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Are You Headed to Heaven or Hell?

September 7, 2015 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Spiritual Direction, Webinar

There is a troubling phenomenon noted by several Doctors of the Church regarding the common waning of spiritual development after a period of progress. It often happens after a fervent soul makes notable gains against habitual mortal and then venial sin. It can also happen on the back side of any virtue-based victory.

The soul becomes satisfied with itself and then reaches for the cruise control button to relax at a pace that seems “reasonable.” Usually, this “reasonable” pace is an easy one and though, at first glance, it is perceived as a continued commitment to progress, it may mark the beginning of a fall.

The first problem with this perspective is that there is no such state as one that can be illustrated by the use of a kind of spiritual cruise control. Further complicating matters is that the instinct that a safe cruise control state actually exists is a strong one.

Instead, this unfortunate and often unconscious belief is based on a lack of understanding of the teachings of the saints on the two trajectories of the interior life.

The truth is that there are only two trajectories in the spiritual life; we are either headed for heaven or hell.

The only way to have any inclination of our actual trajectory is through clear signs of growth and progress (or the lack thereof). This important insight is illustrated by this 12th-century icon called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” Its home is in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt.TheLadderofDivineAscentMonasteryofStCatherineSinai12thcentury

In this icon, we have Christ in the upper right-hand corner receiving pilgrims into heaven. On the bottom, left of center, we have the mouth of hell open to those who abandon the ladder and chose the easy open-air path to destruction.

One of the many reasons that this icon is so effective is that it makes very clear that there are only two trajectories. Each pilgrim is either moving up, or headed down.

The best antidote for the cruise control delusion is spiritual reading, particularly in the writings of spiritual Doctors of the Church like Saints Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis De Sales etc. Here’s an example of a specific antidote to this delusion in St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (fifth mansion chapter four):

“…let us always endeavor to go forward, and to fear exceedingly if we do not; for without doubt the devil wishes to entrap us, …because love is never idle; and therefore not to advance is a very bad sign…”

There is much wisdom in this simple admonition that is worth elaboration and reflection:

1. We should commit to perpetually pursue spiritual progress toward heaven. This progress is marked by an ever deepening relationship with God in prayer and increasing virtue. (One way to do that is through spiritual direction. If you want to learn more about spiritual direction, don’t miss our upcoming webinar on that very topic.)

2. We should fear exceedingly if we ever find ourselves lacking in clear progress. This godly fear will lead us into corrective action and a rededication of effort.

3. The enemy is seeking to entrap those who do make and keep this commitment – and even more so those who suffer under the delusion that they can relax in the quest for union with God.

4. Love never rests until it is fully engaged with its object – love never stops seeking to give itself to the other – in this case, both God and his people.

5. If we ever find ourselves, over any significant period of time, failing to realize progress in prayer, virtue, and love of God and neighbor, we should recognize this as a “very bad sign” and work with urgency to get back on a track of growth. What is the trajectory of your soul?

The latter half of my book Navigating the Interior Life will help you answer this question if you are not quite sure.

How can spiritual direction help you on the road to heaven?

To answer this question, be sure to register for our webinarUnderstanding Spiritual Direction: Finding a Director and Thriving in the Relationship,” scheduled for September 14, 2015.


Art: The Ladder of Divine Ascent or The Ladder of Paradise. A 12th-century icon described by John Climacus. Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai. St John Climacus described the Christian life as a ladder with thirty rungs. The monks are tempted by demons and encouraged by angels, while Christ welcomes them at the summit. Pvasiliadis, Jule 11, 2007; PD-US copyright expired; Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, and his newest books Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep and Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • John Kennedy

    Wow Dan, this gives much to ponder. The thing that I love most about the bible is that it is really a record of individuals and their spiritual journeys and relationship to God. Woven through all the history in scripture are these stories of individuals. Sadly the bible is full of those who had a good start but somehow got off track and ended badly. Probably the most prominent example in the OT is Solomon. Here was a man to whom God appeared twice, who built the temple and resided over Israel’s golden age, and yet his many wives turned him away from God and into idolatry. There is hope that he eventually repented, but the consequences of his sin not only destroyed his life but had devastating consequences for the history of Israel.

    I think as you said love is a good measure. The spiritual life isn’t like a diet, where you reach your ideal weight and now just need to maintain it. It is a love affair, where you seek to continually please your lover and continual pursue Him. Perhaps when we let our ardour wainor cool, we have begun to fall off the path.

    • BlueMit11

      Great insight. I think one problem is that Solomon, unlike his father David, reigned in a period of peace and let his guard down to these temptations that were (literally) foreign to God’s plan.

      Men especially are called to be courageous warriors (like David) and then vigilant kings. When we drop our guard spiritually, we are immediately open to the scheming and attacks of the evil one.

  • Connie Rossini

    We were just discussing this topic last night over dinner. My eleven-year-old son brought it up. Thanks for the refresher course. I too have found that spiritual reading often makes the difference between continuing forward and “falling off.” Which I have done plenty of times over the course of the years. I’m going to print this to share this evening.

  • Dan Burke

    Dear Joycelen – I was surprised and saddened to read your response to this post. I have experienced more grace in any year as a Catholic than any 10 as a protestant (I am a convert too). Our pursuit of Christ is in no way a denial of his redemptive work. Instead, it is the appropriation of his redemptive work. From another angle, I love my wife very much, but I intend to pursue her until the day I die. Why? Because I love her. So, any difficulty I face in pursuing her is really no real barrier because I love her. With respect to our pursuit of Christ, he has given all for me, my desire is to give all to him. With respect to heaven or hell – hell is simply the destruction of a relation with God that comes from our choice and our neglect. The life of holiness we are called to is no different than the marriage covenant – it is one of love that we seek to give to God. When we live in this covenant of love with God, we love him as he asks because he is worthy of our response in this way. This loving is not a burden or legalism, but a result of love pursuing love. Is there something specific in the post that troubled you?

    • joycelen

      Thank you for responding, Dan. I just need to talk to my priest. Yes, I agree with you and your response clears up a lot for me.

  • Clare McGrath-Merkle

    Joycelen, I understand where you are coming from!…John of the Cross taught that no amount of spiritual exercises or effort gives us union with God…only faith. I know Mr. Burke would heartily agree with that teaching.
    John also taught that when we are going through a Dark Night, (such as what you may be going through in your very beautiful and difficult ministry), that we may feel we are not making progress or are even on the right track. This is a time when God is working in us in secret. John insists that spiritual directors should not judge people going through this as being lazy or lacking zeal – and thus requiring penances.
    So, I think Mr. Burke’s comments apply to when we are not in a Dark Night but rather know very clearly that we have slacked off in how we are loving God and neighbor – something I think Protestants and Catholics might agree on. The Doctors of the Church are great sources for hard medicine, as John can be too! But, in this case, John makes a clear exception for those in the Dark Night.
    God bless you in your ministry as you walk closely with your beautiful children. God sees your heart!

    • joycelen

      Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Clare. I was rash in my response to this posting. Thank you to all for helping me clarify that. I hope Dan will keep me on the mailing list!

      • Clare McGrath-Merkle

        No worries, Joycelen. You know, Teresa had spent years even as a nun living without zeal, and she even stopped praying. That is the background for understanding her cautions against becoming tepid.

  • John Kennedy

    Hi Joycelen! I think you may be misunderstanding what Dan was trying to say. He is by no means saying we work our way to Heaven. It is all grace. St. Paul says we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God has prepared that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10). Your own life is an example of God entrusting a special ministry to you. He will also provide all the grace needed to do that ministry. So yes God gives us works to do, but He also gives us grace to do them. And then He rewards us for these works that He is doing in and through us.

    What Dan was trying to say if I understand him correctly is that we are all headed in one direction or another in our spiritual lives. We are headed towards or away from God. If we stop advancing we are falling back. This advancing is seeking intimacy with God out of love for God. It is not gritting our teeth and trying to please a demanding taskmaster. The little way of St. Therese is a more appropriate image. We do things even little things out of love for God. Just as when a child presents you with a crayon drawn misshaped heart that says, “I love you”, that is more pleasing to you than some expensive store bought gift. Love is the key. It’s not the greatness of our works but the greatness of the love with which they are offered.

    • joycelen

      I love St. Therese. And yes, I agree that it is love. I think I was trying to say that, but having a challenging day i which I did not do as well as I thought I should with the children, led me to read something into his post that he probably did not mean. I am so blessed by the responses here of love and clarification, which I did not expect. Thank you.

  • Estefania

    Hi, can someone help me? I don’t think the trouble I have right now is that I am complacent with where I have reached but instead I feel like I’m never doing enough to the point where I have no peace. I quit my job so I could be with my small children and give them love and share the faith with them but I still dont feel like my life reflects that or feels like a true Christian. I cant seem to be consistent with any prayer routine I set up. I’m not sure what else to do, I want to give my life to Christ and half the time I just end up feeling exhausted or disheartened. I feel like my life lacks the order which pleases God and maybe there’s more I need to do and things will fall into place. My spiritual director told me my ministry right now is my children but I still feel somewhat empty as if something is missing.

    • Pat

      Hi Estefania, your post really touched me and I thought to myself, Is it possible she is trying too hard? I am certainly no expert but my belief in our purpose here harkens back to my childhood catechism … ” to know and serve God here on Earth and after to see and enjoy Him forever in Heaven”. We live as faithfully as we can; we sometimes make mistakes, repent them, make atonement and get back on the right path. Jesus made it quite simple for us, “Love God, and your neighbour as yourself, this do and thou shalt live.” I think he meant us to have peace within us based on our belief in His unconditional love for us. I’m quite sure that your failing to keep to a specific prayer routine doesn’t bother God at all. Pray as you go about your daily routine and talk to God as a friend. Formal prayer can wait until you have time.
      Wishing you peace and God’s blessings,

      • Estefania

        Hi Pat,
        Thanks so much for your reply. Since I wrote this I do feel a lot better. I feel more purpose just in the fact that I am doing my best doing the things that are most important first and I know that every few hours I should stop and pray to keep myself connected with God. Its funny that you say if I am trying too hard because I think I do struggle with that, I expect to do things I’ve never done before perfectly. For the past few days I’ve had the bible verse about not thinking more highly of ourselves than we are. And I think you’re right, I should not stress too much about having a specific routine with all that I have going on but I am going to try to continue to do the Rosary because it gives me so much peace. Thank you, it touches me that you took the time to write. God bless!

    • Phyllis

      If this isn’t too late—we go through spiritual dryness and that is probably your problem. Any maybe you are expecting too much of yourself.
      Your SD is right, children are a ministry and you need to lead them so they will choose good over bad, that’s what parents are for.
      Just put a reminder around to ask God’s help constantly. I use pennies, holy cards, amulates etc. and when I see one I pray “God please help us!”

      • LizEst

        Reminders are good. Amulets are not. You need to stop using amulets because using them, believing in their power, is a form of superstition, an offense against the first commandment and a very serious thing. You need bring this up in the sacrament of confession.

        • Robert_Caritas

          I think that she meant medals (such as the miraculous medal), which are perfectly good devotional items. If not, you are correct though.

  • Cynthia Diane

    In St. Louis de Montfort’s book, “True Devotion to Mary”, which most Catholics are familiar with, St. Louis states that Consecration to Jesus through Mary, or Marian Consecration is the “short, easy, secure, and perfect ” way to become a saint. So when we are struggling or on cruise control in our spiritual journey, it is good to recall the important gift of Our Blessed Mother. St. John Paul II said that reading de Montfort’s book was a turning point in his life. His consecration to Jesus through Mary was the reason for his papal motto, ( “Totus Tuus,” (Totally Yours”).
    Father Michael E. Gaitley quotes in his book “33 days to Morning Glory”, what St. Louis calls a little known “secret”: Poor children of Mary, your weakness is extreme, your inconstancy is great, your inward nature is very much corrupted. You are drawn (I grant it) from the same corrupt mass as all the children of Adam and Eve. Yet do not be discouraged because of that. Console yourselves and exult in having the secret which I will teach you– a secret unknown to almost all Christians, even the most devout. Father Gaitley goes on to say what the blessed secret is. “It’s the spirituality of a true devotion to Mary, a total consecration to Jesus through Mary”.

  • joycelen

    Please DO keep me on your mailing list, Dan. After a rough day, I was rash in my response to your post. Thank you!

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  • Wil Nier

    As a baptized Catholic I am saved by Jesus through the blood of the cross.

  • Phyllis

    The problem with the above picture and the writing (I have not taken the time to read it all!) but living a life, day to day, is not projected here. It is the little decisions we have to make hour by hour, or the ease of not doing anything that causes one to fall into corruption. We need something to inspire us every minute of the day to make the right decisions and realize we are living our first life – we have another to live——–and how to choose which one each time we make any moves at all: how we treat others, if we fall into greed, lying and bad morals.

    If there was something our spiritual leaders could tell us to help in this problem, then it would be easier.

    I lay pennies or spiritual things around and when I see one I say ” Please God Help Us!” This could also help those who are leaning toward any kind of serious sin. What do you do to help keep yourselves in “tow” and maybe others could benefit by it.

  • LizEst

    May the Lord give you the grace to aim for heaven.

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