It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Justin gave me warning: Hell week was going to be tough. And I’m not talking about the hell week of college–that week before finals when you attempt to study like mad and, at midnight, press your face as far as you can against the screen of your window and participate in a quasi-cathartic collective scream with thousands of other freaking-out college kids. No, this hell week was going to be different. Hell week for the St. Ignatius exercises is a week of imagining yourself in hell, with all the smells and sounds and textures and torture that come with being completely removed from the presence of God.
Not fun. That’s for sure. I was frightened. I shed lots of tears. But my experience of hell, in my imagination, was so different than I expected.
When approaching this exercise, I tried to not let my mind, with its pre-formed opinions about hell–with its fire and screams all around–to shape the experience. And what surprised me about hell was the flat-out dullness of everything. No color. No texture. Everything gray and parched and cracked. No water. No sky. Nothing to see on the horizon. Nothing to see in any direction, actually. Just absence. Void.
It was agony. Rather than experiencing the heat of countless pits of fire, and joining in with what I assumed would be insufferable screams of torture all around me, I was horrified by this: God was nowhere; nobody was with me; I was completely, utterly alone.
Hell’s torture was in its emptiness–its complete absence of beauty and variety. No color. No light. No variation. No wind or rain. No seasons. No nature. All was the same. The ground parched, completely dry and gray and cracked. All hope gone. No solace or comfort of any kind. No company. No life. No music or birds or wind blowing tree branches filled with green leaves. No sweet fragrance with bright flowers. Nothing.
In hell, there was no learning. No smells of good food. No laughter. No music. No celebration or hugs or stories. No connection or contact. No people. All goodness absent. (For goodness can only exist where God is. And God–Love–was not present in hell.
Hell was a void. Everything dead. And while I saw no one around me–could hear no life around me, just utter silence–I couldn’t help wondering about other people in hell being in this same state of tormented deadness. I know this is morbid, but I wondered if the sounds of tortured screams from other people in hell–if I could hear them, anyone at all–would actually be gruesomely comforting; then I would not feel so much alone.
In hell, there was no rescue. No one was coming. And there was no coming home. In hell, God was not my Father; I hadn’t let him be one. I had rejected being parented. I had rejected being loved.
When I ask God what He can tell me about Hell, He says a few things. And over the week, we went back and forth: me asking him questions, him answering:
Father, Jesus, tell me more; show me more.
I am love. Hell is the absence of love.
So earth can be a place to experience hell? What is hell on earth?
It is discord. It is lack of peace. It is selfishness. It is striving. It is angst and desolation, a complete absence of hope. I am not there.
Is hell anywhere where you are not? When I choose to ignore you, reject you–be unkind and selfish and envious–am I experiencing glimpses of hell? And does this hell feed on itself–evil producing evil, when all is cut off from you?
Yes, but you are not cut off from me.
But I do cut myself off from you often. Help me to feel the separation from you when I sin. Make me feel repulsed by it. Help me to run away from it and, instead, run to you.
Hell is a turning inward instead of turning to me.
I confess I do that so often. Help me to look to you and to your abundance. I can imagine the gnashing of teeth. Come, Jesus. Fill me. I give you my heart–and all of its selfishness to you. Purify me.
Little children, come to me.
Father, hell scares me. I deserve to be there. But I don’t want to be there. I do not want to be away from you. But even here, while I live, I separate myself from you due to my sin. But I can turn back to you. Help me to keep my gaze on you, my heart turned to you.
My child, feel the depth of my love for you. Live in that love.
Father, is there remorse in hell? Do people know why they are there, and that they didn’t have to be there if they only loved Jesus? Do they exist with that awareness of it, or is it–for all of us–too great to comprehend all of our sin? Is man incapable of bearing it, so you protect us from it-? Except it hell, we must bear it?
To bear one’s sin is torture. Man is not equipped for it.
So, in hell, sin, to its fullest extent, is realized? How can you bear the entire world’s sin? Did you take the sin of the people who rejected you? Do you only take the sin of people who love you? Do you let people choose whether or not you take their sin away?
With my Son, I take away all sin. But the rejection of him/me means sin remains.
Would there be no hell if everyone loved you? For then all sin would be eliminated? And can people change their minds?
They would be choosing only for lack of punishment, not for love of me. And that is not love. Avoidance of pain is not love. Love can be painful. Love is sacrifice. Love is not just for personal gain. Choosing death for the sake of another (as my Son did)–their life, their hope, their joy–is love.
For the Loop Poetry Project this week, consider writing a poem on life without God. Let your heart partner with his. What does he want to show you and share with you? What are your questions? Where does your imagination go? How do you experience his goodness, his comfort, in the midst of desolation and pain? Or, as we approach this season of celebration and thanksgiving, what does it look like for you to go deeper into his presence?
Share your poem below–or don’t write a poem at all and just share your thoughts. You can also join the beautiful and brave women over at Loop Poetry Project who share their poetry in this private space. I am excited to connect with you!
Flailing / the Sheep’s Gate
I stand at the gate
wondering what you see
and imagine all sorts
of possible calamities
but not really
I actually don’t like
to imagine them
but I wonder
what you imagine
when the world you love
its arms stretching up
to be carried,
nestled deep and safe,
and it refuses to see
you standing there,
its mother who aches
to pick up its child
blind and flailing
desperate to be loved.