February 5, 2012
In defence of Hell
Today is Septuagesima Sunday. That is a mouthful. It sounds like seven mouths' full, but the Latin suggests 70th, as in, "the 70th day before Easter." If gentle reader checks his calendar he will find only 63 days, or at most 64 (by the old way of counting, before we mastered "zero"). It is the ninth Sunday before Easter, but the next, which is the eighth before, is called "Sexagesima," which means 60th; and then we have Quinquagesima (50th), and Quadragesima (40th). For sure it is a countdown.

Quadragesima is the first Sunday in Lent; or else it may refer to Lent more generally. There are 40 days in Lent, exactly - I've counted (from Ash Wednesday, excluding the Sundays) - and we are getting there, once again.

To enter into a proper discussion of the origins of these terms, in distant antiquity, and into their obscure connexion with surviving liturgical practices - Greek, Roman, even Armenian - would tie up this column for many weeks. And end with an admission that "nobody really knows."

So let us just say, without fear of being too warmly contradicted, that Septuagesima Sunday marks something analogous to the turning point of a pendulum. Until now, we have been through Christmas, through Epiphany, and Candlemas, celebrating events in the childhood of Jesus, the great cosmic gift. From stillness, we are now turning forward towards the Passion, the Resurrection, Eternity, at the centre. We are facing towards Easter now.

Many years ago, when my comfortable faith in atheism suddenly cracked, and I began realizing that the craziest claims of Christianity might be true - and that if they were, I was in big trouble - I found myself enchanted by the rhythms of the Church calendar. I lived in England then, and was making my first shy, tentative approaches to Catholic-looking Anglican churches, sneaking in and out of the rear pews. (My fear of being grabbed by a parish coffee-clatcher continues to this day.)

There are excessively rational minds which become seriously disturbed by numerical puzzles, and will not let terms like "Septuagesima" rest. But this was not the scruple to which I was tempted. If anything, it would have been the opposite: an almost sensual delight in the poetry of liturgical movements and expressions, in something telling a story, like a play. I felt a monition against neurosis, in the light of truths beginning to make sense above the level of "pure reason."

In retrospect the Mass does its work at many levels, beginning with the most visible, for what is beautiful conducts us towards reverence, and reverence unfolds dimensionally into Love. You came for a reason, but like a winter coat, it was no longer necessary inside. You put it on again, when leaving.

My memory of those days was rekindled by a single phrase, a chapter heading, in a recent book by the Jesuit professor of government, James V. Schall. The book is rather generically entitled, The Modern Age; but the chapter, more specifically: "The Brighter Side of Hell."

Reason cannot know its vocation, without faith; man cannot know his vocation, without God: the book makes points like these, while returning at successive angles to the extraordinary invocation in the opening of the Confessions of St Augustine: "Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee."

The great paradox of the modern age has been that in our (nominally) "rationalist" eagerness to set aside "irrational" God, Heaven, and Hell, and build instead our nation of human justice on this Earth, we have, invariably, created human hells. Our formula has been to replace the transcendence of God with the transcendence of politics. And, hell is what we get when we get what we want.

This does not apply only to the dramatic, unambiguously atheist, utopian schemes, such as Lenin's Russia and its Gulag. Even our "post-Christian" representative democracies have trekked a long way toward tyranny and dystopia, down the road of politics. We have sought a kind of "no-fault divorce from cosmic reality" by denying our own destiny in eternal life. If nothing else, it has made us very lonely.

Yet the brighter side of hell-on-Earth is that the truth of human destiny keeps re-emerging. And the "brighter side of hell" is that the very possibility of eternal torment restores dignity to our lives, by restoring consequence to our actions, on a truly transcendent plane, beyond the reach of utterly defective human reward and punishment.

What I remember is the turning point, as if of a pendulum, or between seasons. I was troubled as much intellectually, as morally, by the whole idea of "Hell." It was so far outside the reach of that form of "reason" that governed the glib, material, and very cold world from which I had stepped. Hell had always seemed like a bad thing, to me.

Suddenly it seemed rather a good thing. If Hell cannot be chosen, human freedom is a joke. And human suffering is reduced to animal cause and effect. Without our capacity to choose the wrong, and choose it properly, for transcendental stakes - the good, the beautiful, and the true, have no meaning.

David Warren