Out on the urban trail before sunup, no one else in sight. The sense of aloneness is to be treasured, for it is a special entrance into our aloneness with God. When you’re alone, you can cultivate the consciousness that God is always with you, neither in the world nor outside it, and closer than anything.
     And then ahead, under a street lamp, a shape. It scurried around; it stopped (was it only a shadow?)—and then I was close enough to see. Here, in the middle of the city, was a possum.
     It is but one of many possums who live amongst us, in the shadows, prowling down there with their snout close to the ground. A friend was taking his dog for a walk in the yard behind his home, and there, under a tree, they found one. His dog leapt at the chance, and one could hear, I was told, the crunch of bone. A bad move all around: the dog got sick from it.
     Humans used to eat them widely. Recipes were made and passed around. But my morning possum was merely a fellow creature on the trail, my fellow creature, and for that morning the only one.
     If you’ve never read it, look for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot. These are light and humorous verses about cats; when Andrew Lloyd Webber discovered the book, the musical “Cats” was born. “Oh! Well I never! Was there ever A Cat so clever As Magical Mr. Mistoffelees!” Eliot makes me almost like cats.
     It was Ezra Pound who called Eliot “Old Possum,” and when Eliot wrote these poems for children in his life, he signed them with that name. Eliot was a severely private man; the comparison with a possum which, when in danger, “plays dead,” suggests itself naturally.
     My possum clearly sensed no danger from me, but just as clearly wanted to remain alone. I wonder if, when God made the first possum and brought him to Adam to be named, if the possum just played dead? Or did he speak to Adam? Perhaps he said: “Don’t pick me, my good man; but have you considered a cat?”
     Out & About. I am to preach at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City on Saturday, March 2, at 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 3, at 8 and 10 a.m.
     The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar is on Sunday, March 10, at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, from 6 to 7:30 pm. Our text is James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” from his collection Dubliners. Anyone who reads it is welcome to the conversation.
     And a couple of weeks after that, on Sunday, March 24, I am to give the spring theology lecture at Incarnation at 6 o’clock: “What Good Is Suffering?”


The Insignificance of Hell

For the first-time reader, it is a surprise. C. S. Lewis (the character in his “dream,” The Great Divorce) asks his guide, George MacDonald, where he came from, when he came out of the Grey Town (which is, for those who stay there, hell)? He came by a bus which had flown up into the air and landed on the outskirts of what is (for those who stay there) heaven. Where had he come from?

His guide bends down to the earth and picks out a tiny crack in the ground between two blades of grass. He can’t say for sure it was from that particular crack, but it was from something like it, he says. Meaning: the trip from hell to heaven was not just a movement in space, it was a movement of expansion. Hell is about as close to nothing as anything can be.

It’s insignificant.


When Dante gets to the very center of the Inferno, the lowest place of hell, it’s the center of the earth, and he finds there Satan. Satan has a three-faced head, and in each of his three mouths he is chewing, forever, the greatest traitors of all time. (One of them is Judas.) Satan himself is frozen in ice—it’s all ice there. The center of hell, in other words, is frozen existence—in Dante’s imagination. I like to think of this as something like “absolute zero,” the temperature, never quite reached, at which all motion completely ceases. It’s absolute zero at the center of hell. Not fire, but its opposite: complete inaction. Nothing happens.

In this view also, hell is insignificant.


Now a “nothing” can be a very significant nothing. If you are driving along a road and the bridge is out, the lack of a bridge can be mortally significant, particularly if you don’t stop in time. “Nothing” (where there ought to be something) can hurt us grievously, even mortally.

But we shouldn’t think of hell as a frightening counter-reality to the reality of God. God just is reality. The opposite of God is non-being. It’s nothing.

There was a elderly woman in my parish, long ago, who had been trained as a philosopher. She once said, quoting an old proverb, that she would choose heaven for the climate, but hell for the company.

It’s a charming quote. We think of heaven as a very pleasant place, but we think people are interesting only insofar as they have some sin, break some rules. Interesting people may be hard to live with (they may be cruel to their spouses), but somehow that’s what makes them interesting to be around.

Not true. Absolutely not true! There is no interesting company in hell. There is only smallness, inactivity, near-nothingness. Hell is the ultimate insignificance.

Out & About. The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will be on Sunday, March 10, at Incarnation, Dallas, at 6pm. We’ll discuss a story by James Joyce called “The Dead.” It’s in his collection called Dubliners, and (I note) there are many copies available at the Dallas Public Library. But it is also a lovely book to own. The story’s action takes place on Christmas Eve, and anyone who reads it is welcome to the conversation. However, to participate you must be alive!

Looking further ahead: On Sunday, March 24, I’ll give the spring theology lecture at 6 o’clock: “What Good Is Suffering?” I will endeavor that it not be a practicum.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: