In Robert Speaight’s The Unbroken Heart, a novel sadly neglected in the long years following its publication in 1939, a character named Arnaldo has just been told of his beloved wife’s untimely death. His reaction, by today’s standards, seems very strange indeed. “It does not really interest me,” he confesses, “to know by what accident Rhoda died. All our lives are an accident and we must all die somehow.”
So what does interest him? The answer, to his interlocutor at least, sounds almost incomprehensible. “I want to know how she died, what was in her mind, what her soul said to God when she fell from the rampart. Nothing else is of the least importance whatsoever. Our life is directed to that moment when we fall from the rampart, and our eternal destiny is decided by that. But I see that you don’t believe that.”
Nor, would it appear, does anyone else. Certainly not anyone these days, i.e., people anxious to appear hip and stylish, their opinions plugged into the usual circuits of secularity. People for whom the parameters of life are far more plausibly found between the covers of, say, Time or Newsweek or People Magazine, are not interested in tracing the soul’s trajectory at the moment of death. A huge eruption in sensibility having taken place in recent years, the traditional eschatological landscape remains largely unrecognizable.
And not only that, of course, but for those who believe that virtually all souls go straight to Heaven anyway, there to enjoy forever the identical joys they experienced in the flesh, there can’t be much point in fussing about Hell.
Does anyone actually go to Hell anymore? I mean, leaving aside the usual suspects—Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot—are there really enough reprobates around to justify the existence of such a place? A place of eternal unending torture no less? Seriously now, just how wicked does one have to be to get in? Surely it is not even thinkable that good, respectable Catholics might take themselves there.
What are we to make of Hell?
More to the point, perhaps, what does the Church make of Hell?
In contrast to the mincing multitude unwilling to countenance anyone going there, least of all regular churchgoers, the position of the Catholic Church is refreshingly emphatic. There is not anyone on the planet, she teaches, however pure the specimen of one’s sanctity, that is not at liberty to take oneself straight to Hell. In fact, it is a place where, on the strength of even one unshriven mortal sin, one shall languish forever in the most frightful and unimaginably hellish torment.
“Mortal sin,” we are told, “is a radical possibility of human freedom…. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of Hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1861).
In every life, therefore, never mind the brevity of its duration, the essential drama of human existence unfolds against an absolute horizon beckoning each of us to one or another eternal possibility. To find ourselves thus poised between the hope of Heaven and the fear of Hell, terrifyingly free to choose one or the other, is a good and salutary thing. As Dr. Johnson famously said about the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight: nothing more wonderfully concentrates the mind.
It is a terrible mistake to so trivialize man’s dignity than in this most awesome discharge of human freedom, in which the human person decides for or against God forever, the full seriousness of what may be undertaken is treated as mere child’s play. How can we expect our freedom to be respected if God will not honor our right to throw it away? A human liberty that does not include the right to say no to God—yes, even to the point of rejecting his invitation to commune in his company forever—is no liberty at all.
Accordingly, one could define man as a being free to break the umbilical cord with Being itself, burning his last bridge to God. Only man possesses so radical a liberty that he may choose—yielding, God knows how, to what pressure of perversity—his own annihilation. And the temptation to do so stalks even the most self-respecting of Catholics. “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” as Shakespeare tells us. This being so, it is the good Catholic especially who will guard against a final fall into one or another failure of hope, i.e., the despair of no longer aspiring to reach Heaven, or the presumption of no longer thinking it necessary to try. The corruption of the best, it has wisely been said, is the worst corruption of all.
It is precisely the fear of these twin evils, incidentally, that threatens to unhinge the heart and soul of the old man portrayed in John Henry Newman’s dramatic poem, “The Dream of Gerontius,” a masterpiece of lyric beauty and lucidity written in 1865. The story depicts the journey of a soul to God at the very hour of death, who, despite all the recollected powers of mind and will, of a lifetime steeped in habits of Catholic piety, despite even the presence of dear friends eager to help shepherd him along, remains very much afraid. Afraid of what? That God, seeing the real truth of his inner life, the impoverishment of his soul, may simply refuse to admit him into the Company of the Elect; that despite the sheer desperation of his desire to go there, to taste the unending joys of Paradise, God will not at the last allow him to enter in.
And so, moved by charity, the Assistants take up the chant, repeatedly imploring God to show mercy, to impart that virtue of final perseverance of which we all stand in need, particularly those inclined to take salvation for granted. “Be merciful, be gracious,” they entreat him. “Lord, deliver him
From the sins that are past;
From thy frown and thine ire;
From the perils of dying;
From any complying
With sin, or denying
His God, or relying
On self, at the last…
The invocations continue in the same rhythmic, resonant way until, finally, his Confessor, marshaling all the forces of Heaven, urges the dying Gerontius to “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!
Go from this world! Go, in the name of God
The omnipotent Father, who created thee!
Go, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord,
Son of the living God, who bled for thee!
Go, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who
Hath been poured out on thee!
What a stirring send-off to accompany the soul home to God! And when at length the moment of blessed release comes, it is his own Angel Guardian who announces the work is done, “For the crown is won…
My Father gave
In charge to me
This child of earth
E’en from its birth,
To serve and save,
And saved is he.
This is the basic formula for how Catholics are enjoined both to live and to die. Under the Mercy. For if salvation depended on us propelling our winsome way along some purely Promethean path to Heaven, the place would be empty. To remain faithfully Catholic, therefore, right up to the end, is to live and die always as the recipient of a blessing one could never oneself give.
And then to pass it on to others in the spirit of the mendicant whose lively sense of gratitude for the little he has moves him to share it with others. Unlike, writes Joseph Ratzinger in that wonderful exposition of faith he wrote back in 1968, Introduction To Christianity (on which so many of us first cut out theological teeth), “the calculatingly righteous man, who thinks he can keep his own shirtfront clean and build himself up inside it.” Beneath the weight of such sanctimony, he warns, the self-satisfied will sink into an abyss of utter unrighteousness.
Shouldn’t this be the constant fear and danger facing the so-called good Catholic? Knowing how much easier it may prove for grace to move the pagan than the prig, he refuses to preen himself on even the least show of virtue? “Righteousness,” Ratzinger reminds us, “can only be attained by abandoning one’s own claims and being generous to God. It is the righteousness of ‘Forgive, as we have forgiven’ … it consists in continuing to forgive, since man lives essentially on the forgiveness he has received himself.”
It is to sear upon the memory the words of the Apostle James, who warns us that God’s “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (2:13). And for anyone to suffer such exclusion from God’s kingdom, it does not follow that the sins need be satanic in any sort of grand or gaudy way, as if he’d taken out first-class accommodations on an express train bound for Hell. Hell is not, as the holy curate in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest informs the old woman whose soul stands in the gravest peril of going there, like anything we might imagine in this world. “Hell is not to love anymore, Madam. Not to love anymore!” We may judge Hell by the standards of this world, but to do so would be a terribly mistake. It is an altogether other world that only the mitigating exercise of mercy prevents our falling into.
Who among us is not well advised, therefore, always to be mindful lest our poor show of love fall dangerously short of even the most minimal expectation Christ sets for those who claim to love him? To quote that profound and shrewd Castilian saint, the mystic John of the Cross: “In the evening of our lives, we shall be judged on love.” God help us if we come up short.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Hell” painted by Hans Memling in 1485.