My journey into the Catholic Church began with Hell.
No, not symbolically or spiritually or even emotionally. But with the cold, brutal reality of Hell, of eternal damnation and everlasting torment.
(It’s at this point I should probably point that if you’re after some light reading, this isn’t it.)
At the beginning of last year, I was doing great. I was thriving. I loved Jesus, loved my life and was looking forward to my last year of university. And then… Hell.
You see, over the summer, I met and fell in love with an atheist. I was sure I’d never be that girl, you know, the one flirting with the idea of dating a non-Christian – let alone an out-and-proud Atheist who challenged and ridiculed my beliefs. And yet I there was, seriously thinking about going out with this guy.
I thought I would take a chance with this guy.
What can I say? I was in love.
In the end, I didn’t. Saying no was the easy part. (Well, comparatively easy.) Dealing with all the stuff he brought up was the hard part.
Maybe because his disbelief was so strong, it was impossible to ignore it and impossible to forget the consequences of that. I couldn’t ignore the fact that, according to what I believed, this lovable, infuriating atheist was going to Hell.
If it was just him, maybe my carefully formulated policy toward Hell would have remained in place. (Best characterised as FORGOD’SSAKEDON’TMENTIONTHEWAR)
But so too were my mum and dad.
And my baby brother.
And closest friends.
And that family at the shops, that old man on the bench, those kids in Syria on the news. In fact, a whole world full of people on their way to eternity of despair, torment, hatred and unimaginable pain, separated from every and anything good.
Of course, I didn’t know that was what was going to happen. But according to my professed beliefs, it was at least a possibility.
And that possibility was terrifying enough.
To be honest, I spent most of my Christian life not dealing with Hell. I pushed down the thoughts; I severed the words I spoke (“Yes, of course, I believe in Hell, the Bible clearly states…”) from what they actually meant.
But this doublespeak eventually caught up with me. Oh, it could up with me good.
I couldn’t pray, I couldn’t read the Bible; I couldn’t even sit in church without crying. I felt abandoned by God and angry at anyone who tried to help. There were times I would lie on the floor, curled up in a ball, sobbing and crying, thinking of all those I loved and feeling only fear and anger and despair and hatred and guilt. They were all bundled up together as I blamed them for not believing, me for not being able to convince them and God for not saving them.
How do you deal with that? What can you say?
Our imaginations can only go so far and after that, silence. And I’ve discovered that nothing is more overwhelming than silence.
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
– Middlemarch, George Eliot
If one death is a tragedy and a thousand, a statistic; what does that make Hell?
I didn’t know. And I didn’t know how to cope with it. What can I say?
Sometimes I hated God during those months. Sometimes I wasn’t sure He was even there. Sometimes I wished He wasn’t. I remembered His love too clearly and it was bitter. How could He love me if He would not love them?
I kept returning to the words of Psalm 73:
“When my heart was grieved, and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you… Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
They were half-comfort and half-torment. Half “I promise never to leave you, my little one” and half “You will never escape this pain, my little one.”
I didn’t want to be with God; it was too painful. There were too many questions and I was that angry, raving beast, lashing out at Him and everyone who got in my way.
And yet I knew His love, tender and fierce, holy and merciful. I knew Him. God help me but I loved Him. I thought I wanted to leave but that I couldn’t.
Now I see that I could have – oh, how easily I could have walked away and hated Him and blamed Him for everything. I could have left but when it came down to it, I didn’t want to. It didn’t make sense to me. How could I go on loving this Father of mine when He threatened my own father with His judgment? How could I go one loving Him as my dearest friend when I believed He may send all my closest friends to Hell?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
What can I say? “Whom have I in heaven but you?”
What can I say? “Earth has nothing I desire besides you”
I didn’t have an answer but I had Him. Come Hell, high-water or atheists, He was my Rock, the “strength of my heart.” We’d been through troubles, He and I, and we would get through this one.
It was a reckless, foolish trust. I was still hurting so bad and still had so many questions; big questions that could destroy my faith all over again. But He said He could cope with those too.
I decided to believe Him, to see if He could indeed bind up my wounds, and answer my questions and somehow, make it ok. I decided to take a chance on this Saviour of mine.
But what can I say? I was in love.
In love with the One who is Love.