…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver, “Summer Day”
Jean-Paul Sartre says that hell is other people, and Fyodor Dostoevsky says that hell is the suffering of not being able to love, and here it seems that the atheist and the Christian agree. Well, let me quantify that sentence. Sartre’s character Joseph Garcin says that hell is other people, and Dostoevsky’s character Zosima says that hell is the suffering of not being able to love, but I think the larger works of No Exit and The Brother Karamazov seem to disclose their author’s sentiments, at the risk of being anathema to the world of literary criticism.
And I think that both statements are true. In essence, I think that Dostoevsky and Sartre are saying the same thing. I think that they have uncovered the core of hatred and loneliness and fear. It seems that hell is the suffering of disloving other people. It seems that the news is full of this nowadays. It also seems that if this is the case, then the inverse might also be true.
And it also seems the case that we human beings, we wayfarers, wanderers, we understand both. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” writes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. Heaven works backwards, C.S. Lewis conjectures, and turns agony into glory. Perhaps this is what we mean by the already and the not-yet. Perhaps this is what we mean by the sacraments.
If hell is other people, and if it is the suffering of not being able to love, then I, like most, know hell all too well. I wonder if it is less a fiery lake and more a tortured mind in a solitary fog, or a room full of people you cannot regard as anything other than hateful and insipid.
And maybe, if the inverse is true, then maybe I know heaven too. Maybe heaven is less pearly gates and more pealing laughter, soft touch, room at the table.
What is heaven, and what is hell? In truth, none of us have the slightest idea. We know as much about heaven as we know about life outside time, about being outside space, about reality outside perception. That is to say, we know nothing about it, except the metaphors through which we grope toward eternity – a hand to hold, a body to cling to, wind to feel, trees with lights in them. We know nothing, and yet we know eternity better than we know ourselves, because we can recognize what the world requires of us. That is, wonder. An acknowledgment of the mystery of being, a knowledge that symbols mean, and that holiness is everything in sight. That is wonder. We are like children, chasing bubbles, gazing, knowing.
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” writes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Glory be to God that the line is crossed.
Crucifix: Henri Matisse, 1951