This week’s edition of The New Yorker contains a sly cartoon: a tunnel cuts into the interior of a large boulder situated in a bleak plain. Above the tunnel’s entrance, these words appear: “Give up on things getting better ye who enter here.” Beneath, a one-word caption: “Heck.”
The cartoonist, Mick Stevens, is playing against Dante’s image of the Gates of Hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” but what struck me when I saw the cartoon was the insidious persuasiveness of Heck. It is a territory in which most of us dwell, from time to time: doing the daily round of work and chores, putting one foot in front of another, not expecting much to change, keeping our own little patch in order because that seems to be about the best we can manage in unfavorable conditions. Make no mistake: living in Heck takes perseverance and a strong sense of duty. It can even feel like sanctity: “if Jesus wants me to bear this, I will.” Often, we manage it only because we love the people with whom we are sharing this bleak patch of earth. But if Heck can partake of love, it has no share in hope. “Give up on things getting better” is not far from “all hope abandon” — not far at all.
Jesus did not live in Heck. He didn’t even visit it, unless he was looking for a sheep who had strayed there. When he was in his ministry, he lived in hope, and when hope failed, he had the grace to cry out, not in indifference, but in the agony of abandonment.
St. Paul writes, “Now, the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all…beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor 3:18)
That’s what we are about, we who try to follow Jesus: transformation into the very likeness of God. And not for ourselves only, but for all this world. The images in the early churches depicted paradise, not as a place you go when you die, but here, in the dust of this earth, as it will be when our Father’s will is truly done on this earth as in heaven. And that means we must dwell in hope; we must work and pray and give and love to make that transformation a reality. For we do not live apart from the world; it is the intimate context of our everyday, and in its transformation is the key to our own.
It can be hard to remember this, when Congress is deadlocked and the economy is slow and people are hungry and are still killing each other in Syria and Baghdad and Afghanistan, and the heat of summer begins to press in. But we do not live in Heck. We live in hope. The Power working for us is infinitely greater than those arrayed against us. All around us, there are streams of living water, and those who are thirsty can bend their heads to drink of them.
Drink deep; they are your life.