Thursday, May 21, 2015

Blogging through Hell (pt 13) - Of Hatred of God, Once-Saved-Always-Saved, Islam, and Vatican Two in the Divine Comedy

After having climbed back out of the sixth bolgia over the remains of the bridge which collapsed at Christ's entrance into Hell, Dante and Virgil, who has now regained his composure after his fury at being deceived by the Malebranche, peer into the darkness of the seventh bolgia. Able to hear the moans of the sinners beneath him, but unable to see anyone, Dante asks Virgil if they can descend into the pit to see who these sinners are. Virgil, happy to comply with his pupil's eagerness to learn, leads Dante down to meet the sinners.
and there within I saw a dreadful swarm
of serpents so extravagant in form
remembering them still drains my blood from me. (XXIV:82-84, Mandelbaum)
Among this cruel and most dismal throng
People were running naked and affrighted. (XXIV: 91-92)
The serpents are plaguing the thieves - sinners who defrauded others by stealing from them. Just as the thieves, in life, caused property to unnaturally change from one owner to another, so too, eternally, the thieves will be transformed, and cause each other to transform, unnaturally from one form to another. The first example Dante sees of this is of a who is bit by a snake,
.... which transfixed him
There where the neck is knotted to the shoulders. (XXIV:98-99)
 After being bitten, the sinner catches fire, burns to ash, and, like the phoenix, rises from the ash to be tormented yet again. Dante, shocked at this latest, self-imposed, punishment cries out,
Justice of God! O how severe it is,
That blows like these in vengeance poureth down! (XXIV:119-120)
The sinner, returned to his natural form, answers Virgil's question about who is is and what he has done. He is Vanni Fucci, a native of Pistoia so renowned for violence that Dante is surprised he isn't boiling in the Phlegethon above with the other murders. Fucci, however, explains that his robbery of the Cathedral of Pistoia, which he allowed to be falsely attributed to another man.

Showing his hate-filled nature, Fucci prophecies about the explosion of Dante's White Guelfs from Florence, ending with, "And this I've said that it may give thee pain." (XXIV:151). Having finished grieving Dante, Fucci makes an absence gesture to the sky, screaming, "take that, God, for at thee I aim them." (XXV:3) before being covered in so many snakes that he can no longer move. Surprised at Fucci's supreme audacity, Dante notes,
Through all the somber circles of this Hell,
Spirit I saw not against God so proud, (XXV:13-14)
The hatred that the souls in Hell are consumed by, of both neighbor and God in direct opposition to the greatest commandment (cf. Mk 12:30-31), is on full display in Vanni Fucci, but has been witnessed time an again throughout Dante's journey. Souls have held Hell in disdain, have cursed God, and have shouted blasphemies. What we haven't seen, indeed what we will never see, in Hell is any remorse, any sorrow, for the sins committed or any love for God (or for the other sinners being punished in Hell). Hell, then, is a place of absolute hatred, which is what we'd expect as the primary punishment of Hell is the absence of the God who is love. This is in complete accord with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which St. Pope John Paul the Great called "a sure norm for teaching the faith" (Fedei Depositum, 3).
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves... To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice.... Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell where they suffer the punishments of hell... The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God (1033-1035)
Vanni Fucci, and all the sinners we've met or will meet in Hell, are precisely those who have refused to freely love God, who have sinned gravely against Him and against their neighbors, and who have refused to repent... eternally. These souls now embrace their self-selected destiny with a continued hatred for others and for God. Nowhere is this better displayed than in the character of Vanni Fucci.

Vanni Fucci by Claudio Bez
As Dante and Virgil leave behind Vanni Fucci, several other prominent Florentines, and the rest of the thieves in the seventh pit of the Eighth Circle of Hell, they see, in the next bolgia, a bewildering number of flickering flames, without seeing any sinners. Having learned from his experience in the Seventh Circle with the Wood of the Suicides, Dante accurately surmises that each flame contains a sinner. This is the perpetual abode of the evil counsellors, especially those who were deceitful in war (more fox than lion, as Dante has one sinner explain, reminding us of the opening canto of the Comedy).

With flames as manifold resplendent all
Was the Eighth Bolgia (XXVI:31-32)
Unable to penetrate the flames with his sight, Dante asks Virgil if he may not question some of those damned here to learn who they are and what they have done. One flame, with two tips, particularly grabs Dante's attention. Virgil, explaining that this flame contains the shades of both Odysseus and Diomedes, both Greek heroes who participated in the war with Troy, suggests that these souls might be more open to hearing from him, a fellow ancient and a poet famous for his recounting of the deeds of the Trojan Aeneas, than from Dante. It is here, in Odysseus' speech to Virgil, that we get an entirely original account of Odysseus' final fate. The Homeric hero describes how, after returning home from his adventures recounted in the Odyssey, he was overcome by a desire to see more of the world. He thus once more abandoned his father, son, and long-suffering wife, gathered the remaining elements of his crew and set sail to the west. His crew now "old and slow" (XXVI:106) sail to the "Pillars of Hercules" (the Straights of Gibraltar) which no man was supposed to travel beyond, yet press on he did, convincing his crew through deceitful speech, as he had previously convinced Achilles to join the war at Troy and the Greeks to offer the Trojan horse. Sailing as far as a mysterious mountain on the uninhabited portion of the world (the Medievals knew the world was round, however they didn't think anyone lived in the western hemisphere), Odysseus' ship is deliberately sunk by "Another's will" (XXVI:141, Musa). The foreshadowing of Mount Purgatory and of Satan, who mad a "mad flight"(XXVI:125) of his own and was also cast down by "Another's will," sets the stage perfectly for what is to come.

As Dante and Virgil watch Odysseus and Diomedes wonder off, another soul, that of Guido da Montefeltro, approaches the pair, wailing over his fate. Guido, who's tale is as interesting as Odysseus', was another brilliant, yet deceitful, military leader, this time from Dante's own day. After a long, treacherous, and successful career leading anti-papal (Ghibelline) armies, Guido,
"... saw that the time of life had come
for me, as it must come for every man,
to lower the sails and gather in the lines," (XXVII:79-81, Musa)
Thus presenting an opposite image to that of Odysseus, who, even "old and slow" refused to "lower the sails" and end his exploits with a time of reflection and penitence. Guido, seeking to avoid damnation, relates how he joined the Franciscans in an attempt to end his life in friendship with God.
"And poor me it would have helped" (XXVII:84, Mandelbaum), exclaims Guido. Would have if he had truly repented and sought God's forgiveness. Instead, at Guido's death we see this scene,
"Francis came afterward, when I was dead,
   For me; but one of the black Cherubim
   Said to him: 'Take him not; do me no wrong; 
He must come down among my servitors,
   Because he gave the fraudulent advice
   From which time forth I have been at his hair; 
For who repents not cannot be absolved,
   Nor can one both repent and will at once,
   Because of the contradiction which consents not." (XXVII:112-120)
Guido's fate testifies to a basic tenant of reason (in fact the demon tells the horrified Guido, "Peradventure/ Thou didst not think that I was a logician!" [122-123]), a man can't be forgiven if he isn't repentant. Guido, much like "once-saved-always-saved" Protestants, tried to receive forgiveness before sinning, rather than sincerely repenting afterward. This attempt to "both repent and will at once" is an attempt to defraud God and leads directly to Guido's damnation. This lesson is important for us today. Sincere repentance, even of an entire life of sin (like Guido's) can bring salvation (hence, St. Francis comes for him). However, God's great mercy can't be had by those who refuse to accept it by repenting of their past sins. Trying to "game the system," trying to get a "get out of jail free card" (whether that card be the "sinners prayer" or, in Guido's case, Pope Boniface VIII's assurances), trying to get forgiveness and then to sin, is to reject the only thing that can ever save us - God's great mercy. Thus Guido only appeared to be better than Odysseus, only appeared to have repented and sought the solace of God's embrace. This deception, this final act of fraud, leaves Guido wrapped in, "the flame, in previous pain.../ gnarling and flickering its pointed horn. (XXVII:131-132).

After leaving behind the sinners engulfed in flames, Dante and Virgil come to the ninth bolgia of Malebolgie, the Eighth Circle of Hell. It is here that Dante is overwhelmed by the spectacle before him. Here he sees a demon wielding a great sword which he uses to rip to pieces the shades condemned here. Two souls in particular leap to Dante's attention. The first is cut from his throat to his groin; the second from his brow to his chin. This pair identify themselves,
..."How mutilated, see, is Mahomet;
In front of me doth Ali weeping go (XXVIII:31-32)

He looked at me, and opened with his hands
His bosom, saying: "See now how I rend me" (XXVIII:30)
Just as the schismatics, the sinners punished here, rendered asunder the Mystical Body of Christ on Earth, so now their bodies are rendered in torment below. We might, at first, be surprised to find the founder of Islam condemned as a schismatic. Isn't Mohammad another religious founder? Isn't Islam a separate entity entirely from Christianity, more like Hinduism than Mormonism? Dante's answer is no. He neither sees "Christianity" as one of the "world religions," one of which is Islam, nor does he see Mohammad as having created Islam ex nihilo. This view of Catholicism and of Islam is wonderfully summed up by the great Hilaire Belloc in his book The Great Heresies,
There is no such thing as a religion called "Christianity" there never has been such a religion. There is an always has been the Church, and various heresies proceeding from a rejection of some of the Church's doctrines by men who still desire to retain the rest of her teaching and morals.... There has always been, from the beginning, and will always be, the Church, and sundry heresies either doomed to decay, or, like Mohammedanism, to grow into a separate religion. 
Christianity, then, is the Catholic Church. Jesus didn't come to found "another great world religion." He came to establish the Kingdom of God, which is present in and through the Holy Catholic Church. Islam, like Arianism before and Protestantism after, split off from that Church, rejecting "some of the Church's doctrines" and seeking "to retain the rest of her teaching." That is why Jesus and Mary play such a prominent role in Islam (to the point where Jesus, not Mohammad, will return at the world's end to judge mankind).

We've already seen that Dante doesn't consider being Muslim to be a reason for eternal punishment (we met Saladin, Averoes and Avicenna living in a painless Earthy paradise in Limbo with the other virtuous non-Christians in Limbo). However, creating a division in the Body of Christ, which Dante believes Mohammad to have done, is. This distinction, between formal and material schism (and heresy) is still made by the Church today and is one reason the Church has softened her tone towards Eastern Orthodox, Protestants and Muslims today. These men and women might be in an unwilled state of material schism (and, for some, material heresy), but such isn't sinful. The founders of these schisms, Photius, Luther, Mohammad, however, and their early followers who left the Church, would have been guilty of the sin of formal schism (and, in most cases, heresy). Thus, in full accord with what Dante already is saying in the Thirteenth Century, Vatican Two can rightly say,
The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ…. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood…. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about….…(T)hose who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God…. (T)he plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind… (Lumen Gentium, 15-16)
After being overwhelmed by the mutilation he sees, including a sinner with his head removed from his shoulders, a perfect example of Dantean contrapasso - as this man, Bertran de Born, who severed the relationship between a father and son on Earth now is severed himself, Dante and Virgil trudge into the last bolgia of the Eighth Circle.

In me you see the perfect contrapasso! (XXVIII:142, Musa)

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