That’s a drama. It’s a story of sin and redemption that could have ended without the redemption. It’s a story of choices that mattered and mattered both in this life and the next. The prodigal son could have died in that far-off land. He could have been too proud or too invested in his sins to return home. The Parable of the Prodigal Son tells us that life is a serious thing, and that reconciliation costs us, but that’s not the way it’s usually preached.
How often do we hear anything remotely like C. S. Lewis’s words in Mere Christianity about the ultimate importance of every choice we make? “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before,” he wrote.
And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.
That also describes a drama. It’s also a warning to stay alert at all times and a promise of a great reward if we do. It’s a reminder that life is a serious affair.
I can guess why the softer versions of Catholicism appealed to so many. It wasn’t just the sixties, liberalism, compromising clerics, and the other reasons often given. Older friends have told me stories of growing up with a harsh, cold version of Catholicism, something out of the stereotypes. They needed to hear the gospel as good news. Priests have told me of the number of people they see who are paralyzed by guilt and the feeling God can’t possibly love them (as well as the ones who feel no guilt at all). They need to hear about the Father who runs to embrace them.
Still, we need more seriousness. Many of us laymen need it, because we need all the help we can get to seek first the Kingdom of God as Our Lord instructed us and not shuffle along expecting everything to turn out all right anyway.
The world needs it as well. A materialistic world is a world that has trouble being serious, whether we’re talking about materialism as a philosophical position or a consumerist practice. It tends to be a world in which few things really matter. People have an instinct for meaning, a sense that this world is not all there is and that what they do should count for something beyond their death.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.