For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end.Julian of Norwich (commemorated today, May 8).
In the passage below from The Great Divorce (end of Chapter 13), the protagonist (who is clearly C.S. Lewis) holds a dialog with his great Teacher (who is clearly George MacDonald). At one point, Lewis says to MacDonald:
In your own books, Sir, you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.
Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions. …Because all answers deceive.
MacDonald goes on to make his case:
If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the ﬁnal state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality.
There’s so much to consider in The Great Divorce. I suppose that my first question is actually just what Lewis is seeking to do with MacDonald. It almost seems as if Lewis is seeking to recast his great teacher within this heavenly setting as more of a mystic with regard to “final things” than MacDonald chose to be within his own writings during his lifetime. In any case, Lewis does not seem to come down clearly on the final state of things outside of time other than to make his case that “it’s ill talking of such questions. …because all answers deceive.” In the course of making his case, Lewis makes some big claims with regard to the nature of time, goodness and freedom (to name just a few concepts touched upon).
Without further comment, here is the core of the conversation between Lewis and MacDonald. It picks up just after a generous, glorious, joyfilled female saint has tried her utmost to win over her self-centered and theatrical husband, only to watch him be swallowed up (rather literally) by his own false image of himself:
‘And yet . . . and yet . . . ,’ said I to my Teacher, when all the shapes and the singing had passed some distance away into the forest, ‘even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his selfmade misery?’
‘Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.’
‘Well, no. I suppose I don’t Want that.’
‘I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on Earth is that the ﬁnal loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.’
‘Ye see it does not.’
‘I feel in a way that it ought to.’
‘That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.’
‘The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the ﬁnal power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.’
‘I don’t know what I want, Sir.’
‘Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.
‘But dare one say—it is horrible to say—that Pity must ever die?’
‘Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to ﬂatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty—that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.’
‘And what is the other kind—the action?’
‘It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.’
‘You say it will go down to the lowest, Sir. But she didn’t go down with him to Hell. She didn’t even see him off by the bus.’
‘Where would ye have had her go?’
‘Why, where we all came from by that bus. The big gulf, beyond the edge of the cliff. Over there. You can’t see it from here, but you must know the place I mean.’
My Teacher gave a curious smile. ‘Look,’ he said, and with the word he went down on his hands and knees. I did the same (how it hurt my knees!) and presently saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identiﬁed it without this aid.
‘I cannot be certain,’ he said, ‘that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.’
‘But—but,’ I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. ‘I saw an inﬁnite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.’
‘Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That bus, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.’
‘Do you mean then that Hell—all that inﬁnite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?’
‘Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.’
‘It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.’
‘And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Paciﬁc itself is only a molecule.’
‘I see,’ said I at last. ‘She couldn’t ﬁt into Hell.’
He nodded. ‘There’s not room for her ’ he said ‘Hell could not open its mouth wide enough.’
‘And she couldn’t make herself smaller?—like Alice, you know.’
‘Nothing like small enough. For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their ﬁsts are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.’
‘Then no one can ever reach them?’
‘Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.’
‘And will He ever do so again?’
‘It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not Work that Way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.’
‘And some hear him?’
‘In your own books, Sir,’ said I, ‘you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.’
‘Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.’
‘Because they are too terrible, Sir?’
‘No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the ﬁnal state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a deﬁnition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the deﬁnition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?’
The circular, “synthetic;’ and pleromatic grandeur of the Hegelian infinite and the chaotic, univocal, and unharmonizable flux of the postmodern infinite are equally dreary; but the Christian infinite, free of the mechanical hypotaxis of the one and the boring boisterousness of the other, yields a profuse and irreducible parataxis, a boundless flood of beauties, beyond synthesis, but utterly open to analogy, complexity, variations, and refrains.The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart.
Within such an infinite, the Spirit’s power to redeem discordant lines is one not of higher resolution but of reorientation, a restoration of each line’s scope of harmonic openness to every other line.
It is the promise of Christian faith that, eschatologically, the music of all creation will be restored not as a totality in which all the discords of evil necessarily participated, but as an accomplished harmony from which all such discords, along with their false profundities, have been exorcised by way of innumerable “tonal” (or pneumatological) reconciliations. This is the sense in which theology should continue to speak of the world in terms of a harmonia mundi, a musica mundana, or the song of creation.
…Let me stipulate that creation can never be understood, in Christian thought, simply as a text that conceals a more fundamental set of abstract meanings, to which all its particularities can be reduced; when I use the word “theme” here, I mean it in its strictly musical sense, to indicate a phrase or motif, a point of departure, which is neither more true nor less complex than the series of variations to which it gives rise. The “theme” of creation is the gift of the whole, committed to limitless possibilities, open to immeasurable ranges of divergence and convergence, consonance and dissonance (which always allows for the possibility of discord), and unpredictable modulations that at once restore and restate that theme.
There’s a phrase in the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed identifying the Holy Spirit as the “Giver of life.” This phrase often gets unpacked in ancient hymns that expand on the Holy Spirit as the source of all the glorious life in the world around us. These examples below are not the most effusive, but I noticed them today as this kind of expansion upon the key phrase in the creed. At the bottom, I’ve also placed a few passages from the Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart that remind me of this phrase as well. When I come to this phrase in the midst of prayer and worship it often overwhelms me with a sense of gratitude and wonder that isn’t reducible to words (something of joy and awe at God’s loving presence pouring out life so abundantly, graciously making and remaking as I take breath after breath amid it all—a constant gift).
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life.Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed.
With the Holy Spirit every gift is good; for He doth shine forth together with the Father and the Son; and in Him doth all creation live and move.A couple of the ancient hymns from today’s Orthros service.
Verily, all the riches of honor are of the Holy Spirit. And of Him too is grace and life for all creation. Wherefore, He is to be praised with the Father and the Word.
As God is Trinity, in whom all difference is possessed as perfect peace and unity, the divine life might be described as infinite music, and creation too might be described as a music whose intervals, transitions, and phrases are embraced within God’s eternal, triune polyphony.The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart.
…For Christian thought, …true distance is given in an event, a motion, that is transcendent: a pure prolation in which all patterns are “anticipated,” in an infinitely fulfilled way that allows for every possibility; it even makes space for the possibilities of discord, while also always providing, out of its analogical bounty, ways of return, of unwinding the coils of sin, of healing the wounds of violence (the Holy Spirit is a supremely inventive composer).
…One might best characterize the properly Christian understanding of being as polyphony or counterpoint: having received its theme of divine love from God, the true measure of being is expressed in the restoration of that theme, in the response that submits that theme to variation and offers it back in an indefinitely prolonged and varied response (guided by the Spirit’s power of modulation).
…Within such an infinite, the Spirit’s power to redeem discordant lines is one not of higher resolution but of reorientation, a restoration of each line’s scope of harmonic openness to every other line.
…In short, it is a “thematism of the surface;’ not a thematic “content” more essential than created difference: a style of articulation, a way of ordering desire and apprehending the “shape” of being, its proportions, dimensions, and rhythms. Being is a surface of supplementarity, an expressive fabric forever filling itself out into ever greater adornments of the divine love, a porrection of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to creation and, thereby, to the Father.”
The crisis of love does not derive from too many others so much as from the erosion of the Other. This erosion is occurring in all spheres of life; its corollary is the mounting narcissification of the Self. In fact, the vanishing of the Other is a dramatic process—even though, fatefully enough, it largely escapes notice. Eros concerns the Other in the strong sense, namely, what cannot be encompassed by the regime of the ego. Therefore, in the inferno of the same, which contemporary society is increasingly becoming, erotic experience does not exist.Byung-Chul Han in The Agony of Eros.
To give us the spiritual gift we desire, God may have to begin far back in our spirit, in regions unknown to us, and do much work that we can be aware of only in the results; for our consciousness is to the extent of our being but as the ﬂame of the volcano to the world-gulf whence it issues; in the gulf of our unknown being God works behind our consciousness. With His holy inﬂuence, with His own presence (the one thing for which most earnestly we cry) He may be approaching our consciousness from behind, coming forward through regions of our darkness into our light, long before we begin to be aware that He is answering our request—has answered it, and is visiting His child.George MacDonald (as quoted in the anthology of 365 readings collected and published by C.S. Lewis).
Wendell Berry on Heaven and Hell:
I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.Wendell Berry in A World Lost.
It is because He wept, i.e., loved His friend Lazarus and had pity on him, that He had the power of restoring life to him. …God is Love, and it is love that creates life; it is love that weeps at the grave and it is, therefore, love that restores life… This is the meaning of these Divine tears. They are tears of love and, therefore, in them is the power of life. Love, which is the foundation of life and its source, is at work again recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: “Lazarus, come forth!” And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the real beginning of both: the Cross, as the supreme sacrifice of love, and the Common Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love.Fr. Alexander Schmemann in a homily for the Saturday of Lazarus (published in The Christian Way, 1961).
Catching up on a few passages that I wanted to record from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens:
Looking towards the open window, I saw light wreaths from Joe’s pipe floating there, and I fancied it was like a blessing from Joe,—not obtruded on me or paraded before me, but pervading the air we shared together.
Dissatisfied with my fortune, of course I could not be; but it is possible that I may have been, without quite knowing it, dissatisfied with myself. …The very stars to which I then raised my eyes, I am afraid I took to be but poor and humble stars for glittering on the rustic objects among which I had passed my life.
Biddy was the wisest of girls, and she tried to reason no more with me.
It was not because I was faithful, but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain. It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me.
It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.
Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid two pence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it.
It was a dry cold night, and the wind blew keenly, and the frost was white and hard. A man would die tonight of lying out on the marshes, I thought. And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude.
I had never parted from him before, and what with my feelings and what with soapsuds, I could at first see no stars from the chaise-cart. But they twinkled out one by one, without throwing any light on the questions why on earth I was going to play at Miss Havisham’s, and what on earth I was expected to play at.
“On this day spring is fragrant; the new creation dances now.”
O Thomas, thou hast searched out * My wounded limbs with thine own hand; * doubt not of Me Who was wounded * for thee, but have a single mind * with the disciples, and preach Me, * the Living God, to all mankind.Exapostilarion of Thomas Sunday (Antiochian)
On this day spring is fragrant; * the new creation danceth now; * today the bars have been taken * off of the doors of disbelief, * as the friend Thomas doth cry out: * Thou art my Lord and God.
Also, the homily this morning pointed out that none of the disciples believed in the resurrection when the women reported it to them. Likewise, Christ invited them all to touch Him a week earlier as He met with them for the first time. It was only Thomas, a week later, however, who cried out after touching Christ: “My Lord and my God!”
Finally, our priest reminded us that—regardless of how we were able to celebrate Pascha—it is all still the equally true: Christ is risen, He has overcome death, He has fully reconciled us to God, and He has guaranteed a bodily resurrection to every human across all time.