By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

Imagine, if you will, purgatory, not as a place of purifying fire but a grim, gray, thoroughly unpleasant town. But people are free to leave at any time if only they begin to trust. There is a chartered bus that will take those who trust to a promised better place, and this better place which, a guide who meets them describes as “the valley of the shadow of life,” is in truth the outskirts of heaven.

Travelers may stay there or continue on nearer to distant mountains and “deep heaven,” the throne of God. In either case they are in heaven. Had they chosen to stay in the sad town they left and traveled toward its ever grimmer heart, they would have never been in purgatory at all. For them, it would have been hell all along.

C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian writers and apologists of the 20th century, fantasized this vision of the hereafter in his short novel, “The Great spanorce,” published in the mid-1940s. His metaphor of deep heaven is a recurring theme in several of his other spiritually-based works of fiction, including The “Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Space Trilogy.”

Redemptorist Father Dennis J. Billy, who holds the John Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, uses “The Great spanorce” as a starting point for his own just-published scholarly examination of man’s spiritual journey, “C.S. Lewis on the Fullness of Life: Longing for Deep Heaven” (Paulist Press $14.95).

He discussed this new work during a presentation of it at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary’s Ryan Memorial Library on March 19.

Father Billy emphasizes, as did Lewis himself, the interpretation of purgatory in “The Great spanorce” is fiction. “It’s a fantasy, it’s literature that taps into our own imagination to think of purgatory in a different way,” he said.

In his own prologue, Father Billy writes, “Lewis achieves through narrative what the Church has forgotten how to do through doctrinal formulations – capture the Christian imagination.” Central to his presentation is “the mysterious interplay between human freedom and spanine grace.”

Like “The Great spanorce,” Father Billy’s own book is short – only 120 pages. Short books have greater impact, he believes. It draws upon many of the works of Lewis, fiction and non-fiction, and it also draws on the theological writings of Sts. Augustine, Irenaeus and Alphonsus Ligouri, Pope Benedict XVI, Ronald Rolheiser, Richard Niebuhr and others, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It ties our own journey to deep heaven to the necessary incarnate birth, passion and death, decent into hell, resurrection, ascension into heaven and return in glory of Jesus Christ the God-Man.

“When we contemplate the face of Christ,” he writes, “the light of His truth penetrates every fiber of our being and enables us to peer into the deep recesses of our hearts. We are able to see things as they really are. Judgment, in this sense, is nothing more than bringing to light our deepest aspirations.

“We choose to walk either toward or away from Christ. The grace to do so is His; the choice is entirely our own.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.