Advent means meditation on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell; and the longer I thought about it, I realized that my usual image was too static. The catechism says that it is separation from God (¶1033) but the church also says that God is Omnipresent .
The Psalmist asks,
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea: Even there also shall thy hand lead me: and thy right hand shall hold me.
Quo ibo a spiritu tuo? et quo a facie tua fugiam?Ps 138:7-10
Si ascendero in caelum, tu illic es; si descendero in infernum, ades.
Si sumpsero pennas meas diluculo, et habitavero in extremis maris,
etenim illuc manus tua deducet me, et tenebit me dextera tua.
Where to go? No where. There is nowhere where God is not.
So how to understand the Catechism saying hell is separation from God? Even on earth, we can’t be separated: we can only ignore.
What I began to imaging was God, the Consuming Fire, as a massive solar wind. When you die, we think of it as “going to a place” but what really happens is that this place is simply stripped away: all the things that we feel block us from God fall away. And there we are: angels, the beloved, demons, God. All revealed as who they are. (CS Lewis gets this in Chapter 31 of The Screwtape Letters, but I think his image is static as well.) What now, oh creature of earth, Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve?
I want to hope, I want to pray that I may hope, when I’m exposed that way that I want to rush forward into the maelstrom of God’s burning, all-consuming Love. I hope, or rather I think I might, one day, be able to intend to hope, that I will drop everything and turn to Him, and let all that is not His burn away: that I will not hold back anything that will, in that hottest of all fires, suddenly begin to burn me as well. Certainly I could turn my back, shield whatever it is from His flame, but then I would discover He is omnipresent, omnidirectional, there is no back.
These flames are not fire as we might understand it, of course. This is Love: pure, unadulterated, unfiltered, omnidirectional, all-consuming, Love. We say we want it: but in the end, do we? We hide ourselves from ourselves. We do not want to acknowledge our darkest secrets even in the silent cloister of the confessional. We dare not admit the things that hide us from God, or the things we want to hide. We say we want love but we are not worthy of it.
Faith here is different from presumption. The latter says, “I’m a mess, but God loves me so I will bring my mess right into Church, right into heaven. I can make my mess a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and God will welcome it. God will bless my mess anyway.” Faith says, “I’m a mess: I will offer my mess in praise and thanksgiving, and God will take it away and transubstantiate it. It will become my salvation because it is no longer mine. I’m not worthy of anything but I will offer it and let God decide in his mercy.”
Presumption will lead to hell. Faith will lead to heaven. And they are both the same, only the direction of motion is different.