by Christopher Howell
Burning burning burning burning O Lord
Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
~ T.S. Eliot ~
“When you asked me about hell the other day,” wrote Philip Sherrard in a 1966 letter to the poet George Seferis, “were you being serious?”
I came across this letter while researching another subject related to Sherrard and Seferis—part of a continual preoccupation I have had with science, Orthodoxy, and modern Greek literature. But I was struck by Sherrard’s tone—tentative, circumspect, and yet earnest. The question was haunting: would Seferis, who had just that same year completed an essay on Dante and The Divine Comedy as part of the 700th anniversary of the great poem, ask about something as somber as hell with flippancy? Would anyone?
Despite the uncertain beginning, Sherrard launched into a “Wednesday evening sermon” and laid out for Seferis a universalist vision that he took to be central to Orthodoxy. Sherrard, who was obsessed with tradition, drew on the legacy of the liturgy and the Fathers to articulate his eschatology, which would be familiar to anyone who has studied apokatastasis. “This idea,” wrote Sherrard,
that there is a place called paradise where the good enjoy eternal bliss and another place called hell where the bad suffer for ever has got deeply embedded in people and passes for a Christian idea, and there is a whole tradition of teaching which tries to make people good by terrifying them with visions of eternal punishment if they sin (and the sins, too, are laid out in neat categories). It is all rather disgusting and is the kind of thing Blake was always attacking.
Rather, for Sherrard, one must turn to the liturgy for an alternate vision. “Also it doesn’t seem very Orthodox,” he continued, “whatever they may say, especially if one remembers those words of the Easter morning liturgy about hell having been destroyed (or put to death, which is the same thing).”
As Sherrard reminds, liturgical words, especially in Holy Week, are tinged with universalist color, and this must be remembered when considering apokatastasis and damnation. As Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyen has written, very often even professional theologians “underestimate the role of liturgical tradition.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his journals, lamented how far theology could stray from liturgy, especially Holy Week. “I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy week,” he wrote, “Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of the theology is there.”
Beginning on Lazarus Saturday we hear of the rebirth of Lazarus as a foretaste of “the universal resurrection,” but one that will be made general at the end of Holy Week. During matins, we hear, “When you arose You raised Adam with yourself and from Hades liberated everyone.” But on that day, only Lazarus is raised, and so in the last hymn of matins we beg Christ, “You fulfilled Your word in action by calling back Lazarus from Hades. Resurrect me, also, for I am dead through passions.” The anxiety sets in on Palm Sunday evening, when during the Bridegroom service Psalm 87 (88) is sung, and we worriedly fret:
For my soul is full of trouble,
and my life draws near to Hades.
I have been counted among those who
go down to the pit;
I became like those who have no help,
adrift among the dead, like the wounded ones, cast out, who sleep in the tombs,
like those whom thou rememberest no more,
for they were cut off from thy hand.
Is there no respite? Is there no remembrance? Is there no help?
Is thy mercy declared in the grave,
or thy truth in Hades?
Are thy wonders known in the darkness, or thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
We repeat the same Psalm on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, during the Holy Unction service, the priest reminds us at the end of the service of Christ’s promise, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” But on Friday —on Good Friday, on Holy Friday—we hear at Great Vespers of the Apokathelosis, in an early hymn, “the Friend of humanity is lifted up on a cross, in order to free the prisoners in Hades, who cry to Him, “Long-suffering Lord, glory to You!”
And during the Lamentations on Holy and Great Friday, the descent commences, and the Psalmist entombed in Hades hears the evangelion as Christ descends and defeats and breaks the bonds of hell. “Your burial,” is sung in a troparion after the reading of Psalm 50 (51), “opened the entrances of life to me. By Your death You put Hades and death to death.” The message is repeated endlessly, and the truth is made known to all who linger in the abode of death. The choir sings in the canon, “But what You once kept secret, O Master, now, as God and man, You clearly showed to those in Hades, who cried aloud, ‘No one is holy, but You, O Lord’.” The prophets of old foretold this, for Habakkuk saw that God “went to those in Hades and there cut off the heads of the rulers.” And Isaiah said, “The dead shall rise up, and those in the tombs shall arise, and all those in the earth shall be glad and greatly rejoice.” Christ “shattered the bonds of both Death and Hades”; “Hades was embittered in meeting You, O Logos.” Christ reaches down through the eons of time to the very first sin and sinners, to Adam and to Eve, to pluck them out: “The second Adam, who dwells in the heights, went down to the chambers of Hades, in order to save the first one.” Moreover, those who stood by the gates, those prison guards of eternal sorrow, were wracked with terror as Christ conquered Hades, and as Jesus says, “Earth covers Me by My own will. But the doorkeepers of Hades shudder and quake, as they behold that I am clothed in the bloodstained garment of vengeance. After I smite My enemies with the Cross, as God, O Mother, I will rise again and magnify you.” Hades is “wounded at its heart by receiving Him, whom a lance had wounded in the side. And it groans, consumed by the fire of divinity, for the salvation of us who sing, ‘O our God and Redeemer, You are blessed’.” And not only Adam, but “everyone who was born on earth, be glad! Hades, the enemy, has been despoiled…I am rescuing Adam and Eve and all mankind.” Closer to the end of the service, Christ is praised because he “shattered the dominion of death and opened the gates of Paradise for all mankind, glory to You!”
Who cannot be moved by the sequence of the Epitaphios service? What a sight it is when it is carried out into the darkness of hell in the night, a candled procession trailing behind, and all the congregants proclaiming songs of redemption and salvation for those souls who toil away, stopping at every corner of the earth—north, south, east, west—to announce the gospel message. “How could Hell endure it, when in splendor you came, and how not be swiftly shattered and plunged in dark, blinded by the blazing glory of your light?”
And then on Saturday night, during the Resurrection service, many of these words are repeated, but with now the vision of the resurrected Christ accompanying them—“When those who were captive in Hades’ bonds saw thy boundless compassion, they ran to the light with a joyful step, exalting the eternal Pascha.”
“Hades reigned over the human race,” we read and hear on Good Friday, “but would not do so forever.”
A straightforward reading of these passages would seem to preclude any contention that Christ’s rescue was only for a fortunate remnant—say, the Old Testament saints, or Adam and Eve. Why should the gate-keepers of Hades tremble if only a small selection are being extracted—does that not make Hades’s reign truly eternal? The doors would then not broken, merely locked again behind the fortunate elect. Of what power is the consuming fire of God if Hades endures and continues to exercise control over the vast majority of humanity throughout history? How else can the “everyone who was born on earth” be understood?
One of St. John of Damascus’s evening prayers reads, “For to save a righteous man is no great thing, and to have mercy on the pure is nothing wonderful.” Jesus himself says, “if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?” The Damascene says elsewhere that “there is nothing undeserved, nothing miraculous and nothing strange in that Christ should save the believers … So they all ought to have been saved and delivered from the bonds of hell.” In commenting on these passages, Metropolitan Hilarion argues that the Damascene, like many other church fathers, believed that “Christ opens the way to paradise for all and calls all to salvation,” though he seems to have believed that not everyone would take it. However, for Met. Hilarion, even if one cannot dogmatize it, there must nevertheless be openness to the idea that all can possibly be saved. “The church places its faith in this possibility above all through the paschal message of Christ’s victory of death and hell,” he writes in Christ the Conqueror of Hell, “which permeates like a cantus firmus all of the liturgical books of the Orthodox Church.”
I must here make a few observations about the differences (and similarities) between the various terms for hell: Hades and Gehenna in particular. Most of the English translations of the liturgy employ hell and Hades almost interchangeably. The service texts I drew on for this essay did so (the Seraphim Dedes version). Met. Hilarion likewise remarks that Hades can be understood both as the abode of the dead, like Sheol, as well as a place of seclusion and torment (as it is in the parable of Lazarus and Dives). He claims that “in many Byzantine patristic writings as well as in church liturgical poetry, all these terms are used synonymously. Depending on the context, they refer either to the underworld or, more frequently, to the place of torment for sinners after their death.”
There are scholars, however, who have argued that the distinction between hell and Hades is sharper than that, however, notably in the volume Round Trip to Hades in the Eastern Mediterranean Tradition (as pointed out to me by Thomas Arentzen, a contributor to the volume). Hades is often seen in patristic sources as a place and personification of death—not a good place, but not exactly the medieval notion of hell either. A critic of universalism might argue, then, that Hades is only the realm of the dead and the true hell—Gehenna—is “created” at the last judgment and all sinners are cast into it after. But even supposing this, there are still great difficulties for those opposed to universalism. In fact, the predicament may be worsened, not least because of the liturgy’s lack of such distinction.
For one thing, if the Bible is the source here, then the absolute distinction between Hades, Tartaros, and Gehenna completely breaks down, for these terms, though very different, are foundational for conceptions of hell as we interpret them and have often been translated interchangeably as hell (thus coloring all popular and liturgical perceptions). Indeed, they are the usual basis for the claims that hell is a place of torment, such as Jesus’s description of Hades in Lazarus and Dives, where it is a place of torment for the wicked, or when threatening Capernaum, whose banishment into Hades is so horrendous that “it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matt. 11:24). That banishment is the direct result from rejecting Christ (Luke 10:13-16). So, if Hades is to be characterized not as hell but as a Hellenic or Hebrew abode of the dead, then Christ’s comments on the matter must be nuanced—which is, of course, what universalists have been trying to do all along.
But then, if the opponent to universalism preserves Christ’s description of Hades as hell (a place of misery and torment, as it is for the rich man who neglected Lazarus), then the two must be fused together. But no sooner does that fusion transpire than comes the Petrine verses regarding the descent into Hades, the reference to the descent in the Apostle’s Creed, and the liturgical insistence upon that same event. Christ descends into hell, then, rescues those held captive, and utterly destroys its power—indeed putting it to death.
So either Hades and hell are synonymous, and Christ descends into it to destroy it and pull everyone out of it, or Hades is not hell, meaning all Christ’s and the Church Fathers’s references to Hades must be understood not as referencing eternal damnation but something else.
And what of the Last Judgment? And Gehenna? Here, too, there are deep liturgical difficulties for the opponent of universalism. Now, of course there are feasts which center the eternal fires of hell. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick lists a few. The Sunday of Last Judgement contains a number of references to “eternal fire,” “outer darkness,” “everlasting punishments,” and the “dread worm and the gnashing of teeth.” Is the last judgement different from the hope promised Easter?
Regarding the last judgement, Sherrard wrote, “this is a whole other subject,” but God’s provision for salvation is without end. For even after death, because Hades is destroyed and hell is, as Isaac of Nineveh wrote, only the fires of God’s love felt as torment by those who refuse it, there is hope for eventual restoration. One still “has the capacity to love and to accept love.” Continued Sherrard, quoting from Cabasilas and Augustine, “God created us without our help, but He cannot save us without our help.” The Orthodox do not have a doctrine of “purgatory” or “eternal hell,” according to Sherrard, because “even the soul in deepest hell still has the capacity to get out of it, is still capable of changing its mind/life (metanoia).” “This is why,” he noted, “the Orthodox pray for the dead—all the dead.” And he had no time for “clever bits of verbiage as that about hell existing but nobody being in it.”
Furthermore, as Schmemann has argued, the liturgy as a whole is eschatological. In For the Life of the World, he writes: “It is only because the Church’s leitourgia is always cosmic, i.e., assumes into Christ all creation, and is always historical, i.e., assumes into Christ all time, that it can therefore also be eschatological.” Easter, then, is “not a commemoration of an event, but— every year—the fulfillment of time itself, of our real time.”
And what of the conflicting language in the liturgy? One could do a tedious numbers game and calculate whether there are more of one or the other (and should one do this, as Met. Hilarion has shown, the universalist passages in the Octoechos, for instance, dwarf the non-universalist ones by several orders of magnitude); but should not one rather think about the central thrust of Christianity, and the absolute foundation of Pascha to that vision? Is the Last Judgement an abrogation of Easter or its fulfillment? Are not Easter and the Last Judgment meant to be unified in a holistic eschatological vision, and not arrayed against each other? The dead in Hades, according to the liturgy, should “be glad.” Which of these are the glad tidings, truly? To be plucked from Hades as it is mercilessly destroyed? Or to simply linger in an intermediate state until being thrown back in again? Is the good news merely a sign affixed to hell’s door: “Closed for renovation”?
Furthermore, the Greek version of the Sunday of Last Judgment also does not appear to reflect a bifurcation between Hades and Gehenna either (I owe this observation to Mark Chenoweth who pointed it out in an email). In the Greek both Hades and Gehenna are described the same way. During Matins, one hymn reads, “Terror and amazement seize me when I think of the unquenchable fire of Gehenna, of the bitter worm and gnashing teeth.” Yet, later we hear “Terror seizes me when I think of the unquenchable fire, of the bitter worm, the gnashing of teeth, and soul-destroying hell.” The latter in Greek is Hades. An absolute distinction between Hades and Gehenna is foreign to the liturgy. And so what to make of the conflicting language? We see in this service that Hades is the unquenchable fire and soul-destroying hell, but we also know that Christ descends into Hades and draws everyone out of it.
Mark Chenoweth has noted that in the hymns of the Sunday of Last Judgment, what is almost exclusively translated as “eternal” is the word aionios, which, as Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan have documented, has a potentially more ambiguous meaning than the word aei (or aeidios) might. While aionios can mean eternal, it can also mean a long time, or an age. In a comment on his article on Maximus the Confessor, Chenoweth observes that in the Sunday of Last Judgment, “everything translated as ‘eternal,’ or ‘everlasting,’ comes from a variation of Aionios. The closest we get to ‘absolutely eternal’ (aeidios) is aei, which seemed to be used in reference to God’s eternal will, not hell.” Even supposing aionios can mean eternal, however, the Pentecostal kneeling prayers make it more difficult to interpret the word as unequivocally endless. There, the very bars of hell are described as aionios even as Christ destroys them. Not even eternal bonds can prevent Christ’s descent, for we read that Christ “didst descend into Hell and break down its eternal (aionios) bars, showing forth the way up to those who sat in the lower world.” What may seem eternal is not so, and the eternal bars are broken and breached by Christ’s descent into hell and God’s liberation of those held captive. As Chenoweth pointed out in an email, “this would simply mean hell’s ‘eternity’ cannot overpower God’s ‘eternity’.” In a comment below, he writes “the aionios (eternity, if you want) of hell itself is said to ‘annihilated’.”
Furthermore, the kneeling prayers explicitly call on the faithful to offer petitions for those bound in hell, because even if they themselves refuse to offer supplication to God, we can ask on their behalf, for they might yet be drawn out of their darkness. “For the dead praise Thee not, neither do those in Hell dare to offer Thee confession, but we, the living, bless Thee, and supplicate Thee, and offer them propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls.” After all, God, “on this all perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hell, and grantest unto us the great hope that respite and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them.”
Regarding the Last Judgment, however, one should note that in the structure of the liturgical year, the Sunday of Last Judgment comes before Easter, not after. And even in that service, the text is that of a soul repeatedly pleading to God for rescue. There is horror at the sight of eternal punishments and unquenchable fires and the endless darkness of hell (Hades and Gehenna). Yet even as Christ the Judge is witnessed, the plea resounds, “Righteous Judge and Savior, have mercy on me, and deliver me from the fire that threatens me, from the punishment that I deserve to suffer at the Judgement. Grant me remission through virtue and repentance before the end!” The wretchedness of the sinner and the burden of their sins is repeated frequently through the Sunday matins, but it is significant that the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of Last Judgment ends with a shift in orientation.
The service ends with a reminder of what is to come and concludes with a meditation on the descent into hell and subsequent return to life. What will save those who are standing here awaiting judgment? The answer is clear: Easter. “For the Lamb of God will feed us on the radiant night of his resurrection. He is the victim offered for us,” the service concludes, “On the night when his mysteries shall be accomplished: the chains of darkness will be destroyed, and we shall enter into the light of his resurrection.” Even on the Sunday of Last Judgement, the orientation of the liturgy is to Easter and the granting of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.
The liturgical forefronting of Hades’s destruction also helps resolve lingering questions about universalism and history. I must admit, in a personal confession, that the most difficult thing to resolve about universalism and its truth or falsity is its historical defeat. For instance, I find David Bentley Hart’s argument convincing—logically, theologically, scripturally, and anthropologically—but I remain unnerved by the historical question. Hart mentioned how Augustine referred to a group of the “misericordes” (the merciful-hearted) as indication that there was at least a significant minority that held to the view. And Basil likewise, notes Hart, felt that a “large majority” of universalist Christians existed at the time, at least in the East.
Even if Hart is correct on these accounts, and I would count myself convinced.what of the gradual erosion of universalism in time afterward? Is history an argument against it? This was an element of Michael McClymond’s critique, as he explained they once had an email exchange in which McClymond attempted to establish authority by noting a “10-to-1” numerical superiority in Church Fathers who believed in eternal hell to those who did not.
Not being a patristics scholar, I cannot adjudicate the relative weight of McClymond’s point against Hart regarding tradition, but attention should be drawn to the arguments made by both Illaria Ramelli and Met. Hilarion that there were far more universalists than we usually recognize, including perhaps such figures as Athanasius and all the Cappadocians (beyond just Gregory of Nyssa). In a reply to McClymond’s list of sixty-eight fathers against universalism, Ramelli writes, “It is not the case that ‘the support for universalism is paltry compared with opposition to it’.” Many of the sixty-eight “in fact support apokatastasis” and those that remain against it are theologians of comparatively reduced stature. Met. Hilarion goes even further, and states there are “enough grounds” to agree with the Greek theologian I.N. Kamieres who argued in the 1930s that “according to the teaching of almost all the Eastern fathers, the preaching of the Savior was extended to all without exception and salvation was offered to the souls who passed away from the beginning of time, whether Jews or Greeks, righteous or unrighteous.” Many, it seems, if not fully embracing universalism, at least were open to its possibility, and most believed the opportunity to choose Christ was offered to all without restriction, even if some Fathers (like the Damascene) believed that some would still persist to reject this offer. Regardless, as Ramelli argues, it is a “Christian doctrine,” grounded in Scripture and tradition.
But perhaps this makes it even more tragic and difficult. How could, then, the edicts of Justinian, or the theology of Augustine’s two cities, so utterly obscure what appears to have been a widespread conviction? But here also is where the liturgy helps resolve—for when we read it, hear it, and sing it, we realize that the universalist hope never did disappear.
When the theologians do not speak, the liturgy has. For nearly two millennia Holy Week has been performed and witnessed by every generation of Christians. Every year the story of Christ’s conquering of hell is repeated, and every year the annihilation and death of Hades is proclaimed as the good news—not to the intellectuals, but to the average man, woman, and child. Every year the faithful walk the Good Friday procession and proclaim with candlelit song that Christ does not go gentle into that good night. And in the weeks after Easter, every Sunday for the duration of the season, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom concludes, “When you descended unto death, O life immortal, You destroyed Hades with the splendor of Your divinity” and “He has delivered us from the depths of Hades; and has granted to the world great mercy.” For centuries, priests have sung, intoned, and reminded us of the breathless vision of Hades’s destruction and the liberating power of the crucifixion and resurrection for all humanity.
“How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption?” asked Schmemann in his journal, “it is all in these services. The more I live, the more I am convinced that most people love something else and expect something else from religion and in religion.”
This bring me back at long last to George Seferis. A poet and diplomat, and the first Greek to win the Nobel Prize for literature, he was not especially pious, but he was intimate with the Orthodox church, read the Bible often and translated Song of Songs and Revelation into modern Greek, and saturated his poetry with religious imagery. He called himself an “empiric man,” and detested abstractions, especially theological ones, and favored the physicality of religion instead. As a learned outsider-insider to Orthodoxy, then, it is interesting that he seems to have developed his own apokatastatic sympathies—and where else could he have derived them but from the liturgy? The vision of Easter, testified all these centuries in the Holy Week services, still speaks, even when the theologians forget. And as Seferis said, Holy Week is the “loftiest form of springtime that I know.”
What was the response of poor Seferis to Sherrard’s letter? It was, unfortunately for him, a season of grief, for he had just lost his friend and fellow writer George Theotokas. Sherrard, who learned of Theotokas’s death after mailing his manifesto, was horrified that he might have launched into a soliloquy on hellfire while Seferis was in despair, and so sent another letter writing, “It must have seemed strange to you, and heartlessly indifferent,” but he stood by what he said—“Not that its themes were not appropriate.” He praised Theotokas’s life, and concluded, “he did seem a pillar bearing with purity, courage, and even deeper understanding of the living burden of Greece.”
Seferis, for his part, wrote back, “Many thanks for your ‘Wednesday evening sermon’, I was terribly interested in it. Only the trouble is that your kind answer creates other questions. So when you come again to Attica try to meet me.” Sadly, there is no record of whether they spoke about this again, nor what was said.
But we might be able to surmise a little of what Seferis thought. Idiosyncratic in his religious beliefs though he was, one of Seferis’s earliest and most famous poems—1932’s “The Cistern”— contains a description of the descent into hell and the Orthodox Holy Friday procession.
“Here, in the earth, a cistern has taken root,” it begins, translated by Sherrard himself. “Den of secret water that gathers there.” This cistern, according to Seferis biographer Roderick Beaton, is hell and sin—an erotic and mystical fusion of fornication and damnation beneath the surface of the earth. Above is the “curve of the dome of a pitiless night.” Down in the cistern “dusk approaches like passer-by / then night, then the grave.” There is no escape—“And a body hidden, deep cry / let out from the cave of death.” The poet is stuck in the cistern with his sin, “O gods, the crime / that daily grows and weighs upon us.” One stanza intones:
Gathering up the pain of our wound
So that we may escape the pain of our wound
Gathering up the body’s bitterness
So that we may escape the body’s bitterness
So that roses may bloom in the blood of our wound.
But outside, there is light—it is the funeral procession of the Epitaphios, the faithful have descended into hell too and are lighting the way. “Faces that go!…/ and the signs of the great day / take them up and bring them closer….” Here they come! The divine fire arrives to consume Hades, “Flames of the world beyond, candles / over spring surging forth today, / mournful shadows on dead wreaths / footsteps…footsteps … the slow bell / unwinds a dark chain.”
The poem concludes with the poet watching them enter the church “their sorrow / hot near the lowered church candles / that inscribed on their bent foreheads / the life full of joy at noon.” But he is not sure he can leave, the cistern “teaches silence,” and he knows that “night does not believe in dawn,” and so “like a free soul” he stands “in the flaming city.”
But that is not the last word. In Six Nights on the Acropolis, Seferis’s deeply weird and mercifully posthumous novel that he wrote and rewrote and finished in the 1950s, the same framework is there. In the beginning, Stratis Thalassinos—the main character and Seferis’s poetic alter ego—comments that he cannot accept the church, as noble as he finds it, because he cannot abide the division of humanity into the saved on one side and then the others “outside the walls, [who] are in pain and howl like dogs and cats.” Why should someone as noble as Homer “wander around in Limbo, with only yearning and no hope?”
There is a later scene that reproduces the exact event of “The Cistern”—a sinful tryst between lovers in the cistern, in hell, on Good Friday as the procession goes by. As Stratis says to his lover Salome, “We’ve damned ourselves today … we’ve been to hell today.” Stratis and Salome, who are deeply unlikeable characters involved in a destructive love triangle with another woman named Lala, torment each other in their infernal relationship (“the arduous readying of souls for the resurrection must be something like this”), and when Stratis expresses hope of one day emerging from his torments, Salome says, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to pass through a whole lot of hell.”
Pass through he does, and at the end of the novel, as he emerges from the hell of his life into something more mature; he begins to “grow out of his torture.” After Salome suddenly dies in an accident, Stratis is walking with Lala, who asks him, “Did you ever consider the other path? The path upward?” This question seems to be enforcing a kind of salvation against Stratis’s own plans, and he confesses he “felt dominated by another’s will.” Lala continues the question—has he considered “that our souls ultimately annihilate death and become skin and lips once again?” And as Stratis sees her, “she looked all aflame,” and he was in “great pain and the pain was spreading all over my body,” but then it suddenly ceases and he is granted a vision like a “bolt of lightning.” As Seferis annotates in his appendix, it is “Purgatorio with a lightning flash of Paradise.”
This purgative and reformative potential of the afterlife is something Seferis seemed to believe was a part Orthodoxy, even if it was often forgotten or ignored. As he wrote in his essay on Dante, “I do not think that any doctrine can separate us from the past, even if we are Orthodox Christians and are too self-denying to accept Purgatory.” Perhaps the eternality of hell is pronounced by theologians, canon lawyers, and clergy, but the liturgy expresses things differently. For the layman or the poet, for the soul whose religious formation comes from hymns and communion and the Epitaphios procession, perhaps hell’s finitude is obvious. Seferis noticed this. He may not have known what comes next, but who can truly say they do? And even if he did not believe it, or if he did believe but without the same intensity as his pious mother, Seferis knew what the liturgy showed, and his poetry reminds us of it.
As C.S. Lewis so piquantly and beautifully illustrated in The Last Battle, the boundaries of heaven are paradoxically illusory. From the outside, it appears a city, from the inside it expands beyond comprehension. As all the familiar the characters journey into that golden empyrean, the space of heaven grows more and more. “Daughter of Eve,” says Mr. Tumnus to Lucy, “the further up and further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” What looks on the outside like a walled city is inside the endlessly unfolding epectasy of salvation, stretching ever wider and deeper for all eternity. What seemed provincial is in fact cosmic, and hell, in The Great Divorce, is whittled down to a mere crack in the side of the road (alas, if only Lewis had followed his “master” George MacDonald in pursuing this to its universalist conclusion).
In glossing on this Narnian passage, Rowan Williams writes there is an incarnational aspect to this: “The Incarnation is often spoken of, not least in Christian poetry, as the containing of the uncontainable.” Seferis saw that the logic of the Incarnation demanded that this paradox be extended all the way to hell itself, through Christ’s descent and resurrection, and redemption of all humanity as all are drawn back to God, even those on the “outside” are brought into the larger inside that contains all reality.
And so here I will conclude with Seferis’s brief poem fittingly titled “The Container of the Uncontainable,” which bears the inscription “Good Friday.”
Bells like coins falling sound today all over the city
between each peal a new space opens
like a drop of water on the earth: the moment has come,
raise me up.
* * *
I would like to dedicate this essay to my grandfather Raymond Verle White (1928-2020), who passed away during the course of its composition. Αιώνια ἡ μνήμη.
And special thanks to Fr. Kimel, Mark Chenoweth, Thomas Arentzen, Aristotle Papanikolaou, and George Demacopoulos for their insight, feedback, and assistance.
Christopher Howell is a PhD candidate in Religion at Duke University, working on a dissertation on the history of anti-Darwinism. He lives in Durham, NC, with his wife Mary Carol and their two dogs. When not writing, his spare time revolves around baseball and video games.