Celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation recently, reminds us that God became human so that humanity might become God(-like), might grow into sharing God’s life. This was the vision celebrated by St Irenaeus of Lyons around 200: that the glory of God is best demonstrated in a human who is fully alive, who has reached life with God. God in his love and mercy searches us out when we have become estranged and lost through our turning away from God and each other into inward paths of selfishness and sin. This emphasis on God’s mercy by the 2nd century bishop of Lyons finds an interesting echo in a Parisian at the other end of two Christian millennia – the celebrated poet, socialist and publisher Charles Péguy, who was killed at the age of 41 in 1914 at the beginning of the battle of the Marne.
Péguy was a strange kind of Catholic, anticlerical and unconvinced of the value of the sacraments. He recoiled from the Church because he was appalled by the notion prevalent in some preaching of the time of a vision of hell populated by those condemned to eternal damnation, eternally cut off from the life of God. Péguy found his way back to the Church and in his late poetry offers a climactic vision of God finding his arms tied by Christ’s disclosure of his mercy. No soul, however self-damaged and degraded, can ultimately withstand the power of God’s love. In striking imagery Péguy says that God’s heart “remains a wounded heart, rendered helpless by love, an exposed and undefended flank where the enemy, man, can force a way through” … and the memorable image of a human “prayer fleet” behind its flagship the tip of whose pointed prow is formed by the clasped hands of the Father’s only Son. The idea is that humans, created by God in and for love, will not in the end be able to resist the love of God however much we have turned away from it in the course of our lives.
When we come before God at the end of our biological lives we shall see ourselves as God sees us, absolutely, with all our masks stripped away. That is God’s judgement, which we enact on ourselves. But it is inseparable from God’s mercy, in which we learn to love ourselves as God loves us, unconditionally, despite our failures and faults, accept his healing, and enter into his peace. Human freedom is a God-given absolute, therefore it is theoretically possible that someone could knowingly, completely reject the vision of God, so damn themselves, but Péguy at least did not think it possible. God’s love in Jesus will in the end overcome all the obstacles we put in its way. But realising we have been set free from fear as God’s children does not allow us to degrade liberty into licence. It still matters what we do or don’t do. Hell is likely empty but Purgatory will be busy!
-Gregory Murphy OP