Previously we discussed contemplating the final judgment in which all of humanity shall stand before God. In particular, we focused on the Scriptural precedent for such ruminations. With that groundwork laid, we will now proceed to more practical matters.
Part 1 was wrapped up with the juxtaposition of the fearsomeness of the judgment and the precious hope of grace. As we weigh anchor and set out for this particular cruising ground of meditation, it is of great importance that we understand our purpose in doing so. Although compunction (a holy sorrow for our sins) is a part of this line of thought, it is only a part and not the sum of the whole. These meditations do not end in despair, but quite the opposite: they renew our trust in God’s grace and urge us on in our pilgrimage here on earth.
In order to present some form and order for our line of thought I will defer to Evagrius Ponticus, a figure from the deserts of ancient Christianity. Despite some of his theological shortcomings, his insight and ability as a guide for the soul remain potent helps for us.
“Evagrius said, ‘While you sit in your cell, recall your attention, and remember the day of your death and you will see that your body is decaying. Think about the loss, feel the pain. Shrink from the vanity of the world outside. Be retiring, and be careful to keep your vow of quiet, and you will not weaken. Remember the souls in hell. Meditate on their condition, the bitter silence and the moaning, the fear and the strife, the waiting and the pain without relief, the tears that cannot cease to flow. Remember too the day of resurrection, imaging God’s terrible and awful judgment. Bring into your sight the confusion of sinners before God and His Christ, before angels and archangels and powers, and all the human race, punishment, everlasting fire, the worm that never dies, the darkness of Tartarus – and above them all the sound of the gnashing teeth, dread and torments. Bring before your eyes the good laid up for the righteous, their confidence before God the Father and Christ His Son, before angels and archangels and the powers, and all the people in the kingdom of heaven and its gifts, joy and peace. Remember all this. Weep and lament for the judgment of sinners, keep alert to the grief they suffer; be afraid that you are hurrying towards the same condemnation. Rejoice and exult at the good laid up for the righteous. Aim at enjoying the one, and being far from the other. Do not forget this, whether you in your cell or outside it. Keep these memories in your mind and so cast out of it the sordid thoughts that harm you.’”
-Excerpt from “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” translated by Benedicta Ward
Evagrius’ roadmap begins with the acceptance of our own mortality. This subject alone is a peculiar one, for, as a culture, we typically spend a great deal of time in shoving this fact to the back of our consciousness rather than accepting and living with it. However, taking time to remember that our lives are, in fact, finite helps us to get a more concrete grasp on our existence and reminds us that there will come a time when the physical overlay will be rolled back to reveal the eternal.
Next we contemplate and consider the horrors and suffering of souls in hell. It is important here to do two things: first, to remember that this outcome is the result of one’s own hardness of heart and refusal to accept salvation; second, to recall these things in a direct and real manner, not as the reminiscence of some Sulphur-laden outburst from the pulpit. If we only think of it as something that we’ve been told by a preacher or evangelism tract, it is very easy for hell to become a sort of boogeyman: perhaps disconcerting, but nothing more than a story told to make us behave. In the sort of meditation we are talking about here, we take out the middlemen and think upon hell in all of its horrific reality. This may bring us a little too close for comfort, but it is only natural that we should be upset by the eventualities of sin.
From the depths of hell, we move on to ponder the flipside of eternity: the joy and peace of heaven. Just as we embraced the realities of hell, we now turn to the realities of heaven, not as a sugar-coated bauble meant to entice us towards good behavior but as our ultimate goal and fulfillment, the Promised Land which God seeks to bring us to where we shall be with Him forever. This practice helps us familiarize ourselves with and acquire a taste for the things of heaven. This is not to say that godliness is an acquired taste, it isn’t that we must teach ourselves to like it. Rather, it is more the case that we must take the time to seek it out and allow ourselves to partake of it. For in many ways, the temptations of the devil are aimed at drawing our attention from heaven and warping our desire so that it seeks purely earthly things.
Evagrius concludes by urging us to keep the content of our meditation in mind at all times, to remain mindful of the truth we have pondered. This helps us to see things more accurately, in light of eternity. Perhaps the most accurate and succinct way to describe our meditations on heaven and hell is a realignment of the soul. It is a way in which we shake off the deceit of the devil’s machinations and allow God to clear away the corrosion that has built up on the eyes of our hearts so that we can see the world as it really is. We step back, humbled, from the idols of self-righteousness that we have erected and recommit ourselves to making God our all-in-all, casting ourselves upon His great mercy and love.
Here is a condensed version of Evagrius’ order of meditation:
- Remember your own mortality, one day you will die
- Recall the suffering and regret of souls in hell
- Recall the joy and peace of souls in heaven
- Remember these things and so aim at avoiding hell and pursuing heaven
Scripture to think on:
- Matthew 25:31-46
- Revelation 20:11-21:8