Opinion & Features

A hellish start to the season

A minute’s silence in Paris: how many of those killed were in a state of grace?

Friday November 20 I have spent much of the night thinking about death and damnation. At Mass last Sunday Father wondered how many of those slaughtered in Paris were prepared for death. It is a very Catholic concern, and one I share. When friends and colleagues die, I am quite capable of wondering whether those I once laughed with are now in hell. That’s not because my dead friends and colleagues were wicked. On the contrary, most of them were pretty nice: generous, funny, compassionate – and they gave good parties. But were they in a state of grace when they died? Almost certainly not, objectively speaking.

It’s not just one’s friends and colleagues, though. There are the victims of the big historical crimes to think about. What (for example) of the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis? Were they prepared for death? Or did some of them, when they died, go straight from the hell on earth to a hell infinitely worse? It does not bear thinking about. Hadn’t these poor people done penance enough (albeit involuntarily)?

Alas, except in the case of martyrdom, the manner of one’s death has no bearing on one’s eternal destiny. You don’t get a free pass for having suffered unimaginable pain and terror before dying. All we can do is to pray for the souls of these poor people and hope in God’s uncovenanted mercies.

Prayers for the dead are never in vain. God lives outside time; He exists in the eternal present. He hears our prayers for the souls of the departed before the departed have departed. Our prayers are always before Him. (So, though, are our sins.)

One might reasonably hope, furthermore, that such good and orthodox priests as Robert Barron and Joseph Ratzinger are right when they conclude that we may reasonably hope that most (actually, Bishop Barron says “all”) are saved, and we may conclude from this that there is reasonable hope that the six million Jews – as well as, of course, the victims of Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao, and of the street-corner thug with a Kalashnikov and a suicide jacket – will be among them. Advent is the season of hope. We await the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ, destroyer of death, saver of souls, fount of mercy and forgiveness. The dead are in his loving hands. Lord, have mercy.

Thursday November 26 Why, though, do some Christians apparently love hell? Almost 50 years ago I met a Maltese Catholic on the steps of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. He had been at Ampleforth and was what you might call passionate about hell. He once said to me with a smile: “You have probably shaken hands with someone who is now in hell.” Oh, good. On another occasion he had a bit of a chuckle when it was reported that a couple of people had dived into a water tank to escape the flames of a bush fire – and had boiled to death. He refused to get upset about anything that might be described as an act of God.

Saturday November 28 Advent will be upon us tomorrow. Will I be strong enough to stay the course? Actually, it is not demanding. I have decided to fast on weekdays according to the rules of the Church – ie, two snacks a day and one full meal, and nothing in between. That’s not really difficult. Many people fast every day according to those rules, and, besides, I hardly have an appetite for anything these days but cake, chocolate and cream. But the sweet stuff has to go, too, except on Sundays, which are never days of fasting or abstinence. On the Sabbath, therefore, you may pass me the Lindor Caramel Truffles, and while you are about it you might cut me a fat slice of Soreen (low fat) fruit malt loaf. I like it topped with unsalted butter straight from the fridge.

Just to be clear, I am not giving up that old staple drink (in my case, Coke Zero). That’s for Lent. Nor am I giving up chewing gum (in my case Wrigley Extra Ice Peppermint). Some will shudder and say that the chewing of gum should never be taken up, and they may well be right. On the other hand the beautiful and immensely civilised Miriam Gross, former books editor of The Sunday Telegraph, has written from time to time about her own use of chewing gum, and makes the very good point that it helps if you are dieting, which is the secular form of fasting.

But isn’t fasting itself a form of dieting? Of course it is, and nothing wrong with that. It is good to feel good, and I hope to feel well good on Christmas Eve when I go to the traditional sung Midnight Mass at 9pm at St Mary Magdalen in Wandsworth. Music this year is by Mozart and Haydn.