HELL AND HEAVEN
It was a parish mission in my village a long time ago; my informant was Bart, who died in 1986 aged ninety-four. The missioners started at the end, with the Last Judgment and Eternal Damnation, the usual procedure. Their aim was to frighten people out of their wits and into Confession, and their aim was often achieved, at least in part. One evening as the congregation left the church, a farmer said to his neighbour, “That’s going to be an awful bad day, that Day of Judgment!” “Not half as bad,” replied the neighbour, “as the day after it!”
Hell seems to have cooled down since then, but it remained as hot as ever right into the 1960s. I remember reading Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the 1960s and wondering, when I reached the sermon on hell, why all this was called literature rather than religion, because I had sat through an identical sermon two years earlier during a school retreat. It was night-time. “Go now to your beds,” said the preacher in a low voice, having terrified us in a very loud one for three-quarters an hour with facts and figures about temperatures at the core of the earth, “go now to your beds, and as you climb in between the sheets, thank your God that you are climbing in between sheets of linen, and not between sheets of fire...! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost....”
Dante imagined these words written over the portal of hell:
Through me you pass into the city of woe,
Through me you pass into eternal pain,
Through me you pass among the damned....
This place was created by divine Power
And supreme Wisdom and original Love....
All hope abandon, you who enter here.
Terrible words: all hope abandon.... Why? Because you are entering a place, he said, created by Power, Wisdom, Love: in other words, Father, Son and Spirit. George Steiner, who is Jewish, believes that centuries of morbid Christian fantasy of this sort account psychologically for the Holocaust. “It is in the fantasies of the infernal, as they literally haunt western sensibility, that we find the technology of pain without meaning, of bestiality without end, of gratuitous terror. For six hundred years the imagination dwelt on the flaying, the racking, the mockery of the damned, in a place of whips and hellhounds, of ovens and stinking air.” We brought about in this world, he said, what we had always imagined in the next.
It certainly created a kind of holocaust in the consciences of millions of Christians throughout the centuries. The crux was how to love Someone who was infinitely cruel. If you did not love, you were damned; so out of fear of damnation you tried to love the One who threatened to damn you. What a business for twisting emotions! “Sing!” roared the teacher as he throttled the schoolboy (my father remembered this from 1910), “sing, I tell you!” “You might as well tell me to fly, sir!” said the boy when he could breathe again. Bravo, little feller from 100 years ago! You stood up for humanity. And now you make us think: Likewise how could anyone love out of fear? “Perfect love casts out fear,” St John wrote.
Then, on the other side, greed. The joys of heaven. Every sermon, as I remember, ended with more or less the same words, “...and so to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” Greed and fear are not our noblest instincts. They certainly move us, but by the same means that people use to move animals: the carrot and the stick.Still, people didn't lose their spirit...the throttled schoolboy, for example. Between what we ignored and what we didn't understand, we came through reasonably well. Bart told me of another parish mission (or perhaps the final day of the same one) when the preacher had been quoting a passage from St John's Gospel repeatedly: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” Afterwards one farmer remarked, with professional interest, to another, “That priest’s father must have a fine place!”