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Throwing Yourself Away, or Yielding Yourself to God

Above: triptych of the Holy Souls in Purgatory being purified by the fires of divine charity, which comes from Christ Crucified, and comforted by the angels and our prayers. The Dominican church of St Catherine of Siena, New York City. Photo by Fr. Lawrence, OP.

Lucifer, King of Hell; Canto XXXIV of The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri; Illustration by Gustave Doré
The Suicides; Canto XIII of The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri; Illustration by Gustave Doré

Part I: Hell is Real, and You Could Go There

Purgatory and Hell: Forgotten Destinations, pt. II

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses how each man holds a kind of “inner conversation” with himself, reflecting on what he has already done and thinking about what he will do in days to come. Aristotle observes that a bad man can fall to such a miserable state that this interior conversation becomes too painful to stand; he cannot bear to live with himself anymore, and as a result, does away with his own life. He slays himself because he cannot find anything in himself to love. Aristotle later speaks of the noble or virtuous man as one who finds within himself many causes for rejoicing, whether he thinks of time already past or the deeds that lie ahead; he loves his life intensely for the good in it. This same man, however, is prepared to lay down his life on behalf of his country, his family, or his friends. He may go out to war and know that he is not likely to return alive. And when the moment comes for him to fight, he goes forth on the field and, let us say, there meets his death.

Now, what is the difference between this death and the other we spoke of a moment ago? The good man gave or offered up his life for love’s sake; the bad man threw away his life out of hatred. The one sacrificed himself, the other slew himself. Between these two acts there is an infinite distance, a complete opposition of significance.[1] The philosopher Gabriel Marcel explains it:

The physical possibility of suicide which is engraved in our nature as incarnate beings is nothing but the expression of another much more profound and more hidden possibility, the possibility of a spiritual denial of self or, what comes to the same thing, of an impious and demoniac affirmation of self which amounts to a radical rejection of being. There is a sense in which that rejection is the final falsehood and absurdity; for it can exist only through someone who is; but as it becomes embodied it develops into perverted being.[2]

Marcel’s description of the spiritual denial of self resulting from an “impious affirmation of self” captures the essence of what it means to reject God as the Creator and Redeemer of man. God in His love gives to each human being the gift of life, which has for its purpose the knowing and loving of God in preparation for an eternity with Him. To worship the God who creates us in His image and redeems us as His children is to affirm oneself in the right way. Our existence and the shape of our life is worth something only when it is patterned after the love of God expressed in His gift of life to us, that is, when the way we live reflects and glorifies Him. Marcel continues:

We realize at once with what care the affirmation ‘I am’ must be approached: the affirmation which was cried on high by Descartes, who thought that he had proved its validity once and for all. I would prefer to say that it should not be put forward in any defiant or presumptuous tone; rather should it be whispered humbly, with fear and wonder. I say with humility because, after all . . . this being  [of the person] is something that can only be granted to us as a gift; it is a crude illusion to believe that it is something which I can give to myself: with fear, because I cannot even be certain that I may not make myself unworthy of the gift, so unworthy that I should be condemned to losing it, did not grace come to my assistance: and finally with wonder, because this gift brings as its companion the light, because this gift is light.[3]

To know and love God is a steady work of giving ourselves back to Him in the acts and sufferings of each day. As we strive to do His will, we are called upon to put ourselves at the periphery, Him at the center. In this sense, salvation is already begun when one lovingly surrenders one’s entire being to the God who surrendered His only Son on the Cross, just as spouses who truly love one another give themselves unreservedly in their nuptial embrace. Salvation requires the grace of God because man, whose fallen nature pulls apart at his inner unity, is not able to perform by his own power an undivided act of total loving oblation. To be definitively saved, drawn at last into the kingdom of Heaven, means to be graced with an eternal power of loving God perfectly, our heart adhering undividedly to His, our life perpetually renewed and poured forth in an ecstasy of union which no tongue, human or angelic, could describe. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).

Damnation is to be sundered from, instead of surrendered to, God. The act of a person who commits suicide in defiance of being is like the sundering from God which is damnation; the act of the soldier who sacrifices his life in devotion to his people is like the surrendering to God which is salvation. A sinner’s unworthiness is the very ground of his damnation. The condemned soul is gnawed by the worm of conscience declaring how unworthy he is, that he has chosen this unworthiness, that he has wanted to be full of shame—full of what deserves to be hidden.

The blessed are seen to be, or rather have been made to be, supremely worthy. At this height of creaturely dignity, the imago Dei, the image of God, has been fully restored in them. The creature glorifies God by being most properly itself, since its very self was willed by God to share in His glory. When man reflects nothing but his divine origin, he is then most glorious and honorable in himself.

*          *          *

The etymology of “innocence” can teach us many lessons. Innocentia means “not having been harmed.” Why is innocence necessary, what function does it perform? It is a process of stripping away accretions, affectations, impurities, to get back to the original purity of mankind, of Adam and Eve naked before each other and before God, and feeling no shame in this nakedness, this vulnerability and simplicity.[4] Shame results from the knowledge that we have betrayed ourselves, have played false to ourselves, abandoning the beauty within for something cheap or transient—a harsh word, immodest talk or behavior, an outburst of pride, a selfish demand. While the lost innocence of childhood cannot be retrieved, a better innocence is waiting to be gained: that of holiness.

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” reads the inscription over the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. This poignant line contains a whole theology. The worst part of Hell is the lack of any possibility of growing towards the truth, towards love and fullness of being. One of the advantages of our life on earth is that, until the last moment, it is not “over”—there is time to make amends, time to pray, time to take spiritual stock, time in which to pursue the truth by studying or to spread this truth by teaching, preaching, rearing children, and so forth. There is time to love; one can love more than one has loved before, or at least one can continue loving as one has loved. Thus there is a kind of open-endedness to our experience of life; even the dying man has the consolation that he is not yet dead, not yet “frozen in his will.”[5]

It must be one of the greatest joys of Heaven to have this openness still further expanded, broken free of its limitations by the immensity of God’s love and the splendor of His truth. Heaven is a pure and everlasting ekstasis, a going-forth from self to its giver and goal. The limited experience of “having time to. . .” yet never having time enough is utterly surpassed by the eternal now of being with God, possessing the lover whose love we sought to find and keep on earth, with our pitiful succession of moments that flow through our fingers like sand.

For an inverse reason, Hell would be the most dreadful of places, because all that one has is time, time, time, but no way of “redeeming the time,” no way to make it open up to love and truth, which one has existentially rejected by rejecting God, the fullness of Being. St. Thomas says: “Heaven is ruled by eternity, Hell is ruled by time.” The sinner has no more than his wretched old self, which needs the Other but cannot possess the Other, because the self has excluded the Other by worshipping itself. The thirst for divine Light, the ekstasis towards God for which our immortal souls were made, having been refused on earth, is forever frustrated in the regions of darkness. This is really what we mean by the hopelessness of Hell, the “abandon all hope” of Dante. Hope is the virtue that causes us to open our future to God, to a future with God, in His embrace. If we have no hope, we are already living on the outskirts of Hell. It is a fitting punishment for anyone who would worship the time-bound creature above the eternal Creator. He who worships the temporal is justly deprived of the eternal.

Although she is made up of millions of souls, we speak of our Church in the singular: she is the Bride of Christ. She is plurality led back to unity, a multitude bound together by the power of one Lord, whose singular glory is the highest good and most intimate possession of all the members. Heaven is a true, indeed the only perfect, society: its majestic variety streams from the Holy One, the many have their appointed place in fraternal bonds of everlasting love.

Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, “the holy city” of God, “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” She will not be wounded any longer by the sin, the stains, the self-love, that destroy or wound the earthly community. The beatific vision, in which God opens Himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect, will be the ever-flowing wellspring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion. (CCC 1045)

In Hell, on the contrary, there is no society—only individuals. It is the triumph of individualism. They stand in disarray, like an abstract painting, formless and void of meaning; they feel no sympathy, they receive no compassion. And out of these individuals an accidental unity arises: all are heaped into a pile of misery, each is equally alone in the company of solitaries. Hell is a mockery of society: the damned are together but cannot communicate, cannot love, cannot pursue a common good. The Catechism defines Hell as the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” A tyrannical ego pronounces the death-sentence upon itself, and remains the guarantor of its own solitude.

As St. Robert Bellarmine writes, “We [who serve the Lord]  shall really see the good things of the heavenly Jerusalem all the days of our life, which will have no end, as will the wicked see the evil things of Babylon all the days of their everlasting death.”[6] Let us cry out, with so many of the saints: Lord, save us from ourselves! And restore in us the image of Your Son, that we may rejoice with You forever. Amen.


(This series includes material originally published in The Catholic Faith, vol. 5, n. 2, March-April 1999. Originally published at OnePeterFive in December MMXV).

[1] See Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, vol. I: Reflection and Mystery, trans. G. S. Fraser (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960), 204 et seq.

[2] Marcel, The Mystery of Being, vol. II: Faith and Reality, trans. René Hague (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960), 194.

[3] Mystery of Being, vol. II, 36.

[4] See Wojtyla’s profound analysis of shame in Love and Responsibility.

[5] CCC 1021: “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.”

[6] A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. John O’Sullivan (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2003), 339.

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