I can imagine I am a soul in Hell, and God in His mercy is saying to me, “Return to the world for this year and on your manner of life during the year will depend your returning to Hell or not.” What a life I should lead! How little I should think of suffering, of mortification! How I would rejoice in suffering! How perfectly each moment would be spent!
COMMENT: The thought of Hell is an unpleasant one. Yet the Gospel contains numerous references to the possibility of eternal damnation – if we want to ignore this aspect of the Gospel we would end up deleting quite a lot of the Gospel texts! Perhaps the spiritual and devotional practices of previous generations were a little unbalanced and a little too focussed on Hell and damnation; in contrast there is a temptation today to go too far in the opposite direction and ignore it altogether. Swinging the pendulum to the other extreme does not make up for the mistakes of the past, it simply compounds them with other mistakes. After all, if Hell does not exist, or is not even a remote possibility for us, then why do we celebrate Christmas, the birth of our Saviour? What did He come to save us from, if not from sin and Hell? It is clear that Pope Francis also sees the importance of this point – he speaks more about the devil than any pope has in decades. And if the Year of Mercy means anything, surely it means that we can receive mercy for our sins, and this avoid Hell?
Whether we imagine Hell as a place of burning fires or as a state of eternal regret and depression for the loss of God, it is clear that it is a place/state we should do everything in our power to avoid. The mental exercise in Fr Doyle’s quote today is a very valuable one as we start the new year. If we knew this was to be our last year, how differently we might live it!
However, the reality of our situation is even more acute than this mental exercise. Our eternal destiny does not depend on how we live this year, but how we live this moment! We cannot change what we have done in the past, and we are not guaranteed the future. Not even the most powerful or wealthy individuals can prevent death or guarantee that they will be alive tomorrow. Fr Doyle always emphasised the importance of the present moment, and of doing our duty well. This is the ordinary discipline and penance that we are all called to follow.