an earthly perception of hell

“The Christian is not just to rage against the darkness…
we are to proclaim the light”.

David Robertson


(a lone sanderling at dusk / Rosemary Beach, Fl / 2017)

In the course of the past two days I have read, in two vastly different places, the
notion of what hell actually is as it is perceived by those still earthly
bound mortals…

And as you know, I don’t believe in coincidence…but rather in the intervention
of the Holy Spirit.

Each of the two views has come from a member of the clergy, one being a former Church of England prelate who now hails as a Reformed Anglican Bishop and the other–
an Eastern Orthodox monk who passed away 24 years ago.

Each man relates a similar thought concerning hell…
that being an absence.
As in a permanent and perpetual void.

I can only think, for us humans, to be able to understand this concept of absence
and void is if, and only if, we have experienced the death of a loved one.
For in death there is a separation…an earthly permanent seperation.
As in a state of no more…as in no more—ever….
at least not on this earth.

If we are Believers, then we know that death is not a permanent situation…
perhaps on this earth yes, but in Heaven no.
And if we are not Believers of the Christian faith…
then there is perhaps even a keener awareness of this state of ‘no more.’

And in that state of emptiness, for both the Believing and unbelieving,
there is an almost unconsolable sorrow of loss.
And this utter cutting off and separation, for some, is often more
than can be borne by both soul and flesh.

Both of these clerics express this notion in very different ways.

Bishop Ashenden recently had to have emergency surgery for a detached retina.
He explained that the healing process is most arduous—
He had to lie very still on his right side, at a 45 degree angle for 10 days—
24 hours a day of laying very still in a particular position
with only a 10 minute break here and there to use the bathroom.

The pain, when using the drops which aggravated his wound, was as if someone was
taking a screwdriver and was constantly digging and twisting it in his eye with no
easing off or letting up.

This reminds me of cancer patients and those with severe nerve damage where the
pain is a constant state of the unbearable.

I saw this with my mother when the cancer had spread to her bones and later with my
dad who had developed a severe Kennedy ulcer the last two weeks of his life.
The wound developed a horrible infection and opened all the way to his bone…
The slightest movement for both my parents was excruciating and yes, unbearable.

Bishop Ashenden said that in his pain he got to the point that the pain was such a
constant persistency, that it was to the point that he could not even pray—
his prayer being simply “help me Lord”—the prayer of suffering and agony.

And in that pain there was a consuming sense of isolation—
For that’s how pain is—it is totally consuming to such an extent that there is
no sense of communion with God—rather there is no sense of God…only agony.

Be that a physical pain or emotional pain or spiritual pain….

And it is often in such moments that many a Believer and even non-believerer
will actually be to the point where they say “to hell with God”
“If He cannot help me, relieve me, then let Him just be damned.”

That is to the lowest we go as humans.
And it is a tragic state.

Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993) offers us a bit different vision
of a mortal’s interpretation of hell.
He shares what he has learned from those monks who have gone before him…
in the way of what is known as a “custom house”

The customs houses about which the Fathers write are symbols of a reality.
The Fathers understand them as follows: after the fall of man,
the soul is nourished by the body, in other words,
it finds refreshment in material pleasures.
After death, however, these bodily passions that used to divert the soul
no longer exist, because the soul has left the body,
and they choke and stifle the soul.
These are the customs houses and eternal torment.
Abba Dorotheos says that eternal torment is for someone to be shut up
for three days in a room without food, sleep or prayer.
Then he can understand what hell is.

Elder Sophrony of Essex. I Know a Man in Christ

Bishop Ashenden admonishes us all that it would behoove us to be of a constant
state of prayer—during those times in life when we are free to offer up our prayers…
be they of worship and praise, adulation and jubilation, thanksgiving and awe,
or simply intercession—
For we must do so with a fervency…because none of us are exempt from pain.

Just as it would behoove us to understand that hell is very real, very lasting
and it is not the sort of place we should want to or settle on going—
For if we find the early glimpse unbearable, what would eternity be….

For during each our lifetimes we will inevitably be faced with this glimpse of hell,
and when we are, we must know that we are ‘shored up’…
that during those times when all we can do is cry out “help, please” that we may rest
in knowing that He has heard us and we are not as we feel, alone and tormented…
For He has already walked our journey long before we were even conceived.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.
Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28

Not alone

God is not in heaven: he is hanging on the cross.
Love is not an otherworldly, intruding, self-asserting power—
and to meditate on the cross can mean to take leave of that dream

Dorothee Sölle
On This Gallows

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(blooming wild shrubs / Julie Cook / 2016)

There is a sobering reaccounting of a tale by Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz turned author and activist, taken from his book Night.

The tale is found within Dorothee Sölle’s reflection On This Gallows and is here, paraphrased…

Mr. Wiesel recounts one of many tragic episodes…of how several SS guards rounded up the camp’s prisoners and hung three of their members in front of them…for no apparent reason but that they could.
Two of the victims were grown men and the third was but a boy.

Mr Wiesel notes how quickly the two men died but not so for the young boy.
He struggled and suffered for nearly thirty minutes before succumbing to the slow torturous strangulation.
As Mr Wiesel stood, witnessing this numbing atrocity in a long line of atrocities, he hears a voice from behind him coming from the assembled crowd…
“Where is God? Where is he?”
As the boy struggles, he hears again…
“Where is God now!”

Mr Wiesel and the other prisoners were gathered to witness another round of senseless deaths.
But this time it all seems so much more barbaric, completely incomprehensible.
A boy slowly and horrifically dies…
A single vocalized lamentation, representing the silent question screaming in the hearts of all those gathered…how, why, where…. is offered up to the empty void of hopelessness…
As the single answer is heard echoing within Mr Wiesel’s head…

“Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows…”

And so He is…
He is here now…just as He was then…

God is indeed in the midst of each and every horror and atrocity.

He is present in each and every lonely pain filled moment of agony and emptiness.
He is every bit a part of our struggles as we are ourselves…

He is not watching coldly from some remote vantage point as so many imagine.
Not as some maniacal puppeteer who finds sick and twisted pleasure watching the suffering of those so far removed.
He is not far removed…

Quite the contrary…

He is in the unimaginable
the unspeakable
the horrific
the sorrow
the agony…

He was given up…
to suffer
to share alongside us in our suffering
to hang on a cross
to die along side each one of us…

As we in turn, are now allowed to rise with Him…
In His final vanquishing of death…

I will not die but live,
and will proclaim what the Lord has done.

Psalm 118:17

The absurdity of uncertainty found in the Omniscience

…I can inform thee of nothing…”
excerpt from a prayer by A. W. Tozer

DSCN0379
(a stream flows though Gleanlough National Park, County Wicklow, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015)

Did you read that?

I can inform Thee of nothing…”

As in absolutely zero…the absence of anything and everything…

As in….
What can be said that is not previously known?
What single thought can be pondered that has not been previously revealed?
What emotion can be felt that has not already been felt?
What “oh by the way, I meant to tell you _____”
with the blank having long been filled in eons before one even learned to speak…?

No “by the ways”
No “I meant to say”
No slipped out “my bad”….
has ever passed without a prior knowing long before it was ever first thought or uttered…

Wrapping thoughts and minds around everything ever done and all things ever said, thought or felt…
knowing that all that was and is and will be…has already been seen and is known now and always by one and only One…

No secrets
Nothing hidden
Nothing private

For the One who has always been.. is that close…to you

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Psalm 139:1-6