Day Three of the Retreat for the Bishops of New England, whom I am humbled to preach to. Thus far, we have reflected on five words from the Roman Canon. This afternoon the Conference is on culto (as in cultoribus…the Bishop’s role as the cultivator of the faith) and tonight at Night Prayer we reflect on hell (ab ætérna damnatióne nos éripi). Here’s an excerpt from tonight’s conference:
There is a hell. And there is damnation which we beg God to be delivered from. Just three short points on Hell: The Ticket, the Destination, and the Alternative.
First, notice that Christ does not buy the ticket for people to go to hell. People choose to go to hell and pay the fare with the way they live their lives. Angels with flaming swords do not drive sinners from the gates of heaven, rather it is the selfishness and sin of peoples’ lives that exile them from paradise. People place themselves on the outside of that locked door by the choices they make. They know about Jesus teaching in their streets, but they choose not to listen to his words.
Second, the destination: hell is the other side of a locked door--eternal separation from God, eternal alienation from love, the eternal torment of being alone forever. Images of brim-stony fire and devils with horns, red suits and pointy tails, along with graphic depictions of grim torments and tortures have long occupied the imagination of artists and preachers. But the real torture, the real hell of hell, is that we can’t see God from there. And where there is no God there is no love. And where there is no love there is but selfishness, sin, death, and the never-ending dark frigidity of our alienation.
And how can we deny it? We sons and daughters of Adam and Eve...we children of a century in which more than a hundred million people were slaughtered in cruel wars and genocides, in which we first invented a weapon which could destroy the entire human race, and in which we legalized the abortion of babies and the euthanizing of old people. How can we deny there is a hell, chosen freely and justly deserved?
And finally, the alternative. Each of us have the ability at every moment of our lives to turn away from selfishness and sin, to reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises, to pick up our cross and follow Christ through the narrow gate. The mercy of God is ever patient and like the father of the prodigal Son, Christ the merciful judge waits for us in that confessional to turn away from sin and give our lives back to him.
Conclusion Such a little meditation on hell is not a bad tonic for the soul, and one which we modern men and women should perhaps partake of more often than we do.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori used to recommend a daily meditation on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. It is a meditation which is so easy for me each time I look down from the sanctuary at a coffin lying before the Paschal Candle as mourners weep and the smell of incense fills the Church. For as I beg God’s mercy on the soul of the deceased, I cannot help but think of my own soul, and those last and most important things.
Do I really love or am I selfish? Do I believe the truth or do I spend my life foolishly on myself? Do I forgive those who hurt me or do I seek vengeance? Do I grab for all the stuff I can get or do I spend myself and my goods on those who need them more than me? Do I seek to keep pure the precious gifts God has given me, or do I cast his pearls before swine? Do I strive to be holy, or do I seek after my interests, my pleasures, and me?
Do I want to go to heaven or do I choose to go to hell? Ab ætérna damnatióne nos éripi!