Meditation on Hell is an essential practice, especially during this season.
What kind of Lent are you having so far? Keeping your resolutions? Falling, but getting up again? Given up? Not even bothered with Lent this year?
No matter what your Lent’s been like so far, it’s incomplete without a meditation on Hell.
Meditations on “The Four Last Things” (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) are not as common in Christian discourse and the arts as they once were. Perhaps that’s because some depictions of Hell and its occupants are so lurid and grotesque that they invite mockery rather than a kind of holy horror that could lead to repentance. Some say that “a loving God wouldn’t condemn people to eternal damnation.” And that’s almost right, but not quite—we damn ourselves, by our stubborn rejection of God.
Is it really possible to make such an appalling rejection of God and his gifts? Do we truly have the power to act so decisively and comprehensively against our own interests? Consider these words from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from her A Drama of Exile: “I too have strength – Strength to behold him and not worship him, Strength to fall from him and not to cry to him.”
She puts these words in the mouth of Lucifer, who is the role model for sin—a rebellion against and rejection of the authority and love of God. That terrible strength—the strength “to behold him and not worship him,” “to fall from him and not cry to him”—is a strength that every human has, one every honest sinner knows that he’s exercised. What are the consequences of that chosen rebellion and final rejection of God?
Dare we consider the grim reality of absolute and infinite regret? I know from my many visits to hospitals, prisons and morgues that people make regrettable choices. And I know from helping sinners (and being a sinner myself) that awful clarity of looking around us and within us and crying out, “Oh my God! What have I done?!?” Then comes rushing in the miserable recognition that one now has to live with the consequences of one’s choices. Experienced pastors and honest sinners know this. Priests help people clean up the mess they’ve made of their lives, aiding them to be sadder but wiser repentant sinners. St. Augustine said, “On the place where you have fallen, you must find the strength to rise again.” But what happens when time has literally run out, and there’s no more opportunity to repent, because one has died a hardened sinner? What then?
At our own particular judgment, we’ll see immediately, with perfect clarity the glory for which we were made, the perfect and infinite fulfillment, the absolute and incomparable joy God had offered us. And we’ll see, with immediate, perfect and unending clarity that we refused the greatest good, and set our hearts irrevocably on what is less than God and is unworthy of us. At our particular judgment, whether we have used our freedom to choose or reject our creator, God ratifies our choice.
Praying this litany will give you peace about the past and future
Dare we try to imagine those first “moments” of the eternal realization of our rejection of the love God? The despair? The self-loathing? The rage? Seeking to blame anyone but ourselves? C.S. Lewis said that everyone we meet will become “… immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Those are our only options.
As humans, we are marked for death. That’s why we receive ashes on Ash Wednedsay: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” We are made for death. The Swedes speak of Döstädning—“Death Cleaning.” It is the cleansing and decluttering of our lives so that we won’t be a scandal by the mess we’ve left behind.
Why and how to make this Lent a season of “death-cleaning”
What a fine image for spurring a deeper and more sober practice of Lent! Let’s purge our lives and unburden our souls of all that’s now and forever unworthy of us. And let’s take to heart that we are creatures destined for life beyond death. Again, turning to C.S. Lewis: “Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever.”
Among those things “worth bothering about” for immortals like us is that how we live in time will determine how we will live in eternity. Lent is a season to reflect upon, as the Act of Contrition says, “the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell,” and then to amend our lives accordingly.
When I write next, I will continue with another Lenten meditation based on poetry. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Memento mori: In the midst of death, you must look