The Harrowing Of Hell
by M. R. Ritley


        It is a painting unlike any I have ever seen, whose artist made no attempt to render life with verisimilitude: surely it was an inner landscape that the artist saw, whose reality then shaped this mannered chaos, full of sheer raw power and vigor. The central figure towers over all the rest, one upraised hand brandishing a cross as if it were a war-spear, the folds of his gown as improbably stiff as corrugated iron. The other figures are mere infants by comparison, staring up at him, their palms upraised in what could be terror -- or astonishment. He grips one of them with a powerful hand, as if to drag him upright from where he cowers on the ground. To the left of him, a shattered doorway, wrenched awry, its door flung down before him; beneath his feet, a yawning cavern filled with open coffins, where the dead (or so I guess they must be), startled from their sleep, look up with wonder at this unexpected tumult.

        "The Harrowing of Hell," the caption reads. The harrowing of hell. It has a curiously powerful ring. It is a phrase, I decide, that probably has a meaning known to everyone but me: a common coin of culture that I haven't yet acquired, a phrase as recognizable as "The Fall of Rome" or "The Idylls of the King." The harrowing of hell.

        It is the sheer energy that seizes my mind -- the sense that something terribly momentous has been frozen in this painting. But the title fails to convey any meaning to my sixteen-year- old's mind. It strikes me strongly enough that I buy a postcard of the painting in the museum shop, but the image is too disconnected to any world I know, and I forget it in a few days.

Hell took a body and discovered God
It took earth and encountered Heaven
It took what it saw
and was overthrown by what it did not see.

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?
Christ is Risen, and you are destroyed!



        I am plowing through a grad course in Middle English when the image leaps up at me again. I had almost forgotten the image, but here it is, a painting nearly identical to the one I saw six years ago. I begin to understand. This image, that earth-shaking struggle that took place between the cross and resurrection, once fiercely seized the imagination of the Middle Ages. While the crucified body lay in its silent tomb, a titanic battle shook the very gates of death. He descended into hell, the Creed said. He plowed up hell and reaped a harvest in its depths.

        I sigh. I no longer have the faith I learned in childhood: this means nothing to me. But at twenty-two, I have begun to understand what hell is like -- and it is harrowing enough.

        Can a person who has not struggled with the hell of emotional illness see this picture with the same intensity, I wonder? The gray and huddled figures in the midst of this chaotic scene, the shattered pieces strewn upon the ground, the terror and the helplessness -- the artist might have drawn these from the depths of my own inner life. I am just months away from breaking down entirely.

        I feel marked in some indefinable way, as if that murky region below the heroic Christ's feet were drawing me inexorably downward: I have breathed the terror in since childhood. I feel marked because my family has already marked me. By the time I was ten there had been three suicides in my family; two cousins had been in mental hospitals. I am terrified that I will follow them, terrified by this nameless beast I have struggled with for years.

        Nothing eases the terror. Neither the religion I learned as a child nor the culture I am trying to survive in offer me a way out. I have begun a long and terrifying journey through this inner landscape, and I have no idea where it will end. The harrowing of hell sounds some deep chord within me, but I cannot grip this image and make it mine. Its power beckons, but I cannot reach it.

        How does one shatter the doors of hell as this mysterious figure has shattered them? I hardly dare to ask.

        Add to all this the fact that I have known since childhood that I am seriously different from other people -- a difference I now know is called "gay." It is easy to see why, on a deep, deep level, I know that I have a long and often terrifying journey ahead of me. I have already entered that inner landscape -- unsure of whether I am a fugitive or a refugee -- certain only that I don't see any blessed liberator who will help me into the light of freedom.



        I have become a wily warrior in the battle with my silent, gray companion. After much struggle, I have learned how to get up each morning, lift my depression, despair, and continual panic as if it were a large and unwieldy boulder, get up on my feet and walk through each day. I have learned to do it so successfully that only a few people know what each day costs me. It has become a personal crusade: I will fight every inch of the way, and I will not give up.

        I have found a way that makes it possible, a spiritual discipline upon which I center my whole life, a conviction that suffering can be placed at the service of God, laid over and over at God's feet, asking only that God use me to help someone else to freedom. It works, after a fashion. I have found a satisfying life, teaching others, especially helping those who are as badly troubled and broken as I feel. It is a tough bargain, but it gives meaning to what I could otherwise not endure.

        My spiritual director suggests that my illness might well be the very spiritual school in which God can best teach me. I recognize that it has, indeed, been the school where I have learned almost everything I know about the human heart, and have arrived at a tenuous compassion for others who suffer. But I still think it is bitterly unfair of God.

        It is this that keeps me searching more and more deeply for a God who does not leave us to struggle on our own. I am still fascinated by the harrowing of hell, but I cannot connect my picture of God with the image of this God who breaks the doors of hell. Would this God consent to suffering? This is the God I long to find -- not one who will merely let me struggle on alone, but one who will break my bonds, and set me free.


        It is the harrowing of hell that speaks the deepest truth to me now. I have begun to understand at last, finally grasped the understanding that the harrowing of hell was Christ's great work. No -- not was -- but is. For neither the suffering nor the inner journey in themselves suffice. In and of itself, the heart's long exile may be no more than an endless wandering, a fugitive life whose very isolation is a kind of safety, an immunity from others' pains and others' needs. It is always there, at least as a temptation, when the claims of life press too closely against the bone.

        And in and of itself, the very darkness of the broken mind may become a hell of self-preoccupation, a private world where the distorted personality becomes enshrined as god, and God cannot find entrance. There is no magic formula whereby the inner journey is transformed, no matter how long the exile's journey or how courageous the struggle with the inner demons. In the end, I have learned that the journey is too much for my mere human strength.

        I have spent years in therapy, in counseling, in 12 Step programs, years struggling toward a life in which I can use my gifts. I will never be free of the struggle. But I no longer have to struggle alone.

He who first said to Adam,
"Where are you?"
Is raised upon the cross
that they who were lost might be found.

And descending to hell Christ proclaims:
"Come, my image! My likeness!"

-- St Ephrem

        The harrowing of hell. The power of the image lies in its terrible and overwhelming truth: darkness does not always yield to human efforts. Sometimes darkness wins. Unless --

        Unless there is a God whose passion for the lost will stop at nothing, hold back nothing, risk all things to penetrate and break the darkness.

        He descended to the dead.

        This is the God whose unspeakable compassion stops at nothing, and whose presence in the darkness has at times been all the light I had.

        But light enough.

        It is not simply human courage or determination that holds back the dark, and lets the captive walk free, but the God who enters hell itself, and will not rest till hell is harrowed.



        We begin in darkness at the church doors, but the darkness holds no terror. It is sweet with the voices all around me: "There are angels hovering 'round." It is a darkness softened by dim lights, and the solitary flame of the paschal candle that I am carrying. As the Exsultet rings out joyfully, the warm light of candles rises and kindles all around, a reminder of the light to come.

        It's Easter, I think. The crucifixion is behind us. This is the third day, this is what we have waited for. But this time, this time, I understand. It is not the cross and tomb that make the sum of Easter, not for me or anyone who has traveled the long and lightless road within. This time I see it, the piece I have been missing.

        This time I have a secret that lights me from within. I have not stood at the cross' foot and watched him die, have not hid in the upper room and hated my cowardice, have not gone early to the tomb to find it empty. Oh, no! This time I waited in the halls of hell itself to see him come. I waited, knowing that there is someone whose compassion reaches down into the very depths of this final prison of the spirit.

        He descended into hell.

        He bursts into death like an eruption of the sun, hurling himself headlong into the silence where we have waited for him. The walls burst outward, and our tombs crack round us at the great shout of his voice. "Awake! Arise! Come! Follow me!"

        The doors lie shattered at his feet. The very air of hell recoils from the whirlwind that his passing makes, a vast and irresistible vacuum into which, still terrified and startled, the lost are drawn, pulled up like dust-motes in a tempest, whirling in his wake. Hell cracks upon itself, and in the great inrush of dazzling light and air, the freed souls tumble into daylight, stunned and blinded.

        The captives are released, and hell lies broken.






M.R. Ritley is an Episcopal priest and assisting presbyter for St. Gregory's Church where she enjoys teaching classes in which she can make accessible to Christians the rich insights of her Sufi background.


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