Spy Wednesday: There’s No Place Like Hell

In the classic 1900 children’s book and 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz”, there’s a lot of rubbish.

For example, the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”  Really? Christ was jeered all the way to his execution on Calvary by crowds of people who, only a few days earlier, were crying out how much they loved him.  What an utter failure He must have been.

Or then there’s Dorothy’s “lesson”, which she learns after getting bumped on the head.  “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she vows, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”  What sort of lesson is that? Enjoy suffocating in the Dust Bowl, Dorothy.

Frank L. Baum, author of the “Oz” books, abandoned Christianity in 1892 to join a sect known as the “Theosophical Society”.  Originally founded for the purpose of studying the occult, it expanded to become one of those mutual admiration societies, where people with more money than sense sit around congratulating themselves on how much more enlightened they are than the rest of us.  Among other things, it mixed the study of dead religions with universalism, racial theories, cosmic evolutionary potential, and so on.

I say all of this because we are at Spy Wednesday of Holy Week, when Judas strikes his bargain to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  We know this is coming, because Judas has been listening to the bad voices in his head for a while now.  The next night, at the Last Supper, we learn from the Gospel of St. John that instead of changing his mind at the last minute while he still could, Judas allowed Satan to enter into his thoughts and actions, and he went off to arrange Jesus’ betrayal that evening.  We also know that Satan hung around long enough to persuade Judas to commit suicide over what he had done, instead of seeking forgiveness.

In his magnificent series of panels “Four Visions of the Hereafter” in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, the great Hieronymus Bosch depicted scenes of what happens after we die.  Two of the paintings deal with Heaven, and the other two with Hell.  In the latter, I’ve always thought that the demons dragging the souls of the damned to their eternal punishment are reminiscent of the Flying Monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”.  The difference of course, for Christians, is that unlike Baum’s characters, these fellows are all too real, as Judas found out.  And for that matter, so is the place where they reside, which is where they want us to end up.

With the Easter Triduum beginning tomorrow, you still have time to get to confession. Many dioceses, such as here in the Nation’s Capital, will have confessions tonight through programs like The Light Is On For You.  Check with your local chancery, or call your parish priest to make an appointment.

And for pity’s sake, don’t listen to those trying to tell you that Hell is just an old, scary story, like something Frank Baum might have dreamed up for one of his fairy tales.  Ignore such talk, even if those doing the talking have a bunch of impressive-sounding letters after their name or – even worse – are sporting clerical garb.  Such people are not going to be accountable to you, when it turns out they were wrong.  Because in the end, there’s no place like Hell – and we really, REALLY don’t want to end up there.

Detail of "Hell" by Hieronymous Bosch (1500) Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Detail of “Hell” by Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1486)
Palazzo Grimani, Venice

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Monday of Holy Week: Following the Right Path

What sort of path are you on right now, as we begin Holy Week?

Yesterday’s Passion reading at Sunday Mass came from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  In St. Matthew’s account, after Jesus is arrested and brought before the chief priests and the elders, He does not respond to their questions and accusations, until the High Priest Caiphas orders Him to answer under oath before God.  In other words, if he but had the humility to know it, Caiphas is ordering God to swear by Himself.

This type of oath, in which God swears by Himself, occurs in a few places in Scripture.  For example, fed up with the selfishness of the Jewish people, God makes the oath, “I swear by Myself” via the prophet Jeremiah, that they will be punished if they do not turn away from their path of unrepentant sin and paganism.  When they choose not to listen, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed.  The Jews are quite literally taken off their path, and forcibly marched off down another: that to exile in Babylon.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac – which of course is paralleled in the Father’s sacrifice of the Son in the Gospels – Abraham humbly and, one suspects, a bit sorrowfully, takes the path up into the mountains in order to do God’s Will.  When he is about to act and kill his son, God stops the sacrifice, and forms His covenant with Abraham.  “I swear by Myself,” God promises, that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the sands on the seashore, and be a blessing for the whole world.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Caiphas is so intent on protecting his position, that he doesn’t want to hear anything that will make him have to change the path he is on.  He tears his clothes when Jesus tells him the truth, because he is not willing to humble himself, let alone be obedient.  The signs pointing to Jesus as the Messiah have been before Caiphas for years, both in the prophecies from Scripture and in the words and deeds of Jesus Himself.  Yet Caiphas has fallen so far off the path of seeking God’s Will in his life, that if he was truly open to considering the possibility that this was the Messiah, he would have been a bit more careful with his words.  For clearly, having God swear by Himself is not something to be taken lightly.

Holy Week is the perfect time to follow the signposts in your life leading you back onto the path of humble obedience to the Will of God.  After all, this is the path Christ Himself trod, and what we as Christians are called to imitate.  And the best way that you can do that this week, is by following the signs to your local church’s confessional.  I’ll be in line there myself, and afterwards, we can all go get back on the right path together.

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Meeting Adjourned: Keeping the Faith After the Retreat

Those among my readers who consider themselves to be more sophisticated than I will not want to read today’s blog post.  Those of you who are more aware of your own mortality and utter dependence upon Divine Providence however, please stick with me.  For hopefully you will see a bit of yourselves in what I am about to describe, and you will see how we are, all of us, in the same boat when it comes to trying to keep focused on the horizon rather than on the waves that may toss us about.

Over the past few months I have been fortunate enough to attend the monthly Evening of Recollection for Men at the Catholic Information Center, here in the Nation’s Capital. And during that time it has inevitably happened that, soon after this monthly meeting, I suffer an absolutely horrible day.  This is not an exaggeration, by any means: quite literally, the next day I have some terrible thing happen at work or at home, or I suffer from some very painful physical ailment, or I receive some terrible news about someone I care about, or I have a combination of all of these things and more.

If you have never attended one of these recollection evenings – which by the way are held for the ladies as well – the format is rather like that of a brief spiritual retreat from the everyday world.  The attendees gather in the chapel and listen to one of the priests give a reflection, on some spiritual topic which will hopefully prove helpful to those in attendance.  Then private confession is available for those who wish to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation; alternatively one may simply engage in an examination of conscience led by one of the leaders.  Then the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, and this is followed by a second spiritual reflection by one of the priests, often continuing on a related track from the theme explored earlier, followed by benediction.

The reason I like these monthly gatherings is that an evening spent like this, at the start of the work week, is wonderfully refreshing to the soul.  I like to get there early if I can, and do some spiritual reading in the chapel before the Evening starts or during the quiet bits.  I usually take notes during the two reflections if I find them helpful, to transcribe and reflect on later.  And of course it is just a good thing in and of itself to sit in a quiet chapel in the presence of God, gradually forgetting things like deadlines, appointments, bills, and so on, in the company of other professional men who know all of these things and more – mortgages, children, serious illnesses, etc.

Strange to say, over the past several months whenever I have attended these Evenings, the very next day is absolutely rotten, pock-marked by all manner of things.  It seems that I leave the mini-retreat all refreshed and renewed, walking on a cloud, and yet something goes horribly pear-shaped within the next 12 hours.  In fact at this point, it has become so predictable as to be almost tragi-comic.

The return to the material world of course is part of the cause of this.  The spiritual and psychological “high” or sense of satisfaction one has after a good retreat, even a short one, is rather like the runner’s “high”, when the body is surging with endorphins, mixed with that peaceful and sated feeling after a really good Thanksgiving dinner which leads to falling asleep in front of the fireplace.  At any time there is nothing like a good confession for taking the weight off of your shoulders and feeling as though you have been picked up and cleaned of all of the muck that has been slowing you down.  However surrounding that with adoration, benediction, and these lengthy, insightful reflections just makes for a very fine experience spent in the presence of God with other men of faith.

And therein, I think, is what is going on, and why the next day, at least for me, is so inevitably awful.

Human beings are susceptible to evil, thanks to our fallen nature.  All of the supposed sophistication which each successive generation of human beings claims to have over preceding generations is really nonsense, for we merely replace one set of societal ills with another, scoffing at the backwardness of our forbearers while not realizing our own myopia about the outcomes of our justifications of disordered acts.  We simply enjoy doing things that are wrong, and then finding ways to justify our behavior through various means – political, editorial, legal, personal, you name it.  If a man likes to do something which will ultimately condemn him, unless he keeps making efforts to reform his life and contain himself, he will manage to find a way to justify doing whatever it is that gives him temporary pleasure, at the cost of his eternal soul.

Hell is very busy making converts on Earth, perhaps now more so than ever, when the popularity of ignorance has never been more widely taught and disseminated to such great effect.  Yet one of the things which Hell does not like is when individuals begin to believe that there may be more, and better, to come from this God person they hear of, if they stick with Him.  And so sometimes Hell likes to send us unexpected problems, or remind us of messes that are piling up, or throw some illness or pain our way, to try to turn us inward and distract us from looking to what lies beyond this existence.

If you do not believe this sort of thing can happen, you need to go back and read your Scripture, and the Lives of the Saints, for this sort of things happens all the time, with disturbing frequency.  Some of the saints were actively pursued by evil, and some of the great sinners were those who seemed unable to shut their ears to the calls of evil despite the best efforts of those around them.  In fact the really sad stories we read are the ones about people who did not take these attacks seriously, to the point of not even recognizing that they were giving in to the wishes of the infernal, rather than following the Will of the Eternal.

The solution is to open your eyes, of course.  If you recognize what is going on, when you are attacked and things go badly, you can and will experience the emotions of grief or anger or anxiety.  You can mourn and complain and feel rotten, and I do not think it unfair to allow anyone to do that, as they need to.  But once that time passes, then the strength that can be drawn from an Evening of Recollection, or confession, or just a quiet ten minutes spent in prayer, makes the believer pick himself up and keep going, as best he can.

It is difficult to remain focused on who and what actually matters, and I for one need to get better at it.  Yet there is no other choice available to us, in the end.  Either we do the best we can now, to do good in this world so as to prepare for the next, or we follow the path of materialism and nihilism to no purpose whatsoever.  I know which choice I intend to make.

See you at the next monthly Evening of Recollection. :-)