A friend of mine practiced law. I used to enjoy chatting with him and his wife after Mass on Sunday mornings.
I remember one morning when we were talking about heaven and hell. I cannot remember what triggered that conversation -- what the readings were, or what liturgical season it was.
But I do recall telling him that I had some difficulty believing in the existence of hell, a place of everlasting torment, bereft of hope, a place where one is sent by a loving God via a one-way ticket.
My friend smiled. He was a divorce lawyer and told me that if God did not create a hell, we sure would make up that lack. He said that he had seen enough vengeance and hatred in divorce cases that he had no doubt that eternal damnation was a high priority on the wish list of those who battled it out in his chambers.
I think he was on to something. Love can fade and mellow into something quite beautiful. Love gone sour can smolder and erupt into flames of hatred, flames which we are never quite ready to put out.
Hopes for the bliss of the divine and the torments of the damned co-exist in each of us. Deprived of one, we are ready to launch the other.
There was a man in the retreat house some years back who burned with a desire for orthodoxy -- including the existence of hell. For whatever reason, he had to know that there was such a place. I do not know why he was fixated on such a need.
I remember once seeing an old Vatican manuscript, and in the margins a long-gone Vatican official had scribbled a notation condemning the writer to hell.
So hell is the trump card of silencing those with whom we disagree, those whom we deem unworthy, even those we may marry, those whom we bracket out of our salvation frames.
Many of the Lenten Scriptural readings carry a warning that unless we repent, we shall perish. There is a glimmer of hope at the close of many of the gospels, encouraging us to a change of heart and belief in the mercy of God.
I do not know how to coax from God or Scripture or the church a softer version of the God who demands a change of heart. But perhaps He is not as severe to us as we are to each other.
I remember my friend. There are stories every day in the media of men and women who inflict disaster on those they once loved. But there are also stories of astounding forgiveness, of hope that shines in the darkest places, of kindness given again and again in the face of hatred.
In short, there is something in us that is bigger than our tendency to condemn, to pick up the nearest weapon, to dash hope against the rocks. God lives in us and loves through us.
It is God who can soften our need for vengeance and curb our appetite for blood. It is God, and only God, who can erase the nasty markings in the margins of our lives.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.