Yesterday, as I do the first Friday of almost every month (and would to God it were more often), I went to Belmont Abbey to pray with the Benedictine brothers there. Before the hour of mid-day prayer, I met with three friends to discuss "The Great Divorce," C.S. Lewis’ powerful meditation on the afterlife. He attempts to evoke, not heaven itself, but the "valley of decision" between what is either purgatory or hell, and the Mountain.
In a vast gray shadowland there is a train station. Ghostly residents of these precincts board a vehicle for passage to the valley. The ride is unpleasant as the vehicle (and the people) grow larger (though they remain unfinished, "man-shaped smudges") and the stakes are incredibly high: whatever the ghosts ultimately decide in the valley interprets the shadowland "backwards." That is, the lonely, gray expanse will be seen in retrospect to have been either a place of purgation (and therefore preparation for the Mountain), or of retrenchment (thereby effecting ultimate and indeed eternal separation from the Mountain and its inhabitants). Those who choose "reality"--who leave the shadows and start for the mountain--soon "thicken," come to see glory only redeemed eyes can begin to comprehend.
Over and over again the task is clear: to become all that we are created to be, all that God would ultimately make us, the only thing we have to do is lay aside our lives as we have made them, our idols as we have formed them, our lesser desires as we habitually choose them. Over and over again, however, the ghosts (those who have arrived on the bus), most of them, anyway--are unable to do those things. They refuse the entreaties of the Spirits, will not believe the promise, refuse to take their journey to the Mountain. They consider the Spirits untrustworthy, the promise a lie, and for those reasons regularly and even hastily choose to return to the shadows, even under the threat of coming Night.
To live, all we have to do is die--give up what we think makes us who we are so that God can remake us into what only God can. We set aside pride, rights, exclusive devotion to less than God; we begin to want, just begin to desire God for God's sake (and not God for others' sake; we do not, for example, desire heaven to be reunited with Aunt Minerva, but to be reunited with God. Then, but only then, do we find that Aunt Minerva is there with us). That seed of loving God at the expense of ourselves, at the expense of other, lesser things--Lewis says our desires are not too strong but too weak—begins the transformation.
Lewis says it is a choice made many times each day. God says to us, "Thy will be done," and we reply either, "Yes, my will be done," or "No, THY will be done." In every moment, we are turning either toward God or away from God, toward joy or away from it toward something far less substantial, even unreal. It is in fact the reality of the valley of decision that is so off-putting for so many.
Then it was time to pray with the monks. As we entered the basilica, near the rear doors to the nave, there was a small bowl, hewn from rock, with holy water in it ("How do you make Holy Water?" the old joke begins. "Boil the hell out of it."). I dip my fingers in and mark my forehead with the sign of the cross, remembering my baptism and being thankful for spiritual friends and good books and a place to pray and men who have given their lives to this place and this kind of praying that a poor Methodist preacher might find a place in the choir.
I sit in the cool of the loft, preparing myself for prayer, praying to be able to pray, when suddenly I am aware of the cross on my forehead. There is moisture there, still, and it begins to feel strange...which is to say it begins to, well, burn on my forehead. It may be the breeze of the entering monks and others, the the cool of the river stone that forms the chancel, but something has caught the last bit of unevaporated water on my forehead and it irritates, annoys, begins to drive me crazy.
I think to reach up, wipe it off, as some say they have to remove the ashes on Ash Wednesday because they “make my head itch”--but I determine to let the water and the breeze do their full work on me, making me mad if they will, but I will not try to remove them… Conversely, I think of the man in The Great Divorce with the lizard on his shoulder, the lust in his heart, the touch and fire that would remove them but he fears the pain.
We begin mid-day Prayer. There is plaintive chant. There are Psalms. There is a reading from Jeremiah: "Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord."
The cross burns me as if branding my skull. I want to shout in the silence. "O My God, make haste to help me…O God, be not far from me"—but his presence is indeed a refining fire and I seem unable to endure this least evidence of his mercies or judgments. If I cannot endure this little water torture, this cruciform touch, this gift of water and the spirit, how shall I see him face to face? How shall I endure his appearing?
I have no source, no plea, no hope but in God himself. Let me hear what the Spirit says. Let the water and the blood do their horrible, wonderful, painful, healing work. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen and amen.