Grace: A deep awareness of the pain suffered by those damned to hell, so that if I should forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of punishment will help me to avoid sin.
Text for Prayer: Revelation 14:6-11
Reflection: I was away on a retreat this weekend at a retreat center in a rural area where there must be a high mineral content to the water. Disturbingly, for the retreatant who desires to take a shower at this locale, the water has a rather eggy smell and leaves the skin feeling slimy and soapy, even after all the soap has been rinsed away. Other amenities, such as beautiful, peaceful grounds and a lovely chapel tend to compensate for this annoyance and, as far as I know, all of our students had a splendid retreat in spite of the stinky water.
What does any of this have to do with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola? Interestingly enough, in the fifth exercise of the First Week of the Exercises, St. Ignatius invites us to spend a little time contemplating the bitter smell of sulphur—using the interior sense of our imagination. This is one of the first instances in the Exercises of the method of prayer that St. Ignatius calls the application of the senses. An application of the senses is when our contemplation takes on a deeper richness through the application of our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and even taste to the material being contemplated. In this case, the application of the senses is employed in order to help us to meditate on hell.
Hell is something we tend not to think about too much these days. Because of this, I think there’s much wisdom in St. Ignatius’ approach of contemplating hell not just through an intellectual exercise in which we might consider what purpose hell serves or why souls go there, but rather to contemplate it through a visceral journey of the imagination in which we experience in an almost real way the terrors of hell, thus becoming thoroughly convinced that it is a place or state where we never, ever want to wind up.
When considering why St. Ignatius wants us to meditate on hell, we should recall that he is trying to help us to become Catholic and Christian to the core. He wants us to have a solid foundation so that we will always strive to do God’s will and order our lives to His praise and service, even during times when temptations are strong we do not clearly perceive God’s closeness and tender love. For this reason, Ignatius recommends a meditation on hell so that, even if we were at some point to forget the love the Eternal Lord, nevertheless a healthy dread of hell would be enough to prevent us from sinning.
With this in mind, we can think about how to use our five senses to contemplate hell. For some individuals, a traditional vision of hell replete with fire, smoke, and brimstone will work well. In this case, you can use your mind’s eye to see souls trapped in the inescapable flames of hell. Picture their bodies and faces as they suffer and inspect carefully with your sense of vision this dreadful sight. Likewise, use your sense of hearing to listen to the screaming and groaning of the condemned souls and the wail of the demons who torment them. Use your olfactory sense to smell the smoke and burning sulphur that fills the whole expanse of hell. Taste the bitterness of the tears that are shed with remorse in hell and the sadness of souls that can never be forgiven. Finally, touch the flames that surround and imprison the souls of the damned.
On the other hand, you may find it easier to contemplate hell based on hellish experiences from our present lives. St. Ignatius says that when we listen to the wailing and screaming in hell, we can imagine that we hear people screaming blasphemies against Christ and against all His saints. Certainly all of us have had the sad experience of hearing hateful speech uttered against the Lord and His disciples. What would it be like to listen to speech like this without interruption for all eternity? My personal fear of hell is based on the idea that hell is a place where intelligibility and rational communication are no longer possible, since sin is, after all, opposed to reason. What would it feel like to be forever trapped in a place where meaningful communication were no longer possible? You may find it helpful to spend some time imagining how painful such an experience would be.
However you choose to imagine hell, consider what would be most bitter, most offensive, most painful for you to endure, and imagine being stuck in such a condition for all eternity without so much as a drop of water to bring you relief (Lk 16:24). But then—and this is very important—conclude the meditation with a very tender one-on-one conversation with Jesus. Think of all the souls that, for some reason or other, may have ended up in hell. Talk to Jesus about the fact that He has decided to spare you from this pain and torment. Tell Him sincerely from your heart that you are grateful for all the mercies and kindnesses that He has showered upon you up to the present moment. Finally, conclude with gratitude in your heart for being saved in Christ Jesus and not condemned to hell by praying an Our Father.