Saturday, July 23, 2011

Don't go there

It’s hotter than hell out there!

Well, actually, no - it is not. Then again, maybe it is. Heat? Flames? I am not sure. But hell will be infinitely worse, whether in temperature or some other form of misery. It is an apt comparison, nonetheless.

Funny, isn’t it, how many people get scandalized at the use of the H–E-double–hockey-sticks word? The convention against saying “hell” casually, in polite company, or in in front of children is reasonable, but only in a comparable sense to our obligation not swear or take the Lord’s name in vain.

Similarly, we must not invoke damnation in vain – that is, casually, for dramatic effect, or as an oath. But damnation not only is a very real possibility, but something which I have set my life to helping people avoid, and it would be a fatal hindrance if I couldn’t mention it in the most effective language possible. So why do folks expect such vocabulary never to pass the tender lips of a priest, as if it would be in our interests to maintain everyone’s comfort?

Unfortunately our interests – or mine, anyway – are too often turned to our own comfort. But even I bridle at the common expectation that I not mention hell. So while I don’t pepper my speech with hell and damn – much less my homilies – it is vital that I draw your attention to their very real possibility for all of us.

The cartoonist’s image of hell, with its flames, pitchforks, and always-descending escalators, may be reasonably dismissed by modern, educated folk. But it would be foolish and dangerous to dismiss the reality those images attempt to present of an unending, inescapable pain and grief. My favorite reflection on hell is The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis. This slender novel is an absolute delight (not what one might expect) and I devoured it in two hours. Read it; it will rock your world. More to the point, it will focus your attention outside of your world and my world, this world, and onto the real questions of how you will be spending eternity.

Damn is even less useful a verb most of the time, since if God is its subject, it is too easy to escape with the logic that “a loving God would not do that to me for (insert offense here).” Of course He wouldn’t do that to you! He would save you by the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of His Son. But you and I can do it to ourselves, or more accurately, can demand it for ourselves. Our every decision and every action can be either a liberating step toward salvation revealed in Christ, or it can be a damning step toward, well, hell.

We have constructed an air-conditioned cocoon for ourselves that we allow to lull us into thinking that we have mastered not only nature, but also, even more implausibly, our own eternal course. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and the shortcomings of Pepco regularly shatter on our Potemkin comfort. Even that is temporary, and we easily return to our complacency. But do we dare?

Meanwhile, it is blistering, withering, suffocating, and altogether unbearable outside, but most decidedly not hotter than hell. God is giving us this day, and this moment in it, as an opportunity to repent and be delivered from all that misery by His gracious mercy!

All of a sudden, it’s not so bad outside.

Monsignor Smith

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