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By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion;
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The most telling description of hell I ever heard occurred during a Maths class when I was a student at St Ignatius College, Norwood, South Australia, in 1958.  I was 14 years old.  Our teacher, Fr Charles Dennett [1915-1993], never let his subject interfere with his higher duty of conveying to his charges the Catholic faith.  He related a story told him by a friend travelling in America.

He was at a pedestrian crossing waiting to cross the road when a car collided with another right in front of him and burst into flames.  The force of the collision jammed the doors shut and the occupants, four young men, tried desperately to open them to get out of the, by now blazing, vehicle.  With the other pedestrians he looked on horrified.  The young men, thwarted in their attempts to get out of the car suddenly turned on each other and began to curse and blaspheme and to strike at each other.  This they continued to do until the car, and its contents, were consumed by the flames.

In the Dialogue, an interchange between the saint and Almighty God, St Catherine of Siena [1347-1380], Doctor of the Church, publishes this description of hell from the mouth of the Almighty.

This is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning of my mercy.  For this offends me more than all the other sins they have committed.  So the despair of Judas displeased me more and was a greater insult to my Son than his betrayal had been.  Therefore, such as these are reproved for this false judgement of considering their sin to be greater than my mercy, and for this they are punished with the demons and tortured eternally with them…

[I]n hell there are four principal torments, and all the others are offspring of these.

The first is that these souls are deprived of seeing me.  This is so painful for them that if they could they would choose the sight of me along with the fire and excruciating torments, rather than freedom from their pains without seeing me.

The first suffering revives the worm of conscience, and this is their second torment.  For when they see that their sinfulness has deprived them of me and of the company of the angels and made them worthy instead of seeing the demons and sharing their fellowship, conscience gnaws away at them constantly.

The sight of the devil is their third suffering, and it doubles every other torment.  At the sight of me the saints are in constant exultation, joyously refreshed in reward for the labours they bore for me with such overflowing love and to their own cost.  But it is just the opposite for these wretched little souls.  Their only refreshment is the torment of seeing the devil, for in seeing him they know themselves better: that is, they recognise that their sinfulness has made them worthy of him.  And so the worm gnaws on and the fire of conscience never stops burning.

Their suffering is even worse because they see the devil as he really is—more horrible than the human heart can imagine.  You will recall that when I once let you see him for a little while—hardly a moment—as he really is, you said (after coming to your senses again) that you would rather walk on a road of fire even till the final judgement day than see him again.  But even with all you have seen you do not really know how horrible he is.  For my divine justice makes him look more horrible still to those who have lost me, and this in proportion to the depth of their sinfulness.

The fourth torment is fire.  This fire burns without consuming, for the soul cannot be consumed, since it is not material (such as fire could consume) but spiritual.  But in my divine justice I allow the fire to burn these souls mightily, tormenting them without consuming them.  And the tremendous pain of this torturous burning has as many forms as the forms of their sins and is more or less severe in proportion to their sins.

When human life comes to an end the will that was free is bound.  So for the dead the time of earning is past.  If they end in hatred, guilty of deadly sin, by divine justice they are forever bound by that chain of hatred and remain forever obstinate in their evil, which deeps gnawing away within them.  And their suffering grows continually, especially at the sight of others whose damnation they have brought about.

This was taught you, for example, in the rich man who when he was damned begged that Lazarus might go to tell his brothers still on earth how he was suffering.  His motive was not love or compassion for his brothers (for he had lost charity and was incapable of desiring what was good).  Nor was it my honour or their salvation (for I have already told you that the damned can do no good for others and curse me because they ended their lives hating both me and virtue).  What then was his motive?  He was the eldest, and he had encouraged the same wretchedness in them that he himself had lived.  So he had led them toward damnation.  And he saw the suffering that would fall on him if they should come like him to this excruciating torment, gnawing away at themselves forever with hate because they had ended their lives in hate.

[Chapters 37, 38, 40.  Translation Suzanne Noffke O.P., Paulist Press, New York, 1980]

*                                        *

How shall we be delivered from this punishment which our sins deserve?  Only by the mercy of God from whom we have received everything we enjoy in this life—not only what we are (our essence or nature) but that we are (our existence).  A great Australian, Stan Arneil, summarised it well in a radio interview: ‘The very air we breathe is given to us.’

Considering the issue objectively—disregarding mental disorder, depression and other precipitating causes—the greatest sinners are the suicides.  They forsake all hope.  They think that by killing themselves they cease to exist.  They do not.  ‘None can escape my hand,’ as Almighty God told St Catherine.  All the suicide does by his foolish action is to place himself in the hands of him who keeps him in existence with full knowledge of his folly.  For once separated from our body, there is no room for the stupidities that flourish on earth.  As the ancient Greek philosophers insisted: It is matter that impedes knowledge.  Removed from the material, we see clearly our sins, our merits, our utter dependence on God, the unpayable debt we owe him for the gifts he has bestowed on us, the ineffable love in which he created us and the still greater love in which he redeemed us through the death of his Son.

How shall we be delivered from this punishment which our sins deserve?  By turning to the Church he established, confessing our sins with contrition and undertaking the healing that comes from that greatest of all God’s gifts, the Blessed Eucharist.

No matter how grievous our sins may be, they are not beyond the mercy of God.

Michael Baker
17th June 2006