Category Archives: Inferno

Canto 20: Tear-Falling Pity Lives Not in This Eye

By John Timpane

Most of Inferno is inhuman and inhuman in some way. In this epic that suckles on the breast of revenge, Dante is withholding nothing. Evil, the evil he has suffered, the evil people he has known and suffered from, and the types of those people and their actions, absorb a storm of abuse, in horrible, ingenious images of torture and agony that present us with a tableau without equal this side of Hiernoymus Bosch, Dante’s painterly counterpart. In Bosch, too, there is a will to violence, an impulse to torture, a grasp at mercilessness. And in Bosch, too, in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is tenderness, pity in the images of unlovely, vulnerable, naked human beings subjected to exquisite, bizarre tortures. Their defenseless, anonymous hopelessness grates against the vividness of their grief.

In Canto XX occurs the most heartless moment in the entire poem. It follows perhaps its most horrific single image. Dante is in XX, and he sees the damned who have used necromancy and magic to see into the future. They walk with their heads horribly twisted, to face backward. It’s not only a petrifying image of blindness and mutilation – this is the mutilation, enforced backwardness, perpetual perversion in the sense of “turning away,” guaranteed blindness, a negation of the forward-facing, clearsighted mind as a metaphor for the Creator. Dante says he is in “a deep canyon watered by tears of anguish.” And now he sees what tears they are, and he weeps for the weepers:

“Reader – God grant you benefit from your reading – now think for yourself how I could keep a dry face, when nearby I saw our image wrenched so, that the tears of their eyes bathed their hind parts at the cleft.”

These are bodies outraged, in a posture that’s all wrong. It’s the human body compelled to humiliate itself in the act of grief. But Dante’s tears only get Virgil mad:

“My guide said to me, “Are you like the other fools, too? Here, pity lives when it is good and dead. Who is more impious that those who feel compassion at the divine judgment?”

Virgil has no time for Dante’s foolish, misplaced humanity. God has shut His heart to these, and therefore it’s wrong to pity them. Pity would imply that God is unjust.

The rest of the Canto is fascinating, full of characters from history, and a very odd retelling of the history of the town Mantua, purported birthplace of Virgil himself. But I’ll skip all that and come back to the Boschian image and the forbidding of pity. It’s a central moment in the poem, and one of the most frightening in a poem that often frightens.

Pity dies at the gates of Inferno. Nor is this a failure of the Divine, a limit to the reach of God. This is the keeping of a promise, the fulfillment of damnation. Instead of LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH’INTRATE, the lintel above the entrance could well read SEE WHAT HAPPENS? What happens is Judgment, and Judgment is equal to Justice. If you landed in Inferno, that’s because you should land there. And indeed, the legend above the gate to Inferno (Canto III) does say, “JUSTICE MOVED MY HIGH MAKER; I WAS SHAPED BY DIVINE POWER, THE SUMMIT OF WISDOM, AND PRIMAL LOVE.” Justice, Power, and Love. When Love is spurned, Justice creates Inferno via irresistible Power. SEE WHAT HAPPENS?

Evil happens. And so does death.


We don’t believe in evil.

Evil in ourselves, that is. We don’t really believe, when you rip skin off flesh, that we ever could be authentically bad. Other people? Oh, yeah, that’s clear enough. Of course. Easy to see. All around us, every day. But we . . . somehow we’re exempt. We don’t do anything that’s really evil.

Our denial of evil in ourselves is on par with our denial of death. Other people? Yeah, they die. Poor saps. But we . . . somehow we’re exempt. We’ll get out of it somehow.

To read Canto XX, and to endure Virgil’s bracing, cold rebuke to Dante’s understandable tears, his angry prohibition of compassion, is to face what we try never to face: the fact that we are inherently, congenitally unable to accept evil in ourselves or death. We can totally accept them in other folks. We can look on with Dante and see the horror of the inhabitants of the Fourth Ditch of the Eighth Circle.

But when Dante does something humane – weeping out of sheer ruth, out of sheer, hopeless pain at seeing others suffer – he is rebuked by his guide. We feel the border, the cold frontier of judgment beyond the human. Dante, making an earthly assumption, default-thinks that if a person suffers, s/he deserves compassion. Compassion, however, “gives” the object of compassion “a pass,” as we say. It makes an exemption. It declares that “to understand all is to forgive all.” He did this, yes, but I understand why. He did this, yes, but in the circumstances, who wouldn’t? Compassion means forgiveness. And the poet has wrought this episode cunningly. The speaker feels compassion out of a Christian reflex, almost — and we follow him out of the same reflex. (I certainly do, every time I read this Canto, at the image of those poor, twisted figures.) But there has been a mistake. On his part and on ours. He has forgotten that past a certain point, no one is exempt from the absence of pity, as no one is exempt from death or personal evil.

Always we assume we’re exempt. We’ll get out of it. We understand ourselves and our motives and ends so well that we assume the world will, too. And beyond the world. When Virgil forbids tears for the damned, however, he’s telling us that, actually, no, you won’t be taken at your own estimate. You won’t be heard. There will be no tears except your own. The leaden certainty, the utter fall of judgment beyond recourse, beyond appeal, falls on the pilgrim and on us.

If we could accept (and I’m saying we can’t) such a finality, one that exists apart from us and our world of excuses, clarity would ensue. We’d be forced to take the most critical of stances with regard to ourselves. We could accept that we fall short, that we are sometimes blind, sometimes bad, and that sometimes it really is our fault and the finger does not point elsewhere. Such a moment of ecstatic despair would give ourselves no choice but to own what we are and what we do. That’d make a pretty good Lent.

So when Virgil prohibits pity, he forces on us all an existential moment, an episode determinante (if we choose to accept it). We are incapable, I fear, of ever really reconciling our sense of personal exemption with the fact of personal shortcoming and personal death. When Virgil says no to tears in hell, he’s letting us know: you won’t get out of it.


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.

Canto 18: No Harm

Adrienne Perry

Spend enough time in hell and it becomes, well…more hell. It becomes more of itself, revealing its full dimensions through the poet’s vision—its nooks, crannies, and characters—layer after layer and circle after circle. It is a vulture perched beside road kill, slowly lifting its wings until we see, bit by bit, the full span of its body and what it plans to do next. By the 18th canto, hell seems horrible and yet familiar, perhaps even horribly familiar. We have had fire, whips, excrement, rafts of sinners, and creatures resurrected from mythology (easily, as though they were strange, yet intentionally/opportunely placed) to move the sinners, and sometimes our pilgrims, along.

I opened to this canto and felt myself a tad numb, stimulated by my fellow bloggers’ insights to be sure, and yet inured to what this level of hell might hold. Perhaps that’s how Stephen Dedalus felt as “[he] sat again in the front bench of the chapel. The daylight without was already failing and, as it fell slowly through the dull red blinds, it seemed that the sun of the last day was going down and that all souls were being gathered for the judgment” (Joyce 300). As the preacher details in his sermon to Stephen and his peers, there is, in hell, physical pain, spiritual pain, and—the “last and crowning torture of all”—eternity (Joyce 304). The Inferno had successfully conjured, for me, hell’s physical pain and eternity. A place where “sodomites” run across burning sand isn’t where a gal wants to spend much time. I’d been taking it all in, but I hadn’t yet felt the pinch of spiritual pain. For whatever reason, this canto flipped that switch. Dante’s hell has room for pimps and poets, lovers and looters. And sometimes they stir our compassion while we stir their souls to recognition…

Here’s what stirred me to recognition: Dante and Virgil descend from Geryon’s back and our poet soon finds “new souls in pain,” “new torments, and new devils black as pitch” (158). I was skeptical about the “newness” at first. True, the Malebolge of this eighth circle provided a twist, and not just because there’s a sassy, Tolkien-esque map at the start of this canto in my translation. The “we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore” shift could have easily come from the changed landscape, but I soon found the “the new” in language and in the nature of the sin that landed these “misbegotten wraiths” in this circle and their various bolgia. For instance, I’d not yet heard this in hell: “Move on,/ you pimp, there are no women here to sell” (160). Or, as Dante and his guide approach the second bolgia:

Once there, I peered down; and I saw long lines
of people in a river of excrement
that seemed the overflow of the world’s latrines.

I saw among the felons of that pit
one wraith who might or might not have been tonsured—
one could not tell, he was so smeared with shit. (161)

The abrasiveness of the language drew me to the “coarseness” of the sin. While the eighth circle is full of the “Fraudulent and Malicious” (I assume, writ large), somehow the panderers, seducers, and, to a lesser extent, the flatterers made clear that it is one thing to bring ourselves low and quite another to intentionally drag others down alongside us. The panderers and seducers, in particular, traffic in other people—be it actual beings or their emotions. In this circle, we bring others into sins they would perhaps never have designed for themselves: prostitution, slavery, the fallout of a twisted love affair; it is, at its most common and worst, the possibility of manipulation through every level of human relation. For the flatterers in hell, their false and hollow speech is shit made manifest. Alessio says, “Down to this have the flatteries I sold/ the living sunk me here among the dead” (162). There is a connection, it seems, between the soul and the substance of our sin.

As a Lenten contemplation, this canto makes me want to be very honest and to do what Chögyam Trungpa has called “no harm.” To be aware, without being neurotic, of the way in which my actions impact others. In my experience, spiritual pain is internal turmoil, often caused when I feel as though my thoughtlessness or negligence have extended beyond me to friends, loved ones, coworkers, even strangers. Do I attempt to bend situations to my will, thinking I know better for others than they know for themselves? Do I see people as some currency to get what I want? Have I spoken half-truths in the hopes that others would like or accept me? Certainly. It sounds vile, but I also know I’m in good company. I can see the way this mixture of opportunism and cowardice unfolds in everyday situations—driving to the grocery store, the kinds of purchases I make, and the list goes on. In this level of hell I imagine enduring physical pain and eternity while being tormented, most brutally, by the recognition that my selfishness and deception—whether sinister or perhaps even a bit everyday—had harmed another.

Joyce, James: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992

Canto 17: Ecco la fiera

by Jake Willard-Crist

The French poet René Char called the poet a “magician of insecurity.”  In this canto, Dante’s insecure magic is on display.  The wild beast Geryon is his most anxious conjuration.  The beast is born from his own belt, which he has given to Vergil to cast into the abyss, and thus the beast becomes the figurative assurance, at least he hopes so, that he will not be caught with his poetic pants down.  Here, Dante meets the exposure of his art head on, and, in a paradoxical act of disguise, appropriates that exposure for a vessel, rides it as a protective vehicle to new depths of truth-seeking.

For the past year and a half I have composed poems for worship services at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville.  It’s a slippery business, one of which I’m still untangling the nature and implications.  To put it in terms of my own Geryon, pulpit-poetry is a tri-form beast of 1) myth and scripture, 2) homiletic impulses, and 3) my autobiography.  Every time I ascend the pulpit I swear, as it were, by the lines of my own poem, that what I have seen I have truly seen.  Every time I ascend the pulpit, I will hear, from now on, an embarrassingly accented “Ecco la fiera”—“Behold, the wild beast”—keeping in mind what the Italian fiera contains within its meaning:  fiero, one who is proud, bold, intrepid.  I risk being exposed as a Phaëton or Icarus:  one who has attempted to commandeer the unwieldy conveyance of language for the lofty award of “lunga grazia”, lasting favor (or the more intriguing translation, “long grace.”)  I’m reminded of another quote by René Char:  “A poem is furious ascension.”

Of course it is no accident that the first time that Dante refers to his own comedia (XVI: 128) Geryon swims up from the abyss.  The beast, “fraud’s foul emblem”, is the manifestation of the poet’s craft, his fraudulent vessel, his ship of lies.  The insecurity is palpable in the final lines of Canto 16:  Halfway there, don’t abandon me now, Reader.

I’ll just point to two more things that I’ve thought about as I’ve mulled over this canto past its due date.  First, the landscape, or noticeable absence of definite landscape—we are presented, with the exception of the usurers (who are, however, unrecognizable), with a predominantly sonic atmosphere, the thunderous rush of the falling waters of Phlegethon.  And then, in canto 16, we have “the murky air.”  It’s worth considering that Geryon, the personification of the poetic enterprise, emerges from an abstract abyss, from “sound and fury” or, as Pinsky has translated, “sheer air” which resonates with Elijah’s theophany of God in the sheer silence.  One can’t miss the psychic parallel, the connections with the poet’s unconscious.  The poet is a like the diver who releases an anchor from deep shoals and shoots back up to the surface.

Second, I think of Virgil’s work in this canto.  It is significant that he’s the one who parleys with Geryon while Dante observes the usurers.  Virgil has already won for himself lunga grazia, has already penned his epics to lasting favor.  He is Helios, the one secure in his ability to take the reins.  Furthermore, he is a safeguard, and perhaps here we have Dante, by placing Virgil where he does on the back of Geryon, representing his own self-consciousness of including the character of Virgil in his commedia: he is a buffer between the poet and the scorpion tail of the fraudulent art.


Midway through our journey, we find ourselves stuck. Dante and Virgil need to figure out how to get to the “next level” (in this case, down to it).

I’m crafting a brief reflection to mark the halfway point in the poem–this most eerie episode when Dante must ride the monster of fraud, even as our Jake Willard-Crist rides the steel beast back from Chicago (and will post his offering – the official post for this day – after he’s settled back in).

This episode in the poem has always been most fascinating for me. In Gil Bailie’s lectures on Inferno – listened to about nine years ago, and they have always been a huge influence on me – he points out that this midway meeting with Geryon, the monster of fraud, has to do with the poetic enterprise itself. Is this Dante wrestling with his art, the “vehicle” through which he has attained fame, but the vehicle through which he is aiming at truth itself? Virgil “rousing” that beast that makes the next step possible takes some prodding, some negotiating.

What Dante is doing, we must remember, is theology-in-poetry, that which aims at the highest truth. Can one ride the monster of fraud (which has an honest man’s face) toward the the angelic realm? Can lies lead to truth? Can fiction bring true knowledge? And perhaps more to the whole artistic enterprise: how do you muster the strength to go on when you realize that the enterprise itself (Dante’s fiction) is itself a fraud?

I have attempted in my life five novels. It’s at this point (half way) where I always seem to run out of steam. Is that where Dante is as well, in his writing enterprise? Realizing the fraud of the whole thing? Some other force – in this case, a beast with a poison tail – needs to give you a lift. So to speak.

Jake – look forward to what you have to say.


Suite 16

Pier Kooistra

Canto XVI isn’t the place to go for action. There are fireworks—alas!—but not in the big-scene, heavy-drama sense. The fireworks in this section of the seventh circle are grotesquely ho-hum. They are emblematic of the oh-by-the-way, this-is-just-what-we-do-here ruthlessness with which Hell tortures its inmates, with which it visits miseries innumerable and unrelenting on the pitiable—but determinedly unpitied—souls condemned there.  And that, at least to me, is why and how the canto matters. It’s not a thriller. It doesn’t make the trailer when Inferno: The Movie gets a Hollywood marketing push. Canto xvi (“Suite 16,” as I’ve come to think of it) is one of those interstitial spaces in which, for just a second or two, when the cars have stopped squealing and the guns have quieted, one gets to think a little bit about what’s happened so far, and what it means.

What’s happened here, though modest, has significant implications.

WHAT HAS happened here? First, Dante has shared an encounter with Guidoguerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Jacopo Rusticucci, all stars in the political-social firmament of thirteenth-century Florence.  Then, afterward, Dante gives up to his “master” the cord securing his clothes and watches as Virgil drops it “into the depth of the abyss” (l. 98).


Though GG, TA and JR have been sentenced for heinous crimes to one of the grimmest precincts of Hell, Dante responds to them with an interesting combination of deference, sympathy and patriotic fellow-feeling. Dante et al talk about how they love Florence but wish their dear city hadn’t been degraded by such degenerate interlopers as Guglielmo Borsiere, who, ostensibly, has coarsened the culture of the place with an undue emphasis on money.

But, of course, Dante’s interlocutors are not blameless. They are in the seventh circle for “sodomy,” for various perversions of humane living. Guidoguerra and Tegghiaio, for example, have put tremendous energy into fomenting among their Guelph partisans a war against their Ghibeline fellow Florentines.

In a way, Dante’s reaching out to these Florentine shades is understandable, even commendable.  He isn’t above extending himself to these sorrowful souls. Then again, he IS NOT ABOVE extending himself in a way that constitutes chummy intercourse with hardened characters who look past their own scheming and murdering to lay blame for the compromised ethos of their society at others’ feet. The mental coordinates from which Dante talks with these figures suggest that his moral-ethical framework is too Earth-bound, too world-shaped—in fact, that he’s not working from a moral-ethical framework at all but from, fundamentally, a social-political one instead. (Just like me. Just like so many of us. Except that in my case the frame of the moment is more social-familial, as opposed to social-humanitarian. I’m in Vail, skiing. Great fun. But in a way I’m forced to reckon with what it means to indulge in “a vacation.” I’m hanging with my people. Making runs down the mountain. Sharing chats with Guidoguerra and Jacopo Rusticucci. I’m not in Haiti. I have left that possibility—that necessity—vacant.)

So, it’s a good thing that Virgil has dropped Dante’s cord into the abyss. Who will drop mine—and lay me (and my habits and priorities) bare? Time to go deeper. Onward. Further into Hell. My own Hell. And yours. In search of salvation.

Canto 15 Can we make ourselves eternal?

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In this canto, Dante encounters his former teacher Brunetto Latini. In the touching conversation between former teacher and former student, Dante recalls “…It was you who showed the way man makes himself eternal…” There is great irony in this statement. Dante’s teacher does live eternally, but in hell. It is hard to tell whether Dante places him there for his teaching of hubris or for his homosexuality (the major encoded theme of this canto). For the sake of  conversation, I suggest we go down the hubris track.

The biblical allusions involved in human beings attempting to make themselves eternal go all the way back to the Tower of Babel and to the Garden of Eden in the first chapters of Genesis. The human endeavor to make ourselves eternal always ends badly. This tragic impulse brought about the Fall. It also brought about divine wrath which destroyed the first ziggurut and the confusion of languages (or the condemnation to perpetual misunderstanding). With a little help from John Calvin and Karl Barth, we can even say that all “religion” – inasmuch as it is a thoroughly human attempt to make ourselves eternal – can be accounted for in relation to the tragic impulse to stave off the inevitability of death.

Why stop with “religion”? It does not take much analytical insight to see that much of what we occupy ourselves with in culture involves the attempt to make ourselves eternal. I would certainly include acquiring wealth and expensive symbols (cars, homes, clothing, jewelry, exclusive memberships, and the like) in the category of attempting to make ourselves eternal. Certainly, the twin American obsessions with youth and sexual gratification begin to make sense as tragic grasps at eternal life. After a while, it becomes easier to list the aspects of life and culture that are not about the quixotic quest to make ourselves eternal. Even the key strategy for a certain American political party revolves around the twin strategy of activating the fear of death and then promising a perpetual extension of life if elected (Oh, yes. I just went there).

My vocation has taken me into the realm of higher education. The quest to make oneself eternal through scholarship (especially publication) is alive and well in academia. We academics want to make a name for ourselves. We want to make a difference through our publications and our teaching. We are not immune from the same sin as Dante’s teacher: attempting to make ourselves eternal through our scholarly endeavors.

Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Dante. He would teach us that there is something higher and more reliable than attempting to make ourselves eternal. He seems to say to us that we cannot save ourselves. The attempt to do so may well be the height of selfishness or self-assertion. Instead, we are called to let God save us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only the free gift of God on Good Friday and Easter can make us eternal. The truth of our existence is that we cannot save ourselves nor can we make ourselves eternal; salvation and eternal life comes to us as a gift  from Another. Once we see the truth about misguided attempts at auto-salvation and have ears to hear the Good News of the Gospel that comes to us from outside (extra nos), we can begin to reorder our lives according to the gracious and life-giving will of God. We can cease to live tragically for ourselves and begin to live creatively for God and others.

Dante’s encounter with his former teacher seems to be a perfect Lenten moment. It brings into bold relief the sad irony involved in our multifaceted attempts to save ourselves and it points us to the higher truth of the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, whose body was broken and whose blood was spilled for us and for our salvation.