There is a road in southern Italy that begins in the city of Eboli and ends in the mountain village of Gagliano. To anyone who makes that journey, it is an ascent to hell. Gagliano is no more than a scattered cluster of fallen down whitewashed old buildings, hanging desperately to barren slopes near a rocky cliff.
The village has been there for centuries and for as far back as the oldest person can remember, it has always been a place of severe poverty, unrelenting disease, frightening superstition, monotonous despair, and death. Oppressed and defeated by those conditions, it is said that the peasants of Gagliano do not sing and there is a saying among them that “Christ stopped in Eboli,” that somehow God had forgotten them and Christ stopped at the other end of the road. Because hope and joy, the fullness of human life that God means for us to have, are not found there, the road to Gagliano is a road that leads to hell.
Likewise, there are some stairs in a New York City tenement that go up six flights to an apartment that houses a family of ten — a grandmother, her two daughters and their seven children. Anyone who has climbed those stairs and shared in the experiences of that family this past year has made an ascent to hell.
Unemployed, with few or no job skills, the family subsists on welfare payments and the meagre wages one daughter brings home from work at a fast-food restaurant. Often the heat does not work and there is no hot water. Many days there is no food, for alcohol and drugs often eat up their money.
Five days before Christmas, while the grandmother was down on the ground floor to fetch the mail, one of the little boys climbed up on the gas stove, turned it on and set himself ablaze. While the rest of the world was singing “Joy to the World,” that family, already dead to the world around them, mourned the painful death of one of their children
In another part of the world, there is a trail in eastern Turkey that winds its way through the rocky barrens to the squalor of a refugee camp. Here thousands of people are housed in makeshift tents — tattered blanket homes. If you were to take that road and visit those camps, you would hike yourself into hell. Sickness and disease are rampant there. Death is a frequent visitor where fresh water and food are scarce and sanitary conditions are unheard of. The people who live in those camps are trapped — unable to move forward into Turkey and, because of war and fighting behind, unable to go back to their homes.
In this so-called modern world, which is supposed to be undergoing a revolution of change in the direction of a “new world order,” so many of its roads lead not up, or forward, into the future, but back and down into hell. Death travels these roads in trucks, driven by paranoid patriots, loaded with fertiliser explosives. Sickness stalks the streets of many a country torn apart by “freedom fighters”. In fact, all over our world there are streets and stairways and superhighways that lead to hell, places of evil where people are trapped in boredom, bigotry, loneliness, poverty, psychosis, despair, and death.
In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan battled for an entire year to find a passage around South America. There at the very tip of the continent, in its icy waters he encountered some of the worst weather anywhere on earth. Raging seas, towering ice floes, and a mutinous crew plagued his efforts. When he finally made his way through those straits (which today bear his name — the Straits of Magellan), he entered into a great body of water that lay beyond, and as he and his men lifted their faces to heaven and gave thanks to God, he named the new ocean “The Peaceful One — the Pacific Ocean.”
Jesus desires to lead us in the same way to a place of peace. It is his hope to direct our feet and steer our lives from the paths that would lead to hell to his place of peace. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he says, “neither let them be afraid.”