St. Mark’s Episcopal Church sits on the corner of 19th and Central in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A “pioneer” church, St. Mark’s history dates back to the town’s early heyday, just a few years after the end of the Civil War when Cheyenne was probably little more than a prairie outpost. Raised in the church, I was an acolyte and attended youth group meetings. My mother, on the other hand, became more than a participant. I have watched, particularly after my father’s passing, her devotion and sense of belonging to the church flourish. She has served as the church accountant, on the vestry, is part of ECW (Episcopal Church Women), and contributes to the life of the church in energetic and sustained ways. I can always count on our weekly conversations turning to some matter of church business, whether she updates me about the lives of people I’ve known since my childhood, something noteworthy (or funny) in the bulletin, or the Taize style service she’s just attended.
Over the last few years, the church has struggled with whether or not to leave the sanctuary open—and thereby unattended—during the day. Philosophically, most embrace the idea of leaving the church open to worshippers or those seeking a moment of quiet respite and meditation. The church is historic and, in its physical structure, simply lovely, with stained glass renditions of the Stations of the Cross, an impressive organ, and a sanctuary and altar somehow both humble and glorious in their subtle detail—brass railings, the cloverleaf pattern on the choir pews, the marble floors and cherry stained wood leading up to the altar. Unfortunately, theft has kept the congregation and church leadership hesitant to leave St. Mark’s open. Even with the crosses and candlesticks locked safely away by the altar guild, items have still gone missing—sometimes even baffling items from baffling places. While the parishioners are eager to share their church with others and often appreciate that the theft may stem from deeper social ills, it ends up leaving a sour taste of confusion, anger, and disappointment on the tongue.
At the end of Canto 24, Dante and Virgil encounter Vanni Fucci, a “beast” who stole treasure from the sacristy in Pistoia. “A mule among men,” Vanni Fucci “chose the bestial life above the human” and that choice has delivered him to the seventh bolgia in hell’s eighth circle (21). As far as levels of hell and bolgia to avoid, this one is high on the list. Here the sinners swarmed “naked and without hope,” they were “terrified,” and, worse still, “Their hands were bound behind by coils of serpents/ which thrust their heads and tails between the loins/ and bunched in front, a mass of knotted torments” (209). There is a cruel and intentional irony in these thieves having their hands—the most likely vehicle of their crimes—tied by vipers behind their backs. And these are particularly creepy snakes, mind you. Just moments before arriving at the bolgia, as our heroes neared the “the next chasm’s darkness,” Dante heard in the snakes a sound akin to a wrathful speaker somehow unable to form words (208). The depth from which that tormented voice sought to rise appeared bottomless, and so, not knowing what ill might have met them there, Dante and Virgil agreed to slightly alter their route. Even before we know what’s coming, we can feel, almost immediately, that this was a good move. All together it makes for a dark and eerie scene.
Snakes play such a powerful role in myth and imagination, with negative connotations from jump in Genesis, to the positive connotations associated with Kundalini (the “coiled one,” represented as a snake) in yogic traditions. Located at the base of the spine, coiled Kundalini is the power of a seeker’s latent consciousness. Once roused, Kundalini unravels, extending up through the chakras and ushering the seeker through higher and higher levels of consciousness and spiritual awakening. But these aren’t the kind of snakes Dante’s talking about. The very memory of the snakes in bolgia seven made Dante’s “blood run cold,” and so should ours in this seething pit of high drama. The snakes bite the sinners, dissolving them “into a heap/ upon the ground,” whereupon they turn to ash, they rise and sigh, already in anticipation of the agony’s repetition. Sorry love: it’s a Groundhog Day that will never, despite the perpetual resurrection, lead to redemption:
(Digression: Insert blues riff. Let’s say, 4/4 time: “I’m in bolgia seven and I got the blues/ thieves to my left and thieves to my right/ can’t tell whether it is day or night/ tied up by snakes that bite me on the neck/ I fall to ashes and say, ‘Hey man, what the heck?’/ I got them bolgia seven blues/ been a long time baby since we had good news…)
There are several turns in this canto, moments in which I felt as though Dante winked at me—from his almost bucolic rendering of a vernal scene at the canto’s start to Virgil’s admonition of Dante to tighten his belt: “The man who lies asleep/ will never waken fame…”(207). I don’t have the pluck to take up all of these moments here. It is enough, it seems to me, to contemplate the nature of thievery. As anyone who has had material possessions stolen can testify, we experience theft as a deep violation, not merely of our personal possessions but of our selves. The emotional range of our reactions can be profound—from disillusionment, disgust, and questions of personal safety to a nagging sense of disappointment in our fellow man. (And all of that before we even begin to deal with the fallout of what we’ve lost.) Theft ravages. So, sure, Fucci is a “beast” simply because he stole, but his beastliness is certainly made worse because he stole from a church. Dante makes clear that stealing what is sacred is diabolical; in pilfering from a church we rob God and those seeking to worship or know God. That’s low.
About the nuances of this kind of transgression there’s much more to say, though I don’t think I can elegantly unpack it all here. In my experience, theft doesn’t simply trample the golden rule or cross an established boundary. Whatever the reason behind the theft—be it hunger, malevolence, a still developing frontal lobe—, taking what isn’t ours undermines our sense of community. It blasts a hole through our social fabric—even “minor” theft. (Little moths still nibble away at the linens.) It bites us, reduces us, and, when we have the strength to rise again, we do so with a sigh.
Part of theft’s deeper, more lasting damage arises from our (understandably) kneejerk reactions and need for self-preservation. If we can, we want to patch the fabric and put it away so that nothing ever molests it again. We jam the cycle of giving’s gears, removing from circulation and creation many of the things we hold precious. It’s a response that makes sense, even though I’m not sure it’s always healthy. We can feel such a need to protect what’s ours that we neglect those around us, their needs, and the compassion that might grow in us if we were to extend ourselves enough to experience another’s reality. Thieves will do what they will. We, on the other hand, close down our houses, our sanctuaries, our hearts, imagining those around us as potential vipers, slithering about what we have and they hope to get.