Monday, July 10, 2023

The Visit

I visited Hell the other day by way of Fisgard Street, which I always considered as veritable an entrance as any. I hoped to gain permission to see an old friend who had been recently admitted there.

Jack was a good man. Nonetheless, the evidence of his good deeds was ruled inadmissible, made into rags, then deemed too filthy even for that purpose, and incinerated.

I had gone to the better place. I was assured that this was not on my own merit and that I was saved by the skin of my teeth; in fact, was slightly singed. Most of my good deeds were also burned up, and what was left I hardly remembered doing. But at least I was there.

Jack was delighted to see me, evidenced by a ghastly kind of grimace, and offered me tea, which I declined. I found myself at a loss for words in the presence of a man so condemned. We sat in silence for some time.

“Well, then, shall we go for a walk?” he suggested suddenly. He chuckled when I looked around at the small perimeter of his cell. “Not in here, of course, though you will see that I have already worn a path in the concrete as I do my daily rounds.” He stood and pushed the bars, which were not locked, and led me down a dark hallway to a metal door, which opened at a touch.

As we walked through, the brightness of the day outside overwhelmed my dulled senses. It took me a moment to see that we were once again on the sidewalk along Fisgard Street on a particularly raw November morning. “What? You’re permitted to wander the streets at will?” I asked in surprise.

“Oh yes, any time I like. It’s encouraged, really, though not out of benevolence, I think.” He shook his head sadly, “No, the time for that is long past.”

We walked for some blocks in the chill and clammy shadows. There were many homeless persons here, as always, and Jack greeted most of them by name. I thought I had never seen him so magnanimous. But they never looked up at his good-mornings and he received no response. I began to think that they were not aware of his presence and wondered if I too was but a shade to them. But the first person I spoke to looked up sharply, saw who I was, snarled something I won’t write down and went back to his dark thoughts.

Jack looked at me longingly as we continued. “How I would love to be cussed at again!” he lamented. “I would welcome even a punch to the head. Anything, to be seen and heard and recognized.”

“So they are not aware of you?”

“No, not one. No word I say cheers them, my smile is worthless, and anything I try to give them is immaterial.” My friend stared at an old, diseased dog lying in a box of rags beside an elderly woman, stared at it with a hunger as if to eat the creature. “Not even their dogs know me.”

“You must feel very lonely at times, Jack,” I said.

He glanced at me sharply. “Lonely? That’s not the half of it. Nor the tiniest portion.” He seemed to suddenly shrink within himself as he continued, “I am ALONE. You are my first and only visitor, all this wretched time. And why they let you in, I have no idea. Not for my benefit, I’m sure.”

“No others talk with you there?”

“My cellmates?” Jack laughed. “They are as unaware of me as these. The only one who ever takes notice of me is my keeper. But he’s an angel, and they’re a cold lot.”

We continued walking in silence, as I could think of nothing to say to comfort this man. Turning a corner, I nearly stumbled over a small shape huddled against the wall of what appeared to be some kind of medical clinic. A long row of others reached toward the front door, and the form at my feet was at the end of the line.

I crouched down on the sidewalk, and a face glanced up at me. It was young in form, but her once beautiful features were blotched with deep purple contusions and open sores. I recognized the ravages of advanced AIDS on flesh that was no longer capable of protecting itself, save by the dark glasses she wore to dull the light of day. Her head dropped back into her arms.

I was certain I had never seen this woman before, so I was surprised to know her name. “Elizabeth.” As I spoke, she slowly raised her head, looked at me and smiled in recognition. I sought to see her eyes through the dark lenses and could not, and then was startled by my reflection in the glass.

It was not me at all. I’m a balding white fellow with a bit of grey beard. The man in the glasses was tawny and young, with long, dark hair and full beard, and eyes full of delight and joy, not the sorrow I felt for this person. She reached up and touched my face with ice-cold fingers, and I told her without words that all was well and she would be with me soon. She nodded, and then the cloud settled back over her glowing face, which she once again buried in her arms.

As I stood, Jack looked at me in wonder and amazement, then in fury. “How—dare—you!” he exclaimed, clipping his words. “How the bloody hell dare you! And I believed you were my friend…” He looked ready to explode, but with great effort he regained his dignity, straightened his tie and jacket and said, “You didn’t have me fooled for a moment, you know,” and walked away.

I remained, flabbergasted for a moment, then set off to catch him up. When I did, I stood in front and stopped him. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Jack!”

He looked at me slyly and replied, “Oh, look at you now—all innocence, of course. As if I wouldn’t recognize you (or Whatever has invaded your body). She certainly did!” Before I could protest, he continued, heat rising, reddening his face and neck, “It’s so like you to throw all your mercies on that wastrel of human existence. To be sure, she deserved only coal in her stocking every Christmas. While every day I worked my best for the sake of humanity!

“And on you go about faith the size of a mustard seed, as if that makes all the difference.” He was almost screaming the words now. Bits of foam flecked his beard and struck my face. “Well, you won’t catch me with any of that drivel, that fawning submission! A mustard seed is enough to poison any man, and reduce the glory of humanity to that of a slug in the dirt. She’s a fine example, is she not?” he laughed, jerking a thumb in the direction we had just come.

The unfairness was staggering, but I knew that nothing I could say would penetrate my friend’s well-reasoned hardness of heart. I found I did not even have tears for him, since mine had all been wiped away. One thing my friend had right: benevolence was long past.

We reached the door by which we had entered Fisgard Street. He opened it as if to leave without saying goodbye, but checked himself and faced me “And don’t bother yourself to come visit again,” he said. “You’ve only made things worse by it! You always have, you know.” And with that, he walked through the dark opening and slammed the door behind him.

I stepped forward and seized the handle. But the door—which had opened at our touch on the way out—was resolutely locked on the inside. I sighed, turned away and set out for Home.

   - A Reflection on CS Lewis’ words: “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside.” The Problem of Pain

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