Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.
(Abandon hope all ye who enter here.)
The darkness thickens as Morgana and I descend even further into the depths of Hell. We halt in a claustrophobic stone chamber lit only by a dim yet lurid phosphorescence on the clammy walls. The temperature drops perceptibly and I shiver as Morgana gazes at me sternly, stonily. “Souls you would call serious sinners go to the Dungeons. Please be clear we are not talking about the natural enjoyment of sensual and worldly pleasures, nor even about being rude to your parents or mean to your best friend. Such minor peccadilloes are part of the rough and tumble of life in which we are all sometimes unkind, angry, lazy, vain and all the other myriad faults and failings that human nature is prone to. Taken too far these actions may incur karma…”
“In accord with our new diversity policy, we have opened up to other philosophies. We find the Hindu/Buddhist doctrine of ‘karma’ more helpful than ‘sin’ to understand evildoing and its consequences. You will understand more as you progress on your voyage, but in a nutshell: what goes around comes around. Reduce your karmic footprint and be liberated from the wheel of life and death.
“The people who end up in the Dungeons have acted out their baser instincts to extremes of cruelty and violence. There may be mitigating circumstances, such as being born into dysfunctional families, abused as children, denied opportunities, corrupted by their peers and elders. Many people handle such obstacles well, but weaker characters and younger souls are more easily led astray; they may become damaged or even deranged. Whatever the cause, they must deal with the consequences in the afterlife.
“Some people claim to arrive here led or pursued by demons, but in truth these are your inner demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. People sometimes send themselves here in chains expecting, even begging to be beaten and punished, but as I told you we don’t do that stuff here any more.
“You must understand the Dungeons of Hell are not a prison, let alone a torture chamber. These are not punishment cells but holding-and-healing cells for those who have let themselves down, blown their personal life plan, aborted their mission. The Dungeons are a hospital for souls in trauma, driven almost insane with grief in the full consciousness of their actions. Like isolation tanks, the cells provide complete darkness and sensory deprivation so that the patients may be free of all distraction. Suffering souls need a safe and supportive space in which to come to the full realization of the horror of their deeds. Eventually there will come a time for quiet contemplation, but at this stage there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. However, their anguish arises from self-inflicted inner torment rather than externally imposed punishment.
“On earth being the victim is the toughest role, especially on the body. Yet this agony, though intense, is temporary. Here you realize that being the perpetrator inflicts the more lasting damage – you’re stuck with that shit forever. It’s all over for the body, but the soul carries the wounds for the entire cycle of incarnation.” Morgana pauses to let her portentous words sink in, then continues more gently. “But we are all battle-scarred; it is the lacrimae rerum – the sorrow that shadows life as an embodied soul.”
Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(There are tears at the heart of things and mortal affairs trouble the mind.)
She shrugs sadly, and for a moment looks as ancient as the stings of death. Perhaps she is remembering her own misdeeds. In the silence I reflect soberly on my own misdemeanours too manifold to mention.
Morgana sighs, then continues, staring into the deep darkness. “Believe it or not, many of these suffering souls would gladly walk into a pit of fire if it would expunge and expiate their evil deeds. Hell here is perfect empathy. The pain of understanding your actions in the clarity of truth combined with feeling the full intensity of the pain caused to your victims is the worst suffering imaginable – though not intended as punishment or vengeance. It is simply the first stage of a long process of rebalancing: deep healing followed by preparation for reparation (karma payback time?)”
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
“We have now arrived at the gates, which is as far as you can come.” I realize I’m drooping and raise my downcast eyes. In front of us are a pair of formidable gates made of blackest adamantine. I feel relieved to see they are padlocked.
“In the days of Old Hell, the so-called ‘saints’ were encouraged to look down from on high and gloat on the sufferings of the ‘sinners’. Britannia in her compassion decreed that such smug self-righteousness is unseemly, a peculiarly unpleasant manifestation of spiritual arrogance. She has put a stop to it, so you won’t be able to see their quarters, nor would you wish to. For a sensitive soul, it is unbearably distressing to witness such anguish at close quarters. The Dungeons — or Holding and Healing Zone (HHZ) as we should properly call it is now closed to all visitors except the guides of the inmates and our own experienced counsellors.
Although there is a portal here, the HHZ itself is located in another dimension, which is not accessible to you in your mortal form without further training. Furthermore, let me make it clear: this is not the end of the story. Healing and even redemption are possible, but that is another story, another journey.”
Morgana glances at me quizzically. “You’re looking a bit green and I don’t think it’s just the lighting. Maybe you don’t have the stomach for this place?”
I grimace wryly. At this stage I feel a certain resistance to continuing the voyage. It is similar to my reluctance to watch horror movies: I know it’s not “real” and no animals were harmed, but I don’t find it entertaining. On the other hand there is no denying the educational value of this experience.
“It’s certainly been a fascinating and enlightening journey, and I thank you for your excellent guidance. I admit to finding the atmosphere a bit oppressive and airless, especially after the delights of Asphodel Meadows. Hell will probably not be my destination of choice, even though I freely admit it has the hardest liquor and the best tunes. Yet there are moments when I let myself down and feel it’s what I deserve.”
Morgana regards me attentively. “Cheer up, Sybil Goodenough! You’re a Guardian reader and a good enough human being, just like your name. Rest assured, though you may be spellbound you are not hellbound. However, you’re not alone in falling into the trap of self-hatred, which is baited by the demon of self-deprecation. Remember, there is enough shame and humiliation in life without adding to it by beating yourself up. The old gang used to rub their hands in glee at such self-flagellation. They called it doing the Devil’s work for him.
Here is an exercise you can do to eradicate the Hell meme, removing any traces of false consciousness that could direct your steps here against your higher will or better judgement. Choose a depiction of Hell, ideally from the Middle Ages. Nobody does Hell more intensely than a medieval Christian, everyone else is a big girl’s blouse. It could be a reproduction in an art book, an online image or video. Better still, contemplate a fresco in a medieval church. There’s nothing like the original setting to get in the mood. Alternatively, read a graphic account of the pains of Hell. Thomas Aquinas gives the most comprehensive scholarly account, though there are others even more horrifically graphic, while the great poets Virgil, Dante and Milton created the most sophisticated literary narratives. Alternatively listen to some musical interpretations, in particular the Dies Irae which transports you so thrillingly to doom.
Once you have been thoroughly impressed with the terror and horror of such a fate, switch your attention to your own faults and failings. Reflect on them dispassionately for a while, then ask yourself honestly: “Would I condemn this person to such unendurable torture for eternity? For 10 minutes? Is this what ‘I’ really deserve?” I think you know the answer….
When you are calm and composed, you can perform the exercise Orpheus gave you, to replace ancient negative imprintings with positive healing images of the beauty of the natural world. And remember…
Tears fill my eyes and I heave a deep sigh as an enormous wave of sorrow wells up from somewhere deep inside and washes over me. Yet the words of this dark goddess have penetrated my inner gloom, and instead of wallowing in self-pity I feel a flicker of hope. I look into Morgana’s deep green eyes which are filled with compassion. For the first time she smiles sweetly and nods. “It’s all good. And now it is time to embark on your next voyage. Mind how you go…”