IX. THE THOUGHT OF HELL
St. Dositheus, who lived in the eleventh century, was brought up as a page at the Court of Constantinople, and at first led a life altogether worldly, in a profound ignorance of the truths of faith. As he had heard a great deal about Jerusalem, he visited it out of a motive of curiosity.
There it was that God’s mercy was awaiting him. To touch him, it made use of a picture placed in a church representing the pains of Hell. Miserable souls were seen there in despair, plunged in a sea of fire, in which horrible monsters were tormenting them and making game of the tortures. Struck by these terrible scenes, Dositheus demanded the explanation of them from an unknown person who was there.
“It is Hell,” answered this person; “they are the pains of the damned.” “How long will these pains last? Why are they damned? Might I myself fall into such a terrible state of woe? What must I do to be safe from Hell?”
Such were the questions that Dositheus by turns proposed to the person who was instructing him. He was impressed by the answers to such a degree that he quit the world that very hour to go and live in seclusion.
He entered a monastery in which, thanks to the thought of Hell, which he had always before his eyes, and to the wise direction of the Abbot whom he found there, he made rapid progress in the ways of God.
Whoever thinks of Hell will not fall into it, because in the time of temptation this thought will retain him in his duty. St. Martinian had lived 25 years in solitude when God allowed his fidelity to be put to a violent test.
A perfidious woman, the courtesan Zoe, came to solicit him to sin. She was disguised as a mendicant, and taking advantage of a rain storm, knocked at the cell of Martinian, begging shelter from him. The holy anchorite could not refuse it in these circumstances.
He let the stranger in and having lighted a fire, invited her to dry her garments. But soon the unfortunate woman, casting off the borrowed rags she wore, appeared to the eyes of Martinian in a most brilliant dress and with all her fascinating charms.
The servant of God, in the presence of a most dreadful danger, remembered Hell, and drawing near the fire, which was blazing on the hearth, he took off his shoes and plunged both feet into the fire. The pain drew cries from him, but he said to his soul, “Alas! My soul, if thou canst not bear so weak a fire, how wilt thou be able to bear the fire of Hell?” The temptation was overcome, and Zoe was converted. Such was the salutary effect of the thought of hell.
Another recluse, assailed by a violent temptation and afraid of being conquered, lighted his lamp. Then, to be penetrated vividly with the thought of Hell, he put his fingers into the flame and let them burn there with inexpressible sufferings. “Since thou dost wish,” he said, addressing himself, “to sin and accept Hell, which will be the punishment of thy sin, try first if thou shalt have the courage to support the pain of an everlasting fire.”
It is related that St. Philip Neri received one day a visit from a man who was leading a sinful life. Imbued with the most unfriendly feelings toward the saint, this visitor addressed him with the most unjust reproaches and heaped insults upon him. His anger was such that he was incapable of listening to reason.
Then St. Philip made him draw near the chimney, and pointing out the place where the fire was made, he said, “Look at this fireplace.”
The sinner looked, but instead of a fireplace, he saw a pit all on fire, in the bottom of which he recognized a place that was destined for him. Seized with fright, this furious sinner grew calm, suddenly recognized the evil state of his soul, and changed his life.
In 1815 the young Louis Francis de Beauvais died at the College of St. Acheul near Amiens. He was only 14 years old, but he was ripe for Heaven, so innocent and holy had been his life. Such solid virtue in so tender a youth was due to the thought of Hell. One day, while still quite a child, he was seated at his mother’s side before a warm fire. “Mamma,” he asked her, “could the fire of Hell be as hot as this?” “
Alas, my child, this fire is nothing in comparison to Hell!” “Well, if I should fall into it?” he rejoined with fright. “Hell,” said his mother “is only for sinners. If you keep away from sin, you have nothing to fear.” This idea was engraved in the heart of Louis Francis; it was the source of his sorrow of sin and of his holy life.
In 1540 Blessed Peter Lefevbre, one of the first companions of St. Ignatius of Loyola, returning from Parma to Rome, while following the way from Florence to Siena, was overcome by nightfall in the midst of a country infested by robbers and brigands.
He had recourse, as was his wont, to his Angel Guardian, and perceived pretty soon a house, at which he asked hospitality. It was in the month of October; the weather was cold and rainy.
The people, who dwelt at the manor, seeing that the traveler was a priest, welcomed him with respect and kindness, offered him refreshments, and invited him to draw near the fire to dry his clothes. While he was seated near the hearth and speaking with his hosts of the things of God, a noise of hurried steps was heard, then violet rapping at the door, and behold, men armed to the teeth dashed into the house.
It was a band of brigands. They were 16 and demanded noisily that all the provisions in store should be given to them; then, having ranged themselves round a table, they set to drinking and eating amid rude songs and immodest conversation.
Blessed Peter Lefevbre was not taken aback; he remained seated, calm, and pensive, his eyes fixed on the fire. The leader of the bandits asked him what he was doing there. The man of God did not reply at first. “You do not answer,” remarked the brigand. “Are you deaf? Are you dumb?” “No,” he replied then, “but a thought occupies my mind.” “What is this great thought? Tell us. What are you thinking of?” “I am thinking,” he said, in a calm, grave tone, “that the joy of sinners is very sad; this fire brings to my mind that of Hell, which they shall not be able to escape, if they do not hasten to return sincerely to God.”
These words were spoken with a force and unction that struck these savage men with respect. They said not a word more, and the servant of God took advantage of their attention to speak to them of the danger that they ran of falling into the hands of human justice, and still more, into those of God’s justice; then he touched on the security of a good conscience and the mercy of God, of whom he spoke in language so touching that he caused them to melt into tears, and demand forgiveness of their sins. He encouraged them and prepared them so well, that the whole 16 made their confessions to him that night.
The thought of Hell fortifies the weakest. Two early Christians, Domnina and Theomilla, were brought before the Roman Prefect Lysias, who gave them notice of the order to renounce the Faith in order to adore idols. They absolutely refused. Then Lysias had a funeral pyre lighted, and the altar of the false gods set up. “Choose,” he said to them, “either to burn incense on the altar of our gods or to be burned yourselves in the flames of this pyre.” They replied, without hesitating a moment: “We fear not this burning pile, which will be soon extinguished; the fire we do fear is that of Hell, which never goes out. Not to fall into it, we detest your idols and we adore Jesus Christ.” They underwent martyrdom in the year 235.
Caesarius relates that a wicked man, for whom many prayers had been offered, fell sick and died. As he was going to be buried, he came back to life again, and rose up full of strength, but seized with an exceeding alarm. Interrogated concerning what had happened to him, he answered, “God has just granted me a signal favour; He showed me Hell, an immense ocean of fire, into which I was about to be plunged for my sins. A delay was accorded to me, that I might redeem my sins by penance.”
Thenceforth, this sinner was changed into a different man. He thought no more of anything save of expiating his sins by his tears, fasts and prayers. He used to walk barefooted on brambles and thorns; he lived on bread and water only, and gave to the poor whatever he earned by his labour.
When people would prevail upon him to moderate his austerities, he would reply, “I have seen Hell; I know that too much cannot be done to avoid it. Ah, Hell! If all the trees and all the forests were heaped up in a vast pile and set on fire, I should prefer to remain in that burning fire to the end of the world, rather than endure for only one hour the fire of Hell.”
The Venerable Bede speaks of a rich inhabitant of Northumberland, whom the sight of Hell changed after a like fashion into a new man. He was called Trithelmus, and he led a worldly life, pretty much like that of the wicked rich man of the Gospel. God, by an exceptional mercy, granted him a vision, in which He showed him the eternal pains of the damned. Having come back to himself again, Trithelmus confessed all his sins, distributed all his wealth to the poor, and went into a monastery, where he put no bounds to his austerities and penances.
In winter he stood in the freezing water; in summer he endured the burden of heat and toil; he practiced vigorous fasts and continued his mortifications to the last stage of his life. When he was spoken to about diminishing his penances, he would reply, “If you had seen, like me, the pains of Hell, you would talk otherwise.” “But how can you keep up such severe mortifications?” “I count them as nothing beside the pains of Hell, which I have deserved by my sins.”
Mgr. de Segur narrates a rather singular fact which happened at the Military School of St. Cyr in the last years of the Restoration. The Abbe Rigolot, the almoner of the institution, was preaching a retreat to the pupils who assembled every evening in the chapel before retiring to the dormitory.
A certain evening when the worthy almoner had spoken on Hell, the exercises being finished, he was retiring, with a small candlestick in his hand, to his room, which was situated in a wing reserved for the officers. Just as he opened his door, he heard himself called by someone who was following him up the staircase. It was an old captain with a gray moustache and by no means elegant appearance. “Pardon, Monsieur Almoner,” he said in a slightly ironical tone of voice, “you have just given us a very fine sermon on Hell; only you forgot to tell us whether, in the fire of Hell, we should be grilled or roasted or boiled. Could you tell me?” The almoner seeing whom he had to deal with, looked at him straight in the eye and putting the candlestick under his nose, quietly replied, “You shall see this, Captain!” and he shut his door, unable to refrain from laughing somewhat at the silly, baffled expression on the face of the poor captain.
He thought of it no more, but from that time forth he fancied that the captain used to take to his heels from him, as far as possible. The Revolution of July came on. The military almonery was abolished, that of St. Cyr like the rest. The Abbe Rigolot was nominated by the Archbishop of Paris to another position not less honourable.
Twenty years after, the venerable priest was one evening in a drawing room, in which there was a numerous gathering, when he saw coming toward him an old man with a white moustache, who asked him if he were not the Abbe Rigolot, at one time almoner of St. Cyr. And upon his affirmative reply, the old soldier said with emotion, “O Monsieur Almoner, permit me to clasp your hand and express all my gratitude to you: you saved me.” “I? And how so?” “Well! You do not know me! Do you remember one evening when a captain, an instructor of the school, having proposed to you, after the close of a sermon on Hell, an exceedingly ridiculous question, you answered him while putting your candlestick under his nose, ‘You will see this, Captain?’ I am that captain. Fancy, that from that time, your speech pursued me everywhere, as well as the thought that I might be burned in Hell. I struggled for ten years, but at last I was forced to surrender: I have been to my confession; I have become a Christian, a Christian in the military fashion, that is to say, like a soldier. It is to you I owe this happiness, and I am very glad to meet you, to be able to tell you so.”
Father de Bussy, of the Company of Jesus, gave at the beginning of this century, in a certain large city of the South of France, an important mission, which roused the whole population. It was in the heart of winter; Christmas Day was at hand, and it was very cold. In the room in which the Father was receiving the men, there was a stove with a good fire.
One day the Father saw a young man coming to him who had been recommended to him on account of his dissipation and open parade of impiety. Father de Bussy soon saw there was nothing to be done with him. “Come here, my good friend,” he said pleasantly; “I do not hear the confessions of people in spite of themselves. Stay; sit down there, and let us have a little chat while warming ourselves.” He opened the stove, and noticed that the wood was going soon to be burned up.
“Before sitting down, pray bring me one or two logs,” he said to the young man. The latter, somewhat astonished, did, nevertheless, what the Father asked. “Now,” the latter added, “put it in the stove for me; there, very far down in the bottom.” And, as the other was getting the wood into the door of the stove, Father de Bussy, all at once, took his arm, and plunged it into the bottom of the stove.
The young man uttered a shout and sprang backward. “Ah me!” he shouted. “Are you crazy? You were going to burn me?” “What ails you, my dear man?” remarked the father calmly; “should you not get accustomed to it? In Hell, where you shall go if you continue your present course of life, it will not be merely the tips of the fingers that shall be burned by the fire, but your whole body, and this little fire is nothing to the other one. Come, come, my good friend be brave; you must get accustomed to everything burning.”
The young libertine went away in a thoughtful mood. He was reflecting indeed; he did reflect so well that he was not slow in coming back again to the missionary, who helped him to get rid of his faults and enter anew on the good path.
I affirm, adds Mgr. de Segur, that of a thousand, ten thousand men who live far from God, and therefore on the way to Hell, there would not be one, perhaps, who could resist the test of fire. There would not be one who should be so crazy as to accept this bargain: During the year, you may yield to all your passions, gratify all your whims, on the condition of spending one day, only one day, or even one hour, in fire. I repeat, not a single person would accept the bargain. Will you have a proof of it? Listen to the history of the three sons of an old usurer.
A father of a family who grew rich only by doing wrongs had fallen dangerously ill. He knew that the final stages of death had already set in, and nevertheless he could not decide to make restitution. “If I make restitution,” he said, “what will become of my children?”
His confessor, a man of sagacity, had recourse to a singular stratagem to save this poor soul. He told him that if he wished to be cured, he was about to give him an extremely simple, but costly remedy. “Should it cost a thousand, two thousand, even ten thousand francs, what odds?” answered the old man briskly. “What is it?” “It consists in pouring the melted fat of a living person on the dying parts. It does not need much. If you find anyone willing, for ten thousand francs, to suffer one hand to be burned for less than a quarter of an hour, that will be enough.”
“Alas!” said the poor man, sighing, “I am very much afraid I can find no such person.” “I will help you,” said the priest quietly. “Summon your eldest son; he loves you; he is to be your heir; say to him, ‘My dear son, you can save your old father’s life, if you consent to allow one hand to be burned only for a small quarter of an hour.’ If he refuses, make the proposal to the second, pledging yourself to make him your heir at the expense of his eldest brother. If he refuses in his turn, the third will no doubt accept.”
The proposition was made successively to the three brothers, who, one after the other rejected it with a shudder. Then the father said to them: “What! To save my life, an instant’s pain alarms you? And I, to procure your comfort, would go to Hell–to be burned eternally! Indeed, I should be quite mad.” And he hastened to restore all he owed without regard to what should become of his children. He was quite right, and so were his three sons. To suffer a hand to be burned, a short quarter of an hour, even to save a father’s life, is a sacrifice above human strength.
In 1844, again writes Mgr. de Segur, I was acquainted at the Seminary of St. Sulpice at Issy, near Paris, with an extremely distinguished professor of science, and a man whose humility and mortification were admired by everyone. Before becoming a priest, the Abbe Pinault had been one of the most eminent professors of the Polytechnic School. In the seminary he taught the course of physics and chemistry.
One day, during an experiment, the fire somehow caught the phosphorus he was manipulating, and in a moment his hand was wrapped in flames. Assisted by his pupils, the poor professor tried to no purpose to put out the fire that was eating into his flesh.
In a few minutes his hand was but a shapeless, shining mass; the nails had disappeared. Overcome by the excess of pain, the unfortunate professor lost consciousness. His hand and arm were plunged into a pail of cold water to try to assuage a little of the violence of this martyrdom. All day and all night he uttered but one cry, an irresistible and heartrending cry; and when, now and then, he could utter a few words, he would say and say again to the three or four seminarians who were waiting on him: “O my children! My children! Do not go to Hell! Do not go to Hell!”
A brother, named John Baptist, was living at the time of St. Ignatius at the profession-house in Rome. He was remarkable for the spirit of fervor and mortification which he derived from the thought of Hell. As he filled the humble office of cook the fire, which he had incessantly under his eyes, reminded him of the fire of divine justice, which shall torment eternally the impious in Hell, and caused him to conceive a great horror for sin, which merits such horrible chastisements.
One day, when profoundly absorbed by these thoughts, he yielded to the grief which the sins caused him; he was seized by an attack of indiscreet fervor; he plunged his hand into the fire and there left it burning. The odor which arose from it was smelled by the Father who exercised the office of minister of the house. He came into the kitchen and asked what the matter was. The brother could not conceal the excess of his pain, acknowledged his fault, and falling at his knees, humbly begged his pardon.
St. Ignatius was informed of the matter; he was told that this brother had just deprived himself of the use of his hand and had become incapable of doing his work. The Saint considered his fault more worthy of compassion than punishment. He set to prayer and spent a part of the night in it, as was his custom. The next morning the brother’s hand was cured and as sound as if it had not been injured. God manifested by this miracle that, if this fervent religious had done an inconsiderate act, the motive that prompted him to do it–that is, the fear of Hell–was agreeable to Him.
St. Teresa had seen the place that was prepared for her in Hell, and the remembrance gave her strength to bear the severest trials. This is how she speaks, in the 32nd chapter of her autobiography: “Being one day in prayer, in an instant I found myself, without knowing how, carried body and soul into Hell. I understood that God wished to make me see the place I should have occupied, had I not changed my life. No words can give the least idea of such suffering–it is beyond comprehension. I felt in my soul a devouring fire, and my body was, at the same time, a prey to intolerable pains. I had endured cruel sufferings during my lifetime, but all that I had suffered was nothing when compared to what I experienced then. What filled up the measure was the prospect that they should be unending and unalleviated. The tortures of the body, however cruel they might have been, were nothing in their turn beside the anguish of the soul.
While I felt myself burned, and as if hacked into a thousand pieces, I was suffering all the agonies of death, all the horrors of despair. There was not a particle of hope, of consolation, in this frightful sojourn. There was a pestiferous odor, by which one was continually suffocated.
There was no light, only darkness of the sombrest hue; and yet, O prodigy! Though there was no light shining, whatever is most distressing to the sight is seen. In short, all I had heard said of the pains of Hell, all I had read of it in books, was nothing beside the reality. There was the same difference as between a lifeless portrait and a living person.
Ah! The hottest fire in this world is such a trifling thing! It is like a painted fire compared to that fire which burns the damned in Hell. Almost ten years have passed since that vision, and I am still seized with such a fright in describing it, that my blood is frozen in my veins. Amid trials and sufferings I call up this remembrance, and it gives me strength to bear all.”
The wonderful conversion of an obstinate Protestant lady, which created quite a sensation in America, was owing to the thought of Hell. This person was none other than the wife of General X., one of the ablest generals of the Northern army in the war of 1860. Here are the particulars of this conversion, as Monsignor Fitzpatrick, Bishop of Boston, related them to St. Michael’s College at Brussels, in November, 1862. General X., first a Protestant, had had the happiness of hearing a simple, clear explanation of the Catholic religion.
It was sufficient for this upright and noble man to make him see the truth and embrace Catholicism with all his heart. From that time, full of faith and fervor, he devoted himself, not only to living as a true Catholic, but also to procuring for other Protestants the grace of conversion. In a short time he won over 20 officers, and wrote a book destined to furnish instruction for soldiers. We can well understand that he had not forgotten his wife, who was a Protestant, but he had the grief of seeing all the efforts of his zeal fail in this direction. Meanwhile, God permitted Madam X. to be attacked by an illness which reduced her to the last extremity.
The General, after having exhausted to no purpose all the resources of faith and charity, seeing the sick woman on the point of dying in her obstinacy, recurred to a last means. He called in four Irishwomen whom he had in his service, and, with tears in his eyes, said to them: “My friends, you know my wife is a Protestant, and that she is unwilling to hear the Catholic religion spoken of. She is going to die in her obstinacy and fall into Hell. I shudder at the thought of such a misfortune; it must be absolutely prevented if it is possible. Let us pray, then, to the holy Virgin and do violence to her merciful heart.” Thereupon, the General drew forth his beads, and began to pray on his knees; the poor attendants did the same; the whole five continued pray for one hour.
Then the general went to the bed of the invalid and discovered her in a sort of coma, out of her senses, without consciousness. At the end of some time, returning to herself and looking at her husband, she said to him in a very intelligible voice: “Call a Catholic priest.” The General believed at first that she was delirious, and made her repeat what she desired. “I beg,” she said, “for a Catholic priest without delay.” “But my dear, you would not have one.” “Ah, General, I am entirely changed. God has shown me Hell, and the place that awaited me in the eternal fire, if I did not become a Catholic.”
So the sick woman had the happiness of returning to the bosom of the Church. She even recovered her health, and lived afterward as a fervent Catholic. Such was the narrative of the venerable Bishop of Boston; he had these details from General X’s own mouth.