The greatest suffering: Separation

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We have all been there. Missing a friend. Grieving the loss of a loved one. Feeling homesick. These are all difficult and painful situations because they involve separation. 

Oftentimes, separation is unwanted and involuntary. Nobody likes being apart from the things or people that they love. Thomas Aquinas sympathizes with this in Book IV of his “Summa Contra Gentiles:”For from the fact that we love something we desire that thing if it be absent; we rejoice, of course, if it be present; and we are sad when we are kept from it; and we hate those things which keep us from the beloved, and grow angry against them.”

But sometimes, we voluntarily separate ourselves from those around us. There are many examples of healthy separation from others, such as when we establish boundaries or take the time to make a retreat to reconnect with God. These separations ultimately allow us to become more well-rounded, healthy and integrated members of society and of the Church. 

On the unhealthy flipside, when we begin to isolate ourselves from family, friends and the community, it doesn’t take long before we run the risk of becoming selfish, depressed and more vulnerable to temptation.

In a spiritual context, we experience the pain of separation every time we sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 1855 explains that the difference between mortal and venial sin is determined by how much that particular sin separates us from God, specifically His gift of charity within our souls. 

While venial sin allows charity to subsist in the soul while wounding and weakening it, mortal sin is the complete destruction of charity in the soul. As the Catechism tells us: “it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.” 

Which brings us to the greatest and most painful separation of all: Hell. While many of us choose to picture Hell as a fiery inferno, the Catechism paints a bit of a different picture. 

In paragraph 1035, we read: “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs”. In this separation, there is no hope. For the true purpose of our lives is to be united with God. Therefore, to be separated from Him for all eternity is the greatest suffering of all. 

But there is hope to be found. The Catechism also tells us that those who die in the state of grace, though still in need of purification, are indeed assured of their purification. The Church calls this final purification “Purgatory,” which the Catechism tells us, “is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” 

Here I think the key difference is that this separation is not eternal. The souls in Purgatory are assured of being united with God in Heaven someday, which I can only imagine is that which makes their sufferings bearable. 

For those of us who are still suffering from the pains of separation, we too can find comfort. A dear friend once reminded me in a letter that physical separation does not mean true absence. As members of the Body of Christ, we are all united to one another through grace, and most especially, the gift of the Eucharist. 

As Servant of God Dorothy Day put it, “We are all members of the Body of Christ, and so we are closer, to each other, by the time of grace, than any blood brothers are.” 

So let us find our hope in our final end, our ultimate desire. The sufferings and separations we have to face here on earth would be nothing compared to being separated from God for all eternity. He, the Source of all our joy and consolation, will never abandon us. 

St. Paul offers us encouragement in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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