Harrowing Of Hell
August 3, 2014

Stepping Out into Infinite Happiness

Preacher: Wellesley Chapman

Welcome to August, when we send away the clergy to rest and prepare for stewardship season. Fortunately we have a deep pool of lay preaching talent, and when we’ve exhausted that resource, we draw from the vestry. And so I’m grateful to be here!

I’m going to cheat my way into my sermon this morning by referring us to our summer reading assignment from Doyt, delivered in his “Soul in Suffering” sermon on June 29. As a reminder, Doyt said: “This summer I’d like to encourage you to consider your soul by taking on the challenge of reading the Psalms. It is the study guide for the soul.” Has anyone already completed the assignment? Is anyone feeling a little behind? Let’s make some progress together then, by spending some time with today’s psalm, no. 145, and exploring where we see ourselves reflected in the words. The poetry is beautiful, comforting, and hopeful. I’ll repeat the first few verses from the lectionary:

The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is loving to everyone, *
and his compassion is over all his works.
The LORD upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.

This past week I encountered a good bit of suffering and fear around me, and wondered how that might be different if one fully embraced just these few words? It is easier imagined than achieved. When faced even with the banal stresses of daily life, God’s grace and compassion for us can seem quite distant. The pace of our lives can make it easy to get behind on our psalm reading, and our trust in God’s loving kindness gets further and further from our souls. And we suffer.

Last month Brooke and the girls and I took a family vacation to Montana and enjoyed a slower pace of life without internet and without cell phone access. We had each other (and magnificent mountains and rivers). And books! I took with me C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce as recommended by many of you who have read it in the Minyan or on your own. For those not familiar with the novel, it is a theological fantasy about residents of hell who are encouraged to take occasional bus excursions to heaven, have a look around, and consider if it might work well for them. Of course, one thinks, we’d all prefer eternity in heaven to any time in hell or purgatory. But it turns out to be more challenging for our tourists to manage. Because living in heaven requires letting go—completely—of the kingdoms in which we reign, where OUR will is done.

In the course of the novel we witness the struggles of several tourists (who appear as ghosts), unable to relinquish their fears, their justifications, possessions; incapable of believing (to quote Lewis) “that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned…has not been lost.” It is a powerful message: we are all born for infinite happiness. All that is required is that we desire it, and we “can step out into it at any time.” I find this…terrifying. Let me share an example from the book. A ghost-tourist who in life (and in hell) is an artist finds himself in conversation with a resident of heaven, represented as a spirit. In examining the perils of the artist’s life, the spirit says: “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”

This episode hit close to home. In my 20s I had a serviceable career as a stage actor. Initially I loved the work, the moment, the flow of connecting with an audience and telling a story. Initially, my expectations of myself were fairly low, but over time this changed. I worried about what others thought of me, and developed anxiety and fear about being discovered a fraud. It was not even clear to me what that meant, but the fear was real enough.

I made a plan to manage the fear by going out and getting some credentials. I would gain legitimacy through training. I decided that if I got a Master’s degree from Yale or Juilliard, then I would feel better and could return to enjoying my work as I had done in the beginning. I applied, and despite my questionable motives was allowed to audition. So I found myself then in a series of audition rooms before panels of expressionless faculty. At one such event, I performed a monologue from Never the Sinner, a dramatization of the Leopold and Loeb murder story. At the end the panel was silent. Then, flatly, one of them announced: “I saw that off Broadway last night.” What he didn’t say, and didn’t have to, is that the off Broadway version was better. Outside, a fellow applicant commiserated with me. “How’d it go?” she asked. “Not so well” I said. “Well, don’t worry about it. You’ve got really nice teeth,” she said. (That helped.)

I was unable to reconcile the tension between the joy of the work and the desire for status, and so my troubled soul started quietly seeking an exit. Within a year, I had turned my sights toward medical school. So if seeking an escape from a culture of status and achievement, I did not make any discernible progress. And the idea of escape is magical thinking anyway. The troubled ghosts in Lewis’s fantasy don’t escape either. Without deliberately choosing God, they all invariably get back on the bus and go home. It feels safer to cling to a reliable fear or self-righteousness than to let go, trust God, and say “thy will be done.”

Writing in a letter to his brother in 1940, Lewis said: “I begin to suspect that the world is divided not only into the happy and unhappy, but into those who like happiness and those who, odd as it seems, really don’t.” I see what he means. I’d like to like being happy. I really would. So how do I get there? It is certainly not a single step that takes us out into that infinite joy, but deliberate practice: prayer, meditation, worship, study. And reading your psalms! Because as any capability worth having is the product of deliberate practice, effort exerted, sometimes when we least desire it.

“The LORD is near to those who call upon him,
to all who call upon him faithfully.”

Inviting God’s grace and compassion into our souls requires effort: the hard work of letting go and being disciplined enough to step out into infinite happiness.