Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because the true kingdom has shed its light upon history. In theological tradition, most particularly in the East, there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement. Hell is the experience (a possibility in each moment) of divine glory not as beauty, but as a formless sublimity; it is the rejection of all analogical vulnerability, the sealing off of the “self” (or the cosmos) in univocal singularity, the “misreading” of creation as an aboriginal violence. The “fire” of hell is that same infinite display of semeia [signs] by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (though rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful, not susceptible of analogical appropriation, of charity; it is the soul’s refusal to become (as Gregory says) the expanding vessel into which the beauty of God endlessly flows. For exile is possible within the beauty of the infinite only by way of an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence. Hell is, one might almost say, a perfectly “Kantian” place, where the twin sublimities of the star-strewn firmament above and the lofty moral “law” within remain separated by the thin tissue of subjective moral autonomy: where this tissue has become impervious to glory, the analogy of the heavens is not the transforming voice of God but only a mute simile, an inassimilable exteriority, and so a torment. Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell, where the fire of divine beauty is held at by, where the divine apeiron [limitlessness] miraculously divests itself at the peras [boundary, end, extremity] that, in Christ it has already transgressed and broken open, and humbly permits the self to “create” itself. True, though hell is the purest interiority, it is also by contagion a shared interiority, a palpable fiction and common space superimposed upon creation, with a history of its own; but still, it is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface. For Eastern Christian thought, in particular, it makes no difference here whether one speaks of death, sin, or hell: in each case on speaks of the same privation, the same estranging history, the same limit shattered by Easter; and hence there can be no aesthetic explanation of hell (something that few of the Fathers occasionally foolishly attempted) that would make of it a positive moment in the exposition of divine beauty, a part of the universe’s harmonious ordering of light and darkness. Hell cannot serve as an objective elements of the beautiful—as source of delight—because it is an absolute privation of form and quantity; it has no surface, nor even a shadow’s substance; its aesthetic “place” is the sealed outside of an inside.The Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart
God has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. …The difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person.St. Macrina the Younger quoted by her brother St. Gregory Nyssa from On the Soul and the Resurrection.
Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy. …For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its ﬁll of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected—not in itself, but in the object. …Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming ﬁre.George MacDonald (#2 in the anthology by C.S. Lewis)
God’s Mother was born today, the first of the twelve great feasts in the church year. These poor thoughts rattled around in my mind over the last few days, so I set them down. Those familiar with the feasts connected to Mary’s life will see that my words are just clumsy responses to three of the most common images in the church’s hymns about Mary: Moses’s burning bush, Jacob’s heavenly ladder and Ezekiel’s closed gate.
Today a green bud came out upon a once dead branch from deep within the heart of our own tree. Unwitting, song birds and myriad wild creatures chorused, flitted and chattered amid the many wide-reaching boughs of this great tree. Around its heart, tangled branches have rubbed raw their brothers, bruised and sometimes barren. This spray of life from within the thicket will receive sap and sun and all—when, lighted at her core by divine flame, she will carry to her rambling race that bright and living fire.
Today a ladder was set down by the Creator that would extend with her humble prayers and attentive heart to span from earth to heaven—saying yes to God’s desire that He might descend to make a throne upon the earth and a paradise with us.
Today, the Architect set upon its hinges the one gate within our rebellious city that stood ready for its Maker’s voice—ready to open only for our God that He might come forth to live with us, sharing our homes and our full humanity.
And here is a favorite passage from Fr. Thomas Hopko of Blessed Memory that summarizes, as succinctly as I’ve found, the entire history of those differences over Mary that developed between the Greeks and Latins:
As Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, ‘Mary is not the great exception.’ You know, exceptionally conceived, exceptionally ending her human life, bypassing original sin, bypassing death. No, no, that is not the teaching at all. It’s just the opposite. She’s the great example. She exemplifies and patterns the Christian life.
It was this hour by the dying firelight that the gnomes loved more than any other time. It was then they talked of so many things.
“Funny how a fire makes you want to stare and stare at it,” said Dodder reflectively, blowing out a cloud of tobacco smoke and watching the glow of the red fire’s core; “men are just the same, so the hobgoblins used to tell me. There was a hobgoblin in the old farmhouse which stood where Lucking’s farm now is. He told me they sit, just like we do, staring into the embers. Of course, it is understandable in man, because a fire is the only bit of wildness left in his house; his surroundings are artificial, but a fire makes him think of the days when he lived as we do, out in the open with nothing but caves and hollow trees to shield him from the weather.”
Excerpt from The Little Grey Men by BB.
Roses often burn. Theirs is the most purifying ﬂame of all. …Fire is roses.
From A Swiftly Tilting Planet by L’Engle (echoing MacDonald and Dante).
Supreme and fiery force who has kindled all sparks of life and breathed forth none of death, …fiery life of the divine substance, you blaze above the beauty of the fields, shine in the waters, and burn in the sun, moon, and stars.
You, the fiery force, lie hidden in these things, and they flame forth from you, as breath continually moves a person, and as the moving flame is in the fire. And all these things are alive in their essence. They are not found in death, since I am life.
From the Book of Divine Works by Hildegard of Bingen.
Poem by by Emily Dickinson.
Though I get home how late, how late!
So I get home, ‘t will compensate.
Better will be the ecstasy
That they have done expecting me,
When, night descending, dumb and dark,
They hear my unexpected knock.
Transporting must the moment be,
Brewed from decades of agony!
To think just how the fire will burn,
Just how long-cheated eyes will turn
To wonder what myself will say,
And what itself will say to me,
Beguiles the centuries of way!