.In Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” three characters find themselves in a kind of Hell. Not the kind of Hell with fire and torment, rather just a room with only other people. They all realize that this is somehow a punishment for their sins, although they claim that it is an injustice they are they, or that a mistake was made. Yet as the play progresses, they grumble and incite each other as to the real reasons they placed in this circumstance, and in time the real reasons for their predicament comes to light; cowardliness, adultery, murder and there disastrous effects. Through it all they think they are locked in that room, and when one of the characters goes to open the door, he can not compel himself to leave without reconciling and accepting his actions, and the actions of the other characters . Sadly none of the characters are able to leave because they are unwilling to reconcile themselves or the other. What is tragically realized is that Hell is not torture devices or physical punishment, rather as one of the protagonists states “hell is other people”.
“Hell is other people” might be one of Sartre’s most famous quotes, and certainly speaks to the struggle to reconcile oneself with one’s actions, all the while dealing with other people going through the same kinds of crises. Indeed we don’t have to be an French existentialist philosopher to recognize this to one degree or another. Yet we as Orthodox Christians have been given the opportunity to recognize that equally “Heaven is other people”.
This is something to consider in celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy, where we proclaim the veneration icons being more than a triumph of beautifully decorated Churches. For the triumph of Orthodoxy is none other than the triumph of the proclamation of the Incarnation – God with us (Mt. 1:23). The depiction of our Lord in painted Icons, mosaics, manuscripts, and tapestries bear witness that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14), and that in taking on our broken and mortal nature he has “broken down the middle wall of separation… so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,” (Eph. 2:14-15). The great defender of Icons, St. John of Damascus states this so profoundly when he states “what is not assumed (that is our broken and mortal nature) can not be healed”.
Indeed the Incarnation – That we will celebrate this coming week- is, as its principle hymn proclaims “the beginning of our salvation”. It is this event that makes way for our transformation and ultimately transfiguration. From being mortal and finite beings, limited by necessity, to being immortal and infinite in Christ. Truly that the salvation and victory of the Lord shared with us by the Holy Spirit. In the same way that we depict the Lord in Icons as a witness to his Incarnation, we also depict the saints. Those men and women who throughout the ages have shown us by the grace of the Holy Spirit, what a life in Christ is like. The Icons of the saints, like the Icons of the Lord, are the manifestation of “God with us”.
We indeed are called to be saints, and called to reconcile our broken lives throughout this fast our vocation as being created for holiness and sanctity. Though our fasting, prayers and charity, we are called to remove the filters of pride, anxiety, lust and greed, that obscure the Lord saving presence in our lives, and profoundly obscure the image of God that “other people” are created in. We should be doing this every day of our life, but we are given this season of fasting to consider “other people”.
Are we complaining about the injustices of life (of which they are many) or are we praying for the strength to endure our daily hardships whatever they might be? Are we pleading that there has been a mistake in the circumstance that we find ourselves in (of which we might be victims of), or are we striving to see Christ’s saving providence in them? Are we blaming those around us (of which we can do so legitimately), or are we accepting our responsibility for our broken lives? are we unwilling to reconcile our sins (however great or small) or are we willing to accept them and offer them to the Lord?
Indeed “Hell is other people” if we are unwilling to accept the Incarnation of our Lord and God and saviour Jesus Christ, manifested in Icons of Him; and it is Hell, if we are unable to accept that a transformed and transfigured life and Christ offers in the Icons of the Saints. Tragically “Hell is other people” both here and now, and profoundly in eternity, if we are unwilling to reconcile ourselves to the God and neighbour alike. The wonder is, if we are willing to reconciling ourselves to God and neighbour alike, we see not only is “Heaven other people” but we are able to behold that “Great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) that surrounds us, singing the hymn of the Lord’s victory; and the blessing to be able to leave that “Hell” through the door that Sartre’s tragic characters could not, seeing “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”
May the Lord strengthen us in this season of fasting to see such wonders. The Kingdom of revealed in “other people” both those in the Icons, and those called to be in Icons.