This might sound unbelievable in the age of low cost flying, but I never travelled by plane until I was 30. In the Benedictine monastery in the South Ouest of France where I lived during most of my youth we were allowed to visit our families only occasionally, every two or three years, and only for short periods of time. On these occasions, the only way of reaching my home town in the South of Italy, was a 36-hour journey by train – more or less the time it takes to fly to New Zealand nowadays!
This flight took me from Toulouse to London for my first visit to Oxford, and I remember that the day before I dutifully went to confession! If the plane crashed -I thought then- I would die “in a state of grace”, as we used to say. Most practising Christians today might smile at this behaviour, but during my early years in the monastery I met many older monks and priests almost obsessed about making sure they would “die in a state of grace” and pray to be granted that which, according to another expression, was referred to as “final perseverance”. Some would scrupulously wear the so-called “scapular of our Lady of Carmel”, a kind of necklace made of two squares of brown tissue connected by a string, meant to represent a miniature religious habit. Those who died wearing this scapular were promised “final perseverance”, that is to be in a state of grace in the instant of death and therefore the guarantee of going to heaven. Behind these practices, there was the belief that our eternal destiny depends on our inner disposition in the moment we die. The silver line about this idea is that however imperfect and even sinful our whole life might have been, even a last minute act of repentance will obtain us forgiveness from God. This belief however also results from the paranoid-inducing idea that however virtuously people might live, if they have done something sinful just before they die, they go to hell.
Enlightened practising Christians nowadays might have quietened the paranoia, but many might still think that the whole of a person’s destiny is decided in a given instant in their lives: for Catholics it is the moment of death, for Evangelicals it is the instant of conversion.
This idea is misleading both from the viewpoint of our human experience and of Scripture.
There are, of course, moments, events, decisions, experiences, which have a momentous significance in our life, but none defines us because each one of us is a story and meaning can be grasped only with reference to the whole narrative. We know that we should never judge people only on the basis of one episode or reaction or behaviour. This is why knowing people takes time. It is only thanks to a familiarity built over a long period of time that we start feeling that we truly know someone and therefore we become able to put into perspective the occasional blips, failures, arguments, and even more serious misbehaviours. So, even if the last memory I have of someone who passes away happens to be an unpleasant one, it will not define the memory I will keep of this person. If we, as human beings, are capable of this wholistic view with regards to each other’s lives, how much more God!
The way we see God dealing with us in Scripture confirms this human experience. One of the most common metaphors of the way God relates with his people is journeying. What matters is not where anyone is at any given moment, but the way we have walked, where we are going, and the fact that we keep moving. Some journeys are more linear, others are very sinuous and seen from above often give the impression of going nowhere until again they find a direction. In the Gospels, Jesus himself is constantly moving, and invites his disciples to follow him, journey with him. But even when we do not walk with him, he remains with us.
Looking at my life as a story or as a journey helps me to understand why it is misleading to talk about “state of grace” at any given time. I rather like to see my whole life as ‘graced’ by the company of God, by the belief that God is with me, wherever I am. This means that I am less anxious as to whether I will be in the ideal condition in the instant when I will leave this world (and incidentally that nowadays I do not feel I have to go to confession each time I have to fly somewhere!). I am very fond of an episode of the life of St Aloysius of Gonzague who one day, as he was playing with other young Jesuits, was asked what he would do if someone told him that he was going to die in the following 10 minutes. His reply was: “I would keep playing”.