Below is the 'Thinking Anew' column in The Irish Times today.
It must have been during my final year in primary school that I heard this story. It left an impression on me.
A teacher gave the class a vivid picture of what hell was like. He told us that it was a roaring fire that never goes out and there is someone standing there stoking it. People were right at the edge of the fire. And then there was this tall grandfather clock, constantly ticking, never stopping.
This went on not just for one day or two days or two years but forever. Forever and ever. He did frighten the lives out of us and he left an indelible mark on my soul.
We must have been 12-year-old children, and otherwise this teacher was a lovely kind man. Imagine if a child went home and told their parents they had learned that in school today. It would make the newspapers and rightly so.
As a young Dominican I often heard stories of an older colleague who would tell people to be careful as the devil was under the table. People treated him politely but it was generally accepted that the man was unwell.
In early January 'The Tablet', which is a weekly English Catholic magazine, reviewed a book on Martin Luther. Martin Luther is in the news these days as it is 500 years since he wrote to the Bishop of Mainz protesting at the sale of indulgences. I think he had a point. There has been discussion focusing on Luther’s anti-Semitic writings.
But as Thomas Kaufmann writes in “Luther's Jews: A journey into Anti-Semitism”: “We can no more put our faith blindly in Luther's theology than 21st century adults would voluntarily place themselves in the hands of a 16th century surgeon
Surely the world, things, people are constantly evolving. The teacher's description of hell, Luther's words on Jews don't make sense in the vocabulary in use today.
In the first reading at Mass tomorrow we read how "God fashioned man of dust from the soil" (Genesis 2: 7) and in the Gospel (Matthew 4:1 - 11) we are given an account of how the devil tempts Jesus having "fasted for forty days and forty nights". The devil suggests to Jesus that he turn stones into loaves.
Again, if someone comes to us and tells us in similar terms that the devil is leading them by the hand we would suggest they get psychiatric help.
Of course, there are religious people who are helped and touched by extraordinary events but I think it's fair to say that for most of us we live out our faith in the everyday, the hum-and-drum of the ordinary. It's in that world, in that 'ordinariness' that we must see and experience the God of Genesis, the God of the New Testament, the God of the time of Luther. But all the time finding God in the world of the now.
I trust it's not arrogant to say, but it is a nonsense to go searching for God in times that are gone.
In this paper last Saturday Diarmuid Ferriter quoted journalist AA Gill talking about that “most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, Nostalgia.” Ferriter was writing about a comment Boris Johnson made. But that same 'nostalgia' surely is also just that, when it comes to religion and churches - 'a most pernicious and debilitating drug'.
We always must use and speak the language of the day when we want to give sense and meaning to God.
That's not to say we have banished evil. Look at the carnage that is taking place in our world: one billion people without enough to eat, while global military spending runs at approximately $1.7 trillion. We know for sure there is hell on earth. Nothing nostalgic about that.
It's in that context, the world of the now, in all its various facets, that we experience God.
Our faith in a loving and good God offers us an affirmative response in the face of evil. Christian hope gives us confidence of success