A Salutary Fear of Hell
We ought to believe in Hell, because we may fall into it. Alas! It is very easy to be damned, and the damned are very numerous. St. Teresa compares them to the flakes of snow which fall in the dreary days of winter. The servant of God, Anthony Pereyra, in a very authentic vision with which he was favored (see Ch. 2), saw the souls of sinners descending into the pit like corn beneath the millstones, like stones cast in heaps into a huge limekiln. God showed one day before a large multitude that they fall into it as the dead leaves in autumn fall from the trees under the breath of the wind. The venerable Father Anthony Baldinucci, a celebrated missionary of the Company of Jesus, who died in the odor of sanctity in the year 1717, was preaching in the open air, because the church could not contain the faithful who came in crowds to hear him. Speaking of Hell, he said, "My brethren, would you know how great is the number of those who are damned? Look at that tree." All eyes were turned to a tree that was there, covered with leaves. At the same moment a gust of wind, rising, shook all the branches of the tree, and caused the leaves to fall so plentifully that there remained only a certain number of them, thinly scattered and easy to count. "See," went on the man of God, "what souls are lost, and what souls are saved. Take your precautions to be among the latter."
Father Nieremberg speaks of a bishop, who by a special permission of God, received a visit from an unhappy sinner who had died impenitent a short time before. Addressing the prelate, this damned soul demanded if there were men still on earth. As the bishop seemed astonished at this question, the lost soul added: "Since I have been in that melancholy abode, I have seen such a prodigious multitude arrive, that I am at a loss to conceive that there are men still on earth." This speech recalls that of the Savior in the Gospel. "Enter ye in at the narrow gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate and strait is the way that leadeth to life; and few there are that find it!" (Matt. 7:13-14).
To avoid Hell, it is necessary to avoid the road to it, and to destroy the cause of damnation, that is, sin, under all its forms. Men permit themselves to be allured to their ruin by different bonds of iniquity, sometimes by one, sometimes by another. There are many who die in their sins because they are deprived of the Last Sacraments, and among those who receive them, there are not a few who are lost because they lack sincerity in the accusation of their sins. Here is an incident which we read in the Annals of Paraguay, during the year 1640. In the Reduction (Jesuit mission plantation) of the Assumption, a woman died who had left a son of about 20 years. This young man beheld his mother appear to him in the most frightful condition. She told him that she was damned for not having made a sincere Confession, and that many others were damned like her for having concealed their sins in Confession. "And you," she added, "do profit by the example of your unfortunate mother."
Father Nieremberg mentions also another damned person who revealed the cause of his damnation. A young man was leading an apparently Christian life, but he had an enemy whom he hated, and while frequenting the Sacraments, he all the while harbored in his heart sentiments of ill-will and revenge, which Jesus Christ commands to be discarded. After his death, he appeared to his father and told him that he was damned for not having forgiven his enemy, after which he exclaimed with an accent of unutterable sorrow: "Ah! If all the stars in Heaven were so many tongues of fire, they could not express what torments I endure!"
Let us listen again to the same author. An unhappy man who had the habit of taking pleasure in immodest thoughts fell sick and received the Last Sacraments. The next day his confessor, going to visit him again, saw him on the road coming to meet him. "Go no further," he said to him, "I am dead and damned." "How?" demanded the priest. "Did you not make a good confession of your sins?" "Yes, I made a good confession, but afterwards the devil represented to me sinful pleasures, and asked me whether in case of a cure I should not return again to my pleasures? I consented to these evil suggestions, and at the same moment death surprised me." Then, opening his garment, he showed the fire that was devouring him and disappeared.
We read also in Father Nieremberg that a noble lady, who was exceedingly pious, asked God to make known to her what displeased His Divine Majesty most in persons of her sex. The Lord vouchsafed in a miraculous manner to hear her. He opened under her eyes the Eternal Abyss. There she saw a woman a prey to cruel torments and in her recognized one of her friends, a short time before deceased. This sight caused her as much astonishment as grief: the person whom she saw damned did not seem to her to have lived badly. Then that unhappy soul said to her: "It is true that I practiced religion, but I was a slave of vanity. Ruled by the passion to please, I was not afraid to adopt indecent fashions to attract attention, and I kindled the fire of impurity in more than one heart. Ah! If Christian women knew how much immodesty in dress displeases God!" At the same moment, this unhappy soul was pierced by two fiery lances, and plunged into a caldron of liquid lead.
Thomas of Cantimpre, a learned religious of the Order of St. Dominic, relates that there was at Brussels an unhappy sinner, the slave of intemperance and the other vices which it foments. He had a friend, the companion of his dissipation, to whom he was greatly attached. A sudden death put an end to his disorders. His sorrowful companion, after having accompanied him to the grave, had returned home and was alone in his chamber, when he heard moans underground. Frightened at first and not knowing what to do, he ventured at length to ask who it was that he heard moaning. "It is I, your companion, whose body you attended to the grave. Alas! My soul is buried in Hell." Then, uttering a cry, or rather a dreadful roar, he added, "Woe to me! The abyss has swallowed me, and the pit has closed its mouth upon me."
Louis of Granada speaks of a young woman whose damnation had no other source than vanity and the desire to please. She led a regular life, but her passion to attract attention by the charm of her beauty was the moving cause of her whole conduct. Having fallen sick, she died, having received all the Sacraments. While her confessor was praying for her soul, she appeared to him, saying that she was damned, and that the cause of her damnation was vanity. "I sought," she added, "only to please the eyes of men. This passion caused me to commit a multitude of sins; it prevented me from receiving the Sacraments well, and it has led me to everlasting torments."
A usurer had two sons who followed the evil example of their father. One of the two, touched by God, forsook his guilty profession and retired to the desert. Before setting out, he exhorted his father and brother with tears to think, like him, of the salvation of their souls. It was to no purpose; they persevered in sin, and died in a state of impenitence. God permitted the solitary to know their unhappy condition. In an ecstasy he saw himself on a high mountain at the foot of which was a sea of fire, from which arose confused cries, like a tempest. Soon, in the midst of these burning waves, he perceived his father and brother, furiously raging against each other, mutually upbraiding and cursing each other and holding this dreadful dialogue: "I curse thee, detestable son! It is for thee that I did injustice and lost my soul." "I curse thee, unworthy father, who ruined me by thy bad example." "I curse thee, foolish son, who joined thy father in his sins." "I curse thee, the author of my life, who reared me up for damnation!" Behold how wicked parents and wicked children will eternally rend one another by reciprocal maledictions. (Lives of the Fathers of the Desert).
Chapter 9: The Thought of Hell
Four Last Things Page