Posts Tagged ‘The harrowing of hell’

The expression. Shell shocked first came to mind but that’s not right. Boredom? No. Focused attention on self. Self-absorption. Narcissist. What is the emotion? Bleak. Despondent. We so often think we need to create ourselves that we forget we are already created. The existential crisis of post-modernity use to manifest itself through a need to “find yourself.” Go on a journey, start a new life, leave the old behind (it wasn’t you!) and go find yourself. The existential crisis of… what?… post-post-modernity? (so many damned modernities). The existential crisis of this present time is more severe. There isn’t a self to find. Now the existential crisis manifests itself through a need to “make yourself.” I am the painter of my self, my being, my I am and to be. Delusion and lunacy. The world crashes around you and so do you. No meaning, just stuff – and stuff isn’t enough. Tears, rending, and cries of anguish are your salvation.

Self-painting hipster - Eddy Shinjuku

“Self-painting hipster” by Eddy Shinjuku

The above is a meditation on the painting following it. The meditation wasn’t intended to go that way. The image is striking. The stark contrast of facial placidity and wrecking action creates an irresistible pull fixating the viewers gaze. The meditation was intended to follow the path of the immediate contradiction of the image. However, when the question of her expression and emotions came up, it’s course altered.

Holy Saturday is typically thought of as a silent day, a quiet day, inactive. At least that is how I have typically thought of it – the silence of Christ laying in the tomb and the inaction of His followers with no direction. In reality there was a great activity happening – the harrowing of hell. Heaven and hell encounter one another here on earth. It is a constant warfare, never resting until it is finished on the Last Day. More pointedly heaven and hell encounter one another on earth in us. We receive a foretaste of heaven through entering into the heavenly mysteries, the reception of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments, our immersion in Christ and His Paschal Mystery through the sacraments, our unity with divinity and in divinity with humanity. What we begin here yearns for perfection in what awaits us, a perfection which we come to through death. But if this is true for heavenly glory then it is also true of perdition and the road that leads to it. The harrowing of hell is not simply an event of the past; it is an event of the present. If heaven and hell war within us then the harrowing of hell is also the harrowing of our hell, of the demons in us. (“Harrowing” – acutely distressing, painful, ravage, despoil – in short, a deeply painful experience (painful beyond our imagining) that we wish to avoid at all costs. But that’s the thing, it’s so much worse without it.)

It’s a wondrous and amazing thing, the providence of God and sacramentality of all things. In my own life much has been happening. Like Dante, I find myself midway through life awakening in a dark wood. This awakening was soon joined by another, the desire – long asleep, if ever awake – to write. To the library I go! Checking out books on writing, being a writer, and books of writing for you should be taking other writers to model and be inspired by. Happy Providence, to put before me what I did not look for: The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking and How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem. I thought the first would be about some kind of beautiful relationship between works of literature and wonderful mouthwatering drinks. Instead I found myself reading a rather depressing book about six American writers who were all alcoholics and what could be gleaned of alcoholism by looking at their lives and writings. I thought the second would simply be commentary on life’s journey and the journey of the spirit via Dante’s Divine Comedy. I had no idea how autobiographical it would be and the darkness of the one who wrote it. Both speak of the harrowing of hell, the hell of alcoholism, the hell of depression, and the hell of many other things. They all have the same thing in common: they had entered into a dark wood, just as I had. Some got out, some did not, I am making my way. Providence puts before me what will help. But if providence is real then necessarily so too must sacramentality. The books themselves are sacramental, the process of writing is sacramental, and the journey of learning to be a writer is sacramental. Providence puts before us what He does precisely because they are sacramental; and being sacramental they draw us to Him and out of ourselves. They draw us out of the dark wood and back to the way of Life.

We live in a time when we “make” ourself. As Rod Dreher in How Dante Can Save Your Life says, we think of ourselves as being the captain of our own ships. We are the creator of our own stories. The problem is that we no longer recognize we are part of the Story. It is achingly ironic that in a time of being our own creator and forming our own story, of being our independent, sufficient self that we also hear things such as “It takes a village.” But if it’s my story and I’m not part of a greater story then who cares about the village. That’s their problem, not mine. We assert that we make our own way and then hand over wads of money in exchange for self-help books, programs, and psychiatry. We assert we make our own way, but are also obligated to other people’s ways in an indeterminate village. The contemporary mind is a schizophrenic mind. It is a mind given over to the demonic and it needs a harrowing.

schizophrenic mind

Stories, including our own, all tell us the same thing. There is one Story and we are all actors in it. It is the Story of innocence, fall, death, and redemption, the Story of hate and love, and evil and good. It is the Story of God creating man, man falling, God becoming man, God dying for us and our being restored in love to Him. Every religion and every myth has stories which imitate the real Story, every hero’s tale reflects this story. It is a story found in all the literature and movies (great or otherwise) that people flock to by the millions. It is in Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though I have never read or seen them, I would bet money that in some twisted way it is in Shades of Grey. It is present in every story that attracts people and this is seen in all cultures across human history. So why fight it? Why fight that you are not the maker of yourself, the creator of your story? Why fight death and pain and self-denial when every story you love says that is the way to renewal, growth, strength, and life? On this Holy Saturday let our Lord harrow you.


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I am not a universalist. On the question of how many are saved, the thinking of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as given in Spe Salvi serves me as a general guide. He states that there are some “who have totally [emphasis mine] destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love.” These he says are beyond remedy and “the destruction of good would be irrevocable.” He also says there are people “who are utterly [emphasis mine] pure, completely permeated by God.” For these people their “journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are.” (45) These two states on earth, however, only apply to a relatively small group of people. Benedict goes on to say,

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? (46)

Now it should be stated that his thoughts following this question pertain to Christians. However, while different factors certainly come into play for non-Christians, his thoughts are not necessarily limited to Christians alone. Benedict does not explicitly say whether he thinks most people in this middle state go to hell or if they go to heaven, but he does make it clear that we can and should have a great hope for people in this state. In fact, our own hope depends on our hope for others: “Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too.” (47)

While at Tenebrae yesterday evening, the question of how many go to hell was brought to mind. Each of Jesus’s last words on the Cross had something to say about this question.

Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34 NAB)

My thoughts first turned to myself. I do know what I do. My background is in theology and the faith is what I teach. That, however, is all academic. It’s one thing to study theology; it is quite another to live it – and some how the study seems to make the living more difficult. What knowledge is Jesus talking about? The scribes of Israel knew where the Messiah was to be born; yet, it was three gentiles that went to adore Him. Before this on the night of his birth is was not the learned men and priests of Israel who adored the Lord, but uneducated illiterate shepherds. For all my learning and my pondering do I “know”? True knowledge is experienced. One of the common marks of a saint is their intense love for God. A love that brings a great horror of sin, of hurting the Lover. This love and the knowledge that accompanies it are not the fruit of study. How many truly know?

When Christ speaks these words it is also important to remember that He is not asking the Father to forgive only the soldiers, the members of the Sanhedrin, or the Jews who condemned Him. He died for every sin of every man in all the history of the world. He was asking forgiveness of all men of every place and of every time. I am one of those whom Jesus petitions for, saying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” There is no prayer as efficacious as that of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is not possible for us to fathom the magnitude of this prayer made on the Cross for all at all times.

Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. (v. 43)

Spoken to a thief who had just admitted that he had been condemned justly and that his punishment of crucifixion corresponded to his crime. Why? Because he recognized Jesus as the Christ. This is salvation at the hour of one’s death. This hour is a great mystery to us. It is not possible for us to know what is happening at the moment of one’s death. It is not possible for us to know – even for ourselves! – how one will respond when they encounter the majesty and glory of the Benevolent One, the One who is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty itself, who is Judge and Merciful Father. Through the omnipotent solicitude of our God, death itself has become a grace. There is simply no telling how one’s heart may receive it.

Mary and Eve

Woman, behold, your son. (John 19:26)

As Jesus is the New Adam so Mary is the New Eve. She is not just the mother of St. John or of Christians, but the mother of all humanity. She is the true Mother of the Living. All humanity was redeemed through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The life He offers us though only comes through baptism. Mary as the one who bore that life within her and brought Him into the world is the mother of all who have that life. But she is also the great intercessor. There is no greater intercessor to the Son than His mother, and she intercedes for all humanity. She stands before the throne of her Son always interceding for us whether we acknowledge her as our mother or not. And for those who have not the life of Christ within them she works for them to receive that life. A striking example of this is the mass conversion of Aztecs and other tribes in Mexico through the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Knowing that she who is the most beautiful of all God’s creatures, the crowning jewel, Ark of the Covenant, Daughter of Zion, Mother of our Lord, and Spouse of the Spirit through her most pure and immaculate heart seeks our good makes my heart swell. What hope there is in the midst of all this dung when we have so great an advocate! Oh, Blessed Mother, so intimately entwined within the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Holy Trinity, One God!

Edward hopper - lonely woman

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)

These words of Christ more than any others show the depth of His passion. In bearing the weight of our sins and crucifying them on the Cross with Himself, He feels the enveloping darkness our sins bring upon us. He feels the abandonment of the Father – a true loneliness despite those who love Him being so close. He does not say this simply for Himself though. The One who says this is the Man, the Son of Man, the New Adam. In saying this, all humanity in Him says this as well. It is the cry of both Jesus and man to God. This cry of anguish, however, is not the end. It is the beginning. Christ’s cry was genuine. It was a cry that arose from His heart, a heart formed by the Holy Scriptures. (What a great mystery. The Word Incarnate formed by the Word inked). The Son of David cries out with a Psalm of David, Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A psalm which further on petitions the Lord: “But you, Lord, do not stay far off; my strength, come quickly to help me…. Save me from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.” (Psalm 22:20, 22) And the petition is answered. The one forsaken is saved. He has not been abandoned. The psalm ends with great praise and in complete victory: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord [emphasis mine]… All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God; All who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage.” (vv. 28, 30) The cry of man in Jesus Christ is also man’s answer in Him.

I thirst. (John 19:28)

His thirst indeed was great while He hung upon the Tree, but it has not the first time he had longed so strongly drink. His words go beyond the mere desire for drink and express a deeper thirst – the salvation of souls. As Benedict said above our hope must include hope for others. He thirsts for the ones He suffers for. He, the Lover, thirsts for His beloved who has turned from Him. He longs for her to turn her gaze back towards Him and to look in love upon His love, His face. He longs for us, and cries out in His desire for us. Is His thirst really only satiated by a few? This cry is a pray to His Father. Again, there is no prayer more efficacious than that of the Son. The power in it’s omnipotence of this power is utterly unfathomable to us. But this cry is also a cry to us. Just as the onlookers at the Cross brought wine to Him, which He took before breathing His last, so too are we to bring “common wine” to Him in response to His thirst. Our hope for the salvation of all is to be accompanied by our work for the salvation of all, a work that is wholly selfless, done not simply out of obligation, but out of true love and devotion for the Lover who calls all.


Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46) It is finished. (John 19:30)

Just as humanity is brought up into heaven in the humanity of Christ at the Ascension, so too here humanity is commended into the Father’s hands in the humanity of Christ. The offering has been made and the work is done. There is no place more secure to which man can be entrusted.

In the end, while it is only natural for us to wonder at this question, to wonder how many will go to heaven and how many will go to hell, to wonder which will gain more souls, one should also wonder why anyone would be so bold as to answer this question in a definitive manner. The simple fact of the matter is that we do not know nor can we know how many go to hell, whether it is a majority or a minority, and how much of either. It is a mystery not revealed to us. What is revealed to us is that Christ is our Redeemer and we, Christians, are co-redeemers with Him. We are called not to pass judgment on individuals or humanity as a whole. We are called to hope for the salvation of all others and to work for that salvation with fear and trembling. On this Holy Saturday let us rest in this mystery.



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