Saturday, 29 April 2017

Insight into life which hell gives

I have told you, my friend, how continuously I am the prey of memories, but how much so—to what extent, I mean—you little guess. That deeds of iniquity and particular sins should assail me, tormenting the soul as with fire, is natural. But this is not all. There are other things, counted for little in the world, which cling to conscience with a terrible vividness. Every little falsehood and unjust dealing, every word of deceit and breach of fealty, every evil example and want of kindness—they are all, all present now, piercing the heart as with daggers of regret. I thought so little of these things in life, that I scarcely stopped to consider them; they seemed buried on the spot, every year adding its own share to the smouldering heap. They have risen now and stand about me, I see them and I tremble.

I was just thinking of an example, out of hundreds which press round me. I take one at random. I have felt haunted lately by the sorrowful eyes of a poor little street boy. Wherever I turn I see him, or rather not so much him as his tearful troubled gaze, rising in judgment against me. It has all come back to my mind how one evening I sauntered about in the park, a poor little beggar running alongside, pressing me to buy a halfpenny worth of matches. I did not want them and told him so, but he persisted in crying, Only a ha'penny, sir—only a ha'penny. He annoyed me, and, taking him by the arm, I rudely pushed him away. I did not mean to hurt him, although, to tell the truth, there was not a particle of kindness in me at the time. Nor lay the wrong in not buying his matches; I was quite at liberty to refuse, had I denied him kindly. But he annoyed me and I was angry. The child, flung aside roughly, fell on the road; I heard a cry; perhaps he had hurt himself—perhaps it was only grief for his matches lying about in the mud. I turned and met a look from his eyes, full of trouble and silent accusation. It would have been so easy for me to make good my thoughtlessness, so little would have comforted the child, but I walked away heedless of his grief.

Now few people would call that downright wickedness—few people in the world I mean; but here, unfortunately, we are forced to judge differently. Years and years have passed since, for I was a young man at the time, but the memory of that child has returned to me, his look of sorrowful reproof adding to the pangs of hell. It is but an example, as I said, and there are many—many!

But not mere deeds—every word of evil carelessly spoken in the days of earthly life comes back to me with similar force. As poisoned arrows such words once quitted my lips—as poisoned arrows they come back to me, piercing the heart. Oh, consider it while the living voice is yours, and speak not lightly! There is no saying what harvest of sin may spring from a single word. And if pity for others will not restrain you, be advised by pity for your own selves, since requital will come to yourselves only in the end.

And not merely deeds and words, but every harmful thought recurs to me, to gnaw away at my heart. There is a saying with certain philosophers in the world that nothing ever is lost. If this be true in the material world, how much more so is it in spiritual things—ah, terrible truth !

And further, apart from the evil done, it is the good left undone, the opportunities wasted, which stand around me with pitiless scourge, and their name is legion! Thus everything, you see, both what I have done and left undone, comes to life here in this place of woe—takes shape, I ought to say—rising in accusation against me. I try to escape, but they are about me everywhere, those shapes of terror, enough to people a world with despair; they persecute me, they torture me, and I am their helpless prey. Memories of the good left undone—alas, they are far more bitter than those of the evil done! For temptation to do wrong often was great, and in my own strength I failed to conquer; but to do good, for the most part, would have cost little, if any, effort. I see it now with the new insight into life which hell gives. The man lives not who is excused from leaving good undone; however poor and humbly situated he may be, opportunity is ever at his door. It is for him only to open his heart and take in the opportunity; for his own heart is a well of power and of blessing to boot. He who is the fountain of love and purity, from whom every good and perfect gift cometh, has wondrously arranged it, that in this respect there is but little difference between the rich and the poor, the gentle and the simple. Let me conjure you then, brothers and sisters, listen to the voice of your heart while yet it is day! Listen, I say, and obey, lest the bitterness of repentance overtake you with the night when no man can work! Ah, let no opportunity for the doing of good escape you, for it will rise against you when nothing is left but to wail in anguish.

Letters from Hell, L. W. J. S., Richard Bentley & Son, London, 1889