Saturday, 25 February 2017

Hell: a literary investigation

In the light of the centenary of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima, I have recently been reading Sr Lucia's accounts, published in English under the title Fatima in Lucia's own words. In her account of the apparition on 13th July 1917 (see page 178 of the English text), Sr Lucia describes the vision of Hell shown to them by Our Lady:
As Our Lady spoke these last words, she opened her hands once more, as she had done during the two previous months. The rays of light seemed to penetrate the earth, and we saw as it were a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke now falling back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear (It must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me). The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. Terrified and as if to plead for succour, we looked up at Our Lady, who said to us, so kindly and so sadly: 
“You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart....
I then went on to re-read the description of Hell given by Georges Bernanos in The Diary of a Country Priest. It is uttered by the parish priest in a vehement response to Madame la Comtesse:
'You won't hate, you'll cease to know one another.'....
'...what have you laymen made of hell? A kind of penal servitude for eternity, on the lines of your convict prisons on earth, to which you condemn in advance all the wretched felons your police have hunted from the beginning - "enemies of society" as you call them. You're kind enough to include blasphemers and the profane. What proud or reasonable man could stomach such a notion of God's justice?.... Hell is judged by the standards of the world, and hell is not of this world, it is of the other world, and still less of this Christian society. An eternal expiation - ! The miracle is that we on earth were ever able to think of such a thing, when scarcely has our sin gone out of us, and one look, a sign, a dumb appeal suffices for grace and pardon to swoop down, as an eagle from topmost skies. It's because the lowest of human beings, even though he no longer thinks he can love, still has in him the power of loving. Our very hate is resplendent, and the least tormented of the fiends would warm himself in what we call our despair, as in a morning of glittering sunshine. Hell is not to love any more! That sounds quite ordinary to you. To a human being still alive, it means to love less or to love elsewhere. To understand is still a way of loving. But suppose this faculty which seem so inseparably ours, of our very essence, should disappear! Oh, prodigy. To stop loving, to stop understanding - and yet to live..... if a living man, the vilest, most compatible of the living, were cast into these burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner .... To share his suffering! The sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared."
My next stop on the road to hell was the account of Adrienne von Speyr's charismatic insight into Jesus' descent into Hell on Holy Saturday given by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr:
It is Christ's final act of obedience towards his Father that he descends "into hell" (or "underworld", Hades, Sheol). Because hell is (already in the Old Covenant) the place where God is absent, wher there is no longer the light of faith, hope, love, of participation in God's life; hell is what the judging God condemned and cast out of his creation; it is filled with all that is irreconcilable with God, from which he turns away for all eternity. It is filled with the reality of all the world's godlessness, with the sum of the world's sin; therefore, with precisely all of that from which the Crucified has freed the world. In hell he encounters his own work of salvation, not in Easter triumph, but in the uttermost night of obedience truly the "obedience of a corpse". He encounters the horror of sin separated from men. He "walks" through sin (without leaving a trace, since, in hell and in death, there is neither time nor direction); and, traversing its formlessness, he experiences a second chaos. While bereft of any spiritual light emanating from the Father, in sheer obedience, he must seek the Father where hi cannot find him under any circumstances. And yet, this hell is a final mystery of the Father as creator (who made allowances for the freedom of man). And so, in this darkness, the Incarnate Son learns "experientially" what until then was "reserved" for the Father. Hell, seen in this way, is, in its final possibility, a Trinitarian event. On Good Friday the Father hands the "key" to it over to the Son....
What Adrienne experienced is actually more horrible than the hell depicted for us by medieval imagination; it is the knowledge of having lost God forever; it is being engulfed in the chaotic mire of the anti-divine; the absence of faith, hope and love the loss, as well, therefore, of any human communication... Her experience of it was so real that, in view of it, it would be ridiculous and blasphemous to speak of the nonexistence of hell or even just of apokatastsis [a universal salvation] in the "systematic" sense....[Adrienne's experience] justifies the exaltation of Christian hope over fear, and yet, through its Trinitarian interpretation, gives the whole problem an altogether Christian seriousness, perhaps never before known.
My final destination was the title of a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle. It portrays life in a Soviet research institution, where the researchers are not free academics but an imprisoned intelligentsia. The full import to that title, with its reference to Dante,  can only be grasped in relation to Solzhenitsyn's account of hell on earth that is The Gulag Archipelago - a wide ranging and at times abrasively cutting account of the prison camp system under Soviet Russia. Which of course brings us back to the context of the Marian apparitions at Fatima.

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