A Child’s Introduction to Hell

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the video series Thomas the Tank Engine (based on the books by the Rev. W. Awdry).  Thomas and his friends inhabit the island of Sodor.  They are sentient, anthropomorphic combinations of train engine and various manifestations of people (like a literary concept of archetypes). In one of the episodes titled “Granpuff,” there is a story-within-the-story about an engine by the name of Smudger.  Smudger is a very bad engine who doesn’t like to do work and frequently throws himself off the tracks.  The station manager warns him to stop being bad, but Smudger ignores the warnings.  So the station manager takes Smudger’s wheels off and turns him into a generator.  As the narrator ominously concludes, “He’s still out there, behind our shed. He’ll never move again.”  The camera pulls away from Smudgers face, encaged behind a brick wall, his eyes wide and looking terrified.

I know this cartoon series well because both of my sons really enjoyed it when they were a bit younger.  But the episode I mention above was especially well-loved by my son Jasper, so I became very familiar with it.  The look on Smudger’s face at the end of the show always sent a chill up my spine.   At the time it reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Cask of Amontillado.”  I can almost hear Smudger’s Sodorian-equivalent cries of “For the love of God, Montresor!”

Ever since my wife (the theology student) took a class called “The Last Four Things” (Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven), taught by Dr. Regis Martin, we have had frequent conversations about the various aspects of those 4 things, but especially about hell.  The word invokes terrifying images of torments, searing fire, and pain.  All of those associations with hell are popular notions and depictions, sort of like the Cinerama Technicolor version of eternal damnation.

The Church, in the Catechism, explains it thus:  “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom…. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of Hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1861).

And St. John of the Cross said, “In the evening of our lives, we shall be judged on love.”

Dr. Martin, along with a number of other theologians, elaborates a bit more on hell.  Hell, as the Church explains, is the absence of God.  Since God is pure love, hell is the absence of love: love of neighbor, love of self, love of anything or being loved by anyone.  The absence of love is: loneliness.  Not loneliness like missing your wife while she’s out shopping, or missing that turkey stuffing that your mom used to make.  It’s the utter annihilation of any possibility of even knowing anything like love.

Now, a few years later, I reflect on how Smudger’s predicament is a form of hell: unable to move and entirely alone.  The cartoon is a metaphor for hell, a child’s introduction to hell.  The chill going up my spine is still there and growing stronger.





Hi-yo, Silver, away

The other day was my youngest daughter’s birthday.  By happy coincidence it was also my birthday.  She turned 5 years old, and so did I (except that there’s another number in front of my 5).

Due to the “busyness” factor of our family, our birthday celebrations were stretched out over 3 days.  Today, 5 days after my birthday, my wife found a present that Gloria had made for me.  It was in a gift bag, and I had the honor of opening yet another present in front of the family.

Inside the gift bag were a couple of wads of tissue paper, and inside one of the wads was something wrapped and taped in more tissue paper.  Opening this I found an aluminum foil packet about the size of the palm of my hand.  I opened the packet and inside were little pieces of aluminum foil, some were rolled up like balls.

I said, “Wow, Gloria.  What is it?”

She said, “Silver bullets.”

My heart just melted.  My daughter thinks I’m the Lone Ranger!  I really like the Lone Ranger, but didn’t think my fondness for the masked man had registered with her that deeply.

Do you know why the Lone Ranger used silver bullets?  The movies and TV show about the Lone Ranger are based on a series of books by Fran Striker Jr.  I’ve only read the first one, appropriately titled “The Lone Ranger.”  It’s a fictional origin story of the Lone Ranger, giving the back story to his name and “accoutrement” (that’s French for all the cool stuff he wore).  It explains that silver is a fairly soft metal, so that bullets made of silver won’t kill anyone, but is more like a punch.  As the Lone Ranger puts it: ” I don’t shoot to kill.  I want a silver bullet to be a symbol of justice.”

Fran Striker also wrote a “Lone Ranger Creed,” part of which reads: “… God put the firewood there but that every man must gather and light it himself.”  Think of that the next time you gather around the old campfire.  It’s fun to sit there and swap stories or jokes, perhaps trying to top the last whopper with something bigger and better.

Our mouths, like a six-shooter, are capable of shooting lead or silver.  The Book of James, in Chapter 3 says: “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers.”

This Lent I’m going to gentle my words, to try hard to control my mouth.  To think before I talk.  Maybe I really don’t need to top the last whopper.


Yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?



VIRGINIA, your little friends are right.  Believe in Santa Claus! You might as well believe in fairies!

Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were a Santa Claus.  There would be no need for parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, or kindly aunts and uncles to spend money in stores for presents to give you on Christmas.  Stores would go out of business.  The economy would collapse.  To quote George Banks: “… disorder, catastrophe! Anarchy! In short, you have a ghastly mess!”

Yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus! Thank God! But the all-mighty media and businesses dependent on this type of lie claims that he lives.  And unfortunately a thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, the lie will continue to deceive the heart of childhood.

9 months

Lately I’ve been meditating on our Blessed Mother, and especially on the Incarnation and her Fiat.

Mary was living the divine life, the life of love.  When the Angel said to her “Hail, full of grace” it’s a comment on her holy life, which can be measured by the proportion of grace that is given.

Her response to the Angel, who announced that she would give birth to a child who is God, indicates complete humility: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.”

And then she says, “may it be done to me according to your word.”  These are words of a willingness to receive, a willingness to be submissive to the love of God.

When we are at Mass, after the priest consecrates the Precious Body and Blood of our Savior, we also say words of submission and a willingness to receive His love.  We say “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  After this we participate in the Divine Sacrament and eat Christ’s Precious Flesh and Blood.

I wonder whether Mary, our Blessed Mother, was the very first “receiver” of the Eucharist.  In her Fiat she submits and then receives Christ: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.  And not only that, but his Humanity as well.

Mary lived with Christ inside of her for 9 months.  Every heartbeat of hers, every breath, every morsel of food she ate, nourished the Divine Child within her.

When we partake of the Eucharist, the consecrated species (body/blood) lasts about an hour or two, until it is dissimilated by our body’s natural functions.  The Sacrament that we receive through Communion abides with us until we commit a mortal sin.

I think about what it would be like to be Mary, to have the real Presence inside of me for 9 months.  Then I realize that every time I go to Mass, I have the incredible privilege to be like Mary, to have Christ inside of me.

For a little while.

“Have fun storming the castle!”

And with those words my wife bade me adieu as I went to work.

It doesn’t help that I was listening to “The Lord of the Rings” on tape as I commute.  Frodo and Sam were in Shelob’s lair, and the darkness and oppression of her cave are descriptive of the weather on leaving the house. Oh well, as Sam says: “Now for it.”

The days are warming up (in the 30s and 40s, *above* zero) and the nights are in the 20s. This can only mean two things: it’s Lent, and the sap is running in the trees!

For the last few years I have made modest amounts of maple syrup from our modest amounts of sugar maple trees. The first time I did it I honestly thought that I had witnessed a miracle. Some 10 hours of boiling gallons of sap yielded a couple of pints of amber looking fluid. One taste told part of the tale, and the faces on the kids who tasted it told the rest of the story: it was indescribably wonderful!

I was a Log Cabin man before this. What was good enough for my childhood was good enough for my adulthood. But it was time to put away childish things, and it was time to read the label on the bottle! Fercryinoutloud there’s no maple in the blasted thing!

I don’t have professional equipment. All I have is the kitchen stove, a big soup pot and some big sauce pans and some 5 gallon buckets. There are only about 6 or 7 sap-producing maples on my land so if I get a 10 gallons of syrup I’m doing well. Start boiling early, and finish up late. The first 10 hours of boiling is boring. The evaporation rate on a stove is tedious. I’ve heard that boiling sap in the kitchen will take the wallpaper off the walls, but since my wife wants to replace the wallpaper in our kitchen  I think I’m doing us a favor!

It’s that last hour of boiling, when the remaining sap is near the syrup point. The sap lingers at a point just before that for some time. Then BAM! It’s there and you’ve got to move fast! So in that long steamy day I get the bottles and lids ready for that BAM moment.

What, you may be asking yourself, has this got to do with Lent?  I’m reminded of John 15 when Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”  We’re like trees waiting to be tapped, but not so that the sap flows out, but so that His sap, His love, flows in and abides in us.  During this Lent I feel myself like a dormant tree, slowly awakening from a wintry slumber and looking forward to the refreshment of Spring.  We are Easter people; recovering from His Passion and overflowing with his merciful love.  I pray that our branches do not wither and die, but rather bear the fruit of His love to share with others.

But for now, I’m still waiting for the drip and trickle flow of sap from those spouts.