Saturday, March 12, 2016

Damnation, according to Catherine of Siena

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be damned? Catherine of Siena received a revelation from God of the torments and sufferings of the damned in her Dialogue, and it's hardly a very enjoyable experience to think about, let alone to undergo it yourself.

As for those persons, God tells her, words could never describe the suffering of these wretched little souls (The Dialogue §38). Indeed, the descriptions that she gives are very disturbing, and speak to the wretchedness of damnation.

The first suffering of the damned is the fact that they are deprived of seeing God. They are without the beatific vision, and Catherine says that this is a tremendous misery: This is so painful for them that if they could they would choose the sight of me along with the fire and excruciating torments, rather than freedom from their pains without seeing me. Better a world with pain and suffering and at least some consciousness of God, than to be utterly alone, even in comfort and freedom from travail. the damned therefore lament the fact that they are removed from the sight of God.

The second torment is what Catherine calls the worm of conscience: damned persons are constantly tormented by their conscience, which is suddenly invigorated upon their death. Though in their lifetimes these sinful persons had dulled the bite of conscience and covered its voice with their sins, yet in death, when they are obligated to confront themselves and God and their eternal destiny, their conscience is newly awakened and torments them. They realize they have acted wrongly and have done what is evil.

The third torment, which to my mind is the gravest and most disturbing, is this: the sight of the devil. Catherine says that this sight doubles every other torment of the damned. To see the devil face to face, the hideous, evil, darksome creature that he is: this is one of the miseries of damnation. On the one hand, the damned are deprived of the beatific vision -- the sight that makes happy -- which is to see God. On the other hand, they are inevitably subjected to what we might call the malorific vision: the sight that makes miserable. Catherine writes:

At the sight of me the saints are in constant exultation, joyously refreshed in reward for the labors they bore for me with such overflowing love and to their own cost. But it is just the opposite for these wretched little souls. Their only refreshment is the torment of seeing the devil, for in seeing him they know themselves better: that is, they recognize that their sinfulness has made them worthy of him. And so the worm gnaws on and the fire conscience never stops burning.

Their suffering is even worse because they see the devil as the really is -- more horrible than the human heart can imagine. ... For my divine justice makes him look more horrible still to those who have lost me, and this in proportion to the depth of their sinfulness.

And finally, the fourth torment is fire, a kind of spiritual fire that burns the damn but does not consume them, because (at least until the resurrection) they are without body.

All these torments, then, will afflict the damned, as Catherine is made to know: the loss of the beatific vision; the gnawing worm of conscience; the malorific vision of the devil; and the fire. The thought of these things is miserable and induces dread in anyone who takes the threat of damnation seriously. But Catherine knows that God tells her these things not to satisfy a morbid curiosity, but for the sake of intercession. God tells her:

For the going there [i.e., in hell] is most wearisome and there is neither refreshment nor any benefit at all, because by their sinfulness [the damned] have lost me, the supreme and eternal Good. So there is good reason -- and it is my will -- that you and my other servants should feel continual distress that I am so offended, as well as compassion for the harm that comes to those who so foolishly offend me (§28).

And elsewhere Catherine notes that the medicine by which [God] willed to heal the whole world and to soothe his wrath and divine justice was humble, constant, holy prayer (§19). God even promises Catherine, after she receives a vision of the whole world contained in God's fist, that: [All people] are mine; I created them, and I love them ineffably. And so, in spite of their wickedness, I will be merciful to them because of my servants, and I will grant what you have asked of me with such love and sorrow (§18). And God himself enjoins her to pray and intercede: You, my servants, come into my presence laden with your prayers, your eager longing, your sorrow over their offense against me as well as their own damnation, and so you will soften my divinely just wrath (§17). Indeed, God says: I have one remedy to calm my wrath: my servants who care enough to press me with their tears and bind me with the chain of their desire. You see, you have bound me with that chain -- and I myself gave you that chain because I wanted to be merciful to the world (§15).

So the revelation of damnation is an unhappy one, hardly a cause for rejoicing. On the contrary, it inspires in us two things: first, a dread and a watchfulness over ourselves, lest we fall into the trap through negligence; and second, tearful and passionate intercession on behalf of a lost world, sot hat God might be merciful to it and save it from these terrors.

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