Hell is ignorance, for both are dark; and perdition is forgetfulness, for both involve extinction.
~ St. Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, 62
I confessed in my last entry that I do not think often about hell, despite the fathers’ commendation of the practice. One way to remedy that is to reflect more here. St. Mark the Ascetic offers a radically different view than the common adage, “Ignorance is bliss.” Rather, he warns, “Hell is ignorance.”
That “ignorance is bliss” is used often in jest shows not everyone who uses it actually subscribes to it. Nevertheless, there are many times where people would rather not know certain things.
Well, of course, not all knowledge is created equal. This is, perhaps, the first lesson in the Bible: Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and as a result, they bring death and the curse upon the world.
But, in fact, this seems a bit nit-picky to me. St. Mark can’t mean all ignorance. Indeed, his statement does not even work as a syllogism:
Hell is darkness.
Ignorance is darkness.
Therefore, hell is ignorance.
Just because all A’s are C’s and all B’s are C’s, does not mean that, therefore, all A’s are B’s. All Corvettes are cars, and all Lamborghinis are cars, but, in fact, no Corvettes are, therefore, Lamborghinis, nor vice versa.
It is worthwhile, then, to ask what sort of ignorance St. Mark might have in mind.
It has been said by some that hell is to be separated from God. Personally, I have always been a bit skeptical of this idea since it seems impossible to be separated from anything that is omnipresent and immaterial.
But if the question is understood in a more subjective way, not ontologically but experientially, then it makes a bit more sense. Hell is ignorance of God. Perdition is forgetfulness of God.
On the other hand, we may reasonably say that perhaps, then, Paradise is remembrance of God and knowledge of him.
Now, I have friends who are atheists and I would hardly wish to imply that I have some special insight into the meaningfulness of their lives. It may be no consolation to them, but I do believe that one can have knowledge of God while denying his existence: to the extent that one is virtuous, one has some knowledge of God.
That said, I am reminded of a story, I think from Solzhenitsyn, in which an old Russian woman was asked what had gone wrong for the whole country to be plunged into the darkness of Communism, in which up to 20 million Orthodox Christians were martyred, not to mention other Christians, Jews, Muslims, and pretty much anyone else who woke up on the wrong side of the bed one day. Her answer: “Men have forgotten God.”
The result, certainly, was hellish.
I can say from my own experience, at least, that while remembrance of God sometimes proves inconvenient—i.e. when I want to sin—it has always proved to be worthwhile. “He who knows God’s will,” writes St. Mark, “and performs it according to his power, escapes more severe suffering by suffering a little.”
And again we find ourselves at dying daily. If we flee death, we will only exhaust ourselves to be found by it unready and afraid. But if we face it daily, with courage, dying with Christ and raised by his mercy, then though we suffer a little and forfeit some fleeting pleasure, we still find true peace and joy.
Thankfully, there’s a practice for cultivating the constant remembrance of God: the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner,” over and over again. Now if only I would remember to pray it more often.
No doubt St. Mark would say that we forget because of negligence when we remembered. So if I would just do it when I remember, I would remember it more and more.
By Christ’s mercy, I think I can work on that.
When we pray for the departed, we ask that they would dwell where there is no pain, sorrow, or sadness. Then we sing, “Memory eternal!” Indeed, the more I practice it myself, the more I know the truth of the matter: remembrance is bliss.