Thursday, April 16, 2015

Blogging through Hell (pt 3) - Those Lost to Love

Another way my sapient Guide conducts me
Forth from the quiet to the air that trembles; 
And to a place I come where nothing shines.
Such were the dreary last words we heard at the end of Canto IV, when we left behind the last of the souls who, though unable to enjoy the beatific vision, yet still dwell outside of the pains of Hell and entered into the entirely lightless skies of Hell. This imagery, of course, reflects the total absence of Christ, He who is the Light of the world, and shows Hell to be a perfect contrapposto to the city of Heaven which "has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb" (Rev 21:23). Here God's glory shines not and the souls, who hate the light (cf. Jn 3:20), dwell in an endless, Godless darkness.

As Dante finishes his descent into the second circle of Hell, he encounters another demon, Minos, who is tasked with the unpleasant role of hearing the evils each newly arrived soul left unrepeated in life and, by wrapping his scaly tail around himself, sends each soul to its perfectly just eternal home. It is important to reflect here on an essential truth revealed by Minos about Hell. Each soul, through confession (the very act that would have saved their souls had they been willing to do it in life with repentance) to the demonic judge condemns itself to its place in Hell. The damned have chosen their own final resting place. Minos can do nothing but "rubber stamp" that choice. Distracted from his eternal bureaucratic task, Minos is no happier to see the living Dante than Charon was, but Virgil, with a short, albeit veiled, reference to God, who's name is never directly mentioned in Hell, easily leads Dante past the enraged infernal judge and into the second circle proper.

The infernal hurricane that never rests
Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine
Here Dante is overwhelmed by what he sees. As he looks upward he witnesses an eternal tempest raging and, within its relentless winds, he sees scores of souls being whipped about here and there, totally out of control. These souls, forever flying past the seat of Minos, where their eternal fate was proclaimed, call out the most awful yells and blaspheme God. They are, as we see in this act, eternally unrepentant. They hate God and curse Him. These souls, self excluded from the sight of God, do not wish to see Him who they hate, thus confirming, eternally, the choice they made at the moment of death.

Despite this hatred for God, Dante is overwhelmed by pity at the scene. The words he read on the Hell's gate still seem "cruel" to him. Dante realizes that these souls, who have forever lost the ability to control their bodies, are "the carnal malefactors... who reason subjugate to appetite" (V:38-39), i.e. those who couldn't control their bodies in life. These are the lustful and it is love that has undone them. Not for Dante, or for us as Catholics, the banal claim that "love" justifies anything and everything. We see here, right at the beginning of Hell proper, souls eternally lost because of love wrongly pursued.

That day no further did we read therein. (V:138)
After seeing out a slew of famous souls, everyone from Achilles and Helen to Cleopatra, Dante calls two souls, forever wrapped together, over to speak with, Francesca and Paolo. Dante asks Francesca, Paolo says not a word, how she came to this awful fate. After briefly protesting, Francesca eagerly delves into the tale. She was undone, not through any fault of her own - at least in her own mind, because of "the media." Of course, she didn't have television or the internet, but she blames here adulterous affair with Paolo on the fourteenth century equivalent - romance novels, specifically the Arthurian romance Lancelot du Lac. It was the book, and its author, that is to blame. More, Francesca blames her lover, Paolo, by changing the details of the Lancelot story, having Lancelot kiss Guinevere, when it was the Queen who kissed the knight. Francesca, as all the souls in Hell are, is entirely unwilling to repent or accept any blame for what she has done - cheated on her husband, the very husband who caught her and Paolo in the act and sent them to their judgement (Francesca reveals that her husband is farther down in the pit of Hell and is entirely unmoved, indeed almost happy, about it).

Dante, who before penning the Comedy, was a love poet (of the dolce stil nuovo - see La Vita Nuova for his prime accomplishment there), is immediately taken in by Francesca. Our poet, and many modern commentators, sympathize with her self-chosen fate so much so that he swoons a second time. Which makes us ask ourselves, do we too sympathize with Francesca? Do we find her and her lover's fate too hard to bear? Are we seeing here an image of Divine Justice and ultimately Divine Love (which grants such freedom to us mere creatures that we can choose something over God and get that thing forever, even if it means Hell) or do we want to declare that we "believe in a God of love and mercy" as if it is either loving or merciful for God to force us, against our wills, to be with Him forever? Do we fall into a swoon like Dante or do we thank God for being a suitor, not a rapist, and repent of our own failings though His Grace? Hopefully the latter, but if we are like Dante, we might need a bit more time in Hell before coming to that realization.

Upon awakening, our pilgrim guide finds himself surrounded by new sinners and realizes that Virgil has transported him to the next circle of Hell. Here he finds rain,
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new. 
Huge hail, and water somber-hued, and snow (VI:8-10)
Yes, snow. Dante's conception of Hell includes both extreme heat and fire and extreme cold, ice, and even snow.

As Dante turns he sees another demon, Cerebrus, the three-headed dog famed from ancient Greek myth. The beastial character of Cerebrus, and his unending appetite, make him the perfect tormentor, even while himself suffering the same conditions as the other sinners here, of the gluttonous. As Dante moves downward through Hell he encounters worse sinners. Thus, those lead astray by lust are the least punished and the least sinful of all the properly damned in Hell. It might surprise us at first to think that gluttons, those who love food inordinately, are worse than the lustful, but if we pause to consider the higher value of human love vis-a-vis mere food, we can understand how making you belly you God is worse than corruption what in itself is a higher good - love shared between a man and a woman. Both of these sins, however, are interconnected (as is the sin we will see being punished in the next circle) as they are sins of incontinence. This interconnectedness was concretely brought home to me in a discussion I once had with a well meaning, portly, Protestant minister. When the topic of divorce came up he dismissed the idea that such could be a sin by patting his stomach and declaring, "next we'd have to condemn gluttony!" as if the thought that he might have to deal with what could be a sin in his own life was cause enough to never help anyone deal with sin in their own. In this, he seemed to get Jesus' advice in Matthew 7 exactly backwards. Christ admonishes us to remove the sins in our own life and then to help others not to justify other's sins by appealing to our own (cf. Matt 7:5).

Finally, it is worth pausing for a moment on the meeting Dante has with a fellow Florentine, with someone he actually knew in life, here identified as "Ciacco" Italian for "the hog." Dante, still struggling with the idea that anyone might be lost (no, Von Balthasar wasn't the first Catholic to long to "dare to hope all are saved") breaks out in tears at the filth covered shade of his former fellow citizen. Ciacco is the first of the damned to reveal something to Dante about his own future (the damned have the ability to know of things that will come thanks to being removed from time, but this seeming power is finally a curse. They can do nothing about what will happen, unlike the living, and will even have this foreknowledge come to an end once time ends.) Ciacco gives Dante the first premonition of his impending exile from his beloved Florence.

After a brief philosophical dialogue with Virgil where Dante learns that the pains of the damned will be increased after the Final Judgement for the same reason the joys of the blessed will be increased, we descend to the next level,
Round in a circle by that road we went,
Speaking much more, which I do not repeat;
We came unto the point where the descent is; 
There we found Plutus the great enemy. (VI:112-115)


  1. Thank you. I appreciate the explanation.

  2. Yes, I appreciate your explanations as well.

  3. Yes, I appreciate your explanations as well.