I was venting, via a FaceBook message, to a priest for whom I have quite a bit of respect. I was telling him that someone near and dear to my heart doesn’t seem to always realize the importance of going to Mass; that she knows it is a mortal sin to purposefully miss Mass, and that she has an intellectual understanding that there is a hell, but that she doesn’t seem to realize the enormity of that fact. His response surprised me. He wrote, “When it comes to hell…I prefer to talk about Heaven!”
Well, I suppose his idea is that if we help people understand how wonderful Heaven is, we won’t need to scare them with Hell. But I disagree. When I taught child psychology, I disagreed with those theorists who suggested that parents should not use punishment with their children, but only “positive reinforcement” (i.e., rewards for good behavior, but no punishment for bad behavior). I think it is more effective to use both techniques. Sometimes, a bad behavior is “reinforcing” in and of itself, and no amount of ignoring that behavior will make it stop; but punishment for the offending behavior will have an effect.
I think it is good and necessary to talk about Heaven, because in my experience, most people think of Heaven as a place that’s just like our world here on earth, with all the fun stuff and the experience of happiness heightened, but none of the bad stuff present at all. For instance, my hiking friend thinks that Heaven will be endless hikes in beautiful country where you never get tired. I think this notion is severely limited!
I also think it is good and necessary to talk about Hell, because although people may understand that Hell is bad, they don’t at all consider just how bad it will be, and the fact that it is eternal. We don’t seem to have much trouble thinking about being eternally happy, but can we even fathom what it would be to experience eternal misery?! The thought is too distressing to hold in mind for too long!
I read this in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers this morning (and I wrote about it in a different post a year or so ago):
Abba Evagrius said, "Sit in your cell, collecting your thoughts. Remember the day of your death. See then what the death of your body will be; let your spirit be heavy, take pains, condemn the vanity of the world, so as to be able to live always in the peace you have in view without weakening. Remember also what happens in hell and think about the state of the souls down there, their painful silence, their most bitter groanings, their fear, their strife, their waiting. Think of their grief without end and the tears their souls shed eternally.
"But keep the day of resurrection and of presentation to God in remembrance also. Imagine the fearful and terrible judgment. Consider the fate kept for sinners, their shame before the face of God and the angels and archangels and all men, that is to say, the punishments, the eternal fire, worms that rest not, the darkness, gnashing of teeth, fear and supplications.
“Consider also the good things in store for the righteous: confidence in the face of God the Father and His Son, the angels and archangels and all the people of the saints, the kingdom of heaven, and the gifts of that realm, joy and beatitude.
"Keep in mind the remembrance of these two realities. Weep for the judgment of sinners, afflict yourself for fear lest you too feel those pains. But rejoice and be glad at the lot of the righteous. Strive to obtain those joys but be a stranger to those pains. Whether you be inside or outside your cell, be careful that the remembrance of these things never leaves you, so that, thanks to their remembrance, you may at least flee wrong and harmful thoughts."
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.