The Personalist Project

We are more or less used to the inequality we have to deal with in everyday life: some of us are more intelligent, talented, wealthy, healthy and lucky than others, while others are badly off in all respects.  We don’t need to see this as a sign of God’s favor or neglect; lack of health, of opportunities, of money, intelligence and talents can be explained as the consequences of original sin, of “sinful social structures” which John Paul II spoke about, different genetic pools or just as plain bad luck. The wealthy are not particularly good nor are the suffering particularly evil; good and evil cut across all classes and professions. God lets the sun shine on the good and the bad equally in this life (and I won’t go into the well-known point here that doing the good is already rewarding while committing evil carries its own punishment).

However, people endowed with certain talents are often considered favored by God; Joseph in the Old Testament is a thorn in the side of his brothers because they perceive him as being God’s (and their father’s) favorite. It takes a conversion process on their side and much suffering on Joseph’s for them to repent of their attempted murder. Yet his talents, as becomes clear, have been given to him so that he may serve his family and the wider community. He is able to prepare Egypt for a terrible famine, and save many people in and outside the country.  Hence having more talents doesn’t mean being favored over and against others, but means that more will be asked from oneself. People like Joseph have been given to the world so that more people may be helped; thus his talents express God’s love for the weaker as well as for him.

While many inequalities, however, (for example, bad health) seem often unjust and part of this valley of tears, the inequality we will experience in the next life will be perfectly just. While each individual is God’s favorite soul, as Gabrielle Bossis, the author of the famous collection He and I wrote, and while God loves each soul infinitely, we respond to this love to different degrees; some of us will become holier than others, and the hierarchical order in Heaven will reflect this. Since it will be an order of love rather than of power, there will be no cause for envy or resentment. Each one will be perfectly happy and absolutely fulfilled, basking in the complete love of the Trinity.  We will all rejoice in the justice and mercy which brought us together and ordered us to fill this particular spot in Heaven, which has many abodes.

That this is not necessarily an easy attitude to reach in this life is made clear in that even the apostles argue who the greatest among them is; the mother of James and John isn’t any better, since she wants her sons to sit on Christ’s right and left in his glory. This all too human view of God’s kingdom is something we easily slip into, and which takes some purification to leave behind. Less easy to understand is Christ’s famous parable of the workers of the last hour. Doesn’t it seem supremely unjust that the last ones, those who hardly had time to accumulate merit or put their love for God to the test will be just as much rewarded as those who’ve served the Lord through many toils in their lives? Doesn’t justice require a just remuneration which will reflect the different degrees of service rendered to God by human beings? But the first workers are not given less than they were promised; they only started to grumble once the last ones were given as much as they were. This reminds one of the older son’s resentment in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who (wrongly) feels less loved by his Father.  But the question remains why God doesn’t give the first workers more than the last ones - because He can only give Himself, and He does so completely and unconditionally.  It doesn’t depend on God, but on the receiver, on how much he is capable and willing to receive. Those who are the losers in this life often seem more capable of receiving that love than those tempted by self-righteousness.  But being in a state of absolute misery is no ticket to Heaven either. The good thief shows us the way, while the bad thief cannot accept Christ’s mercy.

But what about the injustices in this life, when God seems to be taking direct action in favor of some, but not of others? Some people are saved providentially and, it seems, miraculously by God, for example Dietrich von Hildebrand or the Polish resistance fighter, Ian Karsky, while millions were sent to the slaughterhouses in Auschwitz et al. More recently, Immaculée Illibagizza comes to mind who survived the Rwandan genocide. When she came to give a talk at Villanova University some years ago, some people reacted negatively. They asked: “What about the others (whom God hadn’t saved)?” It seemed unjust and unloving that God had allowed so many others to be butchered while protecting Immaculée; hence they preferred to think that God had not saved her in the first place. This raises the question why God grants a miraculous cure to some people - coming to Lourdes, for example - but not to others. Why does this young child die of cancer though everybody has been praying for its healing, while this elderly man is miraculously healed of a life-threatening disease? Isn’t God showing favoritism for some and not for others?

If all we had was the here and now, then indeed it would be supremely unjust that some get cured and others don’t. But since this isn’t the case and we know that God wants what is best for us, then it comes down to a question of faith and hope (and also love).  We don’t have the full picture; it seems like an unmitigated tragedy that some people die when they die, but since we don’t know what this means from the perspective of eternity, what good God works in their lives and that of their families, and what this means for their afterlife, we cannot pass a final judgment on this event. It is particularly difficult to accept this when one is in the midst of a tragedy oneself; then these promises may seem very distant. Even the French writer and convert, André Frossard, who had experienced the width and breath of God’s love in a mystical encounter, had to struggle, when he lost two of his children. He knew through his mystical experience that God was infinite Love, and yet it was hard for him to accept His severe mercy in these circumstances: “I lived with this sword piercing my heart, all the while knowing that God is love”, and he ends his famous conversion story, God Exists: I Have Met Him, with the beautiful lines “Love, to speak of you, eternity itself will be too brief.”[1]

[1] Transl. Marjorie Villiers, New York: Herder and Herder, 1971, p. 125.


Comments (14)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, May 2, 2013 9:23am

Marie, there is so much here to mull over.  Thank you!

Here's just one of the things I'm wondering about: Do you think the modern notion that it's wrong to have favorites (among one's children, say) is part and parcel of the same true development in our understanding of personal dignity and the unique preciousness and infinite value of each individual, or is it rather tied to typically modernist errors, such as that everyone is so equal that it's wrong to make distinctions.  Or both?  Or neither?

Marie Meaney

#2, May 2, 2013 2:16pm

Thanks for your comment/question, Katie! It's probably both. The modernist error of thinking that equality means being the same flattens the varied landscape of persons, so to speak, and wants to keep those with more visible or outstanding talents down. It feeds on envy which could be due to a) favoritism (the wrong kind) by others or b) a lack of self-worth in the person who therefore feels unappreciated and unloved in contrast to others or c) both. I'm often struck how this pans out in families, even good Catholic ones. Those children with greater vitality and a stronger personality get much more attention, and one can see the other children suffering from that. In Genesis, Joseph's father is unpsychological at best for giving his son this precious coat which rubs his other sons the wrong way; they are continuously confronted with their father's preference when seeing that coat. And Joseph himself is provoking his brothers, by telling him his dream of their bowing to him. Though this will turn out to be prophetic, he too will have a change of heart, and approach his brothers with humiliy and love in the end.  

Marie Meaney

#3, May 2, 2013 2:24pm

Having said this, it seems quite difficult to abstain from the wrong kind of favoritism (not the kind where one gives a child more attention, since it has special needs, for example). There are affinities between personalities, so that one child's personality is more "obvious" to one and perhaps more attractive than another's. Hence one's love can obviously never remain on a purely natural level; it has to be transformed, otherwise it can become very unjust (a mother's instinctive love can turn into idolatry or it can mean neglecting some children whilst showing preference for others).

Katie van Schaijik

#4, May 3, 2013 8:31am

Marie Meaney, May. 2 at 2:24pm

Having said this, it seems quite difficult to abstain from the wrong kind of favoritism (not the kind where one gives a child more attention, since it has special needs, for example). There are affinities between personalities, so that one child's personality is more "obvious" to one and perhaps more attractive than another's. 

It does seem to me a kind of progress that we at least know this now. We know that each person is objectively infinitely precious and deserving of our love, and we know that children suffer when they feel themselves less loved than another.

On the other hand, I hate the utilitarian tendency to treat all distinction as illegitimate favoritism. For instance, some people thought it was "absurd" that so much American attention was focuesed on the victims of the Boston bombing, while the victims of bombs in Iraq that same week weren't even mentioned. They spoke as if ethics involves the abolition of all personal ties and affinities.

Patrick Dunn

#5, May 10, 2013 9:42am

"while God loves each soul infinitely, we respond to this love to different degrees; some of us will become holier than others, and the hierarchical order in Heaven will reflect this."

I always feel discouraged when I think about this.  I will never be as holy or responsive to God's love and grace as I could or should have been.  And so, I don't see how I could be perfectly happy and absolutely fulfilled knowing that I could have responded in a different or better way.  My "particular spot" in Heaven (if I have one) will always also be an indication, implicitly, of what could have been, it seems to me. 

Patrick Dunn

#6, May 10, 2013 10:07am

While I am concerned about the truth of whether such a hierarchy exists and what it means, and while I do not want to be a mere pragmatist, I don't see how this consideration is helpful (at least to me).  When I do consider it, or something like it - gaining "merit" in God's eyes or trying to "merit" greater grace from, or a place with, God - it turns me in on myself.  It seems impossible to love - not only others or God, but even myself anymore.  Everything becomes this spiritual economics, a frantic project of trying to maximize my sanctity while I still have time here.  It's about me, and no longer about anyone else.  I become Pelagian, afraid, uptight.

It becomes self-defeating: trying to get into Heaven and secure a high place there, or trying to ensure that I'll be completely happy forever actually prevents me, in a sense, from doing the very thing that would actually, truly, make me 'worthy' of Heaven and even have a 'higher' place there: that is, to love, to truly 'lose my life' in the good sense of that phrase, to receive God's grace with open hands like little Therese did.

Sam Roeble

#7, May 10, 2013 3:24pm

Patrick, imagine if the opposite of what you're saying were true--namely, that egalitarianism reigns among the saints.  Mary is equal to St. Jerome? (he would be furious).

Rather, think of Dante's purgatorio--climbing a mountain of virtue.  Each of us have specific virtues we need to work on in order to grow in holiness:  you mentioned 'love'/charity.  And, most likely there's at least one other virtue that is troublesome.  Now, Dante was wrong in judging specific individuals to hell, etc.  but his system was correct in terms of what you and I can work on. 

This is a major difference that I've noticed between Catholicism and Protestantism.  The Church is a hierarchy in terms of the degree that we're able to exercise virtue/responsibility/etc.  

Marie Meaney

#8, May 10, 2013 3:33pm

Thanks for your comment, Patrick. You have two concerns which are closely tied: the one is how you (or anyone else for that matter) could be happy in heaven, realizing that you could have been closer to God if only you had become holier on earth; the second one is that focusing on this kind of hierarchy is self-defeating and makes you focus on yourself rather than on loving God. To start with the second: when we focus on our place in Heaven, then we tend to be entering the logic of James and John and their mother; being first somehow becomes paramount. It may seem like it has to do with being first in the order of love rather than of power, and therefore different from the apostles' concern, but as you so rightly point out, it is not love, but my egoistic "me" which is being concerned here. So I think you are right that focusing on this in one's spiritual life is not going to be helpful. My point is not to address possible worries about not having done enough, but that one need not worry about God unjustly favoring some and loving them more. 

Marie Meaney

#9, May 10, 2013 3:34pm

Now concerning one’s worries about not having done enough or being somehow disappointed in Heaven that one didn’t rise to the heights of holiness one could have reached, I’d say the following: I think you are right that the abandonment which St. Therese of Lisieux practices it the way to go; only that can make one enter into that dialogue of Love which God is desiring, into a complete dependence on His will. Disappointment in Heaven is out of the question, of course, since otherwise it could not be Heaven (to state the obvious). Literature can sometimes give us a good sense of this; I’m thinking of C. S. Lewis’ “Great Divorce” where people’s former faults are no longer a source of regret, and the other’s pre-eminence is actually a further cause for joy; his or her beauty and holiness is something we can rejoice in, since we are no longer concerned in the wrong way about ourselves or worried that we are less loveable or not loveable at all (which is often at the source of envy).

Patrick Dunn

#10, May 11, 2013 7:03am

Thank you for replying, Samwise and Marie.

When you talk about growing in holiness, or a hierarchy of practicing virtue / reaching different heights of holiness, what is the standard by which we can 'measure' - so as then to know how we're doing? 

See, this is where I think St. Therese is profound.  Living among 'super nuns' set on doing great works almost in a spiritual / ascetical Olympics type of context, not to mention a long line of saints who seemed to view holiness similarly, Therese believed in a new way. 

Rather than climbing the mountain of virtue - though of course she strove to be virtuous - Therese realized she would always be frustrated by her own weakness.  If there was a hierarchy and the standard was justice, she would never end up where she desired to be.  So, her new way is trust unto folly in God's goodness and mercy.  God would never want to hold us at some distance because of our not having climbed the mountain to the full.


Patrick Dunn

#11, May 11, 2013 7:14am


While some saints may be capable of that ascent ("big souls"), Therese believed that God would 'compensate' for her (and other "little souls'") 'lack of ascent', if you will, if only they keep striving (Therese compared herself to a little bird flapping its wings trying to fly while eagles - great saints - soared above her) and, if only - and this is what is most important - they put all of their trust in God and allow Him to lift them up. 

Therese loved the good thief's story.  She also thought Mary was more mother than queen, and what mother would lord her 'goods' over children she loves so dearly (all of us)?  The hiearchy notion, where everything is measured according to our own 'record' of virtue gets capsized in a sense, as in the Gospels, no?  God's 'favorites' are the little ones there, the lowly.  The standard by which He measures us is our confidence and trust in Him.  That is what allows for our ascent because, paradoxically, we could never ascent on our own - everything is grace - and so the secret is to allow God to lift us up entirely.


Patrick Dunn

#12, May 11, 2013 7:16am

The hierarchy notion, I believe, is all too human and more evident of our own way of thinking and seeing than God's.  If we do appeal to it, it should be modified, as expressed above, to take into account what new insights Therese taught us.

Marie Meaney

#13, May 11, 2013 2:43pm

I completely agree with many of the points you make, Patrick, which are very good. But I think you are working with the wrong notion of hierarchy, or rather are assuming that this notion of hierarchy is underyling what I'm trying to get at. I'd say that there is no contradiction between the hierarchy in Heaven I'm trying to capture here and St. Therese's little way, her understanding of sanctity etc. Perhaps you have in mind some of the paintings we know so well with the different layers of saints, closer or further away from God, and thus are using as a metaphor a ladder, or something of the kind. A metaphor only works in some respects and in others it is wrong. To think that we will be kept at a distance by God or that we achieve sanctity by climbing up the mountain would indeed be wrong. Perhaps the metaphor of pots works better (if I remember correctly, it was also used by St Therese): pots of different sizes are still completely full even if the quantity of water in them is of a different amount. Similarly our union with God will be complete;  

Marie Meaney

#14, May 11, 2013 2:49pm

even if we have greater or lesser degrees of "space" that we've created for God through love on Earth. There will be no sense of incompleteness, no lack, no frustration; there will only be complete union. God will be giving Himself completely to everyone of us (as I've also explained in my interpretation of the late-hour workers) - there will be no difference in this way. I agree with your (and St Therese's) understanding of sanctity, of completely depending on God, on complete trust; hence Our Lady is our model, she is full of grace - no sin is there to prevent God's grace from fully inhabiting her. We don't tend to have this complete dependence; some of us - like St Therese manage to have it to an extraordinary degree - and there are probably a lot more than we know, and yes sanctity is accessible to everyone of us. But that there are differences in how much we let God inhabit us and that this will be reflected in Heaven seems to make a lot of sense and is in line with the tradition of the Church. I hope this sheds some light on this discussion.

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