The Gehenna Of Saint Augustine

by Joachim Glage

“The better a thing the worse its ruin,” Augustine said, but tenderly, to Porphyro, his last pupil. “Angels and men, when they fall, become more wretched than monsters.”

When Saint Augustine spoke these words he had less than an hour left to live. At the time—the year was 430, Visigoths and Burgundians hounded the empire on various fronts, and Vandals laid siege to Hippo—he was still but Aurelius Augustinus, not yet a saint; but his voice, though rattling from illness, sounded nobly in the still-proud Latin of Rome, and projected the special authority he’d gained during his life, as if his vocation (as bishop, as a statesman of Roman Africa) would not yet relinquish him, and as if he were somewhat more than a man dying.

Lifting his arms from his sides—he lay in his bed, almost still—and raising his cold fingers to lend emphasis to the words, he said to Porphyro: “Our natural goodness is a gift from God. There can be no worse evil than to squander it.”

The church was quiet. Porphyro looked about Augustine’s chambers and saw that psalms had been hung from the walls. Augustine, with a hand half-palsied, reached out and clenched Porphyro’s wrist.

In that moment, nearly a thousand years still stood between Augustine and his sainthood. Neither he nor Porphyro, of course, could have any inkling about that. Nevertheless the student swore that he could feel his teacher’s soul radiating all about him, and he knew that it had been specially touched by God, and his eyes filled up with tears.

At this, Augustine paused, suddenly aware of the shortness of his time. It may surprise you, my good and generous reader, but the man who wrote City of God and the Confessions,and who had long warned congregations in Hippo and Carthage of the corruptible body, had not given much thought to the subject of his own bodily demise. (It should be granted, at any rate, that the strictly physical fact of death, at least as a theological matter, could be of only minor interest to someone like Augustine.) What strange new thoughts now came to him?

One need not be a varlet to know the knight’s armor clatters before a campaign; likewise, one needs no special wisdom to predict that a man of old age—even one as notable and pious as Augustine—will, when harried by death, feel consternation about it. It is one thing to talk about dying, or about long eternities; it is quite another when rot creeps upon you. When Augustine looked up at weeping Porphyro, and felt his own heart quicken, he knew, for the first time and truly, that he was going to die.

“I’ve written a book that I’ve kept secret,” Augustine said abruptly. Porphyro wiped his eyes. “I’ll tell you where I’ve hidden the manuscript. You must promise me you will find it and destroy it, and not show it to anyone.”

Porphyro was taken aback, but nodded.

“You must promise me that you will not read the book, either, but will destroy it at once.”

Augustine’s student looked pained. Eventually he said: “My teacher, I fear my interest in your book will be too great. Perhaps if you tell me its contents, my curiosity will be diminished, and I will be able to destroy it without reading it.”

Augustine lay silent and still and with his hands clasped for a long time. At last he spoke:

“It was not long ago. I had recently finished writing Book XXI of City of God, where, among other things, I attempted to deduce the qualities of hell. As you well know, I wrote in that book that hell is a place of fire, and that the souls consigned to that domain have bodies which suffer burning. I wrote that these bodies do not perish in the flames, but are doomed to suffer them forever. I theorized, too, that any repentance in hell is fruitless, not only because the source of such penitence would be pain as opposed to goodness, but also because the evangelium proclaims it to be so: their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

Augustine paused, coughed, and then adjusted himself in his bed.

“At that time, just as I was about to begin work on Book XXII, a man came to visit me. I knew straightaway that this man was an unnatural being, for he appeared in the exact form of my old acquaintance, Faustus from Mileve, whom I knew to be long dead. The man said to me, ‘I came to speak with you about hell,’ and then he grinned, and I knew it was the devil.”

Augustine fell silent for a moment. Porphyro raised up slowly in his chair, and barely breathed.

Augustine continued: “Very well do I know of the devil’s forked tongue, and how he uses flattery, and enjoys the fruits of his manipulations; so I paid him no mind when he told me he was a great admirer of my work. I ignored him, again, when he complimented me for the good I’d done for Rome and the world. Finally, he said to me: ‘When it comes to the subject of hell, however, you’re simply off the mark. May I offer you a glimpse?’ He then took my hand and kissed it. And then, without ceremony, he left.”

Augustine adjusted himself again, and took a moment to rub his eyes.

“That night I had a dream, a dream that was more than a dream. It was a vision. A vision of hell. The hell that I saw, however—or rather, that I now found myself in—was not a place of fire, but of water. ‘The water of knowledge,’ a voice whispered to me. ‘It encompasses everything.’ It was as if I’d been sent to the bottom of the sea, only, it was not dark; the water was limpid and bright, and it functioned somewhat like the sun, making all things visible. Moreover, I found that I could move through the water with ease, and I walked about on the ground normally. Nothing floated or swam. And yet I could feel the water at every moment. It moved over me, and its vibrations were like something alive.

“This hell that I saw, the landscape of it, was much like our own world, with creatures and plant-life and mountains and stones and plains; indeed the whole of beautiful nature was there. Nearby me stood a tree; I approached it. At that moment I understood how the ‘water of knowledge’ had earned its name. For what flashed upon me, from many of the water’s vibrations, was not just the sight of the tree in its current state, but in every stage of its existence. I saw it through the seasons, and as a seedling, and then as an acorn; I saw the changing life of the soil which nourished its roots, and the spread of the tree’s ancestors in distant woods; I saw the flattening of mountains to make room for it, and before that the receding of ice, and fire and explosions that were terrifying to behold—all things that took place over eons, and seemingly for the sole purpose that I might now gaze at these simple branches.

“Just then a voice spoke from behind me: ‘The water shows you everything.’ I spun on my heels and saw that it was Faustus of Mileve once more. Whether this was the real Faustus, or the devil again, I could not say. He continued: ‘The water makes sure that we see the absurdity of God’s generosity wherever we look.’ And then he smiled at me, and it was just the way he would smile many years ago, when we discussed theology.

“Without ado, he cheerfully began to criticize what I’d written in City of God. ‘Your first mistake,’ he said, ‘was assuming the primary substance of hell should be fire. The very lightest of elements!’ Faustus laughed, and I could not help but laugh too. ‘Even the simplest of principles,’ he continued, ‘ought to have suggested to you the opposite: that here, in this lowest place, the heavier elements, earth and water, should predominate.’ Again I was moved to laugh. He went on: ‘Your second error was conceiving of hell under that most human of ideas, that of retribution, as if hell were but a dungeon for the paying up of debts. But no, there is no paying of debts here. In truth, if there is a single axiom of this place, it is that: No debt is ever paid. Even to try is foolishness.’

“I then asked Faustus if hell was not a place of punishment after all. His answer astonished me. ‘But it’s all there in Genesis already,’ he said. ‘Knowledge is a kind of punishment, and perfect knowledge is perfect punishment.’ He paused to allow my confusion to settle somewhat. ‘It is just the same as with riches: the more you’re lavished with knowledge the more fruitless the abundance becomes.’ He smiled at my perplexity. ‘Just as there are solitudes that are accessible only in crowded cities, so does a general blur become possible when everything is thrown into relief equally. Where everything is luminous nothing is. It is not only in the dark of night that all cows are black, as the saying goes, but in the bright and full day, too. Or as we sometimes put it in one of our proverbs, There is more nothingness in a clod of dirt than in the empty air, and even the buzzing richness of nature only talks over itself. Call it the nothing of plenitude. There’s just so, so much. It humiliates you. It reduces you and even itself to naught.’

“We both laughed. I don’t know why we laughed so much. There was something preposterous about it all. And then Faustus suddenly cried out: ‘Oh you charmed creatures still on the earth! If only you knew how much passes right through you! If only you knew how faintly you exist! Here in hell we are dense, we collide with everything.’ Faustus’s smile then faded, and he said: ‘In hell it is evident that nothing we could ever do, even given infinite lifetimes, could earn the abundance bestowed on us. Even gratitude feels like foolishness. Nay, more than that. Gratitude is impossible here. We have too much.’

“We continued talking for some time. Faustus recited for me some more of hell’s proverbs, and he told me what society was like there, and he showed me a dark molten sea where people sometimes boiled themselves, if they burned with too much guilt (somehow they found this soothing). We discussed more theological concerns, too, such as whether one can sin in hell, or pray, or repent, and how vast a place it is, and what manner of demon resides there, and if hell be eternal or not, and how much the damned can recall from their lives on the earth, and so forth.

“When I awoke from this vision, I immediately set about to writing it all down. This labor took three days. On the fourth day I rested, but fitfully. On the fifth day I resolved to keep what I’d written secret. I reasoned as follows: Either my vision was a lie, or, if it contained some part of the truth, it was nonetheless that part that the devil was desirous for us to know. Either way, I figured, it must be suppressed. Why I did not destroy the text myself in that very moment, I cannot say. Pride, perhaps, or doubt. Sin, in either case!”

Augustine then told trembling Porphyro how to find the manuscript, and admonished him one last time not to read it, and then waved him away. Later that day Augustine lay dead, while Porphyro stole into a hidden recess underneath the baptistry. He found his way down a dark stair and through a low-arched hall, as instructed, and then moved aside the third stone to the left from a sign of the cross that had been carved on the wall. The only copy of De Gehenna lay revealed. He took the text into his hands. “I have a home for you,” he said, “in a library in a low place;” and then he fled away through the secret door, and over the mosaics set so carefully in the floors of the basilica.

~

Bio:

Joachim Glage lives and writes in Colorado, where he also enjoys no longer being an attorney. The Devil’s Library, a collection of Glage’s fiction about imaginary and fabulous books, is forthcoming from Jackleg Press.

Philosophy Note:

The questions–rooted in what I call “imaginative theology”–that spurred the creation of this text were: What if Hell were the opposite of the abyss? What if Hell were precisely the absence of mystery? What if Hell meant the destruction of the possibility of gratitude, not through deprivation, but through abundance?

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