The Real Story" about inspiration and the writing process that's a gem.

Anyway, he recently started writing a 3rd trilogy, and it alienated a lot of his fans. I think it's a big mistake. Messing with the characters is a bad idea, and I was put off immediately. But his prose isn't up to the original, either. The writing in the first trilogies is lush & vocabulary-stretching. But after writing much more spare prose for 20 yrs., he can't really do the sensual style well anymore.

I've never heard of him having a Catholic background, but his early work clearly shows a familiarity with medieval lit. (particularly Anglo-Saxon). I'd argue that the ethical questions that he poses about forgiveness, consequences of sin, altruism, etc. are thoroughly Catholic.

Anonymous said...


That sounds right -- while Death and Judgment are in a sense as transitory as Purgatory, they are inevitable as Purgatory is not. So the four last things are the inevitable things (albeit disjunctively so in the case of Heaven and Hell).

I look forward to exploring your archives and linked blogs/sites as time allows. Uppermost on my own mind just now is my forthcoming doctoral defense (CUA, June 10).

God bless.