Hell’s Bells was a phrase that a good friend of my mother-in-law in Charleston, Missouri use to exclaim when she got irritated or excited.
I am not really sure what it means but I always loved the way she said it with her Southeast Missourian twang.
It does raise the question as to whether or not Hell has any bells.
When John Donne wrote his poem No Man is an Island, in 1621 one of his most quoted lines, was For whom the bell tolls.
Of course he was not writing of Hell but was referring to the universal call of death.
For the past half century, most intellectual currents of thought in the West have mitigated against the idea of sin.
If there was no sin, then how could an all-loving God condemn His creatures to the flames for eternity?
The Christmas issue of the British publication, The Economist, focused on Hell as its cover story.
For hundreds of years, Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination.
It is also the most absurd they said.
To the Economist, Hell is just a medieval relic.
It went out with ducking stools and witchcraft.
Philosophically, Jean-Paul Sartre encouraged the idea that Hell is other people.
There may be some truth to that in that some people can often make life a hell on earth for you.
Theologically, even the Vatican now defines Hell as a state of exile from the love of God.
The devils and pitchforks, the brimstone clouds and wailing souls, have been retired to dusty vaults of irrelevance.
For some Hell still fits the description given in the fifth spiritual exercise of St Ignatius Loyola, in which the Jesuit novice, now as in the past, prays for an intimate sense of the pain that the damned suffer: to feel the fire, hear the lamentations, smell the brimstone, taste the tears.
Most cultures have their underworlds—Egyptian Amenti, Jewish Sheol, Purgatory—in which the spirits of the dead gather, are judged, and purify themselves for other lives or life in Heaven.
For fundamentalists, new and old Hell is a torture-place for the damned in which they are flayed or eaten alive, disembowelled or impaled on stakes, either for incalculable ages or actually for ever.
Yet the fire of Hell was—is—no ordinary fire. First, it needed no fuel, and second, it did not consume what it burned. Hell-fire, though it could melt both stars and mountains, did not eat away the damned, for that would have ended their torments; it simply raged and hurt.
Lewis’ title refers to the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which was a book by the English poet William Blake, written between 1790 and 1793, in the period of radical foment and political conflict immediately after the French Revolution.
Swedenborg’s conventional moral structures and his Manichean view of good and evil led Blake to express a deliberately depolarized and unified vision of the cosmos in which the material world and physical desire are equally part of the divine order, hence, a marriage of heaven and hell.
Unlike that of Milton or Dante, Blake’s conception of Hell begins not as a place of punishment, but as a source of unrepressed, somewhat Dionysian energy, opposed to the authoritarian and regulated perception of Heaven.
In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell.
These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs.
Their purpose is to energize thought.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
When we first moved to St. Louis in 1969, an old friend from New York was visiting his transplanted folks in Kirkwood.
His name was Charlie Burns...that’s with an S. J.
He had just been ordained a priest and I had known him since my old Sodality days at Holy Cross.
That few days we visited was one of the most remarkable in my early memories of St. Louis.
He was so vibrant, alive with the grace of God’s love.
He told me all the standard Jesuit stories that in his first two weeks he had heard every sin in the book, except suicide in the Confessional.
He also told me that as Catholics we have to believe there is a Hell but we do not have to believe that anyone is in it, except Lucifer and his band of rogue angels.
I lose track of him for years, only to see and read about his serious travails with the Church.
In the early 80s, he had gotten into an unwinnable argument with some of the most powerful figures in the Roman hierarchy, including a certain German Archbishop.
Charlie had publicly challenged the Archbishop in a My Turn column for Newsweek Magazine over the Church’s failure to address the world’s AIDs problem.
Push came to shove and the Jesuits kicked him out of the order.
I don’t know what happened to Charlie other than life had become a living Hell for him.
Hell, real or unreal is a scary place.
It has probably the one fear that has caused me the most anxiety over the course of my life.
It is this fear that has led me to be self-manipulating and seeking to control all necessary and rewarding intrusions on my person, including medical ones without trusting in God’s will and grace.
As I continue to get older, I think about this a lot more.
As my love for God intensifies and my ability to t rust myself to his saving more to his love and grace increases, I don’t see how He could allow so many billions of his flawed creation to lose him for all eternity.
Purgatory to me has become the most logical and creditable of all the Church’s teachings on morality, sin and forgiveness when taken in connection with its teachings on original sin.
To see God imperfect man must be purefied…but maybe not by a punishing fire but an enlightening love.
I have also come to believe that this temporary state is not one of pure physical punishment but one of a loving guidance that challenges the soul to see the errors of his or her lives.
He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of heaven).
Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unyielding solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift.
I tried writing a play on Purgatory, which I called For the Love of Dickens.
I chose a NYC subway train for my version.
The saved were required to ride the city’s vast system, reading the Great Books about life and love and so on.
While I did create some interesting characters, the main character was, to put it frankly, boring.
It was during one of my regular massages with Lena about 18 months ago that it dawned on me that if she could literally push the pain out of my back and lower extremities with her heavenly touch, why could not an angelic therapist do the same for the residue of sin, guilt, sorrow, weakness and so on?
I think it is theologically correct and I hope it inspires many people to start thinking about what happens next!
For a synopsis of this play, and an entire scene please check my post:
Or if you would like to read the whole thing, just use my e-mail address:
GABY’S PEOPLE is scheduled for its first public reading at Big Daddy’s restaurant (2nd fl) (771-3066) at 1000 Sydney St., through the auspices of the First Run Theater Group. The date is Monday night February 4th at 6:30. For information please contact: