Harrowing Hell
Leonie Caldecott

 

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whaleís white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heartís shell upon it.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

It was during Holy Week 1998 that our small corner of England became a flood crisis area. All week it rained, such hard and copious raining as made the rivers, already overfull from a long wet winter, burst their banks and fill the low-lying areas of Oxfordshire. The audience watching Titanic in a local cinema suddenly found itself ankle-deep in water. Less amusingly, a milkman and his youthful assistant were swept away as the swirling waters seized their small electric van. Friends of ours, trying to reach their home village from Stratford upon Avon were diverted countless times. A journey that should have taken half an hour took three or four. The worst thing, said the mother, was the fear. "I hate it when water gets out of control," she said. "You just never know whatís going to happen next."

 

We, meanwhile, watched as the meadow behind our house began to fill with water from the Cherwell river. Normally this field, which has for centuries retained the undulating shape of Roman times, acquires no more than a few wet troughs at the far end, obliging the horses that graze upon it to move closer to the houses, even in the worst of the winter weather. Between it and the river there is another meadow, the true wet meadow, which in winter acquires the look of an oriental rice paddy, with spiky vegetation which bursts through the water to the grey winter sky as if to defy the imposition of the new element that swamps it. This time, however, the upper meadow filled as inexorably as the lower one, and the residents of our street gazed in amazement as the grassy banks between the wet troughs disappeared to leave a smooth, shiny lake across half the field, and the cycle path to town was entirely submerged, only the row of Narnian lamp-posts along its track showing above the expanse of water.

 

All through Maundy Thursday it rained. I kept vigil until midnight after the Mass of the Lordís Supper, the small candlelit chapel of repose feeling like an oasis amidst an increasing threat, and thought about fear. I thought about His fear, how he sweated blood and asked that the cup pass from His lips. I thought about my fears, fear of pain, fear of disaster, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of betrayal by one I have trusted. I tried to submerge my fears in His, and only partially succeeded. Fear is not an easy thing to control. Yet Thy will, not mine, be done. The will is one thing. The feeling another.

 

I returned home just after midnight: it was the beginning of Good Friday, and it was my birthday. I felt a strange peace. This is the worst day of the year, I thought, the one day when the sacred mysteries cannot be celebrated. There is only the Cross to contemplate: the mystery of darkness. It is the low point. Things cannot get worse than this. The floods are rising about our home and evil appears to have won the day. The best, the most lovely, the man who is God incarnate, is being betrayed, tried, condemned, scourged, driven through the streets in agony and humiliation, carrying the instrument of his final torture, and then put to death in the most painful fashion possible. And yet once it has begun, the torture itself seems almost better than the anticipation, the fear. The disciples responded to the imminent horror with the classic response: fight or flight. They fled into sleep whilst their master kept his lonely agonising watch. Peter attacked the high priestís guard as he approached, only to flee from the challenge of the true enemy later in the night. "One of the servants of the high priest, a kinsman of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?" Peter again denied it; and at once the cock crowed" (John 18:26-27).

 

All through Good Friday it rained. "Why do they call it good, when itís so bad?" asked my smallest daughter, after she had followed the Stations of the Cross for children in the church, gazing in amazement as the illuminated alabaster carvings were explained one by one. "Because something gooder than all the badness came out of it," I said. Then why do I still fear the badness? I wondered, privately. In the afternoon, I sang the long service of the Lordís Passion. The choir sits above the congregation at the back, and we could see the long line of people as they queued to kiss the feet of the crucified one displayed at the entrance to the sanctuary. There was nothing perfunctory about this rite, everyone took their time, the mourning was not rushed. We sang motet after motet, unable to join the throng as we filled the air with the solemn notes, and yet not apart from their slow shuffle to the altar, their reverent obeisance to that delicate flesh pierced by the nails, their acknowledgement of the gift. You took my place, you suffered the worst any man could suffer, so that I would not be alone with my fear, alone against the rising floods, any longer. What better gift could I have than this?

 

The next day, Holy Saturday, dawned equally wet and grey. The flood swept into the bottom of our street. I went with my eldest daughter to the church to decorate the shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux for the Easter Vigil. We took all the childís symbols of Easter - a real birdís nest found abandoned last summer, painted eggs, fluffy chicks - and we made a small tomb out of stones from our garden, which we left sealed for the moment. We tried to be as quiet as possible, being close to the chapel of repose where people had come to pray on this mysterious day when all of creation holds its breath and wonders, Where is the Lord and what is He doing? He is not even to be seen asleep in the back of the boat: he sleeps somewhere else, and will not be woken until the appointed moment. He is lost from sight, whilst the storm rages and the flood waters rise, inexorably.

 

Back home, the water continued to creep up the street towards our house. Then the electricity failed. Darkness was approaching, the evening of Holy Saturday, as the children dressed and brushed their hair by candlelight, and were taken to the darkened church, where the tabernacle stood empty and the congregation sat, in hushed anticipation, waiting for the paschal fire to be rekindled.

 

* * *

I have always been simultaneously fascinated by and terrified of water, and in particular the vast expanse of the sea. It happens that I first visited Marthaís Vineyard shortly after I had seen Stephen Spielbergís seaside horror movie, Jaws. Consequently I could not persuade myself to do more than paddle in the ocean. At one point I had nearly succeeded in overcoming my fear, telling myself it was ridiculous to be so influenced by a movie, and was bobbing about not far from the shore when I caught sight of some teenagers reeling in something on their fishing lines. It was a small shark.

 

In his Philosophy of History, Hegel speaks of how, for the Mediterranean peoples, the drive to do philosophy arises out of the relationship to the ocean, which reminds us of the infinite within ourselves. The ability to navigate this ocean which we long to cross requires both wisdom, for the construction of the craft, and courage. Homerís Odyssey charts the seemingly interminable voyage of that great sea-farer Odysseus, whose wisdom gave the Greeks victory over the Trojans and yet did not save him from making mistakes which lost the lives of his crew and delayed his homecoming for many years.

 

In the 19th century, Melvilleís Moby Dick charted the obsession of one man with a near-legendary white whale, in whose pursuit he literally exhales his life, pitting himself against evil, as he perceives it. In this era when whaling is universally condemned, and parties of people go out in ships not to hunt, but to watch and wonder at the presence of the great natives of the deep, it is perhaps more difficult to empathise with Captain Ahabís vendetta against the leviathan whose pursuit has partially dismembered him. We are no longer hunter-gatherers; the logic of the chase, the triumph of man over the beast at bay, has less and less meaning for a culture obsessed with other thrills. And yet, as the reaction to the Jaws (and a score of other modern monster movies) shows, we are still preoccupied by the confrontation with the source and locus of fear: the dead eye of the shark rising out of the unseen depths with its maw agape still expresses a primordial anxiety which we are far from exorcising. Those "subtle demonisms of life and thought", those images which stir up "the lees of things", that Ahab projected onto the great whale, are still with us, are still an issue, are still a locus of terror.

 

I sometimes wonder, seeing the pictures of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, stepping slowly and deliberately through a mine-field, whether this was not as much an exercise in the confrontation of fear as a philanthropic venture on behalf of the victims of mines. For what evokes horror, ultimately, is not so much the monster under the bed, the dragon in the woods, the jaws that snap, as the fact that these things invade places that ought to be safe. We bask on the surface of the sea, enjoying the buoyancy and freedom of movement the element affords us. We walk on terra firma, not expecting to have our legs blown off by an unseen device in the dirt. We take refuge, as children, in our home, our bed, to rest or nestle. But what if there is no safe place? What if an alien has taken over my mother? What if all my nearest and dearest have fallen prey to an invasion of body snatchers? Our dreams, at their most anxious, are full of such images. If we do not dream of unseen enemies in the depths of the ocean, we dream of the underworld, the dark cellar of our house, the implacable enemy down below.

 

You are in the orderly, sunlit, upper area of a house, when from the interstices of the dwelling there rise up people unknown to you: invaders with dead eyes and sharp teeth. A vampire visitation of alien voyeurs. They stare at you with those loveless eyes. You make off down the stairs from which they themselves issued. In the cellar of the house you find a man, tortured and desperate, stretched out on a rack. He begs you to release him, but you are afraid of him, of his ugliness, and instead of releasing him you turn away and run out into the street. You find yourself in a derelict landscape, with not a soul in sight. At the end of the street is a barricade, over which you climb, before looking back to see the sign that is attached to it: CONTAMINATED ZONE. You realise with horror that you have been living in a place from which you were never supposed to escape, a ghetto. You will never be able to live amongst ordinary people, if it is known where you come from. You flee, into the busy heart of the city, into anonymity. You haunt the most public places, where you can be inconspicuous. You manage, somehow, to live, to eat, to take shelter - but all the time you fear the discovery of your secret, the fact that you have issued from the gates of hell. And then one day, you realise that you are sick, and in urgent need of medical care. You hail a taxi, and ask the driver to take you to the hospital. He says nothing, does not acknowledge your presence, but begins to drive. As you stare at the back of his head, a terrible suspicion begins to gnaw at you. As he stops at some traffic lights, you crane your neck to get a glimpse of his face. He turns his head and looks at you. He is one of them, one of the vampires: and he is driving you, not to hospital, but back to the zone you have been trying to escape.

 

In Man and His Symbols, Marie-Louise von Franz wrote: "In the unconscious, one is unfortunately in the same situation as in a moonlit landscape. All the contents are blurred and merge into one another, and one never knows exactly what or where anything is, or where one thing begins and ends. (This is known as the Ďcontaminationí of unconscious contents)." No amount of analysis, however, will dispel the very real fear which stems from the knowledge that something evil can apparently creep into any and every situation and render itself indistinguishable from what is good. Jungians try to deal with this by reference to the "shadow". Indeed von Franz continues: "When Jung called one aspect of the unconscious personality the shadow, he was referring to a relatively well-defined factor. But sometimes everything that is unknown to the ego is mixed up with the shadow, including even the most valuable and highest forces."

 

What element in the story I described earlier could correspond with this? Who is exempt from the evil-eye disease which seems to afflict the inhabitants of the contaminated zone? There is one figure who stands in stark contrast to the rest: who cries out and begs for help, who communicates his being rather than staring in cold and parasitical silence. It is the disfigured and suffering man stretched out on the rack.

 

* * *

By watching horror movies we may be trying to blunt our response to fear by overexposing ourselves to its more ludicrous manifestations. For ours is an age that wants to tame not slay the dragon. If we can turn the inhabitants of the haunted house into the Addams Family, perhaps we can pooh-pooh our childhood fears and allay the ghosts of the uneasy adult conscience. And yet there is perhaps a warning in that curious tale told by the Brothers Grimm, "The Youth who Wanted to Learn how to Shiver". A young man, the simpleton of his family who would never amount to much, has only one ambition in life: to learn how to shiver. To this end, he goes through many horrific experiences, culminating in a trial which has killed or driven mad every else who has attempted it: spending three nights in an abandoned castle full of the most foul fiends imaginable. He plays bowls with some of them, first planing the skulls they are using for balls in order to make them rounder, and he fastens the long white beard of Death himself to an anvil with a single blow of his axe, obliging the ghoul not only to beg for his own life, but to make him rich in the process. But all of this is a shallow victory, for the youth has not learned to shiver. He has not had to summon courage in order to overcome fear: he has simply behaved as his own nature dictated, violently and without feeling. It is finally his wife, the princess he wins by means of his feats, who teaches him. As he sleeps in his bed, she pours a bucket of water full of little gudgeons all over his body. Then he shivers.

 

Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, analyses this tale in terms of sexual anxiety, stressing the humanising influence of the woman who shares the marriage bed. Certainly, it is only she who can take the man by surprise and bring him into the realm of those who know how to feel emotion, away from the inhuman ghouls, the Undead, with whom he has been on such comfortable terms hitherto. She has an intimacy with him that permits her access to his most vulnerable point, and she uses it, for his benefit. But there are other, deeper lessons to be learned from this denouement. There is the fact that it is, once again, the element of water which causes him to wake up to fear. And in the water are the bodies of fishes, however small. Why should water, and fish, be the means to awaken the soul?

 

There is little merit in the kind of detachment which plays bowls with the undead. Ahab may have known fear, and overridden it, but he still perished, sacrificing most of his crew along with him, as he hurled himself against the adversary. Odysseus could not resist taunting the Cyclops in his moment of victory: stand in front of Turnerís painting of this moment and you will see all the warning signs of disaster amid the crash of the elements, the boiling of earth, air and sea illuminated in a blaze of brazenness. True courage, ultimately, the facing of fear, has to be something more profound, as Odysseus learned to his cost. On the flag of the ship is a white horse: seemingly the Trojan horse that gave victory to the Greeks and proved the intellectual might of Odysseus to be more effective than the arms of his comrades. And yet there is another moment in the heroís life when a horse stood in a field: it was the moment when he tried to avoid the encounter altogether by feigning madness and ploughing his fields in the place of that horse. They put his infant son in front of the plough and he was obliged to stop, revealing that he was sane. Love for his child undermined his ruse, and sent him on the journey he knew would keep him from his loved ones for many decades. The love of his wife kept his kingdom safe, nonetheless, from the potential usurpers. Odysseus, for all his difficulties, is not cursed as many of the returning heroes are, by reason of this deep familial love.

 

"Hell", wrote that most un-family oriented philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, "is other people." Though we may not agree with such a categorical statement, we have all experienced, to some degree, that interior hell - the existential imposition by the "other" who does not empathise with us, and who foists upon us his own agenda. At the extreme point of human consciousness, this unloving other, this ambitious suitor at Penelopeís table, manifests himself as one of the Undead: those who appear for a time to be alive because they are walking about, but who are empty inside. (Yet we are busy constructing machines that will do exactly that). The Undead erupt into the midst of normal life and turn it into a nightmare. They come from the margins of the world, the graveyard and the basement, the places we want to forget. But someone has been in that basement before us - not just symbolically, but literally. Someone who told his generation that they would not get the signs and wonders they required, for the eyes of love do not require them. (Signs and wonders will never satisfy even the most rapacious of voyeurs.) The only sign of His presence is the sign of Jonah: to be lost from sight for the space of three days in the belly of the Terror, to be humiliated and rendered powerless, to be counted among the dead. This is the great subversion of Love: to use the crushing annihilation of the Undead to redeem their own realm. Even dry bones can be made to speak. We release the tortured Prisoner in our basement so that he may guide us out to good pastures. Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, no evil will I fear, for you are with me, your rod and staff give me comfort.

 

 

* * *

It is dark outside the church, but the rain has, miraculously, stopped. The people gather in the courtyard around a burning brazier. I think of Moses and his burning bush. Silently, the priests and deacons, vested in gold, process out carrying the Paschal Candle and encircle the fire. After the opening prayer, the celebrant cuts a cross in the wax of the Candle, carving the Alpha above the cross, the Omega below, and the numerals of the current year between the arms of the cross. He inserts five grains of incense into the arms of the cross, saying: By his holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us. Amen. Then he lights the Candle from the new fire, saying: May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.

 

The priests then lead the way back into the church, with the deacon pausing three times to chant Lumen Christi. The rest of us sing out the response: Deo Gratias. As the procession reaches the sanctuary, the acolytes light their candles from the Paschal Candle, and step into the body of the church to pass the Easter fire on to the congregation. The deacon sings the proclamation: Rejoice heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult all creation around Godís throne! Jesus Christ, our King, is risen! Neighbour turns to neighbour, each lighting the candle of the other, and gradually the little flames spread their gentle glow across the darkened space. The proclamation continues.... The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy.... By now everyone holds a lighted candle. From the choir loft, I can see the profiles of my children, lit up as they gaze at their candles or at the softly illuminated lilies on the great pulpit, the dimly perceived gold of the statues now unveiled from their passiontide purple, the gleaming paschal lamb embroidered onto the altar frontal. May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed His peaceful light on all mankind....

 

The readings follow: the story of creation, the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. We sing the responding psalm: I will sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph! and think of tidal waves, walls of water, held back, this time, to give safe passage. And then comes Isaiah. Unhappy creature, storm-tossed, disconsolate, see: I will set your stones on carbuncles, and you foundations on sapphires... You will be founded on integrity; remote from oppression, you will have nothing to fear; remote from terror, it will not approach you.

 

Soon, the tall Paschal Candle, from which we have taken the new light into our own trembling hands, is immersed in a great vat of water, like Jesus standing in the Jordan River. The very element which has been the source of fear, the fear of chaos, of invisible evil rising inexorably to devour, the fear of drowning, of being annihilated in the depths, has been sanctified. It has been made safe by the One who has harrowed those depths. These waters are now a fountain of life, the holy waters Ezekiel saw running out from beneath the Temple to cleanse the land, fertile waters in which everything thrives and multiplies once more. These are the waters in which my husbandís little god-daughter is now baptised. Her name is Talitha Rose Marina. Behold little child, I take you by the hand. Rise up, rise up little lamb, little flower, little star of the ocean, and live.

 

Later, much later, we shepherd our own tired but jubilant children home to what by all rational calculation should still be a cold, dark house. The sky is clear, the moon full and the stars benign. We draw up outside the house. The lights are on.

 

[Originally published in Parabola in Fall 1998]