‘Ye who enter here’

A month or so ago, Anne Rice- an author, and individual, I have long loved- asked, on her Facebook page, about whether or not people believe in Hell.  I didn’t respond at the time, since I wasn’t sure that stating the obvious was the type of feedback she was looking to find.  I don’t think she was looking to count my ‘no’, but rather that she was after input into the idea(s) about Hell- and if there are people out there who buy into that little nightmare of our mythology.

I sort of forgot about it, to be honest.  Although Anne has examined the ideas of Heaven and Hell, both in her Vampire Chronicles and the her more obviously-searching books about the youth of Jesus, I wasn’t sure where the question was sourced, and didn’t really feel like getting involved in a listing of the reasons why Hell makes me so angry.

If you’ve been following along with my discussion here about the Devil, then you’ll likely already be aware how I feel about his supposed abode.

While I love the richness of the mythology surrounding the concept, in the main it makes me mad as, well, Hell.  To the extent that it woke me up at 4ish this am (there’s that time again) and left me unable to get back to sleep in anything like a timely fashion.

I don’t get it.  I don’t get teaching about it- for the sole purpose of scaring people into ‘goodness’.  Teaching small children that such a place of eternal punishment lies waiting for them if they don’t behave according to particular interpretations of rules and regs that were millennia old before they were even sparkles in their parents’ eyes…

Eesh.

(Almost as bad as that little idea that we are born into this world in a state of sin.  Not quite as bad, but almost.)

And then, on her page a few weeks later, there was this.

Sigh.  Just when I think that there is progress being made in the RCC from the leadership all the way down…

Exorcism.  Seriously!?!?  I have to admit to being a little a little disappointed in Il Papa over his comments on the subject.

Last weekend, while out with some close friends for our annual Victoria Day Brunch (or annual ‘Roofie Breaks his Champagne Glass Brunch’ as was the case two years in a row- he managed to keep all the glassware on the table this year), on the patio of our fave French Bistro, the discussion turned to Frank (can we call you ‘Frank’, Your Holiness?) and the changes he is attempting to implement among the Party Faithful.

I am not Roman Catholic (to re-state that which should be obvious)- but I have studied a great deal about the history of the Institution- both ancient and recent- and Roofie, who was raised RC and teaches in the Catholic School Board, is always interested to hear my thoughts about things that are going down in the development of the doctrine and practices, such as they may be.

After touching on the recent elevations to sainthood (I have to admit that I have a real soft spot for John 23- that guy had some real chutzpah– Vatican II, his work with refugees during the Holocaust, and things like the removal of the word perfidious as a descriptor of the Jews from the Good Friday liturgy and the fact that he made a Confession, on behalf of the whole of the Church, for the centuries of the sin of anti-semitism… THAT’S my kind of Papa…), we talked about Frank and the politics of the role of Pope.

Frank is a demonstrable Voice for change- like those I’ve been prattling on about ’round here for the last while.  Small steps, perhaps.  But small is better than none.

So I was disappointed to hear that he’s still prattling on about the Devil.  And he doesn’t seem to be talking about him as a metaphor.

Again I say ‘Eeesh.’

As something of a counter-balance, I noticed this on the HuffPost religion page today.

S’truth.  Saul o’ Tarsus wouldn’t have had much at all to say about Hell.  As a construct, it didn’t hit high on the Concern-O-Meter of the earliest of them there Christians.

Although there were certainly myths in the Greek and Roman mythological traditions about complex levels and areas of the afterlife- places of pleasant fields and family vs. places you really don’t want to be caught, well, dead- for the Jews, and the belief-systems that influenced and informed the biblical worldview and mythology, Sheol was simply a place of housing ALL the dead- good, bad or middling.

By the period of the Second Temple, some of those Greek ideas started creeping into the mythology, so there were the first hints of divisions in the place of the afterlife- an area for the good, and one for the not-so-good- and suggestions that Sheol was the holding place for the wicked.

Around 200 BCE, as the Hebrew texts were translated into Greek (in Alexandria), the word Hades was used in place of Sheol, precipitating the overlap of the traditions even further.

Add to this the influence of Zoroastrian dualism and the development of apocalypticism and you had an evolving and rapidly-changing presentation of what the ‘life’ to come might offer us after we pass from this world.

There were also extra-canonical (in the Targums, mainly) mentions of Gehenna as the place of punishment of those who did evil while on earth.  Gehenna (remind me to tell you about an incident with a Ouija Board and a ‘spirit’ named ‘Gehe’- crazy teenagers, we were) was a physical, earthly place outside of Jerusalem where non-Israelites (and, sometimes, apostate Israelites) sacrificed children to Canaanite gods- like Ba’al and Moloch- generally in furnaces.

Eventually, this place of earthly sacrifice came to be re-envisioned as a place of punishment and spiritual purification of the dead.  In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus uses Gehenna as description of the opposite of life in the Kingdom.  English translations of the New Testament often don’t distinguish between the three- Sheol, Gehenna and Hell- meaning that interpreters without knowledge of the Greek texts often lump all three together.

As the mythology developed- from its many original sources and the imaginations of writers and visionaries- visual and literary conceptualizations of Hell became more specific.  As Jon M. Sweeney noted in his article, Dante Alighieri bears the primary responsibility for the shaping of our Western impression of the geography and theology of Hell.

How ironic is it that our collective conceptualization of a place that remains in use as a caution against proscribed behaviour was framed by an allegorical poem- however beautiful and rich in its imagery and language- written in the 14th century?

I’ve chatted before about the wonder that can be found when our stories are interpreted when their origins- as metaphor and allegory- are acknowledged and understood.  Dante illustrated the importance of the recognition and rejection of wrongdoing (as defined by his cultural and temporal context) as he traversed the Nine Circles of suffering- located within this planet of ours, echoing the Greek and Roman influences from which he drew his imagery.

The Inferno is one of my favourite works of literature.  Dante used folks familiar to his readers as examples of the misbehaviours he was declaiming- politicians, popes, enemies and friends- alongside characters from myth and history whose stories were well-known by an audience better-read than those these days tend to be.

The allegory retains its validity and poignancy seven centuries later.  Setting aside arguments regarding sin and punishment as dictated by doctrine or cultural mores- and its Christian centred theology (as would be expected from a man of his time), the place in the poem that most resonates with me, today anyway (since each reading brings new insight and appreciation to light), isn’t actually part of Hell-Proper at all.

After entering the Gate, but before traversing Acheron and meeting Charon, Dante encounters the Uncommitted- those who chose to do nothing– whether good or evil- in life and suffer eternal stagnation as a result.

I’m thinking that, were Dante’s vision an actual place, that vestibule would be pretty full up these days.

Those who pursue the banner of self-interest and apathy don’t even make it into HELL.  That’s a pretty potent statement.  And a lesson that has demonstrably not been learned, 700+ years later.

Although I enjoyed his article and his assertions that our Medieval conceptualizations of Hell as ‘useful in promoting crusades, colonizing and “conversions”‘ are well past their sell-by date,  I have to disagree with Sweeney’s last thought.

Re-imagining the afterlife isn’t the point.

As creative and mysterious and fantastical as our human imaginings about ‘afterlives’ might be, it’s long past time we stop being concerned with and focused on the rewards/punishments of a mythical next world and acknowledge that our lack of engagement in this one is a slippery slope that is contributing to the proliferation of wrongdoing in this world.  The one that we live in NOW.  The one that we will leave to the next generations.

If we’re on a highway to Hell- whether in this world or the next- it is most certainly one of our own making.  Expecting that ‘someone else’ is going to fix it abrogates responsibility to a treacherous degree.  And traitors, whose acts in life betrayed their human relationships- relationships with family and with community-  were housed in the 9th circle.

With Satan himself.

Since the Vestibule of the Uncommitted must have long ago become Standing Room Only, I vote for Circle #9 for the new home of those who remain stagnant and unwilling to participate in making this world a better place.

Allegorically speaking, of course.

Season ticket on a one way ride
Askin’ nothin’
Leave me be
Takin’ everythin’ in my stride
Don’t need reason
Don’t need rhyme
Ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do

Trying to find the Good

This week has not been my favourite.  The changes/purges/need to move on that I wrote about the other day are neither sitting well nor progressing as they should.

And to add insult to injury, I have had a few too many people tell me, in the last couple of weeks, that I need to ‘put things in perspective.’

Truly, I think I try very hard to do so as a matter of course.

But.

Perspective can be a funny thing.

Compared to many/most in the world I certainly do seem to have little to complain about and I definitely shouldn’t be feeling the level of stress that I currently am feeling. 

Ever notice that the people who articulate such sentiments generally are in a situation in which all is right with their world?

There is a reason that platitudes do nothing more than piss us off.  Seriously, why do people use them?  They are terrible rhetorical devices that tend to come from those who aren’t going through the sorts of things that we are going through.  And some of them never have done.  No frame of reference, yet lots of ‘advice’ in the offing.

While I realize that all of my current struggles definitely fit into that categorization that seems to be everywhere lately- ‘first world problems’- my Sitz im Leben (‘situation in life’), my context- whether my view is at street level, worms’ eye or birds’ eye- is what informs my attitudes, impressions, thoughts and feelings, and the sitch isn’t all that great at the mo’.

I think I tend to face the world and my fellows with optimism, kindness and dignity, generally speaking.   Lately, I just can’t find that optimism.

So.

First thing this morning (and I’m not kidding when I say ‘first thing’- I was awake unreasonably early) I set out to try veryvery hard to search out my usual sunny-ness of spirit and stave off the darkness that seems crouched not just outside of my door, but inside the place I live and where I should feel the most comfort and stability (I use ‘the place’ both literally and figuratively- my physical and psychological homes are both under attack at the moment).

I saw this in a news feed.

Sure, it’s a feel-good, propagandist story that provides unsolicited ‘permission’ for the LGBTQ community to be who they are, but it is more positive and humanistic than anything that previous popes have had to say on the topic, and as such was something with which I attempted to change my outlook on the day.

“Who am I to judge?”

Those five little words might not seem earth-shaking or -shattering to most of us, but for the head of the RC church to utter them?  This is a Big Deal.

Setting aside the usual, obscene references to ‘sin’ and such, Francis has majorly broken with the ‘program’ in the space of a short interview on the heels of his visit to Brazil.

Granted, he may just have been right knackered after all the rockstar-like chaos he caused wherever he went in the lead-up and main event at World Youth Day.  He is not taking the step of advocating for same-sex marriage or anything like that.  He is not allowing women into the priesthood.  He has not responded to questions about institutionalized sexual abuse and advocated cover ups of that sexual abuse.  But as I’ve said before, this guy strikes me as at least different from those other guys who have worn the mitre lately.

I was starting to feel a little ray of the sunshine creeping back in.  If a venerable and unmoving institutional edifice can witness such a sea-change from its Grand Poobah, perhaps there is hope that followers of the unmoving institutional edifice might someday come around to complete inclusion and the eradication of the concepts of sin, next-life redemption and ideas about external, non-human good and evil.

Admittedly, it’s a stretch.  But hope, spring, eternal and all that.

Then, on the social media, came the criticism.  Mainly from the cheap seats inhabited by ‘New Atheists’, but I saw ill-written commentary and interworld memes with incorrect grammar and/or spelling in a number of places.

I’m no fan of the institution or the theology or the praxis and ritual and dogma and condemnation that I associate with organized religions.  Please don’t forget that important foundational point.

Is Francis the titular head of an obsolete institution?  Yep.  Is said institution, even if obsolete, still one of power and influence in the world?  Yep again.

There are still over a billion people the world over that look to the Vatican and its Papa as the source of morality and guidance in many, if not all, aspects of life.  Is this an unfortunate reality?  Again with the ‘Yep’.

But.

Sometimes people say things with good intention and in the spirit of openness and with (even the barest) suggestion of change.  Should that be immediately shouted down?

It is frustrating to actively set out to find some positivity within the tragedy, dreck and vulgarity that seems to be front and centre these days and, once that little glimmer is found, have it taunted and censured without thought or examination.

Does Francis’ comment excuse, or even mitigate, the terrible and unforgivable crimes that have been covered up for far too long?  Does it justify the institutionalized misogyny, doctrinal adherence to outdated cultural mores and violations of human rights and understanding that remain on the books as the modi operandi of the Vatican and its worldwide minions?

Of course not.

But can we not just try to find some room for optimism and hope for change when an old man- figurehead or not- in opposition to millennia of precedents to the contrary makes a statement as potentially powerful as ‘Who am I to judge’?

The ascent of the Interworld meme as a means of expression of opinion has contributed to our intellectual sloth.  Sure, some of them are funny, but the de rigueur habit of posting a (sometimes) clever frame/cartoon/photo with a succinct commentary as representations of our closely held beliefs seems like just another indicator of the brevity of our collective attention spans and the superficiality of our ability to think critically and for ourselves.

Am I guilty of the occasional re-post?  Of course I am.  Hard to be an active participant in the social media and not engage in the sharing of a Grumpy Cat or passing along something wonderfully cheesy and punny from George Takei’s extensive collection.  Interworld memes can be effective in drawing out dialogue- although too often they attract as many trolls as thoughtful commentators- and can add a smile to a day that is in need of a little lift.

I do take issue with the mean-spirited ones since they are further evidence- if any was needed- of our increasing acceptance of unkindness as a means of carrying on.  I’m no Pollyanna (just ask my friends) but some of the memes out there are as deplorable as the person/place/thing that is being targeted.  Two wrongs and all that.

Anyway.  Sticking to my attempt to regain a little optimism, I am going to choose, based upon the research I have done, to reserve judgement regarding the papacy of Francis I, at least until it is a little bit further along.  I will view the statement as a possible move in a positive direction toward inclusion and away from institutionalized irrationality.  I will give Francis the benefit of the doubt on this one, and see where (if anywhere) he takes it and how (if at all) he backs up the comment with positive action.

And if I can’t, in all honesty, state unequivocally and with complete understanding of context and perspective ‘Who am I to judge’, I will, at least, commit to working harder to walk that mile in the shoes of those upon whom my judgement may sometimes fall too quickly.

That Christian version of the big book of myths and practices has a line of some renown (okay, it has more than one, but this one is significant in this context): “Judge not, that you not be judged.” (Matt. 7.1)

The passage suggests a concern about effect to oneself– ‘if you don’t want to be judged, don’t judge others’.  ‘Who am I to judge?’ seems unconcerned with reciprocity of judgement while stating that passing judgement is not something to be done lightly (or at all).

Some may say that both comments are platitudinous.  But if the leader of the historically doctrinaire and judge-y-by-definition Roman Catholic Church can offer up such a sentiment in opposition to the traditional dogma, the comment just might be both original and significant in this context.  Perhaps the rest of us can give him a little credit and try to do the same ourselves.  Hmmm?