On the Secret of Life

Elysian Fields or Limbo?

The secret of life is death. Life as such is no mystery. We are born according to set laws by which the universe is governed, both physical and metaphysical. Of course, the soul is a mystery, since it is caused directly by God, and partakes of His eternality, but even this is proven by natural reason, that is, that there must be such a thing in man as an eternal soul.

So, as I was saying, life is no secret, but death is a huge secret in the most perfect sense, for no one save One has ever come back to tell its secrets, and He was rather mum about the affairs of the underworld, save that we ought to avoid Hell as a place of unending torment.

But this brings up an interesting point: what does it mean when we say and believe that “He descended into Hell”? Does it mean that our Lord dwelt in a place of torture and defilement for the time His Body lay in the tomb? By no means, as the BC teaches us:

65. The word “hell” was sometimes used to signify the grave or a low place. In the Apostles’ Creed it means Limbo.

Now that is interesting, don’t you think? Limbo. I recall in my childhood a debate which broke out between my Dad’s friend and my stepmother, and it was over this idea of Purgatory and also Limbo, both ideas I seem to recall were abhorrent to my Dad’s friend, who was Protestant (of course) yet dogmatically certain to my stepmother, who was Catholic.

Protestants labor under the bewildering delusion that our Lord died and descended into Hell, which, I suppose must mean that He went down into the abyss of despair, because a Protestant—at least my Dad’s friend—didn’t believe in Limbo. I don’t know, but that seems to me to smack of blasphemy, but perhaps I am reading too much into it. Anyway, what concerns us here is the secret of life, which is death, and what, as Shakespeare says, is the “undiscovered country,” in particular as it relates to the question of Limbo.

What is Limbo, and is it still a place one may find himself in after death? To answer these questions and others, one would do no better than to take fifteen minutes and read the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia on Limbo. I’ll wait.

You didn’t read it, did you. Oh, well, I’ll summarize it for you now.

The answer to the first question, according to the article, is that Limbo is understood in two senses, one, according to the old dispensation (Old Law), under which the just were awaiting the Redeemer to open the Gates of Heaven, and lead them into life eternal and into the Beatific Vision, which is precisely what He did when He descended into Hell. The other sense is according to the New Law of Grace, whereby man is redeemed according to baptism into the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. Hence, those who die without baptism, or without the desire thereof, yet without personal sin, enter into what is called in English, the Borderland of the Children, Limbus Puerorum, which, to my mind, sounds a lot like Candyland.

Now, in what this life exactly consists there has been considerable dispute, with the Greek fathers teaching that Limbo was not a place of punishment on account of original sin, to Saint Augustine teaching otherwise, and persuading the Church in his time to view it accordingly, to Saint Thomas Aquinas arguing to the contrary, upholding the Greek Fathers, yet seeking to reconcile (however imperfectly) them with Saint Augustine. Then, in the modern period, a kind of revival of the Augustinian view held sway with prominent theologians, yet the conclusion to be drawn from the back and forth, is that whether Limbo was a state of everlasting natural bliss or not, it is undeniable that, as a natural state, it could never compare with the eternal bliss of grace in beholding God Himself, the mere instantaneous act of which would out measure all the the ages of ages of a purely natural existence.

I am no fan of C.S. Lewis on account of his heresy, but, as a man of considerable literary genius, he gave is an wonderful little image of the joys of Heaven compared with those of the earth:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Speaking of the sea, I remember that the Greek psgans also had a name for such a place where the souls of the just would go: Elysium, which comes from a verb meaning to be deeply stirred by joy. This is how Hesiod describes it:

“And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep-swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them.”

To dig a bit deeper, let’s listen to Lewis again. Here he remembers a time when his brother showed him a diorama garden while he was a tender youth, which experience and stirred him deeply by joy:

“I call it Joy. ‘Animal-Land’ was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were…The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased…In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

I have had such experiences of joy, as I hope you have, too. It is as Lewis describes, a desire that arises out of an experience of beauty but lasts only so briefly, and which desire, if I can even say this, is itself desirable, because it is a longing which is tinted by love but the object of which is not present, just as a lover loves to long for his beloved when away—something I myself was very fond of when underway at sea. But what is it that is desired? For me, it is never associated with person but place, because the emotional movement of my being begins in solitude and ends in solitude, and which arises through a landscape, be it the vast vista of the ocean (which I have ever loved) or a grassy hill I can never see the other side of. Is it a memory of my childhood? Is it a memory of paradise?

The joy of heaven is incomparably more joyful than any earthly paradise, hence the belief that the denizens of Limbo do not know that there is a heaven, and this by a miraculous and merciful act of God. But this discussion about a blessed realm for the just does put me in a fanciful frame of mind. What would such a world be like? In what way would these children live? Would they grow up? Is there generation in this natural existence? Would they give and be taken in marriage? Is sin possible in Limbo? Is grace required to live such a blissful existence? Whatever the answers we may devise by our imaginations, it is certain that such are reasonable and considerate of those children who have gone before us, not marked by baptism or faith, into the oblivion of time and place. And therein lies the secret of life, which we find in the mediation on the secret of death. Many there are who perhaps would pine for the unborn-unbaptized, yet I see a profound beauty and order and justice and mercy, which is the secret and mystery of God’s own justice: The one consolation, the one thing that makes the mass murder of so many infants in the womb bearable (if so great an evil can be borne with in the heart of man), the cutting of so many lives short, snuffed out even before beholding the light of day, is that the babes unborn will never know the evils of this world, apart from their own death, but will wake to a life eternally blissful as like on the first day in the Garden of Paradise.