So I’ve been reading quite a bit of GM Hopkins lately – not the poetry (which I’ve known and read chunks of off and on for years now) but sermons and religious prose, a volume given to me ages back by a then-housemate. While there are flashes of the same brilliant intensity as the best of the poems, and some startlingly committed and thorough scholastic-style theology, much of it is all too much what might be expected of a late nineteenth-century Catholic priest. So, for instance, in his notes on the Ignatian Exercises (Hopkins was a Jesuit, remember, so these were of essential spiritual importance), he assumes, not admittedly an actually literal physical Hell with real oxygen-burning flames, but something producing near as makes no difference the same experiences by acting on disembodied spirits, so that imagining being burnt, choked with sulphur, etc. gives the person doing the exercise a worthwhile idea of the nature of hell.
Now to me, insofar as I would talk about Hell (I think the label is far from helpful, but there isn’t a totally convenient replacement), it is not a place of direct punishment as such, far less of gratuitous torture by evil spirits somehow trapped yet free to wander the earth and spit-roast the dead. It is rather a place of the punishment very directly fitting the crime, if crime you want to call it – if your consistent choice has been to seek to get away from God, to refuse spiritual good, to insist on standing on your own two feet and accepting no grace, then ultimately you will have your wish, to be isolated from God, fulfilled in a way it never can be in this physical reality where the rains rain on the just and the unjust. But to be isolated from God is to be isolated from the source of all joy, all good things and all positivity, and so this is not active torture or punishment but still the utmost form of negative suffering, absence, that can exist.
And as I sat, feeling depressed to the tips of my ears, in my psychotherapy session today, the thought struck me: if that is what I think Hell is like, then isn’t the worst of my current state – miserable, lonely, taking no delight in anything, spiritually dried out, perceiving the complete absence of God whatever my belief in his omnipresence, striving towards Him intermittently and without hope – is that not an awful lot like that vision of Hell? Are these times in fact a sort of prevision of what the true and thorough absence of God would feel like?
And if so, of course, what use would I make of them? or, perhaps, what might they be ‘for’ (in so far as suffering is ‘for’ anything)? Ignatius commands the imagining of Hell that the imaginer may more enthusiastically run to God away from it. Should fear of the recurrence of these worst depths lead me to renewed searching for the functioning spirituality that has somehow parted ways with me, renewed religious devotion? Or should it just lead me to try and work harder with my therapist?