Like many others, I’ve been having a hard time lately dealing with human behavior.
We seem to have developed excuses for everything we once agreed was unacceptable – things like murder, rape, theft, infidelity, character assassination, child abuse, etc. – and decided to live in a world where everyone can do whatever they want. We have even decided that its ok do things that are completely stupid and degrading because “we should be able to do anything we want to without the fear of (fill in the blank.)”
A few weeks ago at my Church’s annual carnival, I picked up a priceless copy of some essays by the Archbishop Fulton Sheen at the white elephant sale for a mere twenty-five cents. Its an old musty paperback from the late 60s, but its topics and messages are as contemporary as any bestseller on Amazon today. In particular, as they relate to human relationships.
One essay in particular has captured my imagination. Strangely enough, its about the existence of hell. Sheen assures us in the piece that, yes, indeed there is a hell. After all, doesn’t there have to be in order for there to be a heaven? Anyway, what’s really compelling to me is how Sheen describes hell. He doesn’t talk fire and roasting pits and blast furnace temperatures. No horns, pitchforks and spikey tails. Sheen describes hell as the absence of love.
At the same time I was reading Sheen, cops were being shot in the street, Jihadis were attacking France and Germany, Iran and North Korea were developing nuclear weapons, Christians were under siege in the Middle East, anti-Semitism was making a comeback, and every American was arguing with another over what could possibly be the two worst Presidential candidates in history. I was also lamenting my own personal loneliness, feeling out of touch with friends and family, and reeling somewhat from the unexpected resignation of our Church pastor.
I suppose the world was making me feel rather unloved. But I knew God was there with me, as I often imagine Him, standing behind me with His strong hand on my shoulder, gently reminding me that He’s given me the strength to push ahead. And then I thought of Sheen’s words – Hell is eternity without love.
There was a time, quite recently, when I could not see or feel God’s love in my life if I could not feel the love of other people. Both kinds of love – that of others and of God – were both there, but though the imbalances of depression, I was unable to know either. Quite clearly, it was the worst time of my life. Real or not, I felt the absence of love. Sheen’s description of hell.
Putting all of that together, the idea of hell came alive for me. I cannot imagine for a moment, let alone an eternity, living that way again. I remembered how I often felt I had fallen into a deep hole, the people I love happily living life above me, without me, within earshot. I had no hope that God or anyone else would throw me a line and pull me out. I wanted to die, but thought perhaps I already had.
Sheen’s words made me think harder. I thought of all the people diagnosed with depression or a mental health malady. I thought of the people I couldn’t save from suicide with my own love. Then, of those around the world who certainly live lives of greater despair than I will ever. I thought of those hungry, thirsty, homeless, poverty-stricken, put-down, disrespected, and forgotten. I thought of those who are Godless.
More and more everyday, our world seems to have less love in it. Perhaps its because we truly do not extend love to one another. Or perhaps, we’ve become so accustomed to pain that we cannot recognize love when it is there, often because of our clumsy ways of expressing it. Maybe we’re even beyond that. Maybe we’re so pessimistic about the good in our world that we make it a point, consciously or unconsciously, to look for hate. Maybe we expect it to be there because we’ve been hurt, and when we find reality is more complicated than our own experience, we feel the need to invent it.
Sheen described hell in his essay – but he never did say exactly where it is. If we don’t come to our senses, it indeed may be right here with us. On Earth. If it isn’t already.