I first began to understand certain mystical truths as I prayed at the place where Jesus was crucified on the first Good Friday. I have written about some of these insights when I spent a night in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but some were too much for me to understand at the time, and it has taken some years for me to grasp them in such a way that I can commit them to writing. I do not therefore promise that this will be an easy read, but I hope it will be a rewarding one.
The prolonged and unprecedented eclipse of the sun that plunged the world into darkness during Christ’s terrible death on the cross, replicated the inner blackness that plunged his heart, his mind and his soul into pitch beyond pitch of anguish, grief and unutterable agony. No other will experience the hideous horrors that he experienced as the power of evil engulfed him and forced out of him that primeval cri de coeur, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It received an immediate response that raised him from the malign maelstrom that lay siege to every part of his being, and into the world where the goodness of God’s glory enfolded him, obliterating the evil that had threatened to destroy him before.
The very moment after this evil threatened to obliterate him, was the moment when he descended from the heaven that he had so recently entered, into Hell. Now, the love that had done to death the evil that had so recently threatened to annihilate him, could also annihilate the evil in those who had gone before him. This is the meaning of the descent into Hell as depicted by the earliest icons. The Aramaic word Sheol was used to describe the place where those who had preceded Christ waited for his coming. Misunderstandings arose when the word Hell was used in translation to describe this place of waiting. The Jews used the word Gehenna to describe the place of eternal punishment that was full of flame and fury. It took its name from a valley near Jerusalem where some early kings of Juda were said to have burned their own children in sacrifice. The custom of misusing the word Hell to describe Sheol, has created an ambiguity that has prevented us from understanding fully the meaning of Christ’s decent into Hell to bring salvation to the decent, the good, and the just, who had preceded him. The whole purpose of his descent was to infuse into them the love that he now shared with his Father, so that they could rise in, with and through him to enjoy what God had created them for in the first place.
However, Christ’s descent into Hell has a further mystical meaning that is relevant to us all here and now in our daily spiritual lives. For Christ is at all times poised to release that same love, to do to death the evil that is within us, now. This is the fuller and mystical meaning of the descent into Hell, and of the icon that can remind us of it. It reminds us too of our responsibility to respond to the same love that destroyed the power of evil that once threatened to destroy Christ. What was done in him, will also be done in us, if we are only patient and persevere in the mystic way for long enough. Here we are gradually purified sufficiently to be taken up in, with and through him, into God’s glory, beginning in this life and continuing in the next.
When we look on this icon then, we are not just reminded of what once happened to those who preceded Christ, but what will happen to us now if we allow his love to do in us what has already been done in them. It is in this way that the prayer that we make to be delivered from all evil is answered. This icon is the best possible reminder for all who are travelling on the mystic way, of how we receive from Christ all the divine love that is necessary for the power of evil to be destroyed within us. Then, how our weak human love is infused with the divine to enable us to travel in, with and through him to the Paradise that Jesus promised to the good thief moments before he died. I refer to the good thief because it is never too late to start again, no matter how many times we have failed, no matter whether it is the last second of extra time, or whether we have our whole life before us. Agnes told me that I had my whole life before me to journey onwards toward the heaven that, as Dante insists in his Inferno, passes through Hell. She gave me a copy of an ancient Icon depicting Christ and his Harrowing of Hell that still hangs on the wall of my hermitage. But before I left she explained the difference between the descent into Hell that immediately followed Christ’s death, and his continual descent into the Hell that is within us all. This second descent began after the Ascension, after the sending of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost, and it is ongoing.
Please do not be put off by the phrase the mystic way. This is just a traditional way of describing the daily hidden journey of all who try to transpose their morning offering into all they say and do each day. In the spirituality that Jesus gave to the early Christians, they tried to carry their daily cross, and so practised what came to be called ‘white martyrdom’ in which they died to self by living for God and for others. As followers of what was called the Way (Acts 9:2), they prayed five times a day as Jesus had done with his disciples. This came to be called the mystic way because it takes place within the Mystical Body of Christ, unseen and hidden to view. Later this regular daily prayer was transformed into what came to be called the divine office, but in those early days when of necessity people were busy about many things to earn their daily bread, they learnt to pause briefly during the day. It was then that they learned to send up what St Augustine first called ejaculations, short prayers similar to those used by the Desert Fathers:
“O God come to my aid, O Lord make haste to help me”.
This is how they received the help and strength to make every moment of every day into what came to be called the prayer without ceasing. In this way, their continual giving enabled them to receive the love that would purify them of all the evil that would prevent them becoming Christlike people.
It was my mother who first taught me something so profound that I would never forget it. She said that even though I may make my morning offering alone by the side of my bed, I am not alone. Nor would I be alone even if I became a hermit and lived in the middle of some distant desert, or a prisoner locked up in solitary confinement at the other side of the world. My prayer would always be made in, with and through Jesus, and so with all other living Christians wherever they are.
She taught me that praying to the Father in Jesus also means praying with all those who have died, and who are now alive again in him. That means that when we pray, we pray also with Mary and Joseph, with St Peter and St Paul, St Dominic and St Francis, with St Catherine of Siena, St Teresa of Avila and St Thérèse of Lisieux, and all the other great saints and mystics. It also means praying for, with, and to, all my own relatives and friends both living and dead, who are alive again in him, and all who are dead, but not yet fully alive in Christ. She especially taught me to pray for the Holy Souls, those who have died but who are not yet fully prepared to be united with the Risen One for the sins and the fruits of their sins that keep them at bay until they are fully purified.
Unlike things cannot be united, so we must be cleansed from all that prevents us from having full union with God. That is why, as we turn to receive his love that can and does descend into the evil that is deep down within us, all that separates us from him is gradually destroyed. And that is why it is here, and here alone in this profound mystical purification, that we are prepared for the full and everlasting joy of being united with God forever. Here in this home from home, all our hopes and all our dreams are finally realized with all whom we have loved and cherished here on earth.
First Published on Catholic Stand