No Hell Below Us, Above Us Only Sky

It’s almost a commonplace that hell is never mentioned in most Catholic homilies anymore, nor is it even alluded to.  But it’s even more of a problem that heaven, while never mentioned by name (out of

embarrassment, I think), is even more misunderstood than hell.

As to the banishment of hell, you need look no further than today’s Mass readings, which feature Our Lord’s parable of the invited guests, many of whom ignore the invitation to come in to the feast.  The parable ends with a stern warning about hell …

But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. 
The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Mat. 22:11-14)

The text of this dramatic ending of the reading is bracketed by the bishops – which means it is optional for the priest or deacon to read it.

Our priest today opted not to read the conclusion of the parable, which served to achieve the obvious: the parable loses its sting, and in some ways is robbed of its main point.

His homily reminded me of what you’ll experience at most Catholic parishes at the Easter Sunday Mass.  “Hey, everybody!  Lent is over!  We can go back to eating chocolate!!!”  The Resurrection is shorn of its true joy and drained of any real depth, even psychological depth.

For our universe has been flattened.  Banish the terrors of hell and you end up with a hole where heaven ought to be.  “No hell below us, above us only sky,” as John Lennon wrote – though I’m not even sure the sky is up there anymore.

Heaven has become either an all-you-can-eat buffet – which is more of less what the wedding feast symbolized in Our Lord’s parable, according to our homilist – or a place where everybody is nice and smiles at one another – a kind of psych ward for lobotomy patients.

And while the Kingdom of God is among us, and we get glimpses of it in the unsung bravery and love of the many ordinary people in our lives, that fleeting sense of a “joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief” is utterly absent from our typical notions of eternal life with the Holy Trinity and the saints.

I think this kind of culture – or, more accurately, this vapid lack of culture – which, aside from the sacraments, is the only thing put forward in the Catholic Church at the typical parish level these days – this kind of anti-culture bears this kind of fruit.

The transcendent exists.  It is in a more fundamental way than we are – but if we can’t approach the transcendent (either heaven or hell) at church, then where can we approach it?

Kevin O'Brien
Kevin O'Brien is the founder and artistic director of the Theater of the Word Incorporated, which tours the world evangelizing through drama. He and his actors appear on several EWTN television programs, with video clips featured on O'Brien's website, www.stgenesius.net. Kevin teaches many online classes for Homeschool Connections and writes a regular column for the St. Austin Review. His autobiography, A Bad Actor's Guide to the Meaning of Life, will be published soon by ACS Press.

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