This post is related to the ‘To Hell With Them? series (Part 1 and Part 2) I am working through. However, I will take a more aesthetic approach here and share a brief but important section of my upcoming novel The Damned May Enter that deals with the Harrowing of Hell. In the Harrowing of Hell, Christ descends to the dead and proclaims the gospel, namely over sin and death and according to some accounts empties Hades of the souls imprisoned there. In this speculative, mythic parable, my storyteller Daniel DeVaux asserts that when Christ descends to Hades he is stepping through time to the end of the Age immediate prior to the final judgement. While this parabolic work doesn’t directly assert Universalism it does hint at it. The setting is at Daniel’s establishment – St. Jude’s Tavern, here is one of Daniel’s many tales that spins for the enjoyment of his friends and patrons:
… Daniel let his guests know that the coffee was finished and that he was ready to tell his tale. He told his interlocutors that he had been re-reading Homer over the past few months alongside his reading of the Cappadocian Fathers from the post-Nicene church. A flash of inspiration came to him while he read and be began working on a story during all the free time he had on the train ride out from Chicago.
Daniel cleared his throat and said, “Forgive the archaic way I wrote it, I suppose I imagined myself as Homer, maybe too much. Anyhow, I call this little story ‘The Harrowing of Hell.’”
The once murky waters of the River Lethe now ran crimson as they lurched along its banks where a willow tree rose and drooped in the languid air of death’s dark kingdom. The branches of the tree bowed down toward the waters gliding beneath them in a fruitless effort to forget why they should cast deeper shade in a land bound by shadows. Memories of the world above hovered over the winding river valley like an amnesiac mist in the last grey moments of twilight. A silent groan filled the wilderness of Hades. All was overwrought with drab lichen on the ruins of ancient stone towers, cobwebs and gossamers on bare tree limbs caught the ashes falling from the pallid sky. The only thing out of place in the halls of the dead since time immemorial were the muted splashes of a silent, mesmerized multitude crossing the bloody banks at a shallow bend of the Lethe near the horizon. Mournful echoes of a nearby owl punctuated the soundless landscape as Achilles and Hector sat beneath the branches of the willow. Both heroes were listlessly poking at the ground beneath them with their bronze swords as they discussed what had transpired earlier that day.
Hector glanced at Achilles and returned a blank gaze to the river and said, “My heart is with Troy, dear brother. My soul still pines for the sea-swept winds that blow across the plains of Ilium where the Scamander flows. Though this Carpenter claims to be a King who holds the keys to death and hell, I cannot trust him. If he be God and man as he claims, then he, even more than you or crafty Odysseus, is to blame for the fall of my beloved home because he did not stop it. You may cross the River Lethe that now flows with his blood and have your many sins forgotten, but I have made up my mind. I will remain here in my virtue and savor the sorrow of Troy’s memory. Let God have his city, I have mine. That vanquished Troy lived but once is enough for me.”
“Brother,” pleaded Achilles, “Have we not heard the echoes about this king for ages among the dead who have joined us? Yet today, at the very end of the age he has descended to us to proclaim his victory. You saw the Lethe turn to a river of his own cleansing blood when his feet touched these waters. All we must do is wade across the Lethe that meanders along these shadowed moors and follow him across the bridge he wrought over the unassailable chasm between us and Elysium. He has given us safe passage over the fiery waters of River Phlegethon that furrows ever deeper into that gorge. You and I watched millennia ago when the righteous souls who stood in Elysium alongside faith’s great Patriarch were snatched out of the underworld. Now we know where they disappeared to! He has made a way for us to lay hold of the same faith, to be numbered among Abraham’s blessed company. Why would you not go?”
“I was a virtuous man in life, why should I now need the righteousness this Carpenter offers?”
Achilles spat on the ground near where Hector sat, “Damn your virtue brother! Oh how you have loved it, and how it has destroyed you. I had little virtue in life, many of my days were spent in petulant vanity, but at least I sought immortality. I knew my days on earth could never afford me the glory I longed for. The gates of death are destroyed and the undimmed glory heaven stand open wide before us. Still, you morn for the Scaean gates that time will surely forget. The Trojans, the Myrmidons, and all the Achaeans with them, dead. Yet this Carpenter King, Son of Man and Son of God offers life and you would refuse it.”
“I gave you my answer,” said Hector as his voice fell hollow, “I have my city, let him have his.”
With fury and tears Achilles rose to his feet and grabbed Hector’s breastplate by the openings at the shoulders and ripped the great Trojan to his feet and pinned him to the trunk of the willow, “Through these long ages we have been brothers in blood and death. I sent you here only to follow soon after. All we have known is the sorrow of memory since. Brother, I beg you, come! Come with me, before your foolishness cannot be undone.”
Hector placed his hand on his brother’s golden hair and whispered softly, “I can’t,” then his eyes welled up with tears and anger as he shook and resolutely declared, “I won’t.”
Achilles wept. He tenderly kissed Hector’s forehead and bade him farewell. His love for the Trojan, great as it had grown since death claimed them could not compel him to stay, knowing what and Who lay before him. His feet carried him onward toward the horizon where the last of the host of the dead were wading across the Lethe and traversing the moors toward Hades fiery horizon. As he looked ahead he saw the greater mass of humanity crossing the bridge over the flowing magma of the Phlegethon. He gave one more glance to the lonely souls, Hector’s included that made the bitter choice to remain in Hades even when Heaven itself was opened to them and longed for the age when they would at last be free. As he crossed the crimson waters of the Lethe the pain and sorrow of the life and death that lay behind him were forgotten as he followed the Carpenter King to the light.
Silence filled the room long after Daniel finished his story. Each person present appeared to be lost in thought as they pondered the tale Daniel wove. Hank drew slowly off of his cigar. Father Anselmo sat back in his chair with a cherubic smile drawn across his face. Reverend Jackson scratched at his brow. Jacob’s thoughts swirled in his mind as he began, at least in part, to understand what Daniel meant when he emblazoned the arresting sign above the entrance to his tavern. It occurred to him that to step into St. Jude’s was to take a stroll in Daniel’s mind, all of this aging man’s hopes and a lifetime of his thoughts were poured into his tavern. The place for sinners and saints alike embodied all that was precious to Daniel and Jacob felt the weight of the invitation to such a strange and wonderful place.
“Does this mean that you believe in Purgatory?” asked Father Anselmo as he broke the silence.
“No Father I don’t think so, all I mean by it is that there is always hope, that even the damned may at last enter after all is said and done” said Daniel.
“Even for agnostic hell-raisers?” asked Hank, at last bringing levity to the reflective room.
“Especially for you Henry, my old friend, especially for you.”
“Do you think it’s true?” asked Reverend Jackson.
“I think it’s a parable of sorts,” said Daniel, “Perhaps it points to the truth, but whether it is or isn’t is not for me to decide. Still I trust beyond what I know that all shall be well.”
Jacob remained in silence even after conversation resumed, filled with an ineffable warmth. He thought of the men he fought and died with, the men he sent to the grave for no crime other than the flag they fought for and felt hope in a way he had not before. The grist mill of prolonged combat had reduced his hopes for humanity to a flimsy powder that drifted away on the anarchic winds of war. However, some new and unfamiliar breath swirled about him seeking to find a way inside his hollow chest.
© Jedidiah Paschall
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