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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Heaven and Hell


My beloved Grandmother used to say that Hell was not a place of fire and brimstone. For her, Hell was a place that was so cold, it burned your skin.

It's really, Really Very Cold here in LSD (Lower, Slower Delaware). The temperature is in the lower double digits. When the wind blows - as it has been with relentless force, sending the water into odd patterns against the current - it dips down to the single digits.

BRRRRRRR . . . . . The cold stings and burns my face and hands. I shudder - literally - to think of how cold it might be if the sun were not out.

I've never experienced such cold here. Makes me think of my Grandmother's description of Hell.

And Heaven? She said that you could get a scent of Heaven by smelling the inner folds of a newborn's neck.

When she would check in on one of her newborn grandchildren as they slept and watched as they moved their mouth and fluttered their eyelids, she would say, "Ah, s/he is getting last minute instructions from the angels."


I did see an amazing site on the water this morning. A cormorant was out on the water in front of the house, looking graceful even as the wind whipped the water into white-capped chops that sometimes threatened the serenity of her morning swim.

Suddenly and without warning, she took a characteristic half-jump and went under the water. Smart bird, I thought to myself. Good way to stay warm, I figured, and away from the harsh, blowing winds.

Well, I might have been half-right. She emerged a few hundred yards away with a fish in her mouth, gulping it down with absolute joyful and victorious abandon.

I surprised myself as I heard a cheer emerge from my heart and my hands came together in applause.

It was hope in the midst of the lapping, icy, hellish waters of despair that threatened to overtake her.

It was a bit of Heaven in my Grandmother's understanding of Hell.

Funny. The cormorant was just doing what she's supposed to do. Being herself. Staying focused. Clear. On task. Getting what she needs in order to survive. Getting nourishment and enjoying the victory over the forces of the world, even as they threatened to over throw her.

The German philosopher, Martin Heideggar, wrote extensively about anxiety and authenticity and 'the question of being' in his book, "Time and Being," saying that we have made so many assumptions about 'being' that we have neglected to ask essential questions about it. In the process, he asserts, we have lost our sense of authenticity.

In a rift on this philosophy, "For the Time Being," Annie Dillard says, about three-quarters into her book, "I don't know beans about God." Her writing before and after that begs to differ with that confession.

Dillard's questions and ancient, unearthed prayers condense into an image of a God with one hand tied behind his back, who "wipes and stirs our souls from time to time" with the other. God, suggests Dillard, is complete only in God's creation and through God's creatures.

This is a God who determines no catastrophic storm, no broken chromosome. "The very least likely things for which God might be responsible," writes Dillard in my favorite line of the book, "are what insurers call 'acts of God.'" Such is the creation that God has set in motion. Through our hands, lips, and outraged tears, however, God responds.

I am haunted by the words of another woman, French mystic Jeanne Guyon, who was jailed by King Louis XIV for being a 'religious thinker'. A woman and a religious thinker? Impossible! Clearly, a dangerous woman. She is quoted by author and Episcopal priest, Nancy C. James in her book, "Standing in the Whirlwind".
Rest assured, it is the same God who causes the scarcity and the abundance, the rain and the fair weather. The high and low states, the peaceful and the state of warfare, are each good in their season. These vicissitudes form and mature the interior, as the different seasons compose the year . . .

. . . .God loves you, let this thought equalize all states. Let him do with us as with the waves of the sea, and whether he takes us to his bosom, or casts us upon the wind, that is, leaves us to our won barrenness, all is well."

I'm no philosopher, but I suspect my Grandmother could have given Heideggar, Dillard and Guyon a run for their money.

Perhaps we've all forgotten the 'last minute instructions' we get from the angels after we arrive.

We complicate our lives with so many non-essentials, so many 'must-have's' that we don't really need. In the process, I think, we lose a sense of ourselves and become what we have accumulated - things and thoughts, what we want ourselves and others to think of us - and not who we authentically are, or are becoming.

I am so grateful for this time in this little piece of Heaven we call 'Llangollen', which never ceases to remind me of what's really important in this life: family, friends, relationships - even when they're hard - love, warmth, good books, the love we know of God in Christ Jesus, the power of the Spirit to inspire our intelligence and fire our imaginations and creativity.

All of these, I think, are the scents of Heaven to ward off the burning cold of Hell.

At least, I am warmed by this thought and hopeful on this second day of the second decade of the third millennium even as the wind blows cold, cruel, burning gusts around our wee cottage on the Bay.

9 comments:

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Amen, dear Sister!

Jim said...

Thanks for this. I love the image of last minute instructions.

FWIW
jimB

motheramelia said...

The icy-ness of hell is an apt one for those of us who live in northern climes. I have been relishing the warmth of Southern Cal knowing I have to return soon. Yet as Frost said "From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate, to say that ice is also great and would suffice." (written from memory) He's writing of the end of the world, but to me it is also a reflection of hell. To put "hate" and "ice" together makes me think so much of the "haters" in our world. Heaven is the smell of a tiny new soul and I also love the image of last minute instructions.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Great imagery. I think about the times I've been personally hurt the worst, and it definitely was an "icing", not a "burning."

You had said over on your FB page that your grandmother said Hell was on earth. Interesting parallel with my grandmother. She was fond of saying, "Everyone worries about where the devil is, and what he's doing and they're too dumb to realize he is right between their two ears."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I hope, one day, to become as wise as my grandmother.

Fran said...

"last minute instructions from the angels..." Oh that will be kept in my heart for a long time.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Fran - the next time you see a newborn in what the medical professionals call "REM sleep", if you listen, you'll hear the angels.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that Frost quote Motheramelia. It resonates with my heart.

MarkBrunson said...

Hell is what you make it to be. I'm not sure we'd know we were in Hell. For those who love fighting and destruction and everlasting struggle against the infidel, that's what it would be. It's not a punishment, to my mind, but what you expect. I have no doubt many fundamentalists who found themselves in Hell would believe it to be Heaven.

Side note: Asian, specifically Chinese, thought made Hell a complex bureaucracy, with Lord Yama (their Lord of Hell) as Chief Bureaucrat, not particularly malevolent, but harried and unconcerned. You could even get out of Hell . . . by filling out the proper paperwork and taking it from bureau to bureau to bureau for the proper seals and signatures . . . for centuries. If you lasted that long without falling into despair or madness, you generally got your reprieve.