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Sabbath Day – Hell and Heaven

February 27, 2015

“I began my life as I shall no doubt end it – amidst books.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre.

Today was a very cold, intermittently snowy day in White Plains. I began my sabbath by sleeping an extra four hours – a luxury a don’t take lightly. I am reminded through sabbath practice that my body works better when rested, my mind is clearer, both patience and happiness are easier.

Waking to an empty and quiet house, I made a pot of coffee and settled in to the sunlight with a few good books. One of the pleasures of moving recently is that I am re-discovering books I have kept packed away for years as we create our new library in room #3. Yesterday I unboxed the auto-biography of Jean-Paul Sartre which I have been intending to read for 25 years. This book has lived with me in four houses, three apartments, two dorm rooms and been tossed into countless backpacks. The last time I intended to read it was before visiting the grave of Sartre and De Beauvoir  in the Montparnasse Cemetery (Paris) about ten years ago, but I could not find it (the book, that is). Published the same year (1964) that Sartre was awarded but refused the Nobel Prize in Literature, The Words (Les Mots) is Sartre’s ironic farewell to literature which he believed substituted for commitment and action in the world. Not for nothing does the writing remind one of Marcel Proust.

So it was with pleasure that I read Sartre’s descriptions of his Alsatian origin (part of my own heritage) and discovered that his mother Anne-Marie was first-cousin to Albert Schweitzer. I did not know he had a cat!


Finishing up the book by early afternoon, I of course had to read a play. “Hell is other people,” declares Garcin in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit.” Garcin and two women, Inez and Estelle, find themselves locked together in a spacious Second Empire style room. I say locked, but the door is eventually wide open. What locks them together is their desperate need for love and comfort from another being. It is also their character, formed over a lifetime, that dooms them to torture each other for eternity. As they reveal their darkest secrets, they form alliances and misalliances, re-creating and retreating into their unchanging character in hell. The change required of them in order to leave care for one another and thus leave ‘hell’ is beyond their imagination.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ short novel The Great Divorce in which a bus leaves hell for the outskirts of heaven everyday. Few ever get on board, and almost all who do return to hell because they cannot face the changes required of them if they are to walk the rest of the way into heaven.

Does our character doom us? I overheard someone say at a coffee table today, “That’s just the way she is. She’s not going to change.”

Carol Bly insists that character formation and moral growth are indeed possible, though they require training and hard work. In contrast to Sartre’s rejection of literature as an evasion of moral commitment, Bly’s Changing the Bully Who Rules the World blends great literature and tough ethical reflection in order to stimulate moral growth. This has become my Lenten reading.

I was also reminded last evening that if “hell is other people,” then so is heaven. My colleague, the Rev. Sarah Henkel, hosted a simple soup supper for our congregation on the first Wednesday of Lent, and we were pleasantly surprised at the attendance. Until coming to White Plains I had shared my Wednesday evenings during the season of Lent with other people for as long as I could remember. But that tradition did not exist here. It was a joy to introduce it. Pastor Sarah made Monastery soup with ingredients from our church sponsored CSA and from Stony Point Center, and her husband Will baked the bread. We were inspired by each others as we shared different Lenten practices, and laughed as we invented gestures of gratitude. I think we ranged in age from two to ninety.


At one point Sarah asked us to write down what we were grateful for during Lent and what we could do to keep ourselves open to that gratitude. I wrote that I was grateful for the focus Lent provides, and that sharing this journey with others keeps me focused and grateful. Many in the room were especially grateful for their family: including both biological and chosen family as well as church family.

Heaven, too, will certainly involve other people. The people who have chosen the hard journey of character formation and moral growth we call discipleship.

What practices do you take up during Lent, or whatever time you set aside for intentional growth? With whom do you share this journey and find support?

Shabbath Shalom



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