When the reader of the Inferno comes upon Paolo and Francesca in canto 5, he is struck by the delicacy with which Dante presents the damned couple. Their story of how they fell into sin is so commonplace, their infidelity so fleeting, that it seems incommensurate with an eternal punishment. Or so we might think. Dante doesn’t, nor does the couple. The modern reader is face-to-face with the greatest impediment to his reading the Divine Comedy.
Dorothy Sayers, in the introduction to her magnificent translation of Dante’s poem, made the point more than half a century ago. The modern mind—that’s us—has lost the sense of the stakes of life. This loss has influenced Christians as much as anyone else, despite the daily reminders in our prayers. We profess our belief in life everlasting. This life is called a vale of tears. We hope to attain eternal life by the pardon of our sins and by grace. We express our dread of losing heaven and the pains of hell. Do our words fly up and our thoughts remain below?
The drama of life is that the deeds we perform in the constant flow of time are the necessary preface to our eternal condition. Anyone looking over his life from this perspective must be filled with fear. No wonder we beg Mary to pray for us at the hour of our death. It is God’s mercy upon which we must rely. Does that cancel out the grim stakes Dante won’t let us forget?
It will occur to anyone who follows the current discussions of capital punishment that for many it is punishment itself that is the problem. Can anyone really be held accountable for what he does? Of course, the Holy Father sees as one of the boons of life imprisonment that the sinner will be converted. But that only takes us back to the heart of the matter. What if he isn’t? It is not surprising that agitation against the death penalty often goes hand in hand with a disbelief in hell. The nicest people are tempted by what is called Universalism, the consoling thought that, in the end, everyone will end up okay. Hell, if there is such a place, is temporary, and heaven is our common lot.
Well, as Hemingway’s hero says, it would be pretty to think so. The death of Catherine at the end of Farewell to Arms is starkly told, but it is a surd element in the story, making no sense. Still, the meaning of life has to be read back from the inevitability of death. Is death the end? And if not, what awaits us in that bourne from which no traveler returns?
Christians are given the answers. They don’t make them up. Dante looks the truth unflinchingly in the face, but we are losing that knack. In the depths of hell, frozen in ice, is Lucifer. But of course the angels, good and bad, have become sentimental or comic figures for us. The snares of the devil are all the more effective for being ignored. Most of us are so morally flabby that we would present little challenge to the devil.
The fall of the angels is taken to be due to their prideful rejection of God’s plan for salvation, one that seemed to bypass the angels and put a premium on mankind. Milton presents this celestial drama unforgettably, whereas Dante’s Lucifer gets no lines.
The night prayer of the Church repeats St. Peter’s warning: Brothers, be sober and watchful, because your adversary the devil, like a roaring lion, goes about seeking whom he might devour. Once, after Mass, the prayer to the archangel Michael was recited. It was Michael who expelled Lucifer from heaven. Has all this come to seem baroque to us? Quaint? More’s the pity. Read Dante.