Saturday, July 04, 2015

Hagiography and a Populated Hell

Some time ago, we did a series on the reality of souls going to hell, not only in potentiality but actuality. We discussed this topic using not only the sources of Scripture and Tradition, but also pietistical, artistic, and literary sources to demonstrate that a populated hell has always been part of the Catholic sensus fidelium (see "Fr. Barron and Mark Shea and Balthasar Are Wrong", USC, Nov. 1, 2013, and subsequent articles in the series).

One aspect of this question we did not explore was the testimony of the saints. The lives of the saints throughout the centuries furnish us with innumerable examples - through private revelation and prophecy - of not only the possibility of a person going to hell, but the actual damnation of particular persons. St. Teresa of Avila famously noted that she saw souls - especially Lutherans - falling into hell like snowflakes. St. John Bosco had similar visions; Padre Pio had revelations of particular unrepentant individuals in hell. And so on and son on.

Those who support the empty hell theory of Balthasar must necessarily poo-poo such testimony. After all, they argue, such private revelations and accounts from hagiographical literature do not constitute the official teaching of the Church; no Catholic is bound to believe any particular miracle story. These tales are evidence of a particular piety, but they are not magisterial teaching. Therefore a Catholic is free to simply ignore them.

Of course, it is true that we need not believe any particular story. But when we weigh the sheer volume of references to individuals in hell we find in Catholic literature and hagiography, the amount of testimony the Balthasarians must cumulatively discard is astonishing.

For an example, take the Life of St. Columba, written by St. Adamnam (d. 704). In the Life of St. Columba alone, we have the following references to Columba's miraculous knowledge of the eternal damnation of particular individuals.

"He often saw, by the revelation of the Holy Ghost, the souls of some just men carried by angels to the highest heavens. And the reprobates too he very frequently beheld carried to hell by demons" (Vita St. Columba, Book I, Cap. 1).

"One day again, as the saint was sitting in his little hut, he said, in prophecy to the same Colca, then reading by his side, "Just now demons are dragging with them down to hell one of the chiefs of thy district who is a niggardly person." When Colca heard this, he marked the time accurately in a tablet, and, coming home within a few months, learned on inquiry from the inhabitants of the place, that Gallan, son of Fachtna, died at the very moment that the saint said to him the man was being carried off by demons" (Vita St. Columba, Book I, Cap. 29).

"At another time also, the holy man specially recommended a certain exile, of noble race among the Picts, named Tarain, to the care of one Feradach, a rich man, who lived in the Ilean island (Isla), that he might be received in his retinue for some months as one of his friends. After he had accepted the person thus highly recommended at the hand of the holy man, he in a few days acted treacherously, and cruelly ordered him to be put to death. When the news of this horrid crime was carried by travelers to the saint, he replied by the following prediction: "That unhappy wretch hath not lied unto me, but unto God, and his name shall be blotted out of the book of life. We are speaking these words now in the middle of summer, but in autumn, before he shall eat of swine's flesh that hath been fattened on the fruits of the trees, he shall be seized by a sudden death, and carried off to the infernal regions." When the miserable man was told this prophecy of the saint, he scorned and laughed at him; and when some days of the autumn months had passed, he ordered a sow that had been fattened on the kernels of nuts to be killed, none of his other swine having yet been slaughtered: he ordered also, that its entrails should be immediately taken out and a piece quickly roasted for him on the spit, so that by hurrying and eating of it thus early, he might falsify the prediction of the blessed man. As soon as it was roasted he asked for a very small morsel to taste it, but before the hand which he stretched out to take it had reached his mouth he expired, and fell down on his back a corpse. And all who saw or heard it were greatly astonished and terrified; and they honoured and glorified Christ in his holy prophet (Vita St. Columba, Book II, Cap. 24)

"When the holy man, while yet a youth in deacon's orders, was living in the region of Leinster, learning the divine wisdom, it happened one day that an unfeeling and pitiless oppressor of the innocent was pursuing a young girl who fled before him on a level plain. As she chanced to observe the aged Gemman, master of the foresaid young deacon, reading on the plain, she ran straight to him as fast as she could. Being alarmed at such an unexpected occurrence, he called on Columba, who was reading at some distance, that both together, to the best of their ability, might defend the girl from her pursuer; but he immediately came up, and without any regard to their presence, stabbed the girl with his lance under their very cloaks, and leaving her lying dead at their feet turned to go away back. Then the old man, in great affliction, turning to Columba, said: "How long, holy youth Columba, shall God, the just Judge, allow this horrid crime and this insult to us to go unpunished?" Then the saint at once pronounced this sentence on the perpetrator of the deed: "At the very instant the soul of this girl whom he hath murdered ascendeth into heaven, shall the soul of the murderer go down into hell." And scarcely had he spoken the words when the murderer of the innocent, like Ananias before Peter, fell down dead on the spot before the eyes of the holy youth. The news of this sudden and terrible vengeance was soon spread abroad throughout many districts of Scotia (Ireland), and with it the wonderful fame of the holy deacon" (Vita St. Columba, Book II, Cap. 26).

And these references come from a single work. The theme of the sinner being dragged to hell was a very common one in medieval Christian hagiography; so common it is featured in almost every piece of thaumaturgical literature that has come down to us.

The point is, if we are to reject these sorts of testimonies based on the fact that we need not believe any particular private revelation, we must indeed reject a vast bulk of the Christian hagiographical tradition, from St. Gregory the Great's Dialogues to Adamnan's Life of St. Columba to the visions of Hildegard and everything in between and right on up to the writings of Teresa of Avila and John Bosco. You cannot pick out "condemned sinner" narratives out of Christian hagiography without eviscerating Christian hagiography.

And if a theological school is willing to totally sacrifice our Christian hagiographical patrimony in the interests of furthering some novelty, some pet theory, then that school of theology is something the Church can do without.


Anonymous said...

This is a tough subject to read or hear about which the church pulpits have been strangely silent for the last 45 years. Maybe once since the council took place, have I heard any mention of in church and would come as a total shock to catholics to have to sit through a sermon on this subject NOW in today's church. It wouldn't surprise me if even more catholics would leave the church if this were to be uttered by a priest today.

Unknown said...

I regularly refer to sin, satan, and the reality of hell in my homilies and no one has walked out yet. Praised be Jesus Christ!

Boniface said...

Yes, even in the Novus Ordo it is an overstatement to say hell and sin are "never"
mentioned. But many priests certainly do downplay them.

Anonymous said...

Do you know if our Christian hagiographical patrimony reflects the belief in the fewness of the saved?

Boniface said...


It is implied, but not so clear. For one thing, God seems to give most saints private revelations only of the circumstances that relate to them - the fate of this or that person or group, not humanity as a whole. St. Francis had visions about the eternal destiny of members of his order; St. John Bosco of the boys of his group; St. Padre Pio of this or that person - i.e., those groups that pertain to the saint's mission. Few saints were given revelations of the destiny of all of humanity; those who did, like St. Teresa and St. Hildegard, generally have very vague statements like "many" people going to Hell, but also an "innumerable" host among the saved.

In short, while I think it can be found in hagiography that it is easy to go to hell and many people do - and from that we can infer a "fewness of the saved" concept, it is definitely not as strong a notion, at least in hagiography. You would find that teaching more among the theologians.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

More stories like these can be very easily gathered from the life of St Bridget.

My Latin professor was a professed Atheist (though the Docent was a then Novus Ordo and now Extraordinary Form priest, OPTert), was impressed on the sheer amount of people whose démise either for Purgatory or Hell St Bridget foresaw (she usually specified which of the two was the case).

Speaking of St Bridget, what do you make of her prompting a Swedish crusade against "Pagans in Novgorod"?

The Docent was against her prophetic piety, since to him it meant "Russian Orthodox", I have however recently found out that this was a century after Alexander Nevski (a Saint as they count) had made Novgorod a vassal of the Yellow Horde in preference to admitting Teutinic Order. Could "Pagans in Novgorod" have referred to collaboration with Pagan domination by Yellow Horde, simply?

Boniface said...


I am not familiar with that episode, but I think your equation of the pagans with the Golden Horde is reasonable.