This is the second of our series The Summa in Verse.
During Easter time our priory is inundated with a whole host of delicious treats. Since many have abstained from sweets for Lent, it is a delight to receive homemade baked goods from friends and families as we celebrate the Resurrection. In the midst of this deluge, though, I find it interesting to observe how particular individuals are drawn to different things. As the brothers pass by the collection of confections, each gravitates to a distinct item. For one, it’s the traditional fare of his countrymen. For another, the nostalgia-laden delicacy his mother made every Easter for as long as he can remember. Yet others, it seems, just pick up what has the shiniest wrapper. Each approaches with a unique appetite, history, and sensitivity, and often each leaves with a different result. In a way, the trajectory of the pursuit is already inscribed in the desires of each. As St. Augustine poses it, “My weight, is my love; thereby am I borne, whithersoever I am borne” (Confessions, XIII).
One of the central insights of the Divine Comedy is just this: The bearing of our love, informed by our intellectual decisions, sets the heading for our eternal destiny. Man is borne on in life by the gravity of desire, desire that he shapes by his free will. And whether he acknowledges the fact or not, this gravity has a final destination. By consistently choosing goods (or apparent goods) of a certain kind, we, in effect, are choosing them “world without end. Amen.” For those who delight in prayer and the sacraments, this is a consoling prognostication. For those more inclined to consult the National Enquirer than Magnificat, it portends poorly. Ultimately, one “rests” eternally in the torment of perpetual rebellion or in the vision of the Beloved for whom our souls long.
The drama of human love and its redemption in grace are set against the terrible backdrop of loss. Midway through the journey of his life, having lost the way, Dante begins the pilgrimage of his own sin-sick life with the chastening reminder of and entry into the eternal fruits of a disordered love. As he so vividly discovers with every successive circle, unredeemed love is destined to the center of its gravity, the sad possibility of original sin. For some this means perpetual submersion in the sense appetites they were too weak to pacify by the help of grace. For others it means confirmation in the malice with which they hated on earth. And for still others, it means the complete paralysis and isolating exclusion from fellowship, that is, what has been borne of treachery. In life, the seduction of sin appealed with its characteristic urgency: “Without me, you will perish!” In death, sin betrays its host and turns with savage malignancy on its prey: “In me, you perish!” Thus, in hell we see the order of Eden overthrown for eternity with no hope of reprisal. With minds in rebellion against God, higher powers enslaved to lower, and bodies lording over souls, the infernal pit reeks with the stench of nature gone mad.
And yet, were one to stop with Canto XXXIV of the Inferno, Dante’s vision would amount to little more than ghastly fascination; yet, this is precisely what many curricula do. Dante is remembered by high-school students the country over for his moderately morbid descriptive detail and vindictive way of dealing with political opponents. Sure, there’s a kind of elegance in the concentric undulations of hell’s bowels, but one gains access to the Inferno’s richness only if it is seen for what it is, a mockery and a shadow. Like the objects of the disordered desires one finds enshrined therein, hell itself is but a mere anti-type of the stages that are yet to come for Dante and Virgil. Like sin, hell has only a borrowed and parasitic existence, and its halls echo with the emptiness born of a sham. One comparison between the Inferno and Purgatorio illustrates this point.
At the gates of both realms we encounter scenes of great haste. In hell, Dante depicts the ante-chamber as inhabited by those he terms the Neutrals, those forlorn souls who never stood for anything in their lives. For their punishment, they spend their eternity chasing an empty banner as they are stung by bees and wasps, with worms gathering the blood and tears that stream from their faces. In the Purgatorio, one encounters another scene of haste, but of an entirely different nature. In Canto II, Dante and Virgil greet an arrival of souls, among whom Dante recognizes his friend Casella. With great delight the two fall back into the step of their old music-making, only to be roughly treated. With the sobriety borne of evangelical urgency, Cato, the guardian of Purgatory’s shore, puts an immediate end to their merriment and sends the souls scrambling up the mount to engage in the sole pursuit for which they came: “Haste to the mountain to strip you of the slough that allows not God to manifest to you.” Thus, at both entries, we find great haste, but with entirely different ends. In Purgatory, the souls are sent hastening to their lover, while in hell, they play out the macabre dance of sin’s emptiness. And so it is that in each Canto of the Inferno, while some descriptions are filled with a fleshly density of horrifying proportions, the entire poem is shot through with an emptiness that beseeches the Beatifying Solidity Who awaits those who would only ask, seek, and knock. To eat of the heavenly food that awaits, ascend the mount with tomorrow’s post.
Image: Gustave Dore, The Inferno, Canto 34