My friend Rebecca has harvested her onions for the year.
She set up a tent on her farm to keep the onions under– to dry them, I suppose, whatever one does with onions. She snapped a picture for Facebook. There were bunches of yellow onions braided and hanging on the tent poles. There was a lumpy heap of purple onions on a wooden flat in the middle, looking like a charcoal fire with onions instead of briquettes.
“What’s the tent for?” I joked. “You don’t go into the tent and close the flaps and meditate with the onions, do you?”
“I might,” Rebecca joked.
Something about the display reminded me of that parable from Dostoevsky. Here’s the whole thing, if you’re not familiar:
“Remember to give one of them to a beggar if she walks by,” I said. “Your salvation may depend on it.”
Rebecca said she’d had the same thought. ” I think of this occasionally as l harvest onions, and realize how scrappy they would be, as an escape-from-hell rope thingie.”
Maybe they would be, at that.
An onion itself is pretty strong, but the stalk is slender; when it dries out, it’s papery and comes off if you yank it. Braid a bunch of onions together, and you get a better rope. It might be worth a gardener’s time to hand a beggar a whole braided bouquet of onions. It would be heartening to see an angel hold that out to you, as you looked up from a lake of fire.
I once gave a beggar a jar of peanut butter and three metal spoons. I didn’t have cash, just a credit card, and peanut butter was the only nourishing food I could find at the dollar store beside which he was begging. I wanted to give him something to eat it with, and the least inconvenient utensils for sale were silvery table spoons sold in bundles of three. I think I would have a fighting chance if an angel tried to pull me out of perdition with a spoonful of peanut butter. Peanut butter is sticky, and metal is stronger than onion skin.
I wonder what the people who have helped me would find dangling from the angel’s hand, if they were ever in a lake of fire. Once, a friend from West Virginia gave me a giant picnic pork roast from her freezer, when she heard we had nothing to eat. That lasted two whole days until we were quite sick of pork. You could easily hoist a human being by a pork roast.
Once, I asked another farmer friend if I could borrow a sack of chicken droppings to fertilize my backyard tomatoes– I was growing vegetables to make ends meet and not for a hobby, and I didn’t have extra money for fertilizer. “Can you mail me a sack of crap?” I asked. He did, and tucked two Aldi gift certificates on top of the sack. A plastic bag of guano and two paper certificates aren’t very sturdy, but you could make quite a chain out of a hundred dollars’ worth of Aldi groceries, not to mention the tomatoes.Once, Rebecca gave me the week’s egg money. It was almost Thanksgiving and we had everyday food in the cupboard but nothing fun for the holiday. Dollar bills are sturdy. You could pull a full grown human being by a dollar bill; you could pull a nation that way. People pull one another around by money all the time.
Of course, it wasn’t the weight of the evil woman that made the onion break in the first place. It wasn’t the weight of the many damned souls holding onto her ankles, either. The onion held up under all of that. What damned the woman in the parable was the weight of her words: “It’s my onion, not yours.”
That’s what the lake of fire is in the first place. Hell is the state you are in when you say “It’s my onion, not yours.” When someone needs what you have and ought to share, but you order them away because the onion is yours. When others are suffering and you can help, but you don’t because the onion is yours. When Paradise offers you salvation that you don’t and can’t merit, and you take hold– but then you see other sinful souls benefiting as well, and you try to kick them back into the fire because the onion is yours. And the onion breaks. For them that have not, even what they have will be taken away.
The only way to keep the onion is to share the onion.
The only way to get out of the lake of fire, is to receive mercy. And everyone reading this is in the lake of fire. None of us loves perfectly. We’ve all fallen short.
The only way to receive mercy, is to let mercy flow through you to others. Any mercy you’ve been given– and anything you possess is a mercy from God. Salvation, knowledge, money, a credit card, the crops in your farm or garden, a sack of chicken poop, three metal spoons. These are all mercies. You couldn’t create any of them.
“What is hell?” asks Elder Zosima. “I maintain it is the suffering of no longer being able to love.”
You can no longer love, when you can no longer see that the mercies you’ve been given aren’t yours to hoard and kick other people away. Then your onion breaks and your angel weeps, and you are lost. But if you’re willing to share the onion– if you let the souls grab your ankles even if it hurts, and trust that God will keep that flimsy little onion whole– then you’re free, you’re in paradise, and all the souls you helped are free as well. Free to give, free to be merciful, free to love. Hell is the loss of your onion, through trying to keep it. Heaven is where even a single onion can free a multitude of souls who have forgotten how to love.
That’s the sort of thing I think about, when people more capable than I are drying their onions.
(image via Pixabay)