I remember my parents teaching me that there was no hell. How could there be a God of infinite Love and Forgiveness who would allow such an injustice? When I was a child and I made mistakes, my parents would explain how I was still growing and developing, still learning the skills of how to articulate my concerns, how to coordinate the actions of my body, how to discern. They told me about how natural it was for kids to rebel against authority. They talked about separation-individuation and my need to differentiate myself from their personalities. (I used to read the DSM3-R the way other kids read comic books) Gentleness and kindness were required of me above all else but if I, a child surrounded by love, could sometimes be mean and low, how much harder must it be for children who were surrounded by fear and danger? And they were just children too, as vulnerable and uncertain as I was.
My folks worked with people whose suffering was unimaginable. Child abuse, drug addictions, domestic violence, rape, and poverty can break people. Such people are betrayed by their families and communities and many times, too many times, they betray their own families and communities in return. Is this evil? I don't know how to answer that philosophical question. I do know it is horrible and painful and all too common. These people were part of my life and consciousness. As much as my folks tried to shield me from pain, inevitably, some of it filtered in. I remember my parents leaving for emergency rooms in the middle of the night. I remember tears and frantic voices over the phone and being pulled aside by parishioners to deliver messages I was too young to hear. I knew that some parents beat their children and some daddies beat the mommies. I knew that there were sexual predators in my community and unlike other kids, I knew who some of them were. I knew about drugs and alcohol and suicide.
And I knew that my parents believed human beings were incredible and beautiful and that they did not believe in hell.
Dad used to joke that he would rather do a funeral than a wedding. "At least I know that when I send someone off in a funeral, they're going to a good place."
As a minister, Dad was there at all the life stages of his parishioners. He baptized their babies and confirmed their kids. He performed their marriages and counseled them through hard times (in addition to his M.Div., he also had post-graduate training in psychotherapy). When they grew sick and weak, he stayed by their sides and held many people's hands even as they died. It was in death that he glimpsed divinity most clearly. I asked him if people were scared. He told me that they were scared and angry and hurt but that something happened as the moment of death drew near. Something came and changed them, brought them peace. They relaxed as if into the care of someone else, someone who loved them.
So I was never afraid of hell. If there was forgiveness and care after a lifetime of meanness and misery, then there must be for me as well. All I'd done was punch my sister in the arm. When I was a little girl, I came up with a theory of sin and reconciliation. I thought that we were all sparks of light emanating from the One Light. Each of us came into a body and a human life and from that point forward we began picking up lint like a lifesaver in a kid's pocket. Some of us who landed in good families in good circumstances began picking up pretty pastel lint, all fluffy and warm. Others were not so lucky and the lint we picked up was dirty and sticky, obscuring our light. Throughout life, we roll around from lint to lint...some dirty, some clean, some pretty, some not. And then we die.
When we die, the One Light gathers us in again and gently breathes upon us so that all the lint just blows away revealing the beloved light that is our only true self. As I grew older, I realized that we learn from our lint, these pleasurable and painful experiences of life, but we are not our lint. We are not our experiences, or our fears or our errors. We are not even our intelligence, talents, and passions. We are something more. We are points of brilliance, born and beloved of the One Light and no amount of lint can ever change that.
I try to remember this childhood theory when I confront pain and suffering in the world. I try to remember that when I must confront people whose words and deeds are mean and even evil. The personalities I see in my life and on the news may be evil but the essence of them, the soul of them is not. Whatever ugliness, bitterness, and cruelty I see on their faces is not the true part of themselves. It is not the Sacred Reality of them. If I could see them with God's eyes, I'd see their brilliance. I'd see only their light.