Monthly Archives: June 2016


I almost lost my faith the other night.

After all I have written of the Faith, you might think that I am joking. But I am not.

It is not such a hard thing to do, to lose one’s faith. In fact, it is frighteningly easy.

Let me tell you how this came about.

I was paging through a new book I had come across on the ancient Faith (Catholic) and was perusing the section on hell.

Now, I have never had a particularly strong interest in hell, unlike some people. I had come to terms with what it meant in my mind years ago and did not ruminate over it. I have not feared hell because I am convinced and committed to the love and mercy of God. Right?

Well, this is what I read:

“And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image…” (Revelation 14: 11)

“Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” (Jesus, quoted in Matthew 7: 13-14)

“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire’. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Just the Sunday before, I had heard an excellent homily on the passage of Scripture where Jesus asks His closest friends, “But who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9: 20) The priest had referred to C. S. Lewis’ assertion that Christ, in saying that He was God (one with the Father), was either lying, insane or telling us the truth.

Christ is either God or He isn’t – and the answer to this question has great implications for us. If He is God, then He is much more than just a nice guy, a wise teacher or even a prophet.

How I respond to the question has great implications for me because if I respond that Christ is God, I must indeed believe what He said. There can be no picking and choosing, accepting the teachings I like and bypassing the ones that make me uncomfortable.

So it was with this message as the backdrop that I read the teachings on hell.

Suddenly I was struck with an awareness that I wasn’t at all sure that I could accept them. Could I believe in eternal punishment, eternal torment, for any human being, no matter how sinful they might be at the time of their death?

Could I believe that my Lord, the love of my heart, would do that to someone – quite possibly someone I loved? I cannot believe that I would be more loving, more merciful, than God… how could I reconcile the words of Jesus with my knowing of Him?

Interestingly, the understandings I had had of hell previously seemed to have left my mind without my awareness. It was as though I had forgotten them.

And I was face-to-face with the possibility that maybe – just maybe – God wasn’t as loving as I thought.

I entertained several possibilities.

Perhaps there are beings, human or otherwise, who truly belong in hell. Although the concept of eternal punishment seems irrational and horrid to me, I am not God and I cannot know whether this might be so. I tried to imagine the worst despots in history – but I never knew them as people. It is easy to condemn those we do not know.

This did not settle my heart.

Perhaps our understanding of Scripture isn’t quite right, I told myself. Who really understands the book of Revelations anyway, with its mystical imagery? Perhaps hell is eternal but the sinner’s experience of it isn’t. After all, we cannot conceive of eternity. I could understand God giving a very stern rebuke.

But I knew I was twisting things, picking and choosing. I didn’t want there to be true hell.

A deep sadness filled me and tears came to my eyes. What was I to do?

I did the only thing a child of God can do in such a situation: I asked God to help me.

And then I picked up my Bible and paged through each of the Gospels, looking for passages where Jesus talked about hell. Choked with tears, I scanned each page, hoping not to find anything, desperately pleading, “You wouldn’t torture anyone for all eternity, my Love, would You? Please tell me You wouldn’t…”

What I saw was page after page of Jesus healing the sick, forgiving sins, casting out devils, teaching the people with compassion. And then voluntarily giving up His body and blood, first in loving Eucharist, then in death and resurrection.

But I did find one passage that was very specific.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, 

and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,

naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?

When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,

stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’

Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’

He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’

And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

                                                                          (Matthew 25: 31-46)

But, strangely, it was this passage that kept me in the Faith, though it left me in a state of sadness for some time.

For I realized in the reading that it was not God who created hell.

It was me.

It was me – it is me – because hell is separation from the love of God. Anytime I sin, I create hell, cracking open the surface of this beautiful, perfectly made universe just a little bit more to deepen the chasm of separateness, of suffering.

And it not just my own potential suffering in hell that is prepared by sin but I set into motion the suffering of others. I do not have to murder or steal for this to be the case.

I deepen the chasm in the many ways the Lord Jesus tells us – by not feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick or imprisoned. And in countless other little actions along the way that make my life about keeping me happy and comfortable while others suffer.

Yes, hell is a very sad thing. So sad, that God Himself came among us to teach us about evil and how to choose good. He so longed to keep us out of hell that He gave Himself up, allowing evil to kill Him so that He could overcome it with love.

And we are invited to join Him in the dying and rising.

It is not easy, however.

I think perhaps I have not wanted there to be hell because I haven’t wanted to acknowledge that there is true evil.

I have no problem understanding and accepting human weakness, regrettable decisions made on transient lusts, selfishness and pride. They are bad but comprehensible to me and something one of genuine heart can repent of.

But true evil is another thing.

What of the evil force that wanted to steal my soul from God the other night?

Yes, in retrospect, I do believe there was one. Not because I am special but we are all warned “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5: 8)

This is evil for evil’s sake. Although we cannot know who or what among us belongs to that force, there are those who have chosen to work for the other side, to work against the love of God.

They have chosen the separation that I, in my weakness, stumble into.

So I and the people I love don’t have to worry about hell, right? Just those awful people and creatures who have chosen evil. After all, we just stumble in our weakness.

Yes and no. God is merciful and His mercy knows no end. We are safe remaining in the shadow of His wings.

But the danger is still very real and present. Our adversary is very clever and convincing us that we don’t have to worry is often the first step. Little by little, our stumblings can begin to appear normal to us, no real cause for concern because they are not so serious and so many people engage in far worse things…

And then he moves in for the kill… whether we become bored with God, scandalized by individuals within the Church or disturbed by a difficult teaching, suddenly the chasm has become much wider.

What started out as a simple weakness that we repented of has become a way of life. Things other than our Faith become increasingly important to us. And eventually, there is little or no indication of which side we are on.

When asked, we might answer vaguely that we still have our beliefs. But on the battlefield, we are nowhere to be seen. We have lost our faith.

Thus, our only hope is to “Be sober and vigilant” (1 Peter 5: 8), ever at prayer, asking our loving God to protect and guide us through even the smallest experiences of separation from Him.

For apart from Him we can do nothing. But in Him, all things – even eternal union with Him – are not only possible but promised.

To Him be all glory forever.


This past June 6th, I glanced out the sliding doors that lead to my backyard and saw a most exciting sight.

There was a black and yellow fluttering near the chain link fence that separates my property from the overgrown strip of land owned by the state.

Knowing that camera was nestled in his bag in another room, I thought the prospects of receiving an image unlikely – but I had to try. I ran to get him and, together, we walked cautiously to the wild bush spilling over from the other side of the fence.

She was still there, fluttering as she drank deeply of the nectar nature had provided. A beautiful, perfect tiger swallowtail butterfly. She spread her wings, allowing us to receive her image.


June 6th would have been my parents’ 63rd wedding anniversary. (For those of you who may not have read my old blog or might want a refresher on how the tiger swallowtail came to visit when my father died, you may link to that article here.)

Two days later, I was dashing out the door to an appointment when again, I saw a fluttering in my garden. I could not not look. Cell phone in hand, I beheld another stunning beauty:


Three days later, June 11, numerous tiger swallowtails soared over and through my yard. Awestruck, I simply gazed at them. Two danced in the air as in courtship. I saw more of these lovely butterflies in my yard that week than I have in the 17 years I have lived in my house.

June 11th was the second anniversary of my father’s passing into glory.

I am reminded of a favorite excerpt from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

I do not believe that my father has become a butterfly and now visits me as one. But I do believe that earth is “crammed with heaven” – and that this means far more than any of us can imagine.

“Mom, that lady wasn’t wearing any shoes!” I was once told a child said upon noticing my discalced state in church one Sunday.

It is true. My shoes almost always come off in church. I am standing on holy ground.

Perhaps I would not wear them at all if not for laws and snow and professional norms (which I hold loosely when it comes to being shod) and stinging nettles.

But I must relate one more thing. Last Thursday, I arrived in Minnesota to visit my mother. It was quite late by the time I got to her and I was worn out. But the next morning was sunny and warm. Her assisted living apartment is on the third floor, with treetops visible outside her window.

She was sitting with her back to the window. “Mom – I think I see a butterfly!” At first I wasn’t certain, nor was I sure with all the fluttering what type it was. But it slowed down, fluttering near the window.

It was a tiger swallowtail.

Because of age and arthritis, it is not a quick and easy thing for my mother to turn around. Initially, I thought the butterfly had left – but no, it was still fluttering around the window. Slowly, my mother turned around and saw it too.

In a moment or two, it flew away and I have not seen another since.

What does all of this mean? I do not know.

But I am keeping my shoes off.


A question for my readers

Greetings, dear readers,

May I ask your help? I have recently revived my blog O Holy Earth, and have discovered that no one is following it! Yup, 13 consecutive posts without a single page view!

O Holy Earth was initiated as more of photographic blog – which I had intended to be less specifically spiritual in focus so that those less inclined to religious discussion could still appreciate the earth’s beauty without feeling proselytized.

However, I found that the spiritual came oozing out of my pores when I commented on the images, despite my intent. And, admittedly, I have done little to promote the blog outside of my usual blogging circles.

So, I would like to hear from you, kind reader. If I have photographic reflections, would you have me post them here, even if they are more on the light side? Or would you prefer I simply stick to writing, with only the occasional image that illustrates?  (O Holy Earth can always remain my private photographic journal.)

I am not asking for the sake of my ego (I know that monster must be stamped out) – but rather so that I use my time well and share what God has given me most appropriately. Too many blogs may be, well…too many blogs. Also, I know there are many online resources for beautiful photo images and mine are quite simple by comparison.

So I would truly appreciate your feedback, with a comment here or an e-mail at marykbenton(at)outlook(dot)com. Thank you so much.

(Note that I initially entered the wrong e-mail – outlook is the correct address.)

Why did I turn down this road?

The most immediate answer, of course, is that I saw a hospital sign.

But I had no need of a hospital.

And before that, there was the sign for “Blackhorse”.  I must have driven too far, I thought…

So I turned. I did not know where I was heading but that didn’t really matter so much. It just seemed time for a turn since I clearly wasn’t in the right place.

Perhaps I should tell you how all of this got started. It sounds like kind of a strange story, I know, but there is an explanation.

I had the day off from work today. For some unknown reason, no patients wanted to see me today so it became an opportunity to do other things.

While my car was being serviced at the dealership this morning, I received an e-mail from an aspiring psychologist at my alma mater indicating that I had been accepted as a subject in a research study for which I had volunteered. When could I come?

I could not easily make any of the many time selections she offered so, on a whim, I suggested today as a possibility. If, by chance, she had time free. She gladly agreed to meet me at 5:30 PM. I left Cleveland early to avoid traffic, was held up by two major accidents and arrived just in time.

Having completed a number of tedious tasks in exchange for delightful conversation and a small stipend, I decided that it would be fun to drive by the house where I had lived when myself a graduate student. These twenty-five years later, I did not even know if the house was still standing.

The University and its surrounding terrain have changed considerably in the decades since I last visited but, I thought, having driven the route so many times, I would surely find my way to my old home. Actually, I knew that there was a good possibility that I might not – but I felt open for a bit of adventure.

It is strange how an openness to adventure can strike at the least opportune times. It was nearly 8:30 in the evening and I had not yet eaten my dinner. There were many other tasks awaiting me.

I must also clarify that I am not at all prone to impulsive decisions and I am typically quite conscious of my carbon footprint, lest I burn fuel for no particular reason.

Another dimension to the story at hand is my habit of praying while I drive, aided by audio recordings, most often the Rosary.

When I began my excursion to the University, I had already said the Mysteries of the Rosary designated for Mondays, the Joyful. However, when I passed the second accident, with ambulance and firetruck blocking the road, it occurred to me that praying for those in the accident was far more important than any delay it caused me.

So I prayed the next set of Mysteries, the Sorrowful, while I completed the first leg of my journey.

After my volunteering was complete and I had set out on my little adventure, I thought, “Why not?” and began yet another set of Mysteries, the Glorious.

When I saw the sign for Blackhorse, Ohio, and realized I had likely gone too far, I briefly pondered what to do. However, the hospital sign was my cue. There was a hospital at the end of the road where I had lived. If I follow the signs to the hospital, perhaps that would bring me round to the familiar area.

(Now I might mention that I do have a GPS with my cell phone but the battery was quickly bleeding away its juice. I could use the car charger if really necessary, I thought, but let me just follow that sign…)

So I turned – and saw nothing familiar. Nothing at all. But this did not worry or upset me.

Daylight lingers long as spring gives birth to summer. All afternoon, promising clouds had huddled and whispered of showers but left nothing behind. There was no reason for me not to linger a moment and see…

Interesting little houses spotted each side of the street, interrupted by casualties of an endless battle waged against rural decay.

I drank all of this in as I drove and drove. No signs of the hospital. No more signs for the hospital. Nothing familiar, but pleasantly interesting in its brand newness to me.

Why did I turn here?

On the other hand, I felt no inclination to turn back. After all, every road leads somewhere and it seemed that I was meant to follow.

“Oh!” I gasped.

There it was. This was why I had turned here. It was right before me.

I was coming upon a bridge and there was no shoulder on the road where I could pull over. I glanced in the rear view mirror. No cars. I looked ahead. No cars. In fact, it appeared as though perhaps there never had been cars – nor would there ever be any.

I popped the trunk open. Putting on my emergency flashers and pausing the Glorious Mysteries, I emerged from the car to retrieve camera who, as always, eagerly awaited any adventure he was offered.

Standing there, together, alone on the bridge in the middle of places unknown, we received a glorious mystery, left there just for us.


No matter how I adjust or crop this image, it does not portray the glory of what we received. So brilliant, so unexpected, shining forth out of darkness in this unknown place to announce the Light.

It is Light. It is Glorious. It is Mystery.

This is why I turned. I was led and had to follow.

A priceless thing…

The Wedding Feast

You and I have been invited to a wedding feast – the most glorious feast imaginable.

It is the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Now someone who is not familiar with God’s loving plan for His people might be very much puzzled by this statement. “There’s a lamb that’s getting married?” “Or you are eating lamb at the feast?”

In other words, they would naturally be confused, interpreting the language of Holy Scripture concretely, failing to understand that I am referring to the most profound love story conceivable.

I do not say this in judgment of the bewildered, however, because I also fail to understand this mystery to a large degree. But, given that I have at least glimmering of what the invitation refers to, allow me to share what little I know.

As our God made Himself known to our earliest ancestors, He made clear His desire for a covenant with them, a bond often described as a “marriage” bond. For example, His prophet, Hosea, recorded these beautiful words:

I will betroth you to me forever: I will betroth you to me with justice and with judgment, with loyalty and with compassion; I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. (Hosea 2: 21-22)

Similarly, His prophet, Isaiah, wrote:

For your husband is your Maker; the LORD of hosts is his name, Your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, called God of all the earth. (Isaiah 54: 5)

Why did the Creator of all things liken His relationship with His people to a marriage? I cannot know the answer to this, of course, but I suspect that, in part, because it was a covenant or promise that people already understood. He wasn’t introducing a foreign concept to them.

It also is apparent that He proposing a love relationship, rather than say, a covenant resembling a trade relationship or a treaty between nations. It was unique and personal, in that “the LORD, your God, has chosen you from all the peoples on the face of the earth to be a people specially his own” (Deuteronomy 7: 6).

But this is only the beginning of the story, the beginning of our understanding of the wedding feast to come.

As our ancestors, the people chosen by God to be His own, repeatedly broke their marriage bond with the Lord, something more needed to be done. Prophet after prophet, like a long line of failed marital counselors, did not seem able to reform this “adulterous” one the Lord had chosen.

So the Lord God sent His Son.

No longer were covenant matters simply between an unseen God who unveiled Himself only to a special spokesperson of the people.

Now, God had made Himself Incarnate, Himself a human person who walked and talked among His people, making known the Kingdom, the realities of the covenant. How could the people, now able to see for themselves how great was His love for them, not just as a people, but as individuals, refuse Him?

He freed them from the demons that possessed them. He cured them of their painful and terrifying diseases. When their children died, he raised them back to life before their eyes. He forgave their sins – without even asking what they were.

In the end, Jesus gave His life to bring us back from certain and eternal death.

He became the new Lamb, the One whose blood protects us from death, much like the blood of the lamb slaughtered at the first Passover protected the chosen people from the angel of death.

God Almighty sent the Bridegroom Himself to draw His bride into the marriage bond He had desired for so long. (See Mark 2:19, for Jesus’ reference to Himself as the Bridegroom.)

But who then is the bride?

I am.

And so are you.

His bride is the Church. But our Bridegroom cannot marry a building or an institution. He can only give His heart to people who welcome Him and give their hearts back.

But – but how can this be? How can our Bridegroom marry all of us? How many spouses can He have?

Only one.

And that is why our dear Bridegroom prayed that we might be One. As He is in the Father and the Father is in Him.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

And so, loving Him with all of our hearts and souls and minds, we love one another into oneness, becoming bride for our holy and beloved Bridegroom.

Let the wedding feast begin…


Having thus told, in brief, the story of the Bridegroom who came and died for His bride, we may be left with questions.

It is just a story, right? That is, a tale using marriage as a metaphor to help us better understand the covenant between God and His people. It’s not to be taken literally.

Yes and no.

In the one sense, it is very much a metaphor. There will be no “marriage” as we human beings think of it – no ceremony with legal documents, no sexual acts, no propagation of children and so on – between this holy Bridegroom and His bride.

But that does not mean there will be no marriage.

We, with our vision limited by sin and human weakness, often fail to understand the most central meaning of marriage which is union.

All the things that we as humans do as part of our marriages are to celebrate and try to achieve to the extent possible this very experience of union.

However, human marriage is but a foreshadowing of the “true” marriage to come. For as wondrous as human love, companionship, sexuality and childbearing are, even the best marriage inevitably falls short of the full and eternal union for which we were created. Its greatest gift is what it foreshadows.

But if it is metaphor, what then did St. Macarius mean when he indicated that matrimony of the soul with God “is not merely a simile. It is a real sacrament which takes place between the devout soul and God, making them one spirit”? (quoting Fr. Matta, see discussion at Here to pray.)

I cannot, of course, presume to know what another means. But I will share my understanding of these words.

To say that this “matrimony” is not merely a simile (or metaphor) suggests that it is something more than that. And I don’t believe that the “something more” is a literal interpretation. Rather, I believe he is describing a mystical truth, a sacramental truth.

If we look to the etymology of the word “sacrament”, we find its roots lie in terms meaning consecration or mystery. Hence, there is a union, a sacred making “one spirit” of God and the soul, that is mystery to our senses but utterly real by faith.

Perhaps our best analogy is in Eucharist. Do I believe that bread and wine consecrated are the Body and Blood of Christ? Yes, I do.

I do not believe that I am given a piece of the flesh of the earthly Jesus, resulting in cannibalism when I consume it, as a concrete, literal interpretation would have it. But I do believe that I receive His Body and Blood.

Our most sacred, mystical truths cannot be understood in the concrete language of the world and seem full of contradiction to those who do not yet have understanding. Even we who believe may easily be confused by it.

These words of St. Paul are good to remember:

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms.

Now the natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone. (1 Corinthians 2:12-15)

And, if I might briefly cross-blog for just a moment, it is good to remember that the Fathers of the Church, in explaining union with God to us, teach that its fullness is experienced only at the resurrection of the dead. (See Revelation 19:7, for a Biblical reference to the wedding feast at the end of time.)

When God allows a person in this life to experience becoming “one spirit” with Him, the “matrimony” or union is but a foretaste of what is to come –

“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

And so we repent and struggle and love, that we might be one, ready to meet our Bridegroom at the end of time.

And we sing and pray and believe that, through the Spirit of God, we might understand and receive a foretaste of this glorious union too great for our senses now to bear.