It was, to understate the obvious, an unpleasant experience. It was also the best thing that ever happened to me.
I and three friends – another male student and our two beautiful girlfriends – decided to “drop” some synthetic mescaline. I don’t recall how M. “scored” the drugs (he also had some “opiated” hashish on hand), but I suppose he got it from a chem major.
We gathered at M.’s off-campus apartment and took the capsules, then went about fixing dinner and generally acting like immature twenty-year-olds.
Nothing happened. An hour passed, and we felt nothing. So M. brought out a Meerschaum pipe that his sailor uncle had given him, and he put the sticky ball of hash into the bowl, lighted it, and passed it around.
In those days I didn’t call myself an atheist, because even then I had a modicum of humility, but as the drug – the hashish, I assumed – began to kick in, I said to N. (M.’s girl):
“You know . . . there is no God; we’re the gods.”
I was articulating euphoria.
But then I coughed, spitting up phlegm onto the back of my hand and flushing with embarrassment. N. laughed. I forced a smile, and she said:
“You should smile more often.”
We’d been standing in the tiny kitchen, and now I crossed the small living room to sit on the couch. P., my girlfriend, came over to join me. I watched her walking towards me. My heart began to pound.
Her eyes are wide and her mouth is gaping, and I’m sure she’s choking, dying. She collapses beside me and . . . laughs.
“I was trying to yawn,” she says breathlessly. “It’s hard to yawn!”
They’re all convulsing in hysterics, but I’m sitting here with pulse racing, stomach churning, and my bowels burning, when suddenly I realize time has stopped. A question forms in my perfervid brain: What does it mean when you are suffering in eternity?
I look at my chest, see my heart smashing against my ribs. It’s going to burst out of my body.
There’s just one answer to the question: You’re in Hell.
The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin, c. 1890 (Musée Rodin, Paris)
M. is pacing in the room and talking about baseball, an explanation for all existence, and the other two are still laughing, and I think they’re laughing at me, and I don’t understand why they can’t see the hopelessness that’s descended.
Some terrible cycle has trapped us. M. makes that pitching motion, N. looks at P. and laughs, and P. looks at me and says:
“It’s like being in Heaven.”
Then around the room again. My head bobs; I’m rewinding and fast-forwarding my life, trying to understand my damnation. Memories rise; but I always fall back. I can’t change a thing.
I’ll break this! I run from the apartment.
I run as fast as I can the mile to my room in the casa orgia I call home. Two voices, one on each shoulder, taunt me:
“Will he make it this time?”
“Not this time.”
I come to a railroad crossing a few blocks away. Bells are clanging and the crossing gates are coming down.
“Will he’ll make it?”
I bolt towards the crossing, trip and fall. The train thunders by.
Lying in bed now, my arms are spread wide and my ankles crossed like Jesus crucified. I weep for half an hour.
Then P. is pounding on my door. She sits down beside me:
“It’s the drugs,” she says. “It’s the drugs. Don’t give up hope!”
A week later I was walking to class. Left, right. Left: I didn’t believe in God; right: I believed.
What I’ve realized all these years later is that what I “saw” in “hell” was not just the greatness of God (better to say I “glimpsed” it) but also my own greatness: great because God made me – an alarming realization then, since I had denied His existence and was agonizing in my sins.
Pace Dante, I’d seen the sign, the one that counsels the damned to give up hope. Believe me, you never want to feel hopeless, worthless. It is the eternal sin.
Yet even that wasn’t what made me burn. After all, I wasn’t so despairing of my transgressions that I reformed my evil ways. Oh no, I did not. A couple of years later I converted to Catholicism, but still persisted in my sins, such as they were.
No, what it was that scared hell out of me was love. God didn’t just make me; He loves me. My shallow self-righteousness damned me.
But I am not a random thing; not an insignificant speck. I am beloved by the One who called me from darkness, which He did by showing me that darkness, which I thought was light.
Finally I saw the true light.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you/before you were born I set you apart.” God didn’t call me to be a prophet to the nations, as He did Jeremiah, but He showed me the love that changes everything, in His good time.