Exploring Hell

I am teaching Elsa’s literature and history courses this year and we are pulling out and dusting off all of the ancient histories and epic poems. We’ve just covered Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and we’re moving into Oedipus Rex. I love the overt theme of fate in these stories — the useless struggle against an oracle’s decrees. Rich in irony, we thirstily watch the protagonist come to bitter acceptance of what is his lot.

But we won’t come to Dante until much later. Not until next year. That medieval, Christian mindset is vastly different than the blind bard’s almost two thousand years before. And Dante is who has been consuming my thoughts lately and I don’t know why. Though Dante wrote about hell, purgatory, and heaven, I am, like most people, far more interested in his descriptions of hell. Perfection is, frankly, not that interesting. Perhaps it is because we can’t comprehend it. I agree with Mr. Smith in The Matrix when he describes how the human-farmed minds rejected a virtual utopian reality. We aren’t meant for it. We reject it in literature, too. At least I do. I can recall almost every layer of hell and yet can’t seem to recollect one piece of heaven — something with the number seven and geometrical shapes, I think.

Hell suits us better. Sometimes, I get the inkling that the suffering is already beginning. The headaches, the neck aches, the disappointed dreams, the deferred hope, the impassable fate, the insatiable longing, the loneliness that gnaws. People have everything but … and that makes all the difference.

And yet, it so beautiful too. The fleeting moments, the kisses, the warm sighs, the hopes achieved, the dreams made reality, the miracles that trump fate, the longings satisfied, the human spirits meeting on spiders’ webs strung across fathomless canyons. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It requires an awakening — one that can only come from the breath of something completely Other.

We may find, as C.S. Lewis posits in The Great Divorce, that we’ve always been in hell or we’ve always been in heaven, depending on where you find yourself when the time comes.

Meanwhile, I plan on exploring hell in these next posts. I’m unsure of what brought me to it. It was weeks ago when I randomly looked up the Seven Deadly Sins to research. Yesterday’s sermon was on heaven and hell. It has me thinking. But I hope the exploration of it will be the pulling of weeds, the tilling of soil, the expelling of rocks that is needed to make a fertile ground for a piece of heaven. My heart has succumbed to the wilderness these past few months — perhaps these past few years. I need to take it back. And I think hell is the place to start.


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