Somehow, I managed to make it through this many years of my life without reading The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. The book was the subject of a recent book discussion in my parish. While I could not attend the discussion because I was off directing a retreat, I decided to read the book anyway.
The “divorce” in the title refers to a divorce between heaven and hell, which Lewis saw as real places. Based on the medieval idea of the refrigerium, the idea of a refreshment or vacation from hell, the book opens with people from hell getting a free bus ride to heaven, and the ability whether to stay there or return to hell.
Through the eyes of the narrator, we meet various of the souls from hell, as well as the spirits of heaven who come to meet them to help them to stay. Alas, many choose to get back on the bus to return to hell. When the narrator asks the spirit who is his Teacher how they can choose to go back, he it told:
The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its super than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names – Achilles’ wrath and Coriolinus’ grandeur. Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.
Surrendering to love, to real life, requires a letting go. And many are unable to do that. Even more tragic, the thing they hold onto, ceases to bring pleasure, yet it continues to be grasped anyway. (Which prompts the question in each of us: What are we holding onto that inhibits opening ourselves fully to joy, to love.)
That one episode does not sufficiently convey the book, but my hope is that you consider reading it yourself.