This is a reprint from 2019. I was looking for something where I quoted George Herbert’s “The Agony,” my favorite poem. So, here’s one of several such posts.
This morning I was crushed beneath a flood of memories – not the memories of good things, but of sad and shameful things, petty things, wasted lives and ignorant passions. There is often a veil of fantasy that covers much of the sad detritus of our world, a narrative that seems plausible enough to allow us to stop there and avoid the crush of darkness. When I think of St. Silouan’s sojourn in hell, or the Elder Sophrony’s reflections on the abyss, it is the naked ugliness of human existence that first comes to mind.
There’s nothing sinister to a dark crushing flood. Sometimes you wake up and it is there staring you in the face. Other times, two thoughts encounter one another and explode into a cascade of shame. Regardless, it’s misery of the worst sort. The deepest lie and the unspoken fear is that this is all there is.
But this little corner of hell, as repulsive as it is, represents a true icon of what Christ enters in His descent. That God became man, if it goes no further, can be downright noble, as comforting as a Christmas card. The more pressing image, however, is that God-as-man descended into hell and brought about our salvation precisely at that point.
This is at the heart of the Orthodox proclamation of the gospel. The icon of Nativity is written in a manner that intentionally echoes the icon of Christ’s descent into hell. The same is true of the icon of Christ’s Baptism. Each of these presentations boldly asserts that human life is already a living hell to a certain extent. Nothing that crushes us, particularly that darkness with which we are complicit, or, worse still, which we ourselves have initiated, is ignored or brushed over in God’s becoming man.
On any given day of the year, I prefer that the darkness be portrayed in the abstract: a cave, a space, a suggestion on an icon. The abyss of human brokenness is bone-crushing when seen directly. There is a reason that shame’s first instinct is to look away. I do not understand a love that can look without flinching at things we dare not so much as whisper.
But this is the truth of God’s love. We are not alone, even in our hell. The weight of ugliness that seems to crush, cannot push us beyond that love. Indeed, it can only press us deeper within it. There is nowhere in the darkness of the abyss that is not filled with Christ: “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8).
My morning’s unbidden visit to the abyss did not last. A poem chased it away. Sweet words.
Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
George Herbert (1593-1633)