Discussions of Hell.
“Hell doesn’t exist, right?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I need to know.”
With that my idyllic afternoon was shot, done for. Kaput. Young Francis, my nephew was in a state. Or more correctly we were now in a state. Of something. It isn’t normal for people to ask questions that just hang there, like an unanswered cell phone or the insistent ringing of a microwave. I’m done or I’m beginning, do something, these things say to us. Worse than Amazon Alexa talking for no reason, was how this question sounded. I stopped on the path we were walking on. Our walk had been uneventful. The sun was shining. Birds flew, squirrels hid nuts, and the trees shimmered and waved about us.
He was deep in thought, one hand about his mouth, like he was trying to bite something, anything, a fingernail maybe. Then he turned his insistent blue eyes on me, “I just need to know that’s all.”
“Oh ok.” I nodded. Great, ok, needing to know something solves everything. I tried to keep walking, but he stayed, rooted to the spot on that path.
“Well, aren’t you coming?” He followed me. But I could see he was annoyed; this wasn’t going well. “Why don’t we take a break?” I suggested. I pointed to a park bench. We were near Bell Lake after all, clear blue water on this fall day, perfectly relaxing.
“So, you were saying?” I started, hopefully, after we sat down.
“Hell exists. I know it.”
“That’s not what you said before.”
“Well, it’s what I’m saying now.”
“And you’re ok with that?”
He didn’t answer me. Francis had always been a little on the precocious side. Always asking questions. The sort of child people like to have when they don’t work 60-hour weeks. That’s where an interested and helpful uncle like me should come in handy. I had been helping Francis since he was a toddler.
I tried again. Might as well just take a chance. “Hell exists, sure. Heaven too. So do beautiful days, like this one.
“No. That’s not what I meant. Hell, really exists. And a lot of people will spend eternity dying forever in unimaginable pain.”
Now that was a whopper, I thought. What cult had gotten to him? “And you are sure of this? I’m pretty sure Amnesty International wouldn’t allow it!” I quipped.
Stupid remark. I could hear myself talking, but there was nothing but gibberish inside my head. I wasn’t making sense even to myself. He wasn’t listening at all, his head down. It was like he was defeated fighting a battle he had no chance of winning. Maybe if I said something to lighten the mood a little. I waited a bit and composed myself a little. I put my hand on his shoulder, doing that fatherly older adult thing.
“Don’t take it so hard! Who wants a vacation anywhere hot and sticky anytime soon? You know people can believe the most darn things. Then they live reasonably happy lives. Like three-legged dogs that can run, you know that sort of thing.”
“What do you think?” Francis asked.
“I think that everything works out in the end. There’s a plan for everything. We just need to find out what that is.”
Now Francis wanted me to go with him to this group. I had no idea what it was. Never heard of them. Some gathering of people I had never met. It would be at Bell Lake again, just on the other quieter side of the lake, where people did more fishing than swimming. I was supposed to make something, it would be a potluck. I had my wife do a potato salad. “Just don’t leave it in the car!” she demanded. “There’s egg and mayonnaise in it and I don’t want you coming home sick!” She plopped a rather large green bowl into a basket that I hadn’t seen in years.
“Isn’t this basket the one that Uncle Harvey gave us at your shower, what thirty years ago or more?”
“What now dear?” she cooed. “You don’t remember when we were married? Thirty-one years ago, this May. The tongs that you need to allow people to serve themselves and the ice packs are here. Make sure you use them!”
With that, I took the basket and put it into the trunk of my Toyota. Francis was waiting for me when I arrived at his parent’s house, a short five-minute drive. When he came to the door, he looked upset. “Weren’t you supposed to be here at 11 o’clock?” he complained.
“11:30 you said.” I was usually good at remembering dates and times.
“No, the event starts at 11:30. The presentation and everything. We’re late.”
He yelled goodbye at someone, either Mark or Barb, his parents, and shut the door. The screen door banged with an odd sound after him, like it was coming apart somewhere. “You think you’ll need to get that fixed?” I joked, laughing a little.
“What?” Francis said as we walked rather briskly down the sidewalk to the car. I let it go. He seemed lost in thought. It would not be a good day for a picnic or whatever it was we were going to. Overcast with a forty percent chance of showers. I knew a shortcut to get to where we were headed that might cut five minutes off our trip, but it didn’t seem to me that this was going to be a very enjoyable outing. Stupid religious people, I thought. Why can’t they just leave well enough alone?
We pulled into the Bell Lake parking lot about 15 minutes later, Francis hardly talking. Everything I said to him in the car would lead to a single-sentence answer or, worse, nothing at all. There was a red and white open-air pavilion in the distance and a bunch of picnic tables. About fifty or so people were sitting at those picnic tables and someone on a loudspeaker was talking. I couldn’t make out everything that was being said but it looked like any sort of open-air gathering of people you might see anywhere. “We’ll leave the basket in the car…”
“Whatever!” said Francis as he walked very quickly away from me. I struggled to keep up without looking like I was rushing. This was just getting more and more uncomfortable. When did Francis say this would end?
We were at one of the picnic tables quite far away from the speaker. No one looked at us when we arrived. I noticed that everyone had baskets or packages of some sort on their tables. There was a main table where it looked like the food would be served and another table where the presenters had positioned themselves close to the microphone. Sitting down at this rather uncomfortable picnic table, finally, I could rest and get to the bottom of this developing fiasco.
“So, this is where we are at,” opined the presenter, a rather heavy-set man in his fifties. “Our choices matter. Everything we do or don’t do makes a difference. Are there any questions so far?”
“Yeah, I’ve got one!” sparked a thin, energetic sort who appeared to expect people to laugh at him. “When’s the food?” There was a rumble of laughter in the audience.
The speaker smiled and put his hand over the mike to confer with a woman sitting nearby. “Barbara tells me that I should probably cut my remarks short on account of the rain that is headed our way. We’ll eat say in the next ten minutes or so then we’ll see about the rest of my presentation, assuming the weather holds up. Anyone else?”
Francis put his hand up. “Why does Hell exist?”
At that point, my headache started, one of the worst I’ve had any time recently. I shaded my eyes with my hand and tried to scrunch down just a little as everyone stared at us. I could see the presenter looking a little uncomfortable, but not terribly so. Other people had somewhat strange looks on their faces like they thought the question to be more out of place than entirely inappropriate. It was out of my hands. I didn’t even look at Francis.
“Hell? That’s an interesting question, young man. How about I drop by, and we have a chat a little later,” he smiled. “Can everyone bring their food up to the front?”
We’d had our fill. All sorts of salads with mixed greens, barbecue, washed down with a non-alcoholic punch, and many desserts. These people could put on a spread, I’d grant them that. But Ron, our presenter, proceeded to buttonhole us before Francis and I could excuse ourselves. That headache wasn’t going to get a chance to go away even with Tylenol.
We did the introductions and Francis explained to Ron in detail his concerns about the dreaded HE double hockey stick as I was beginning to call it. He listened and got Francis to talk much more than I had been able to. But the whole conversation was not going in the direction that I wanted it to go.
“You are serious that many people are going to spend eternity in Hell? Seriously?” I said, finally unable to not jump in and have my say.
Ron was unapologetic. “Look at it this way. Whatever we can imagine might happen. But it’s what you do that makes the difference. Nothing is set in stone.”
This was making me furious. “Maybe for you! But I choose not to imagine such things!” I tried to keep my voice down, but it wasn’t working. Francis was listening though. I would do anything for him.
Ron was holding his arms out to me as if he could hold the raging waters back if he could. “Look, let’s just calm down a little bit. Wouldn’t want to spoil such a perfect day, now, would we?”
“Ok, fine, sure,” I huffed while Ron just watched me, his expression unchanging.
It was his attempt at a joke, talking about the weather. The rain had started, and everyone was taking shelter one way or another. Some of us had umbrellas, and some brave ones were under trees. We took shelter in the pavilion itself. Of course, I would not be able to get Ron to budge about what he believed in. I was arguing with someone who did something for a living. Such things never go well, like challenging a pro at something you do only part-time.
“Now, that’s better, isn’t it? I’m in no hurry. Let’s have a seat over there.” My back hurt from sitting on the picnic tables. He motioned to a few lawn chairs over away from the rest of the crowd. We settled in. Someone who noticed the commotion I had caused was kind enough to bring us more refreshments.
“You could say we are in the dream business here!” laughed Ron. He slapped his knee while I smiled weakly. I took a huge gulp of what turned out to be lemonade.
I started in again. “I don’t understand at all. I will be perfectly honest with you. Why are you and people like you so strange? Here I am worried about Francis, wondering whether he is getting involved in some cult and it is all so twisted…”
“Just hold on a minute,” intoned Ron with a smile. “Wouldn’t want to see anymore upset, now, would we? I hear you. But let’s just get back to something more important than Hell or anything else.”
“What would that be?”
By this point, the word was meaningless to me. I had heard enough of religion to make me want to miss a week of Sundays. Ron kept talking but I was done. Francis had more questions; he was getting more involved in what I now knew to be a cult. I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t want to make a scene. It was all I could do to get away when it ended.
Mark and Barb were very tired when I went to see them about Francis. They sat me down and were hospitable, but their business wasn’t going well and all the hours they were putting in just wasn’t enough. I felt sorry for them, but I was even sorrier when it didn’t seem to cause them that much concern after I explained what was happening to Francis. Did being parents to Francis take second place in putting food on the table?
But it was worse than that. Francis no longer asked me questions about anything. I was one of “them.” It was his time to tell me things. I needed to be a part of his group. I needed to avoid Hell. I was starting to think that everything was so hopeless. One last chance and maybe I would have to throw in the towel. There would be an evening meeting at a church called “Blessed Sacrament.” A Roman Catholic Church. Strange place for a cult to meet I thought.
At the church, Ron was there. He would lead the meeting. A priest said Mass, but I told Francis I was not Catholic. I met Francis after the Mass.
“Did you find parking OK?” asked Francis.
“Yeah, sure lot of people here.” And not just old people too. Young people. Children and babies. All this on a Tuesday night?
“Let’s get a seat before everyone else.”
“Sure,” I said.
Ron started his spiel, while people listened. It seemed all fine. The topic wasn’t Hell. In fact, I got the impression that people didn’t talk about it as much as I thought. The topic was about how to be a Roman Catholic. Weird. Just normal pedestrian stuff. Go to church. Go to confession. Learn the rules. Live responsibly and prudently. What was not to like?
Afterward, Francis suggested we go to a donut place down the street that was open late. A bunch of people from the presentation were already there. Chocolate frosted donut, milk, then Francis ordered a maple crème with sprinkles and coffee.
“Coffee?” I asked.
“Yeah, gotta study tonight. History test tomorrow.” He took a bite, crème filling spilling from his mouth, I gave him one of the many napkins I had from an overstuffed dispenser that made you take too many. Huge waste of paper those things. You end up taking what you don’t need, then stuffing your pockets with the rest.
“So, what did you think?” He had a handle on that donut now. Disappearing in huge bites.
What did I think? I thought and drew a blank. Which was refreshing. Later I remembered something that a famous Russian literary figure, Fyodor Dostoevsky, said about how “the soul is healed by being with children.”
We left that diner, Francis and I. That was enough for me.