Today’s prompt was to write something on the theme of Heaven and Hell. This story was inspired by a Latin work Visio Tnugdali from the twelfth century which was subsequently translated into French and named Les Visions du Chevalier Tondal. In both versions of the medieval story, a knight is taken on a journey through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, but I’ve set my story in Ireland in a non-specified century in the past and made my protagonist a Catholic priest. An illuminated copy of the French text can be found in the Getty Museum and is thought to be the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch’s Heaven and Hell paintings:
A Taste of Heaven and Hell
Father Patrick was not a good priest – or perhaps I should say that he was an adequate priest, presiding over baptisms and weddings whenever such things arose in the sleepy little Irish hamlet where he lived (although he tended to frown if events happened in that order) and providing the villagers with their last rites. Yes, he was an adequate priest but not a good one, for although he performed these ceremonies most beautifully in Latin and had a rich tenor voice for the sung chants, should they be required, he paid little or no attention to the lives of his parishioners at any other time in their lives – and why should he? He was not paid to care about the poor and in fact found most of them a little repulsive, although he would never have admitted as much to anyone else. He had a feeling that the bishop expected his piety to run deeper than mere lip service.
Now it so happened that, one afternoon, Father Patrick dozed off in his chair by the fire after lunch. He had been in a bad mood all morning: shouting at his housekeeper, swearing at the cat (for the cat would tell no one) and pretending not to see the sore-encrusted beggar who had dared to collapse on his doorstep asking for alms. Consequently, he had taken a little more wine than usual with his midday repast and the combination of the heat of the fire and the heavy suet pudding and the flagon and a half of wine soon lulled him to sleep. As he slept, he began to dream – and a strange dream it was too for a demon and an angel stood before him, arguing most vehemently over something.
“He’s mine, I tell you,” the imp insisted, flicking his forked tail and leering nastily at the angel. His yellow eyes blazed with malice and his hairy hands looked ready to go for the angel’s throat.
His adversary shook his head. “There is still hope for this one,” he chimed in a voice sweeter than any of the bells that rang on Sunday morning. Glowing with optimism as much as with heavenly radiance, he continued, “He has not yet made his choice. Until such a time as he does, we will continue to wrestle daily, for I would not see any man condemned to eternity in Hell.”
Patrick began to pay more attention, wondering who this man could be if the forces of good and evil were both so keen to have him. Perhaps it was old Aiden, the bootmaker: he was an honest soul, but everyone knew that he beat his wife on Friday evenings when he returned from the village tavern. Or maybe it was Farmer Darragh’s youngest lad – more than once, Oisin had come to confession and admitted tumbling a lass he had no intention of marrying. Yes, there was sin aplenty in Cuan Aighneach, despite its name meaning ‘Haven of the People with the Perfect Reputation’.
He suddenly realised that angel and demon were both staring at him. Surely he couldn’t be the bone of contention? And yet… A cold sweat began to form on his brow as he thought of the many beggars he had turned away over the years (once, only hours after his sermon on the rich man and Lazarus) and the women he had lusted after and the coins he had taken from the poor box. But he had done good too – surely that counted for something? However, try as he might, he found he was struggling to think of even one saintly deed he could put forward in his defence.
“The time has come, son of Adam,” the angel proclaimed. His beautiful face was stern as he regarded Patrick. “Too long has good wrestled evil for your soul: you must now choose whether you would live in Heaven or in Hell.”
“I… Do you mean I am to die now?” the priest babbled nervously. “I am still young – but eight and thirty. Is my soul really required of me so soon?”
The angel shook his head pityingly. “The days of your life were numbered before you were born, but only the recording angel knows the precise day and hour: he who stands in the presence of the Most High holds that book in his hand.”
“Then why…” Patrick faltered.
“You will have the opportunity to travel through hell with this demon and through heaven with me,” the angel said in ringing tones. “Then, and only then, you will be asked to decide where you feel most at home, for know this well: eternity does not begin after death, but rather it is the continuation of the life man leads before he dies; and many, including so-called men of God, would rather inhabit Hell than Heaven.”
Patrick thought once more of his own sermons and of the many texts about hellfire and damnation he had preached on over the years. He had told his trembling parishioners that imps with toasting forks would roast them over a bonfire or stew them in a cooking pot if they so much as thought of breaking even one of the Ten Commandments. He hadn’t really believed it at the time – his tale had been a piece of theatre, nothing more; but now as he gazed at the two supernatural beings in front of him, he began wondering if his account had been too tame.
“Do I have to see both?” he asked faintly. “Could I not just accompany your good self to Heaven and let your colleague here return to Hell without me?”
The angel shook his head. “When the church bells chime three, you will be taken to Hell; when they chime four, you will be taken to Heaven. After that, you will have until the bells chime six to make your decision. Choose wisely, for you determine the fate of your eternal soul.”
As Patrick caught the faint chimes of church bells in the distance, the angel shimmered and was gone.
“I haven’t got all day, you know,” the demon said petulantly. Patrick tried not to shudder at the twisted, misshapen creature in front of him. Reaching out a talon-studded hand, the demon closed its bony fingers around Patrick’s wrist and dragged him to his feet. “Come on – there are lives to ruin and misery to gloat over.”
Half-expecting the ground to open up and swallow them both, Patrick squeezed his eyes shut. When nothing happened, he opened them again.
“If you’re quite ready…” the demon said snippily.
Patrick nodded. He was about to ask how long this would take when the room started to spin, faster and faster and faster until he thought he would fall over. “Stop!” he gasped, fearful that the suet pudding was about to make a return journey; and, mercifully, the room became still.
Taking a deep breath, he looked at his companion. The demon was using the end of his tail to polish a cloven hoof but stopped abruptly when he saw Patrick’s pale face. “Better get you outside,” he muttered to the priest; and, grabbing his wrist once more, he began to drag Patrick towards the door to Hell.
Hell, it seemed, looked very much like Cuan Aighneach. Patrick peered about him suspiciously. “Are you sure that was the right door?” he asked as he stood blinking in the sunlight. He’d expected flames and heat and cries of torment, but as far as he could make out, this was his parish and the souls he could see were the villagers going about their daily business.
“What were you expecting?” the demon snapped. “Hundreds of devils with toasting forks having a barbecue?”
“I just thought there’d be a little more pain and suffering than this,” Patrick said, wondering why he sounded so apologetic.
“There’s lots of pain and suffering,” said the demon. “– If you know where to look for it.”
He and Patrick began to walk through the village. For the first time, the priest noticed how many poor and starving people there were in his parish and his heart recoiled in disgust. Where had they all come from? They were parasites feeding off the Church and its charity. He’d thought the village was full of good people who worked hard to feed their families, but he’d obviously been wrong.
As they walked further and further along the cobbled streets, the living conditions grew worse and worse. How lazy these people must be not to bother repairing their houses, Patrick thought indignantly. And how unhygienic that some rooms seemed to have several families squeezed into them. No wonder there was so much sickness and disease!
Out of the corner of his eye, he became aware of a bundle of rags at the side of the street. These people left rubbish everywhere! The bundle moved slightly and he saw it was a baby, not very old. No doubt the mother had abandoned it. Perhaps she was one of those scandalously clad females standing by that alleyway? He was about to go and ask when he saw something that shocked him to the core: a man who looked very much the worse for drink staggered over to the women, said something to one of them and placed a coin in her hand, and then followed the girl into the alleyway where… Well! He’d heard Hell was full of harlots, but he hadn’t expected to see one of them doing that in a public place.
Noting the priest’s expression, the demon grinned to himself. Scenes like this always inspired condemnation or compassion, but the latter was hard to find these days whereas the former more or less guaranteed a seat by the fire in Hell.
By the time they had stumbled past every one of the Seven Deadly Sins in human form, Patrick’s mind was whirling. If this was real, he had been living in Hell for years without realising it.
“Why do they choose to live like this?” he asked abruptly.
The demon blinked his yellow eyes and assumed what attempted to be a guileless expression. “The poor are being punished for their iniquity,” he said smoothly. “Instead of reaching for God, they reach for a flagon of beer; instead of His praise being on their lips, there are curses instead; and rather than confessing their sins, they revel in committing new ones.”
“I thank thee, O Lord,” Patrick prayed sanctimoniously, “that I am not a drunkard nor a fornicator nor a sinner like those I see before me.”
Once more, the demon grinned for the priest’s heart was now so hardened against his fellow man that it had effectively closed itself to God too.
“How could anyone choose this over Heaven?” Patrick uttered with contempt.
And just then, the Church bells chimed four times.
Patrick blinked in surprise. He was back in his own chair by the fire and the angel stood before him, wearing an expression of infinite patience.
“Son of Adam,” said the angel, “it is time.”
The room began to spin much as it had before; and just as before, Patrick felt his suet pudding rising in his throat. “Slow down!” he gasped, and the room stilled.
Patrick waited for his head to clear and stood up.
“How was Hell?” the angel asked conversationally.
“Dreadful!” Patrick said. “I hadn’t expected it to be a picnic, but I’d no idea it would be so terrible. The drunkenness and the debauchery! And I’m pretty sure there was thieving going on as well. I won’t be visiting those streets again in a hurry, I can tell you that much.”
“Let’s see what you make of Heaven, then,” said the angel, opening the door.
Heaven, it seemed, looked very much like Cuan Aighneach. Patrick peered about him suspiciously. “Are you sure that was the right door?” he asked as he stood once more blinking in the sunlight. He’d expected white robes and harps and angelic choirs, but as far as he could make out, this was his parish and the souls he could see were the villagers going about their daily business.
“This is the right place,” the angel assured him. “Heaven is all around you – if you know where to look for it.”
He and Patrick began to walk through the village. For the second time that day, the priest noticed how many poor and starving people there were in his parish and his heart recoiled in disgust. How could this be Heaven? The angel must have got it wrong.
And then he noticed how the angel stopped to minister to every one of the needy people they saw. He gave bread to the hungry and coins to the beggars; he bandaged the wounds of the injured and placed healing hands on the sick; he cradled babies and played with children; and everyone who looked upon his face was suddenly filled with peace.
And Patrick’s heart softened with each step that they took until he could finally bear it no longer and he turned to the angel with tears in his eyes and said, “How can I help these people?”
“Seek the lost,” the angel said simply. “Feed the hungry; heal the sick; love the unloved. For where love is, there will always be a piece of Heaven, and it is man’s response to suffering that determines whether he make his environment a Heaven or a Hell.”
The Church bells chimed six times and Patrick found himself back in his chair and the demon and the angel stood before him, waiting to hear his decision.
“Son of Adam,” said the angel, “your time has now come and you know that this village of Cuan Aighneach is both Heaven and Hell for you upon this earth.”
“Indeed,” agreed the demon, “for great is the suffering in this place and many are the sins of the people, but you can choose to set yourself apart from the godless and live a holy life in your small cottage here, where you have food aplenty and a comfortable living; or you can follow in my colleague’s footsteps and waste your earthly life in ministering to the leeches on society. He would have you believe that it is noble to consort with thieves and prostitutes, and he will tell you that the gratitude of the godless is more precious than silver or gold; but I say, have a care for yourself, for if you spend your mortal life caring for others, then you will waste eternity doing the same.”
Patrick looked from one to the other. One represented a life of ease – a continuation really of the way he had been living up until now; the other life would be full of sorrow and sacrifice – it would inconvenience him deeply and he had an idea that he might sometimes go hungry or endure lack of sleep; but oh! the joy he had felt when the angel told him to help others.
They were both looking at him expectantly.
“I choose Heaven,” he said quickly, before he could change his mind.
And as he said the words, he was sure he heard angelic voices singing.