Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because the true kingdom has shed its light upon history. In theological tradition, most particularly in the East, there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement. Hell is the experience (a possibility in each moment) of divine glory not as beauty, but as a formless sublimity; it is the rejection of all analogical vulnerability, the sealing off of the “self” (or the cosmos) in univocal singularity, the “misreading” of creation as an aboriginal violence. The “fire” of hell is that same infinite display of semeia [signs] by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (though rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful, not susceptible of analogical appropriation, of charity; it is the soul’s refusal to become (as Gregory says) the expanding vessel into which the beauty of God endlessly flows. For exile is possible within the beauty of the infinite only by way of an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence. Hell is, one might almost say, a perfectly “Kantian” place, where the twin sublimities of the star-strewn firmament above and the lofty moral “law’ within remain separated by the thin tissue of subjective moral autonomy: where this tissue has become impervious to glory, the analogy of the heavens is not the transforming voice of God but only a mute simile, an inassimilable exteriority, and so a torment. Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell, where the fire of divine beauty is held at by, where the divine apeiron [limitlessness] miraculously divests itself at the peras [boundary, end, extremity] that, in Christ it has already transgressed and broken open, and humbly permits the self to “create” itself. True, though hell is the purest interiority, it is also by contagion a shared interiority, a palpable fiction and common space superimposed upon creation, with a history of its own; but still, it is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface. For Eastern Christian thought, in particular, it makes no difference here whether one speaks of death, sin, or hell: in each case on speaks of the same privation, the same estranging history, the same limit shattered by Easter; and hence there can be no aesthetic explanation of hell (something that few of the Fathers occasionally foolishly attempted) that would make of it a positive moment in the exposition of divine beauty, a part of the universe’s harmonious ordering of light and darkness. Hell cannot serve as an objective elements of the beautiful—as source of delight—because it is an absolute privation of form and quantity; it has no surface, nor even a shadow’s substance; its aesthetic “place” is the sealed outside of an inside.
Free-fall in ivory black of night with not a soul beside,
No wind to pace my sure decent, no echoed cry to mark the ride,
No shout of warning from below, nor from above a last Adieu,
No compass and no map in hand, no starlit sky to see me through.
No memory can ease the fear as Shame’s grip ever tightly holds,
And I, recounting all the steps by which I hid within its folds,
Cried out for help and strained to hear only Winter’s silent voice,
And so am falling ceaselessly, the consequence of my own choice.
But when all hopes at last expired, and I still falling through the dark,
A face appeared and, falling with me, made no gesture or remark,
But only saw me, and I in seeing knew, I was beheld and known,
And being seen could only mean that I in fact was not alone.
His eyes and voice were one and fixed as to my fading form his glance,
Undisturbed and free of threat from all my loss and circumstance,
Spoke faith and love and hope within my thinning ghostly mortal frame,
Assured me he would never leave, and as he spoke he said my name.
What poetry then can reproduce his presence which in me construes
Falling into friendship and from loss my liberty renews?
Would I give up such brokenness if it meant milder grace to gain?
I’d say surely not, and recommend to you the same.
Slowly approaching the Throne, the
Queen is in her Glory, I’m approachin’ alone;
She loves me dearly, but she still wears the Crown, so my
Head and my knee, I take and bend them on down.
She rises from the Throne, and walks so regal,
Beauty, Truth, Goodness – there is no equal,
Giver of Life, she does it all for her people, if
Lovin’ her’s a crime, I don’t care – I’ll be illegal.
She stands in front of me, so close but so far, ‘cuz I’m
As nothing before her, while she’s shining like a star.
She lifts my head and looks me in the eyes, and says
“Living in humility’s the way you win the Prize…
“Won’t you have a seat with me?” She gives a hand, I
Arise like a new knight in a new land, we
Walk back to the Throne, lover and Beloved, and the
Sky is no limit, ‘cuz there ain’t nothing above it.
I’ve known of the Brontë sisters (mid-19th cent) for years but only recently picked up a volume of Emily Bronte’s poetry. It’s stunning. Knowing the difficulties Emily Brontë faced, the struggles of her day, her family trials and losses, the stiff opposition she and her sisters overcame, besides dying at age 30 of tuberculosis (3 months after her brother died of alcoholism), some of her poems are nothing short of miraculous. I have one or two others I will share, but “No Coward Soul is Mine” will do for now.
If you haven’t watched the 2-part TV series Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, please do. You won’t be sorry, unless of course you don’t appreciate good literature or the English language at its best and most beautiful!
No coward soul is mine No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere I see Heaven’s glories shine And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear.
O God within my breast Almighty ever-present Deity Life, that in me hast rest, As I Undying Life, have power in Thee.
Vain are the thousand creeds That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain, Worthless as withered weeds Or idlest froth amid the boundless main.
To waken doubt in one Holding so fast by thy infinity, So surely anchored on The steadfast rock of Immortality.
With wide-embracing love Thy spirit animates eternal years Pervades and broods above, Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.
Though earth and moon were gone And suns and universes ceased to be And Thou wert left alone Every Existence would exist in thee.
There is not room for Death Nor atom that his might could render void Since thou art Being and Breath And what thou art may never be destroyed.
Ezra 3.12: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.”
Israel is here returned from 70 years in exile. They’re rebuilding their lives, including their temple. Most of those present were born in exile, so any temple at all is a reason to rejoice. But some of those present were old enough to remember the former Temple, destroyed 70 years earlier, and all they see is are reasons for weeping. Why? Because they recall the first Temple. Painful memories. Memories of past mistakes. Memories of taking the wrong way and suffering the consequences. Memories of missed opportunities. Regret over what might have been. To fall under its spell is to view even blessings as a cursed reminder of the past.
Another similar passage:
Haggai 2.3: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not appear to you like nothing in comparison?”
Why ask this? Because, as we know, some are weeping. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. “We’ll never recover what we had. Our mistakes have condemned us to a Plan B that will always trail behind Plan A. We’ll live the rest of our lives weighed down by the shame of our regret.”
Eventually the pain of regret comes to the surface not just for the older generation who were around to remember the former days, but also when Ezra gathers all the people in Jerusalem to hear the Scripture read aloud. What happens? Neh. 8:9b: “All the people were weeping while they heard the Scripture being read.” Why? Because they hear described God’s historical call to Israel, his promises to Israel, his gifts and blessings, the history of his faithfulness and provision, and they’re overwhelmed. Why? Because that has not been their experience. They sit and leaf through Israel’s older photo-albums of former times rich with blessing and peace, and they mourn its loss, if they’re old enough to remember, or its absence, if all they’ve known is exile.
So what’s God say to them about the regret and pain of past mistakes and missed opportunities? Two things:
1) Through Nehemiah (8.10) God says,“Don’t grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And when Israel hears the feast of tabernacles described in the public reading of Scripture, they confess, “What? We haven’t been celebrating this,” and they all gather palm branches and tree limbs and build humble, leaky, dirt floor dwellings to celebrate the Feast of Tents/Tabernacles. Nehemiah (8.17) says there was great rejoicing. Exiles rejoicing?
2) Through Haggai (2.9) God says: “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the glory of the former house.” The Temple was destroyed in judgment, and as it’s rebuilt, it becomes clear this will not be a return to the former Temple. God asks, “Those of you who remember the first Temple, what d’ya think?” And they just weep. But God encourages them, “Don’t cry. The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the glory of the former house.” Understand it correctly. The former house was larger, more impressive, a top-shelf Temple, a true denominational HQ, red carpet and all. This latter house, however, is smaller, humbler, and far less impressive. And yet God promises the glory of this latter house will be greater than the glory of the former.
Your past failures cannot foreclose upon the goodness and glory God wishes to manifest in and through you. For the glory of the house doesn’t depend on the history of the house; it depends on who occupies the house. This latter house won’t look the same as the former house. It’s less impressive to outsiders, less accommodating, less fitted for headlines and conference. It gets no invites. Hosts no celebrities.
Your life may have taken a very different path than it would have taken, but you will cross the same finish line everybody else crosses and you’ll participate in the same transforming glory and goodness of God. It matters not what you are in; it matters what is in you. The glory is his, not the house’s, and it can flow in the fullness he desires from the rebuilt ruins and losses which exile inevitably brings.
Self-Knowledge is not fully possible for human beings. We do not reside in a body, a mind or a world where it is achievable or from the point of being interesting, even desirable. Half of what lies in the heart and mind is potentiality; resides in the darkness of the unspoken and unarticulated and has not yet come into being: this hidden unspoken half of a person will supplant and subvert any present understandings we have about ourselves.
Human beings are always, and always will be, a frontier between what is known and what is not known. The act of turning any part of the unknown into the known is simply ana invitation for an equal measure of the unknown to flow in and reestablish that frontier: to reassert that far horizon of an individual life; to make us what we are – that is – a moving edge between what we know about ourselves and what we are about to become. What are we actually about to become or are afraid of becoming always trumps and rules over what we think we are already.
The hope that a human being can achieve complete honesty and self-knowledge without regard to themselves is a fiction and a chimera, the jargon and goals of a corporate educational system brought to bear on the depths of an identity where the writ of organizing language does not run. Self-knowledge includes the understanding that the self we want to know is about to disappear. What we can understand is the way we occupy this frontier between the known and the unknown, the way we hold the conversation of life, the figure we cut at that edge, but a detailed audit of the self is not possible and diminishes us in the attempt to establish it; we are made on a grander scale, half afraid of ourselves, half in love with immensities beyond any name we can give.
Self-knowledge is often confused with transparency, but knowledge of the self always becomes the understanding of the self as a confluence; a flowing meeting of elements, including all the other innumerable selves in the world, not a set commodity to be unearthed and knocked into shape. Self-knowledge is not clarity or transparency or knowing how everything works, self-knowledge is a fiercely attentive form of humility and thankfulness, a sense of the privilege of a particular form of participation, coming to know the way we hold the conversation of life and perhaps, above all, the miracle that there is a particular something rather than an abstracted nothing and we are a very particular part of that particular something.
What we recognize and applaud as honesty and transparency in an individual is actually the humble demeanor of the apprentice, someone paying extreme attention, to themselves, to others, to life, to the next step, which they may survive or they may not; someone who does not have all the answers but who is attempting to learn what they can, about themselves and those with whom they share the journey, someone like everyone else, wondering what they and their society are about to turn into. We are neither what we think we are not entirely what we are about to become, we are neither purely individual nor fully a creature of our community, but an act of becoming that can never be held in place by a false form of nomenclature.
Wherefore, because the soul is purified in this furnace like gold in a crucible…it is conscious of this complete undoing of itself in its very structure, together with the direst poverty, as if it were nearing its end, as may be seen by that which David says of himself in this respect, in these words: “Save me, O God, for the waters are up to my neck. I have sunk into the miry depths, where there is no footing. I have drifted into deep waters, where the flood engulfs me. I am weary from my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes fail looking for my God.” (Ps 69.1-3) Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that he may afterwards greatly exalt it. And if he ordained not that when these feelings arise within the soul they should speedily be stilled, the soul would die in a very short space. But there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity…so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened…and in truth [the soul] goes down alive into hell, being purged here on earth in the same manner as there, since this purgation is that which would have to be accomplished there.
(St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Book 2, Ch. 6)
This morning, as I sat trying to practice silence, whispering just “I am,” in my mind’s eye I saw a mirror. It became the only mirror I have and in which I see myself daily – my bathroom mirror. I stood before it slowly saying “I am.” I saw one image – mine – but I heard two voices. God, the Great ‘I am’, seeing me see myself, and me seeing God see me (which is the only way anyone sees God). My “I am” inside of his, his present in mine.
Then my image in the mirror began to change. The ‘I’ gazing at the mirror didn’t change. That remained just me, as I am. Only my image in the mirror began to change, eventually becoming everyone, everywhere. All persons were my image. My reflection spun through every type of face – every gender, every race, every age from childhood to the very old, from the sick to the healthy, the happy and the sad, those comfortable and those suffering – every human being was in the image, or rather was my image.
As this reflection constantly transfigured between the faces of all persons, it nevertheless remained a single face, and the voice, though singular, was at the same time a cacophony of distinct voices all saying “I am” – a face made of faces, a voice comprising voices – in me, as me.
What a year it’s been. How many have been forced to the brink against their best efforts? How many have been driven beyond the brink into the loss of all things? What losses have we not suffered – life, love, faith, provision, possessions, savings, health, dreams, plans? Earlier this summer I found myself in 2Corinthians thinking through how faith survives the pain and grief of radical loss. Here’s the gist.
1Cor 10.1-10 speaks of Israel’s wilderness ‘testing’, the challenges of wilderness life. Then Paul moves toward an application of Israel’s history to the life of Christians (vv. 11-13):
11 Now these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So the one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall. 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide an escape, so that you can stand up under it.
Some understand the “temptation” of v. 13 to refer to temptation to sin, perhaps temptation presented by the Devil (cf. Jesus’ wilderness temptations). More commonly, however, we are tempted by our own fallen nature and dispositions. Jam 1.14-15: “Each one is tempted when by his own desires he is lured away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin.”
Viewed as ‘temptation to sin’, 1Cor 10 is understood as promising us that God will not permit such temptation to overwhelm us with the force of its lure or enticement. God will always provide a “way of escape,” a kind of exit ramp off the highway, a way to flee from the lure of sin’s enticement.
We are in fact tempted to sin in this sense, obviously. And God’s grace does empower us to say no to such temptation. And usually saying no involves escaping the circumstance or situation which is, for most of us, the occasion of temptation. But I wish to suggest here that 1Cor 10.13 is not primarily referring to ‘temptation’ in this sense, but to ‘trials’ (tests, difficulties, challenges, pressures) that we all inevitably face and which more often than not we cannot run away from or escape.
The Greek word peirosmos can describe either ‘temptation’ (in the ‘enticement to sin’ sense) or ‘trial’ (as an encounter with the challenges and difficulties one generally encounters in life). Take for example Jam 1.3: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you encounter peirosmoi [trials] of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” But later in the same chapter (v. 14), using the same word, he’s clearly talking about ‘temptation’ when he says “each one is tempted (peirazetai) when his own desires lure him away.”
This raises the interesting question about the relation between the two – ‘temptation to sin’ on the one hand and the ‘trials’ of life on the other. Every ‘test’ or ‘trial’, by virtue of being a ‘test’ at all, is an opportunity to sin (to fail the test). And ever allurement of our nature’s to sin is equally a ‘test’. However, here in 1Cor 13 Paul has primarily ‘test’ or ‘trial’ in mind, the inevitable difficulties and challenges of life that press in on us, and this is clear in other statements he makes. The point of v. 13 is better read as saying something like “When you are tried/tested, when life presses in, God will not abandon you, he will provide you ‘the escape’ [literally].” And now look at the final phrase which explains this ‘escape’: “so that you will be able to endure it.”
But wait a second? What kind of ‘escape’ is this? I don’t want to ‘endure’. I want to ‘escape it’. But Paul explicitly says the ‘escape’ God provides (God’s not allowing us to be overwhelmed) is ‘a way to endure’. And this figures in later in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians when he talks about God’s having permitted a “messenger of Satan” to remain a “thorn in [his] flesh” so that God’s grace would be all the more manifest in his life. To ‘escape’ here is to ‘endure’.
I’m sharing this because many Christians assume God’s grace will always provide a means of escape or relief from life’s trials/tests, and end to our trial. But in v. 13 the escape doesn’t alleviate the pressure or pain at all. It rather sustains us in/under the pressure. We endure the trial.
This comes out beautifully in 2Cor 4.7-10:
7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. 8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
The thought is anticipated in Pauls’ opening to the same letter, 2Cor 1.8-9:
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
Let’s look then at the different perspectives between 1Cor 10 and 2Cor 1.
1Cor 10.13 – God does not allow us to be “tried” (peirosmos) “beyond our ability” (hyper ho dunasthe).
2Cor 1.9 – God does allow Paul and company be tried (peirosmos) “beyond their ability” (hyper ho dunamin).
Harmonize away if you feel compelled. I don’t. In the latter (2Cor) passage God allows Paul and company to be tried beyond their ability precisely because it is when our abilities are exhausted that we are broken open to the grace of God. Compare the two. What is ‘endured’ in 1Cor 10 becomes in 2Cor 1 the ‘despairing of life so God can raise us from the dead’. Something far more radical has provoked Paul’s reflections in 2Cor 1, something not in view in 1Cor.
I suggest that Paul’s experience in Asia (2Cor 1) deeply broke him and took his understanding of grace and human effort to a genuinely new level not reflected in 1Cor. And rather than attempting to harmonize 1Cor 10 and 2Cor 1 as describing the same experience from two different perspectives, I understand Paul as amending his earlier view. The Paul of 2Cor would not express himself in terms of 1Cor 10.13’s “God will not allow you to be overwhelmed.” On the contrary, God will certainly (2Cor 1.9) allow life to overwhelm you.
The “escape in order to endure” of 1Cor 10 comes in 2Cor 1 to involve “despairing of life in order to be raised from the dead.” That’s a fairly radical reassessment. In 1Cor 10 we are assured God won’t let us be overwhelmed while in 2Cor 1 we have God certainly allowing Paul and company to be overwhelmed. Why? Because such suffering is where we end and God begins, where we expire and God inspires. God raises us to living utterly in and from his grace, and only extreme suffering can realize such a perspective in one’s faith and life.
The Paul who wrote 2Cor 1 is a different Paul than the Paul who wrote 1Cor 10. 2Cor doesn’t contradict 1Cor 10 as much as it reflects a deeper experience of grace on Paul’s part, an experience that could not have informed 1Cor but does inform and shape 2Cor 1, as Paul himself confesses. In 2Cor 1 we have a new understanding of the depth of the brokenness required for the full extent of God’s grace to shine in and through us at the very lowest and darkest of circumstances. (See Psalm 46 as well.)