Canto 19: Holey Fathers

[Editor’s note: be sure to check out Jake Willard-Crist’s post for Canto 17, which has also been posted today…]

By Jeffrey Vamos

I can’t help but marvel at the strange fortune that places at my feet…this canto. And have I been the one commenting on all the religious professionals in hell? What gives, Dante?

This canto was a real strike on home turf. It did make me consider, by putting myself in front of the Dantean camera (thanks, John): in what ways is the issue that Dante explores in this canto – Simony – an issue for me? It made me think of why I went into the ministry in the first place. It certainly was not for the money. No, this was why:  by the power of grace, to love folks. To roughly (sometimes very roughly) approximate and model and point to that love that we know by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the spirit he breathed on us. And money should not be an issue here.

But if we’re honest, ’tis. It colors things in my line of work; it certainly can: how you see people, how you treat people.

For example, in my congregation, I do not know who gives what; that information is kept scrupulously secret by our two pledge accountants. I’ve often joked about the fact that for most of us Protestants, it’s way easier  to talk about sex, than about money. And whether this is a good practice (keeping our giving secret from each other) is not debated here. But, while I’m at it…need to say that there’s a part of me that rails against the privacy with which we guard our generosity – or lack thereof. We ought to celebrate each other’s giving – and challenge each other. But ah, that – a topic for another sermon.

But here’s at least one good argument for keeping secret such info from the shepherd of the congregation. Because, let’s just be honest here: even though it’s secret, one does know who gives, generally. One does know whose pledge would sting worst if it were missing, those few at the top on whose giving so much of the church budget exercise depends.

And perhaps it starts subtly enough. You think one of the top guys is a banker, and so you skip the part of the sermon you were going to do about how our banking system has stacked the deck against the poor. And maybe then you wonder, when pastoral care time gets divvied out: are you doing more for this person, that family… because they are of means? Because you know that their yearly chit means more than others? I try not to, I certainly do. But sometimes, I do feel that pressure. I try not to bow to it, but I feel it; and sometimes wonder if it does make a difference, in subtle ways.

When they are paying your salary, after all. Their money is paying for your digs, and your kid’s braces.

Well, just a small snapshot into my world – and OK, that’s a somewhat pale comparison to what Dante is talking about here. Dante is talking about people who abused the power of their office – made of it a mockery and a fraud, and used it for their own gain. But the trajectory is there – whenever we use the office that is sacred in order to curry favor, to use that power to personal advantage, or to avoid the hits you sometimes have to take, because this is the biz you’re in; that IS what Dante’s talking about. Failing to understand and live out the implications that holiness places on a person, whether religious professional or not.

A friend of mine pointed out the transition we’ve just made here, now that we’ve passed from sins of violence, to sins of fraud; in the latter place, people (like usurers) treat cheap things as if they were holy; here they treat holy things, as if they are cheap. This is clear in the scene in Canto 18: the flatters who treat the truth as cheap – they are literally swimming in their own bullshit.

Now, before we get into that further – a brief interlude here, to comment on Dante’s poetry – which is so very beautiful and subtle and multilayered.

Here’s something. And perhaps I’m just getting a bit flip, and loose, as we are now past the hump in this endeavor. Taking Adrienne’s tack, notice the topography of hell here; it’s HOLEY. A mockery of what holy should be. Now I highly doubt that such wordplay is going on in the Italian, but I think Dante would be pleased with it. The poetic point is this: people are using what ought to be treated with reverence and respect – symbolized here via the sacrament of baptism – and defaming it, abusing it. The whole (hole) place is shot through with abuse and fraud. The holes that are meant to serve as the portals to eternal life – those holes where people are to be baptized into it – have become clogged…with popes! The holiest of holy people! And their contrapasso is for their feet to be tortured by the very pentecostal flames that they ought to have called upon to transform the lives under their care. Dante talks to one (Nicolas the III) who, in a neat poetic trick, is expecting the very Pope who was alive at the time the poem was taking place – Dante’s archvillain, Bonaface the VIII.

Then notice also the beginning of this Canto. Dante makes a big deal about some baptismal font he once smashed, in his home church in San Giovanni. He says that he did it to save a life – the life of a young boy. Now, notice what he’s doing here? See how subtle a move that is? He’s saying here: I’m going to tell you about people who, by their actions, abused and destroyed this practice (baptism). But what I’m trying to do is “save” lives – and so I myself am going to have to do some smashing here, just like I did in that church, for that boy. I’m going to have to smash some holy things here, only in this case, I’m smashing (metaphorically) the reputation of a couple popes.

AND also, Dante, all with one fell swoop of a few lines, then settles the score on that whole San Giovanni incident – one where people accused him of losing his temper, being a hothead, and impetuously smashing the baptismal font. He sets the record straight on that too. Brilliant or what?

There’s so much going on in this canto that touches on the stuff that I do. Did you also notice the very first reference here, to Simon Magus?

Simon Magus was a magician (hence the name “Magus”) we meet in Acts 8, who wanted to “buy” the gospel, in order to use it for his own purposes. Is that not reflective of so many religious professionals today too? Who use religion – and the magic of charismatic speech – to attain power and to manipulate people? And what of the reference at the end of the canto to the ambivalent “gift of Constantine.” Dante is not referring to his conversion per se, but his conferral of land and wealth upon church, whose identity had heretofore been known in Christ’s suffering. This first Christian emperor, who made Christianity legal, is the same one who wrecked it, by bestowing upon it temporal power. Dante basically speaks to how religion had become (continues to be) a chaplain to culture.

Reminds me too of those who lament the lost power of the church in our era – how we used to speak with much more authority than we do now. In some ways, I wonder if Dante might cheer that. I think of Kierkegaard here: truth is always with the minority. When the church gets mucked up with money and power, and currying favor with the (usually wealthy) majority – it ceases to be what it’s meant to be. What is holy becomes coin, becomes currency, and then loses its very essence.

Boy. Glad I’m not mucked up with any of that business.

About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: View all posts by jeffvamos

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