VII. THE PAINS OF HELL
What predominates in the words of Scripture when it exhibits to us the pains of Hell is the terrible torture of the fire. The Scriptures call Hell a “pool of sulphur and fire,” the gehenna of fire,” the eternal fire,” a “fiery furnace where the fire shall never be extinguished.” But this fire, kindled by divine justice, will possess an activity incomparably superior to that of all the furnaces, all the fires, of this world. Alas! Do we understand how it shall be possible to bear it? How it will be necessary to dwell in it as in an everlasting habitation? “Which of you,” demands the Prophet, “can dwell with devouring fire? Which of you shall bear everlasting burnings?” (Isaias 33:14).
In 1604, in the city of Brussels, there occurred the celebrated apparition of a damned soul, attested by Blessed Richard of St. Ann, of the Order of St. Francis, who suffered martyrdom at Nagasaki, in Japan, on September 10, 1622. Blessed Richard related the fact to a theologian of the Spanish Inquisition, Father Alphonsus of Andrada, of the Company of Jesus; he, in turn, communicated it to Adrian Lyroeus, who has inserted it in his Trisagium Marianum, Book III.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori, who cites the same fact in his Glories of Mary, has made Blessed Richard one of the two actors in this frightful drama; he (Bl. Richard) was only a witness, like many others who were living at Brussels, but the impression he experienced was so lively that it became the determining cause of his entrance into the Seraphic order.
This is how the occurrence is related, after authentic documents in the Annals of Franciscan Missions, for the years 1866-67. It was not without a terrible, though merciful interposition of God’s justice, that Blessed Richard was brought to demand the habit of St. Francis. It was in 1604. There were at Brussels, where Richard was at that time, two young students who, instead of applying themselves to study, thought only of how to live in pleasure and dissipation. One night, among others, when they had gone to indulge in sin in a house of ill-fame, one of the two left the place after some time, leaving his miserable companion behind him.
Having reached home, he was about to lie down in bed, when he remembered that he had not recited that day the few Hail Mary’s which he had the habit of saying every day in honor of the Holy Virgin. As he was overpowered by sleep, it was troublesome for him; however, he made an effort and said them, although without devotion; then he went to bed. In his first sleep he heard all of a sudden, a rude knocking at the door; and immediately afterward he saw before him his companion, disfigured and hideous.
“Who are you?” he said to him. “What? Don’t you know me?” replied the unhappy youth. “But how are you so changed? You look like a devil?” “Ah, pity me; I am damned!” “How is that?” “Well, know that upon leaving that accursed house a devil sprang upon me and strangled me. My body has remained in the middle of the street, and my soul is in Hell. Know, moreover, that the same chastisement awaited you, but the Virgin preserved you from it, thanks to your practice of reciting every day a few Hail Mary’s’ in her honor. Happy are you if you know how to profit by this information, which the Mother of God gives you through me.”
While finishing these words, the damned soul partly opened his garment, allowed the flames and serpents that were tormenting him to be seen, and vanished. Then the young man, melting into tears, threw himself on his face on the floor to thank the Holy Virgin Mary, his deliverer. Now, while he was praying in this manner and reflecting upon what he ought to do to change his life, he heard the Matins bell ring at the Franciscan Monastery.
That very moment he cried out, “There it is that God calls me to do penance.” The next day indeed, at a very early hour, he went to the monastery and begged the Father Guardian to receive him. The Father, who was aware of his bad life, having presented difficulties at first, the young student, shedding a torrent of tears, related to him all that had taken place. And really, two religious, having repaired to the street indicated, found the corpse of the wretched youth, black as a coal. Then the postulant was admitted among the Brothers, whom he edified by a life altogether devoted to penance.
Such is the terrible fact which struck dismay and fright into many souls and which induced Blessed Richard also to consecrate himself entirely to God in the same Order into which the young student, so wonderfully protected by Mary, had just been received.
The following fact is related by Father Martin del Rio, from the Annals of the Company of Jesus. It is an apparition that occurred in 1590 and was vouched for by trustworthy witnesses: Not far from Lima, dwelt a Christian lady who had three maid-servants, one of whom, called Martha, was a young Indian of about sixteen years. Martha was a Christian, but little by little she grew cool in the devotion she had at first displayed, became negligent in her prayers, and light, coquettish, and wanton in her conversations.
Having fallen dangerously ill, she received the Last Sacraments. After this serious ceremony, during which she had evinced very little piety, she said, smiling to her two fellow servants, that in the confession she had just made she had taken good care not to tell all her sins to the priest.
Frightened by this language, the girls reported it to their mistress, who by dint of exhortations and threats, obtained from the sick girl a sign of repentance and the promise to make a sincere and Christian confession. Martha confessed then, over again, and died shortly afterward.
Scarcely had she breathed her last, when her corpse emitted an extraordinary and intolerable stench. They were obliged to remove it from the house to a shed. The dog in the courtyard, usually a quiet animal, howled piteously, as if he were undergoing torture.
After the interment, the lady, according to custom, was dining in the garden in the open air, when a heavy stone fell suddenly onto the centre of the table with a horrible crash and caused all the table settings to bounce, but without breaking any article.
One of the servants, having occupied the room in which Martha had died, was awakened by frightful noises; all the furniture seemed to be moved by an invisible force and thrown to the floor.
We understand how the servant did not continue to occupy that room; her companion ventured to take her place, but the same scenes were renewed. Then they agreed to spend the night together there. This time they distinctly heard Martha’s voice, and soon that wretched girl appeared before them in the most horrible state, and all on fire.
She said that by God’s command she had come to reveal her condition to them that she was damned for her sins of impurity and for the sacrilegious confessions she had continued to make until death. She added, “Tell what I have just revealed to you, that others may profit by my misfortune.” At these words she uttered a despairing cry and disappeared.
The fire of Hell is a real fire, a fire that burns like this world’s fire, although it is infinitely more active. Must not there be a real fire in Hell, seeing that there is a real fire in Purgatory? “It is the same fire,” says St. Augustine, “that tortures the damned and purifies the elect.”
A number of indisputable facts demonstrate the reality of the fire in the place of expiation. This is what Mgr. de Segur relates: “In the year 1870, in the month of April,” he writes, “I saw, or at least, touched at Foligno, near Assisi, in Italy, one of those frightful imprints of fire, caused sometimes by souls that appear and prove that the fire of the other life is a real fire. On November 4, 1859, there died of a stroke of apoplexy, at the Convent of the Tertiary Franciscans of Foligno, a good Sister named Theresa Gesta, who had been many years mistress of novices and at the same time in charge of the poor little clothesroom of the convent. She was born at Corsa in Bastia in 1797, and she entered the convent in February, 1826. It need not be said that she was well prepared for death.”
“Twelve days afterward on the 6th of November, a sister named Anna Felicia, who replaced her in her office, went up to the wardrobe and was about to enter, when she heard moans which seemed to come from the interior of this room. Somewhat alarmed, she hastened to open the door; no one was there. But new moans resounded, so clearly articulated that, despite her usual courage, she felt seized by fear. ‘Jesus, Mary!’ she exclaimed, ‘what is this?’ She had not finished when she heard a plaintive voice accompanied by this mournful sigh: ‘Oh, my God, how I suffer!’ (‘Oh! Dio che peno tanto.’) The shocked sister recognized at once the voice of poor Sister Theresa. Then the whole hall was filled with a dense smoke, and the ghost of Sister Theresa appeared, moving toward the door, while gliding along by the wall. Having almost reached the door, she exclaimed forcibly: ‘This is a sign of the mercy of God.’ And saying that, she struck the highest panel of the door, leaving hollowed in the charred wood a most perfect stamp of her right hand; then she disappeared.
“Sister Anna Felicia had remained half dead with fear. All confused, she began to cry out and call for help. One of her companions hastened to her, then another, then the whole community; they pressed eagerly around her, and they were all astonished at finding a smell of burnt wood. Sister Anna Felicia told them what had just taken place, and showed them the terrible stamp on the door. They immediately recognized the shape of Sister Theresa’s hand, which was remarkably small. Alarmed, they took flight, ran to the choir, began to pray, spent the night praying and doing penances for the deceased, and the next day all received Communion for her.
“The news spread abroad, and the different communities of the city joined their prayers to those of the Franciscans. The next day following, November 18, Sister Anna Felicia, having retired to her cell to go to bed, heard herself called by her name and recognized perfectly the voice of Sister Theresa. At the same instant an all-resplendent sphere of light appeared before her, lighting up the cell as if at noonday, and she heard Sister Theresa, who, with a joyous, triumphant voice, uttered these words: ‘I died on Friday, the day of the Passion, and behold, on a Friday I depart for glory! Be brave in carrying the Cross; be courageous in suffering; love poverty.’ Then, adding affectionately, ‘Adieu, Adieu, Adieu!’ she became transfigured into a thin, white, dazzling cloud; she flew away to Heaven and vanished.
“A canonical inquest was immediately held by the Bishop of Foligno and the magistrates of the city. On November 23, in the presence of a great number of witnesses, the grave of Sister Theresa was opened, and the stamp burned into the door was found exactly to correspond with the hand of the deceased. The result was an official judgment that established the perfect certainly and authenticity of what we have just narrated. The door with the burned mark is preserved with veneration in the Convent. The Mother Abbess, a witness of this fact, deigned to show it to me herself.”
St. Peter Damian speaks of a worldling who lived only for amusement and pleasure. To no purpose was he advised to think of his soul; to no purpose was he warned that, by following the life of the wicked rich man, he should reach the same end; he continued his guilty life unto death. He had scarcely ceased to live when an anchorite (hermit) knew of his damnation. He saw him in the midst of a fiery pool; it was an immense pool like a sea, in which a great number of people, howling with despair, were plunged. They were striving to gain the shore, but it was guarded by pitiless dragons and demons, who prevented them from coming near it, and hurled them far back into that ocean of flames.
Nicholas of Nice, speaking of the fire of Hell, says that nothing on earth could give an idea of it. If, he adds, all the trees of the forests were cut down, piled up into a vast heap and set to fire, this terrible pile would not be a spark of Hell.
Vincent of Beauvais, in the 25th book of his history, narrates the following fact, which he says happened in the year 1090: Two young libertines, whether seriously or through mockery, had made a mutual promise: whichever of the two died first would come and tell the other in what state he was. So one died, and God permitted him to appear to his companion. He was in a horrible state, and seemed to be the prey of cruel sufferings, which consumed him like a burning fever and covered him with sweat. He wiped his forehead with his hand and let a drop of his sweat fall onto his friend’s arm, while saying to him: “That is the sweat of Hell; you shall carry the mark of it till death.” That infernal sweat burned the arm of the living man, and penetrated his flesh with unheard-of pains. He profited by this awful information and retired to a monastery.
Peter, the venerable Abbot of Cluny, tells an incident of the same kind. A dying man persisted in sin and was about to die impenitent. Burned by fever and tortured by thirst, he asked for some cold water to cool himself. God permitted, thanks to prayers offered for this wretched man, two infernal spirits to appear to him under a visible form. They bore a goblet containing a liquid, a drop of which they threw on the sick man’s hand, saying: “This is the cold water used for cooling Hell!” The infernal liquid went through and through the hand, burning the flesh and bones. The attendants saw with astonishment this terrible phenomenon, as well as the convulsions of the sinner, who twisted and turned in his unspeakable sufferings. If the cold water of Hell burns like that, what will the boiling water and blazing sulphur do?
In 1870, the city of New York witnessed a conflagration, the circumstances of which offered an image of Hell. The Barnum menagerie became the prey of flames. It was stocked with tigers, lions and other wild beasts. All these animals were burned alive in their iron cages, the bars of which grew to a white heat. As the fire and the heat became more intense, the beasts became more enraged. With extreme violence they sprang at the bars of their prisons, and fell back like inert heaps, only to leap again at the insuperable obstacle which held them captive. The awful roars of the lions, the screams of the tigers, the howls of all the animals, which betrayed supreme despair, were blended together and formed a frightful chorus, bringing to mind what the damned must hear resounding in Hell. But the sounds of their terrible concert grew weaker and weaker, until the lion having uttered his last roar, the silence of death succeeded the most doleful din.
Fancy in these shining iron cages, not animals, but men, and men who, instead of dying in the fire, continue to live in it, as if their bodies were harder than iron; this would be an image of Hell, but an imperfect one, for all of that.
On Friday, February 18, 1881, there was a carnival ball given at Munich by the young artist-painters. They were numerous and masked, some as monks, priests, comical pilgrims, carrying grotesque looking beads, and making a parody of religious usages; others like Esquimaux, covered with tow, pitch and hemp. A cigar, imprudently lighted, set fire to one of these inflammable costumes.
The unfortunate person, seeing himself in flames, rushed headlong among his companions; in a minute all these tow and pitch garments were on fire. Twelve of the dancers, like living torches, ran about crazy, unable to receive help. They flung themselves onto one another, roamed around uttering mournful wails, rushed blazing into all the corners of the hall, spreading around a disgusting odor.
Soon three of them were only charred corpses. Nine others died shortly after; thirteen were transported to the hospital. Among these last was Joseph Schonertzer; he expired when skillful hands were proceeding with the first bandaging. The skin peeled off his chest and arms; it came off partly in rolls, leaving the living flesh bare, scorched also by the fire. This dreadful death was regarded, not without reason, as a chastisement of the Divine Justice, which these unhappy young people had provoked by their excesses of impiety and dissipation. It presents at the same time an image of Hell, but with two great differences; it is far less cruel, and it lasts only a short time.
On March 24, 1881, a catastrophe threw the city of Nice into a state of fright and dismay; the municipal theater became a prey to flames. This theater had doors exceedingly narrow and absolutely insufficient for passage in case of a great rush. On March 24, a brilliant presentation, which had drawn numerous spectators, was given. The curtain had just risen for the first act when, at the expiration of a few minutes, there was an explosion among the footlights; all at once the flames were seen to issue from the frail boards and gain the stage. The shouts, “Fire! Fire!” came from all parts of the theater, and the panic became general, especially when new explosions were heard.
The orchestra and the stage were in complete darkness. Only the glimmer of the great fire, which was rapidly spreading, revealed to the gave a few unfortunate actresses crossing the stage, crazy, wild with terror, and seeking an outlet, which the flames barred against them. The audience in the galleries, with a frenzied violence, rushed headlong down the winding starts to the corridors.
The women, the children, were trampled underfoot. Only shouts of terror and despair were heard, the shouts of all those human beings, who were struggling to save their lives and who felt themselves dying, suffocated by the smoke, or ground beneath the feet of their neighbors.
When the firemen, soldiers and marines could penetrate the interior, the spectacle was horrible. There was a pile of corpses, black, hideous, some almost entirely reduced to cinders. These were the abodes of the unfortunate spectators, who rushed down, all at once, by the narrow stairways. Men, women and children, hanging on to one another, had rolled into this place. What poignant, frightful dramas must have been enacted during these few supreme minutes, when safety was possible no more.
At three in the morning, 63 corpses were borne to the Church of St. Francis of Paola. They were half burned. The anguish of the most harrowing agonies might be detected in their faces and postures.
What will it be in Hell? There also, all outlets are closed in the midst of the great fire; there too, is the anguish of direct agony; but there death does not come to end it. Were these unhappy people ready to die? Alas! It is not to the theatre that we go to prepare for death! Is it not to be feared that this place may have literally been the gate of Hell for them?
On the occasion of the dreadful catastrophe of the Ring Theater that happened in Vienna in 1881 an estimate of the theaters burned during the previous century was made; the figure rose to several hundred. Is there not a lesson of Providence here, upholding the warning which the Church does not cease to give the faithful? Since the contemporary theater is generally a school of irreligion and immorality, a hotbed of corruption for nations, do not the continual great fires point out sufficiently that these edifices, given up to fire, are for souls the gates of Hell?
The sight of a soul that falls into Hell is of itself alone an incomparable pain. St. Margaret Mary, as her history relates, beheld the apparition of one of her sisters in religion, recently deceased. That sister implored her prayers and suffrages; she was suffering cruelly in Purgatory. “See,” she said to St. Margaret, “the bed I lie on, where I am enduring intolerable pains.” I saw that bed, writes the saint, and it still makes me shudder; it was bristling with sharp and fiery spikes which entered the flesh. The deceased added that she was suffering this torture for her sloth and negligence in observing the rule. “This is not all,” she said again; “My heart is torn in my bosom to punish my murmurs against my superiors; my tongue is eaten by worms for my words contrary to charity and my breaches of silence. But all this is a small matter in comparison with another pain which God made me experience; although it did not last long, it was more painful to me than all my sufferings.” The saint, having desired to know what this dire pain was, she replied, “God showed me one of my near female relatives who had died in a state of mortal sin sentenced by the Supreme Judge and dashed into Hell. That sight caused me a fright, horror, pain that no tongue could communicate.”
Surius, in the Life of St. Lydwina, relates that, in an ecstasy, this servant of God saw an abyss, the wide opening of which was bordered with flowers, and the great depth of which, when the eye pierced it, chilled with terror. There issued from it an indescribable noise, a frightful mixture of yells, blasphemies, tumult, ringing blows. Her Angel Guardian told her that it was the abode of the damned, and he wanted to show her the torment they suffer. “Alas!” she replied, “I could not bear the sight of them. How could I, as the mere noise of these despairing yells caused me an unbearable horror?”
If the damned suffered no other pain in Hell than to remain there always, without motion, without changing place or position, that alone would be an insupportable torment. A wealthy voluptuary, loaded down with crimes and dreading Hell, did not have the courage either to break off with his evil habits or to expiate his sins by penance. He had recourse to St. Lydwina, who at that time was edifying the world by her patience, and begged her to do penance for him. “Willingly,” she replied. “I will offer my sufferings for you on condition that for the space of one night you keep the same position in your bed, without changing sides, budging or stirring.”
He readily consented. But, having lain down in bed, he had scarcely rested half an hour when he felt uncomfortable and wished to move. Nevertheless, he did not do it and remained immovable, but the discomfort went on increasing, so much so that at the end of an hour it seemed intolerable to him. Then a salutary reflection sprang up in his mind: “If it is such a torture,” he said to himself, “to remain without motion upon a comfortable bed for the space of one night, what would it be, if I were bound down on a bed of fire for the space of a century, of an eternity? And do I fear to redeem such a punishment by a little penance?”
St. Christina, a virgin, justly surnamed “The Admirable,” born at St. Trond in 1150, after her death came to life again and lived afterward for 42 years, enduring unheard of sufferings for the relief of the souls in Purgatory and the conversion of sinners.
After a youth spent in innocence, patience and humility, Christina died in the odor of sanctity at the age of 32 years (1182). Her body was borne to the Church of Notre Dame, in which her obsequies were to be celebrated, and it was placed in the middle of the nave, after the manner of that period, in an open coffin.
The great throng of people, who were present, was praying devoutly, when at the time of the Agnus Dei, the deceased lifted herself up in her coffin, and a few seconds after, with the lightness of a bird, shot up toward the dome and sat calmly on a cornice.
At this sight the whole congregation took to flight in a panic; the eldest sister of Christina alone stayed in the church with the priest, who finished the Sacrifice. As soon as he came down from the altar, having ascertained what had happened, he commanded Christina to descend. She obeyed instantly, came down softly, as if her body had no weight, and calmly returned home with her sister. There, being questioned by her friends and relations, she spoke to them thusly: “When I had given my last sigh, my soul, gone out of my body, found itself surrounded by a troop of angels, who bore it to a dark and frightful place in which there was an innumerable multitude of human souls. There I saw pains and torments which no tongue could express.”
Among those who were enduring them I noticed many whom I had known on earth. At the sight of their cruel sufferings, I was penetrated with the liveliest compassion, and I asked my guides what this place was. I scarcely doubted that it was Hell, but they replied that it was Purgatory.”
“Afterward, they showed me the tortures of the damned; there I saw, also, a few unhappy creatures I had once known.”
“Then the angels bore me to the heights of Heaven, before the eternal throne of God. The look, full of love, with which the Most High greeted me, filled my soul with an unspeakable joy. I felt that for all eternity I should enjoy His Blessed Presence.”
Answering my thoughts, the Lord said to me: ‘Yes, My daughter, you will be eternally with Me, but for the moment, I leave you the choice either to enjoy beatitude from now on, or to return again to earth, there to suffer in a mortal body the pains of the immortal souls (in Purgatory), these pains, however, being unable to cause any damage to your body. By these sufferings you will deliver the souls that have inspired you with so lively a pity, and you will contribute powerfully to the conversion and sanctification of the living. When you shall have filled up the time of this mission, you shall return here again, and enter into the possession of My kingdom.’
“Such was the choice of God proposed to me. I did not hesitate; I chose the part of charity; and God, visibly satisfied with my choice, commanded the angels to bring me to earth.”
“My friends,” added the saint, “be not astonished at the excess of the wonders which you shall see wrought in my person. They will be the work of God, who does what He pleases, and who acts in everything by designs often hidden, but always adorable.”
Upon hearing these words, it may well be understood that the hearers were struck with a holy dread; they looked at Christina with astonishment and trembled at the thought of the sufferings which this woman, returned to life, was going to endure. Indeed, from that moment on, quite different from what she had been before her death, Christina seemed to be a soul from Purgatory in a mortal body. Her life was nothing more than a tissue of unheard-of marvels ad sufferings.
She abandoned human society and lived habitually in solitude. After having assisted in the morning at Mass–at which she often approached the Holy Table — she was observed fleeing to the woods and wild places, there to spend days and nights in prayer. Endowed with the gift of agility, she flew from one place to another with the speed of lightning, darted to the tops of trees, the roofs of houses, the towers of churches and castles. Often passersby would see her resting on the branches of a tree, then taking flight and disappearing at their approach.
Using no shelter, she lived like the birds of the woods, exposed to all the hardships of the weather, even in the most severe season. Her dress was modest, but excessively coarse and poor. She ate, like animals, what she found in the streets. If she saw a fire lighted, she would plunge her hands or feet into it, or if she could, her whole body altogether, and would endure as long as possible this torture. She used to watch for the opportunity of entering glowing furnaces, red-hot lime kilns, and sink as deeply as she could into hot boilers.
In winter, she spent the night in the icy water of the rivers; at times she would allow herself to be borne by the current upon mill-wheels, cling to them, suffering herself to be dragged by the machine which struck and broke her against obstacles. Another ingenuity of her passion for torments was to tease packs of dogs so as to be bitten and torn by these animals. At times she rolled in the bushes and thorns until she was covered with blood.
These are some of the means by which she tortured her body; and wonderful circumstance, but conformable to the promise which God had made to her, as soon as she emerged from her torture, she retained no wound of it; her body was untouched and without the least lesion. This life of sufferings served for the edification of a countless multitude of the faithful who were witnesses of it for the space of 42 years, during which the saint still lived. She also converted a great number of sinners, and finally went to enjoy the glory of the elect in the year 1224.
If such mortification makes us shudder, what are we to think of the tortures of the other life? “There,” says the author of the Imitation, “one hour in torment will be more terrible than a hundred years spent here below in the most rigorous penance.” (Book 1, Chap. 24).
The history of Japan speaks of the horrible abysses of Mount Ungen, situated not far from Nagasaki. Its lofty summit is divided into three craters, the intervals between which form frightful pits; forth from these shoot momentarily into the air eddies of flames, corroding waters and burning mud, which carry such stinking exhalations with them that these abysses pass in the country for the sewers of Hell. All the animals shun them with horror, and the very birds do not fly with impunity over them, however high they soar.
The tyrant, Bungondono, the Prince of Ximbara, resolved to dash the Christians headforemost into these frightful chasms. Let the frightful agony they must suffer there be imagined! It was an agony to which death was not to come and put an end, for the consolation of dying was not left to them. Before they were suffocated, they were carefully drawn out to let them regain their breath.
Then, soaked as they were by the sulphurous waters, the bodies of the martyrs were covered with frightful pus sacs and were soon but one wound; all their flesh dropped into putrefaction. In this condition they were abandoned like corpses, cast into the common sewer. Are these torments the torments of Hell? They are only a shadow of them.
The same Bungondono devised unheard of tortures to combat Christianity in Japan. One day seven Christians were led before him; they displayed great joy to suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. At this sight, inflamed with rage, the tyrant caused seven ditches to be dug, in which seven crosses were erected; he had the martyrs bound to them and ordered their limbs to be sawed with sharp-edged canes and at the same time salt thrown into their wounds.
This torture was executed with a cruel slowness; it lasted five whole days. By an abominable use of the art destined for the preservation of men, the physicians had cordials taken to the martyrs to prolong their sufferings. Is this one of the tortures of Hell? It is only a shadow of them.
At the time of the inroads of the Calvinists into Holland in the 16th century, those sectaries, having seized at Maestricht some priests of the Company of Jesus, resolved to practice all the cruelty of their fanatical hatred upon them.
After having overwhelmed them with contempt and outrages, they put round their necks iron collars provided with knives and sharp spikes, they encircled their arms and legs with similar rings, then seated them on seats bristling with nails, so that the martyrs could neither rest nor move without pain.
They surrounded them with flames, to burn them slowly. What torture! If the sufferers remained motionless, they were burned; if they moved, they were torn by the spikes and knives. The servants of God triumphed by the help of grace over all this barbarity; it is true, nevertheless, that their torments were atrocious. Now, are these the torments of Hell? They are but the shadow of them.
Antiquity has preserved the names of three tyrants: Mezentius, Actiolinus and Phalaris. The first, Mezentius, it is said, chained his victims to corpses and left them in that revolting state until the infection and putrid inhalations of the dead killed the living.
Actiolinus had such frightful dungeons that the condemned used to ask as a favour to be strangled, not to enter them. This grace would be denied; they were lowered with ropes into these stinking caves, there to be buried alive in putrefaction.
Phalaris used to shut up his victims in a brazen bull, which he then surrounded with flames to burn them in this manner, while alive. All these pains are horrible, but they are only a shadow of the pains of Hell.
The Romans punished parricides (i.e., those who murdered their parents) by a special kind of torture. The guilty person was tied up in a sack with serpents, and thus cast into the depth of the sea; a feeble image of the torture reserved for those who are guilty of parricide toward God.
We shudder when reading in history the description of the frightful torments which the assassin of William, Prince of Orange, had to endure. His body was lacerated by iron rods. Sharp spikes were driven into his flesh; then he was exposed to the action of a slow fire, which caused him inexpressible pains, and, just as he was on the point of expiring, after his hands had been burned with a red iron, he was torn asunder by horses.
That unhappy man committed an enormous crime, but he attacked only a mortal prince. What will not be the chastisement of one who has assailed the King of Kings?
According to certain historians, the Emperor Zeno, a prince as impious as he was dissolute, died by a most tragic death. On the night of April 9, 491, after an excess at table, he fell into so violent a coma that he was believed to be dead, and he was hurriedly buried in the imperial burial vault.
There, having regained consciousness, he called in vain for his servants and his guards; no one answered his shouts; he beheld himself in darkness, shut up with the dead on all sides, meeting only cold walls and iron doors. Then giving way to all the transports of rage and despair, he dashed himself against his surroundings and broke his skull against the walls. It was in this terrible state that his corpse was discovered.
What a horrible situation for that prince, buried alive! Is that the situation of the reprobate?
Hell is the sink of the world and the receptacle of all the moral filth of humanity. There, impurity, intemperance, blasphemy, pride, injustice and all the vices which are like the rottenness of souls, are found heaped up. To this moral filth a corporal stench is added more insupportable than all the stenches of hospitals and corpses.
If the body of a damned person, says St. Bonaventure, were deposited on the earth, that of itself alone would be sufficient to make the earth uninhabitable; it would fill it with its infection, as a corpse that might be left to rot in a house would infect it all the way through.
A man at Lyons had gone into a burial vault in which a corpse lately buried was found wholly putrefied. Scarcely had he gone down when he fell dead. The poisonous exhalations caught him so violently that he was suffocated.
Sulpicius Severus narrates in the life of St. Martin of Tours that towards the end of the saint’s life the demon came to tempt him under a visible form. The spirit of lies appeared before him with royal magnificence, a crown of gold on his head, and said he was the King of Glory, Christ, the Son of God. The holy bishop recognized the tempter under these appearances of human grandeur and chased him away with contempt. Proud Satan was confounded; he disappeared, but for his revenge, he left the holy man’s room filled with a stench that did not allow him to remain there anymore.
Another torture of hell is the horrible society of the devils and the damned. There are some wretched sinners who, seeing plainly that they are walking toward Hell, are comforted by saying, “I shall not be there alone!” Sad consolation! It is that of the convicts sentenced to wear irons together in the galleys. Still it is intelligible how a convict finds a certain life in the company of his kind. Alas! It will not be thus in Hell, in which the damned will be mutual executioners.
“There,” says St. Thomas, “the associates of his wretchedness, far from alleviating the lot of the damned soul, will make it more intolerable for him.” (Suppl. 9, 86, A. 1). The society of even those persons who on earth were their best friends is insupportable to the damned in Hell. They would esteem themselves happy to have tigers and lions for companions, rather than their relatives, brothers, or their own parents.
Do you wish to see the poverty of hell and the privations that are suffered there by those who made the goods of this world their god? Consider the wicked rich man of the Gospel. Accustomed during his life to eat delicate meats served in silver utensils, to drink exquisite wines in goblets of gold, to wear purple and fine linen, having become an inhabitant of Hell, he found himself brought down to the last extremity of need.
He who refused poor Lazarus the crumbs from his table, was obliged to begin his turn. He asks, not delicacies, but a drop of cold water, which he will be happy to receive from a leper’s finger. Now, this drop of water is refused to him. Has not the Savior said: “Woe to you that are rich, for you have your consolation. Woe to you that are filled, for you shall hunger.” (Luke 6:25).
“There is no light,” writes St. Teresa (Autobiography, Chapter 25), “in the eternal pit, only darkness of the deepest dye; and yet, O mystery! Although no light shines, all that can be most painful to the sight is perceived. Among those objects which torture the eyes of the damned, the most frightful are the demons, who reveal themselves in all their hideousness.”
St. Bernard speaks of a religious who, being in his cell, uttered all of a sudden frightful cries, which attracted the community. He was found beside himself and uttering only these sorrowful words: “Accursed be the day I entered religion!” Terrified and troubled by this curse, the cause of which they did not understand, his brethren questioned and encouraged him and spoke to him of confidence in God. Soon, being quieted, he replied, “no, no, it is not the religious life that I should curse. On the contrary, blessed be the day I became a religious! My brethren, do not be astonished at seeing my mind disturbed. Two devils have appeared to me; their horrible appearance has put me out of my senses. What monstrosity! Ah! Rather all torments than again to endure the sight of them!”
A holy priest was exorcising a demoniac, and he asked the demon what pains he was suffering in Hell. “An eternal fire,” he answered, “an eternal malediction, an eternal rage, and a frightful despair at being never able to gaze upon Him who created me.” “What would you do to have the happiness of seeing God?” “To see Him but for one moment, I should willingly consent to endure my torments for 10,000 years. But vain desires! I shall suffer forever and never see Him!”
On a like occasion, the exorcist inquired of the demon what his greatest pain in Hell was. He replied with an accent of indescribable despair: “Always, always! Never, never!”
One day, a holy soul was meditating upon Hell, and considering the eternity of the pains, the frightful “always… never,” she was thrown into complete confusion by it, because she was unable to reconcile this immeasurable severity with the divine goodness and other perfections. “Lord,” she said, “I submit to Thy judgments, but do not push the rigors of Thy justice to far.” “Do you understand,” was the answer, “what sin is? To sin is to say to God, I will not serve Thee! I despise Thy law, I laugh at Thy threats!” “I understand, Lord, that sin is an outrage to Thy Majesty.” “Well, measure, if you can, the greatness of this outrage.” “Lord, this outrage is infinite, since it attacks infinite Majesty.” “Must it not, then, be punished by an infinite chastisement? Now, as the punishment could not be infinite in its intensity, justice demands that it be so at least in its duration.
Accordingly, it is the divine justice that wills the eternity of the pains: the terrible ‘always,’ the terrible ‘never.’ The damned themselves will be obliged to render homage to this justice, and cry out in the midst of their torments: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, and thy judgments are equitable.'” (Psalm 118: 137).
St. John Damascene relates, in the life of St. Josaphat, that this young prince, being one day exposed to violent temptations, prayed to God with tears to be delivered from them. His prayer was graciously heard; he was caught up in an ecstasy, and he beheld himself led to a dark place, full of horror, confusion, and frightful spectres. There was a pool of sulphur and fire in which were plunged innumerable wretches, a prey to devouring flames.
Amid the despairing howls and shouts, he heard a heavenly voice, which uttered these words: “Here it is that sin receives its punishment; here it is that a moment’s pleasure is punished by an eternity of torments.” This vision filled him with new strength, and enabled him to triumph over all the assaults of the enemy.
The most bitter regret of the damned will be, says St. Thomas, to be damned for “nothing,” while they might have so easily obtained everlasting happiness.
Jonathan was condemned to death for having eaten a little honey, against the prohibition of Saul. In his misfortune he said, while moaning, “Alas! I did but taste a little honey… And behold I must die!” (1 Samuel 14:43).
More bitter will be the regrets of the damned when they shall see that, for a “honeycomb,” for a fleeting enjoyment, they have incurred everlasting death.
King Lysimachus, besieged by the Scythians, who had cut off all the springs, beheld himself reduced to the last extremity by lack of water. Yielding to the craving of his thirst, he surrendered to the enemy, who left him only his life safe. Then a cup of water was given him to quench his thirst. When he had drunk it, he said, “Oh, how quickly has the pleasure passed for which I have lost my throne and my liberty!” It is in this manner that the damned will speak, but with far more bitterness: Oh, how quickly passed the guilty pleasure for which I forfeited an eternal crown and happiness!
Esau returned faint from the chase, and seeing Jacob, who was cooking lentils, he sold him his birthright for a dish of the pottage. “And so taking bread and the pottage of lentils,” says the Scripture, “he ate and drank, and then went his way, making little account of having sold his birthright.” But when the time came to receive his inheritance when he saw the large portion given to his brother and the small portion that was left to him, “He was filled with consternation, and uttered a great cry.” Then, having sought in vain to better his lot, he yielded to the bitterest regrets and filled the air with his doleful cries; they were fewer cries than roars. “Irriguit clamore magno.” (“He roared out, with a great cry.” (Gen. 25, 27:34).
What will be the cries of the damned when they shall see that they have sold their heavenly inheritance for less than “a dish of pottage”–when they shall see that for a trifle they have sold everlasting benefits and incurred everlasting torments?
The prophet Jeremias had warned Sedecias King of Juda, of the future that awaited him, he had spoken to him on behalf of God. “Behold life, and behold death; if you observe my words, you shall remain quiet on your throne; if you trample them under foot, I will deliver you into the hands of the King of Babylon.” (Jerem. 29:39). Sedecias paid no attention to these warnings of God, and soon the chastisements foretold fell upon him; he was delivered to Nebuchadnezzar, blinded, loaded with chains, and thrown into the prison of Babylon.
Then, what were not his regrets, his grief, at the remembrance of the words of Jeremias? A weak image of the tardy regrets, the cruel sorrows that devour the damned.
They weep for the time they lost in vain amusements and in forgetfulness of their salvation. “One hour,” they say, “would have given us what an eternity could give us back no more!”
Father Nieremberg relates that a servant of God, finding himself in a secluded place into which no other man had ventured, heard mournful wails, which could proceed only from a supernatural cause. He demanded, then, who were the authors of these piteous cries and what they meant. Then a sad voice replied to him: “We are the damned. Let it be known that we are deploring in Hell the time lost, the precious time which we waste on earth in vanities and crime. Ah! One hour would have given us what an eternity could restore to us no more.”