Unlike many of my co-workers and friends I don’t spend much time thinking about my earthly retirement. Maybe I should. After all it is not uncommon to want to leave the workforce around 65 years of age. With modern medicine and a little tender loving care, many of us will still be on this planet well into our 90’s. Thus our “sunset years” could easily end up being roughly a third of our earthly lives. Being able to spend up to 30 years or more outside of the normal workforce with a comfortable lifestyle certainly does seem to require considerable planning and investment. There is a whole industry of financial planning that focuses on helping individuals, couples, and families invest appropriately for our senior years.
Still, I just can’t seem to get too fired up with financially preparing for the next 30+ years or so. I’ll have my house paid off in a few years and I have no other financial debts. Thus, when I’ll be able to save more, I’ll certainly do a bit of research to see how I can carefully invest the remaining years of my income. But for me, that will likely be the extent of my own financial planning. I just don’t see it worth much effort to worry about the next 30 years when I have the rest of eternity to be concerned about.
All of us, whether we like it or not, are going to exist forever. Not 30 years more, not 300 years more, not even 3,000,000,000 (3 billion) years more, but FOREVER. God made us with earthly mortal bodies but also gave us immortal souls. Our will and intellect exist in the soul. Perhaps, like many of us, you have had the mistaken notion that it is your brain where your intellect and will exists. But that is not so. The brain is the organ of your body that processes your memories and imagination. However, your intellect and will (what makes you “you”) is part of your immortal soul. You will exist as an individual for the rest of eternity. Because it is not in man’s nature to be spirit only (as with the angels), God will also (eventually) clothe each of us with a new kind of immortal body. Regardless of our final destination, (Heaven or Hell,) each of us will end up becoming a compound spirit and body being for all time.
Think about this for a few minutes! What a fantastic gift God has given you! Out of all the trillions of people God could have created from your parents (your mother had 2 million eggs in her ovaries when she was born and there are roughly 15 to 200 million sperm per milliliter of semen;) God uniquely created you and He created you to live FOREVER!
Now, as to whether forever is to be a blessing or a curse is where the real retirement planning comes in. While we don’t have a real clear idea of how wonderful Heaven will be, we do know it will be more wonderful than we can possibly imagine. God is infinite goodness, infinite power, infinite perfection, and infinite love. The souls in Heaven will never be able to exhaust all the possible happiness and joys that they can experience with God and with each other. As for the horrors of Hell, again we don’t know the details. Likely each damned soul will have a somewhat unique experience based on his/her earthly life. We do know that as Hell is forever without God and without love of any kind, it will be a horrible experience for all who end up there.
So, I think it’s safe to say a lot is at stake here. Planning for your spiritual retirement should be job #1. No matter how comfy you make your earthly retirement, it means nothing if you end up in Hell.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matthew 16:26) (see also Mark 8:36 or Luke 9:25)
In order to do some mathematics on the importance of our spiritual retirement, I propose that, for the moment, we limit forever to just one trillion years. (That’s 1,000,000,000,000 for those of you who like to count zeros.) I know that compared to eternity, one trillion years is just a drop in the bucket. But bear with me as I think I can get my point across without having to use a larger number. Let’s also assume that our earthly retirement will last 30 years. Obviously for many it will be much shorter and for a relative few somewhat longer.
So how much more important is our spiritual retirement versus our earthly one? One way is to divide the number of forever years by the number of years of our earthly retirement. One trillion years divided by 30 is just over 33,333,333,333 (33.3 billion) years! Another way to look at this is in terms of percentage. What percent of a trillion years is 30 years? According to my math, 30 years is just 0.000000003% of a trillion years (or 3 x 10-9 percent). Thus, even when we limit “forever” to a mere trillion years, we can begin to see just how much more important our spiritual retirement is over our earthly one. Are you spending over 33 billion times as much effort on preparing for your spiritual retirement over your corporeal one? Is 99.999999997% of your retirement planning efforts going towards your heavenly retirement? Perhaps you think these comparisons are unfair. My goal here is not to downplay the need for financial retirement planning, but rather to stress the point that where we spend our eternal life is of INFINITE importance. Let’s be sure we’re doing what we can to prepare for our eternal retirement in addition to our temporal one.
So how should you best prepare for this all important retirement? Thousands upon thousands of books have been written on this topic. After all, this is what religion, the Bible, the Church, prayer, and loving God are all about—to prepare ourselves for our final end. Despite the magnitude of the task at hand it really comes down to following two commandments. When a Jewish scholar of the law asked Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responded:
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Jesus' response to the Jewish scholar is beautiful and is one of my favorite Bible passages. It truly does sum up our life's mission to just a few lines of scripture. Of course, there is a lot packed into those few versus. Just as it takes discipline and commitment, on a daily basis, over a substantial period of time, to reach lofty goals such as becoming a champion athlete, such is the same with living a good Christian life. Strive each day to love God as much as we can and to share that love with those around us.
Specifically you can pray. Prayer is the number one activity you can perform to come to know and love God. No matter where you’re at on the spiritual ladder, there is always a place for prayer. If you’re an atheist who is not even sure if God exists, you can always start with the skeptics prayer. Perhaps you’ve been a Christian all your life and your prayer life just needs a good “booster shot”. Often just reading a few books about the saints and other spiritually related topics is all we need to get motivated to improve our prayer life. Catholics and non-Catholics alike are welcome to visit Formed.org an excellent resource of books, movies, short videos, and audio lectures covering all aspects of Christian and Catholic faith. Formed.org may be available at no-cost to you if you live within a participating parish. You need not be Catholic to have free access to Formed.org.
Of course, there are thousands of other internet resources besides Formed.org. My own spiritual life got a significant boost this year (2017), when I started to listen to the AHC Lecture Series. These free lectures truly brought my faith alive and I am forever grateful to those who have produced and have made these lectures available. You can read more about how this lecture series benefits my life in my reflection: A Treasure-Trove of Spiritual Instruction.
Of course don’t forget the Bible! Scripture is paramount to learning about God and his relationship to mankind. Again, regardless of whatever level we’re at, in our Christian life, there’s always a place for God’s Word in our lives. If you don’t have a Bible, get one. Be cautious however as to what translation you purchase. For there are unfortunately, some very poor Bibles out there that are more like paraphrases than true translations.
If you’re Catholic, you’ve got some other key resources for grace that will certainly boost the quality of your spiritual retirement. I speak of course, of the Mass and the Sacraments. Your number one resource within the Church is the Mass. Learn to participate in the Mass as deeply as you can. By “participate” I don’t mean that you have to be a lector, usher, Eucharistic minister, or anything of that sort. (These are wonderful ministries and may God bless all those who partake in them.) But as a member of the laity you still should learn to really put your heart and soul into the Mass. If you’re of the proper disposition you should also receive Communion whenever at Mass. The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) should also be practiced regularly. Personally, I find nothing more spiritually refreshing than having just completed a really good Confession.
Beyond attending church services or Mass, get involved! Find out what ministries are active at your church or parish. My own parish has 65 separate ministries that meet on a regular basis. There are multiple prayer groups, Bible studies, and various ministries of all kinds. If your church or parish is too small to offer much in the way of ministries, look to your community or other church groups to see what is available. Most importantly, offer up all your efforts to God. Your joys and successes, disappointments and failures, each and every day, can all be offered to Jesus in union with the joys, successes, disappointments, and failures that he has experienced in the salvation of souls.
Don’t try to do just “the minimum” to get to Heaven. For we don't know what “the minimum” is.
Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. (Luke 13:24)
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Based on Jesus’ words above, I think we need to be especially vigilant with our long term retirement planning. Strive to do more than just the basic prayers and requirements dictated by the Church. Besides, this life here on Earth, is the only time of merit. While it is true that all who make it to Heaven will be perfectly happy, this level of “perfect happiness” will vary from soul to soul. Once we die, the time for increasing our merit ends. Purgatory will be an opportunity to rid ourselves of any remaining attachments and perform whatever other cleansing we need, in preparation for Heaven, but we cannot increase merit there. Heaven is where we’ll experience the perfect joy of being with the Triune God and I suspect that joy will grow and grow as the "years progress" (or however time will advance in eternity); but our “starting point” in Heaven will depend upon how well and faithfully we loved God and our neighbors in this life. Thus the merit we earn now, in this life only, will determine the amount of absolute happiness and joy we’ll ultimately experience in Heaven. So let’s invest our time and efforts wisely while here on Earth. Make your biggest investments in the retirement program that really matters!
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(This article was first posted October 28, 2017.)