John Milton's Paradise Lost is such a great poem that I have never been able to read more than the first 40 or 50 pages. He packs so much into every line that I bog down in deciphering and lose my forward momentum. Over and over I have tried to slog on through to enjoy more riches, but as in eating a gourmet meal with oversized servings, I reach a point where I can't take in anymore no matter how wonderful it is.
I think I may not be alone. Recently I realized that the two quotes I had heard most often and most impressionably, both come from the first 15 pages of a 300 page poem.
The first is one that my English instructor wowed me with early in my college career:
"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." verses 258 and 259.
I clung to that idea for many years. Especially when things got rough, as things will do if you live long enough, I clung to the idea that at least my mind was its own place, with magic powers to transcend my situation. Sadly I seldom seemed to be able to harness those powers to escape the pain, the doubt, the confusion, or even just the tedium.
Recently, while once again attempting to read through Paradise Lost, I suddenly understood why the quote had failed me. The quote is spoken by the character of Satan. I now feel certain that Milton knew full well that the assertion is a lie! The mind is not its own place. And if we try to make it such, we do indeed experience a taste of hell: separation from God. Heaven can only be known in his presence. The closest we will get on this earth is by our faith in him and the love and encouragement of his body, the church.
The other quote, is likewise a lie: "Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven". The lie reveals Satan's great failing which led to his fall, pride. How could one of God's archangels fail so foolishly?
Better to serve. Better to serve, even in this sin cursed world, than to reign as a prince among fools. Better still to serve in heaven. And so we wait, with hope, for a time when all will be made new and we will see God face to face!