January 17 is the anniversary of my grandmother Marieta’s death. To me, she was a true role model and a great example of faith. Though she suffered much, she complained little. After seeing her family lose everything when the communists took over in Albania in 1945, having both her knees broken, watching her husband die slowly as the communist regime forbade pharmacies to sell him insulin, and finally being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, she always found refuge in God and—even in the most painful moments—she bore every difficulty with courage, grace, and, above all, great faith. Since Korça’s Cathedral was across the street from our house, she hardly ever missed a service, even when she was not feeling well. In truth, not a day goes by that I do not miss her and her wise advice. I would dearly love to see her again. I believe that I will see her on the Last Day, but under what circumstances will that meeting come? Has she made it to Heaven? Will I?
Universalism is the belief that all people, regardless of the state of their souls and their actions in this world, will be saved. This heresy has been formally condemned by the Church. I think most would not have a very tough time both seeing why someone might think or even want this to be the case and also why it is wrong. On the one hand, we all love a story that closes with, “and then they lived happily ever after.” All’s well that ends well, right? We know that the happily-ever-after conclusion is nearly unattainable in this life, but perhaps everything will work out in the end. Heaped against this belief, however, is the rather large and ongoing warnings and admonishments plastered on just about every page of the Bible, of which I have selected only one: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). If Our Lord was not being serious here, I must say I fail to get the joke.
If I could hazard a guess, I think that this context is helpful in understanding why a number of the Fathers, most notably St. Augustine, were focused on stressing how few are saved. This assertion is repeated by St. Thomas Aquinas, so that it has a very strong basis in Western theology. Though I do not often tend to disagree with the Fathers and the Scholastics all at once, I have to disagree in this case. It is possible that in trying to avoid one extreme, they came dangerously close to its opposite. There seems to be, however, great support for this point of view that “many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt. 22:14), “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt. 7:14), and so on and so forth.
The interpretation of “few”, however, is where I think the mistake lies. Are we to take “few” as defined by the statistician, or as defined by the Father? To the statistician, having 28 of the original 30 soldiers come back alive from battle is to have had few loses. To the parent, however, not knowing that one of their five children is safe is knowing that far too few are safe. To the Good Shepherd, 99 safe sheep are far too few safe sheep and one lost sheep is far too many lost. And yet, we do not pray to Our Statistician, but to Our Father. God has chosen to invite us into kinship with Him because of the deep love that He bears for us, the deep love from which He chose to sacrifice His Only Son, by Whose Blood we have been bought from slavery and have been made children of the Most High and have been given the gift of sonship and adoption so that we also may be co-heirs with Christ. If even a single person chooses to close themselves off from God, if even one person goes to Hell, too few go to Heaven.
So where does this leave me? Under what circumstances can I expect to see my grandmother again? The Apostles ask Jesus a similar question at some point. “Lord, will only a few be saved?” His response is telling: “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (Lk. 13:23-4). The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no.” More than focusing on looking left and right about who else is following, it is much more important to do what it is that we were made for, to attain fulfillment and flourishing. In other words, Jesus is telling us to mind our business and go be a saint. I think the best answer I can ascertain from God for my question is that very same advice and, for my part, I think it is quite good advice. At the very least, I am sure my grandmother would want me to follow it.