There's a story by Flannery O'Connor called "The Artificial Nigger". That title is certainly offensive, but it needs to be. The story is about the most offensive thing in the universe - sin; and not just the word sin, but a deep, personal, vivid sin, the kind of sin that we know intimately, the kind of sin that keeps us up nights, the kind of sin that sends us to hell long before we die - a living hell.
The story also features a pervasive low-level sin from start to finish, a pride that is shared by a grandfather and his grandson, a pride that is expressed in the bickering and haughtiness that passes between them, a pride that is cured in them only after a hellish incident and a strange salvation that follows.
Without spoiling the story, I can tell you that O'Connor manages to illustrate a sin that is more shocking and disturbing than Peter's denial of Jesus, and that echoes that most shameful of moments in all of Scripture. As soon as he commits this terrible and most personal of sins, the grandfather (the sinner) and the grandson (the victim) both see the old man metaphorically naked - but not "naked without shame"; no, he is seen shamefully naked, his true self revealed - a self that is utterly worthless.
And this is the point. This is point of salvation.
The grandfather, physically lost and wandering through the big city with his grandson, and spiritually lost, wandering through the pit of despair, experiences a moment that maybe only those who have struggled with depression or abuse truly know; or those who have betrayed an intimate love or had their own love intimate love betrayed by others. The grandfather finds himself in hell.
He felt he knew now what time would be like without seasons and what heat would be like without light and what man would be like without salvation.
Time without seasons is a dreadful eternity; heat without light is the fires of hell; man without salvation is a prideful bigot lost in a big city and finding diversions to calm his panic - which is what "The Artificial Nigger" is about.
And it's what hell is about - the conviction that we are utterly worthless.
This is the heart of despair. This is the devil's great lie, which is whispered in our ear and which, though based on a grain of truth, is what takes away all hope. When we are not loved or when we have failed to love another - when we abuse or when we suffer abuse - our entire being is called into doubt.
Existence itself seems worthless in such a place, at such a moment. The very gift of being, the most basic and incomprehensible of gifts, the gift that flows from the nature and essence of God, who is Being itself - this gift is overcome by regret. We reach a moment where "it had been better had we not been born".
The heart of despair is this worthlessness. If heaven is love and the self-sacrifice of the cross, if heaven is a mercy that flows from the side of Jesus, a mercy that literally "redeems" us, that assigns us a value and purchases us back, then hell is the opposite of this. Hell is a selfishness that says, "You are useless to me" or "I am useless to you" or "Existence is useless in itself". Hell is the utter and complete lack of value, the absence of love that is only expressed by denial and betrayal.
In O'Connor's story, the grandfather and the grandson do a little dance. They are almost two aspects of the same person. The one looks like an ancient child and the other like a miniature old man. In a way, they victimize one another, and in an existential tango the heart of their shame is exposed. It is a shame that is not without foundation, not without cause.
But they are saved. Saved by an "artificial nigger".
It's something that can't be explained; you have to read the story. They are saved by their encounter with inner ugliness and with the grace of Jesus Christ, who comes to them almost (if you'll pardon the phrase) as the "nigger of the universe". They are saved from their own haughtiness, saved from wandering lost and in despair, saved from hell itself.
And when the grandfather finally experiences this mercy ...
He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children.
And without this agony - without hell, without the heart of despair that this story reminds us of, without the cross that we build and the love and loyalty we mock and nail to it, our Faith is but a hollow shell, our liturgies a Mass of confusion, our lives a prideful aimless wandering through a dangerous and loveless jungle built by worthless men who value and redeem nothing.