How to Sing Your Way Out of Hell
A red light glares over the broken city. The ground everywhere is buckled, deformed by a strange pressure from within and without, humped and hollowed as mudflats by the sea. Objects stick out of it at odd angles. They are open tombs, their slabs hanging beside.
All life here is dead, and death alone lives. Still, prompted by man's hunger to know, which is also a natural expansiveness of the heart, the traveler asks his guide whose tombs they are and whether he can peer within or speak to any of the imprisoned souls. The wise Virgil replies that they are in the cemetery of the heretics, and that each tomb is crammed full of men who followed the same error.
Most prominent are the disciples of Epicurus, who asserted that the soul dies with the body. That prominence is just. The fundamental heresy, that which most foolishly misconstrues the world, is to believe in the rule of nothingness, or death. If God is pure act, if his very essence is his own act of existence, then to believe in death is an affront not simply to God's goodness or wisdom, but to his very being.
Behold the open lid of the tomb, and that narrow little window whence the souls, for a time, can rise, expand the chest, and look up. Not at the stars; for the souls in Hell are, in the original Italian, prave, crooked, wicked, fixedly bent awry from their inborn desire for the kingdom above. So says Charon with savage glee, greeting them as they gather on the Acheron to cross over to their eternal woe: "Nevermore hope to look upon the skies!"
Birds may navigate by those lights far away, but only man looks up to them in wonder, sensing in them a home not here, and an adventure to come. Imagine no stars, no sky, but the close, dismal ceiling of Hell. In the case of the heretics, even that little shall be taken away. Says Virgil, of the lids:
These will be bolted on the day of doom
when from the valley of Jehosophat
the souls bring back their bodies to the tomb.
Behold the cramped world of the materialist, wherein beauty is a neural tic, goodness an adaptive feature like a thumb or a tonsil, and the stars no more than tiny sputterings of decay in a vast and purposeless morgue.
Reason can demonstrate that it is not so, but there is something glorious in the heart of man that anticipates reason with bully laughter, roaring out that if that is the world, then its greatest mystery is how man ever got into it, because it certainly is not a world for him. Paint a spangled sky above his cage and the canary is happy, but man is a sort of creature who suffocates without infinity.
He dwells within his skin and knows he must someday return to the earth. Yet he gives thanks for skin and earth and sea and sky, thanks to Someone other, Someone beyond. If he ever should be persuaded that there is no one to thank, he must curl in upon himself and wear the hours away dabbling in trivialities and selfishness. He must be thankful, or he will lose what makes him man. When he ceases to praise, he begins to die.
If, as Christians affirm, man is made for God, then man is made for praise. But what is praise?
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