Last month I had the pleasure of assisting with the youth retreat at St. John the Baptist, in Tampa. Part of my involvement in the retreat was giving a presentation entitled "Goals without Plans are Fantasies." Since my dissertation work at Notre Dame involved the design of autonomous robots, I repeatedly had to face the difficulties inherent in the process of planning. Most of these difficulties are brought about by the size, complexity, and unpredictability of the world. The world is simply too big to be able to plan for every possible outcome. One approach is to eliminate planning altogether and simply react to the immediate environment. As researchers have repeatedly found, that approach does not work very well if you try to imitate something more complex than an ant, or, perhaps, a limited version of a turtle. If the goal is to achieve something more complex than walking about and looking for sources of food, some planning has to take place.
A robot without a goal most often moves in a pattern determined by its surroundings. Even though we are much more sophisticated in our interactions with the world around us, the basic principles still apply. If we neglect our goal, we become vulnerable to the problems, cares, and distractions of life. We change with the latest changes in entertainment, political, or social trends, perhaps not even knowing why we change. We may not know whether these changes are good or bad; they are, however, inevitable as we interact with the world around us. Therefore, in order for the changes in our lives to be meaningful, we need to have a goal which influences the changes in our lives, which brings us to the next point in the planning process.
A robot with a goal but without a plan moves towards the goal, but is most often thwarted at the first obstacle. What this means for us as people is that even when we keep our final goal in mind, we still need for a plan for accomplishing that goal. Without a plan, we can easily feel like we have stopped making progress in our lives. At that point it is easy to become discouraged. There is a chasm between us and our goal, and often, by the time we have gotten to this point, we may not see a way to bridge that gap. In order to prevent this state of affairs, we need to have, as quickly as possible, a plan for achieving our goals, especially the ultimate goal. So, how do we plan for salvation?
As Christians, our end goal is, simply put, "to go to heaven." It is a goal which can be simply stated, but which is quite complex. Ultimately, our going to heaven is contingent upon God's grace, mercy, and love, but we have an important role to play in our salvation as well. Christ tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that "men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken" (Matt. 12:36). St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10). The book of Revelation says, "each person was judged according to what he had done" (Rev. 20:13). Let's see, then, what God will be looking for in the final judgment.
Throughout the Bible, God gave us the ingredients to lead us to the kingdom: love, prayer, forgiveness, humility, charity, self-sacrifice, and all the other virtues. It is up to us to plan for a way to put these things together in order to achieve our final goal. These, then, are smaller goals, which lead to the final goal of salvation. For some of us, the virtues come easily. For the rest of us, when we honestly look at ourselves, we find that our love is not perfect, our charity could use some growth, and our prayer life lacks enough fervor. If that be the case, what can we do?
The Fathers tell us that we grow by doing. The prayer of the heart begins with the prayer of the lips, which starts to stir the soul and set it aflame with love for God. Lack of charity is driven away by the joy of giving, of knowing that we are the instruments by which God blesses those who are less fortunate. If we want to become more loving, let us plan on giving love each day: a little smile, a kind word, a token gift. It takes planning and discipline, but this is the path of watchfulness on which we work and grow in the image of Him who holds all things.
Having said all this, it is important not to take the parallels with robots too far. After all, we are not robots, but human beings created in the image of God, each one a beloved child of God and a reason-endowed member of His flock. What this means in practical terms is that, having made a plan for our journey to heaven, we should not forget to remain humble and allow God to show us His plan. He knows us better than we know ourselves and He desires each of us to be saved. Throughout our lives He tries to bring us to Himself and to guide us toward the kingdom. Our plans need to allow Him to guide us; they need to be flexible enough to change according to His will. We need to begin by having our plans, our way of knocking on God's door, and He will open the door and guide us as He has promised. So let us plan each day to take another step towards the kingdom so that, at the awesome second coming, we may all hear the invitation, replete with guidelines for us to consider in making our plans: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matt. 25:34-36).