This story made me think. It comes through the Center for Action and Contemplation:
An excerpt from a conversation between St. Silouan (1866–1938), a monk and Orthodox Staretz (elder), and a hermit.
[There was] a certain hermit who declared [to Silouan] with evident satisfaction: ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’ Obviously upset, the Staretz said: ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire—would you feel happy?’ ‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit. The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance. ‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’ (Archimandrite Sophrony, The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan, 1866–1938, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, rev. ed. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 1973), 32.)
While I do not believe in hell myself, I do witness people living in hellish situations, some imposed on them, some who appear to have imposed it on themselves. We tend to have lots of sympathy for those on whom a living hell is imposed and not so much for those who appear to have imposed it on themselves. The story challenges my own judgments of those who appear to have created their own hellish circumstance.
As I read the story, I recognized that sometimes I am more like the hermit than I’d care to admit. These days, as I read stories about people who are dying or who have died from COVID and chose to not get vaccinated, it is hard to have sympathy. They ask for experimental treatments while at the same time refusing a vaccine that has proven efficacious and safe for hundreds of millions of people. I confess I find myself feeling more with the doctor who wrote about his frustration than I did with the patient he was trying to help and who eventually died, along with his wife, leaving three minor children. But my judgment doesn’t help; it only pours salt on the wound of suffering.
Only love can find the way forward and so I pray, every day, for scared people to find the courage to seek the welfare of the city as Jeremiah said, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”