Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hell's Vestibule

In our largely secular culture you don't hear words like heaven or hell or sin very often. For as long as I can remember I’ve thought of heaven and hell as inner states, not literal places. When I was seventeen I wrote in my diary that I thought sin was that which came between me and my sense of a living loving presence (God) that was larger than but always with(in) me. I could pretty much stand by this today. I didn't know then that the origin of the word sin meant "to miss the mark" but I think I was intuiting a meaning that was in alignment with this etymology.

I’m thinking a lot about hell these days because I am studying Dante’s 14th century epic poem The Divine Comedy. It begins, with Inferno which chronicles a pilgrim’s journey into hell (to be followed by Purgatory and Paradise.) Part of the fun (yes, I am taking the U of Toronto course for fun) is allowing this allegorical poem to stir the pot of reflection.

I studied this poem thirty-five years ago. Rereading it recently, I remembered that it started with the pilgrim in the proverbial “dark wood” midway through his life. Not sure what I thought the “dark woods” was when I was twenty but now, being mid-way through adult life, I am all too familiar with confusing times when “the way” seems lost. I also remembered Dante’s depiction of various circles of hell where each sin brought its own corresponding punishment.

But I had forgotten what the pilgrim encounters at the gates to hell. There, in hell’s vestibule, he sees a group of souls who are considered the most wretched. These are the souls of those who are barred from heaven and will not be admitted to hell- those “who had never truly lived,” those who have been “neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God.” These souls are doomed to forever be stung by wasps while running behind a banner that moves in circles.

Now Dante’s Inferno has no shortage of suffering, but what struck me is that the souls of those who never really committed to living life fully- are considered the "most wretched." Even in the world of 14th century Christianity (where all sins were listed and punishable with terrible suffering) the worst thing you could do was to stand for nothing, to refuse to commit to your own choices in life, to fail to live your life fully. It reminded me of Mary Oliver's poem “When Death Comes.” In the last stanza she writes:

When it’s over I don’t want to wonder if I have
made of my life
something particular and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened and full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

When I read Dante’s poem this time, my breath caught at his description of those in hell’s vestibule. I suspect that when I read it at twenty, failing to live fully was unthinkable. With the clarity and energy of youth I was full of hopes and dreams and resolve. I did not know how life can sometimes wear you out, how you can watch your dreams dissolve or be buried beneath practical considerations that seem imperative. My breath caught because I know now how hard it is to get up every day and commit to living fully present with whatever the day brings, because I live in a culture where spiritual materialism and ego idolytry, addictive consumerism and religious fundamentalism (including New Age fundamentalism) continually whisper, “Go back to sleep,” to a population running on too much caffeine and too little poetry.

Even in a time and from a perspective of strict religious rules, Dante was able to see that the larger crime would be to turn away from life, to refuse the gift and the challenge of human existence. So, knowing we will make mistakes, knowing we will at times make bad choices that cause suffering, knowing we will often “miss the mark” when aiming to live at the divine center, knowing all of this- we are urged to choose life anyway, to be as Mary Oliver writes in the same poem a “ bride married to amazement,” and a “ bridegroom taking the world into my arms.” Amen!


  1. Thoughtful and provoking words, I too have at times found myself "lost in the woods" as Dante would say. But I always try to return to the Present.

  2. I loved your comment about people who are asleep...

    ... I've often thought that the greater population of the world are sleepwalkers. How else can we account for what is and has happened among us as a species and what we do to each other. Sometimes I feel like grabbing them by the throat and shaking them awake, but I refrain (sigh - just one?).... and hope they will awaken in their own time.

    ... I keep the door open for them but seek out others who are awake; people who move my spirit, who inspire me, who challenge me, and who love me - no matter what... my time is too precious to do otherwise

  3. "how life can sometimes wear you out, how you can watch your dreams dissolve or be buried beneath practical considerations that seem imperative."
    - and I would add - When not even chocolate helps.

    Thank you for your reminder that, even if only one day at a time, the success is in the doing; in the choosing to live.

  4. Miraflores- well sometimes that's where you are in the Present: lost in a dark wood. :-) Oriah

  5. gratitude.

    that is all i can offer tonight.



  6. Even in the world of 14th century Christianity ... the worst thing you could do was to stand for nothing, to refuse to commit to your own choices in life, to fail to live your life fully.

    For all the advancements we've made since the 14th century we have progressed so little. Our lives may be better but we don't seem to be living better lives if we are still asking this question of what it means to be ourselves and live life fully.

    I wonder if living fully is the last major hurdle to our next turn of conscious evolution or is this struggle just part of being human.

    The pot of reflection was well stirred.

  7. Lorraine, I suspect it is just part of learning to live a human life when we have a certain level of priviledge. By this, I mean that if you are worried about what you or your children will eat today, or whether or not falling bombs will hit your home, I'm guessing that you don't worry too much about living life fully- because survival takes all you've got. For those of us able to live without immediate life and death concerns we have both the challenge and the blessing of choice about how much of ourselves we bring to our moments.

  8. I am most intrigued that 700 years have passed since Dante lived and yet the same questions about living fully have not been answered on the path to self actualization (using Maslow's terminology). Science and technology have advanced a thousand-fold yet have we made that much progress when it comes to ourselves.

    The thought strangely comes to mind that maybe until survival is a topic for the history books we won't be able to stop searching for a life fulfilled. We are somehow holding ourselves back from living fully as the norm, not something to be attained.

  9. Lorraine,I suspect it is the other way around- that once our basic survival is not a daily or immeditate concern (as it is not for most of us in the west) then we can turn our attention to questions of meaning and purpose. I think that's what wondering what about a fully lived life is about- meaning and purpose. Just a thought :-)

  10. I think we are saying the same thing. I've often called it moving from survival to thrivival (as a play on thriving).

    And of course my ever curiously questioning mind turns to the question of why we haven't as a species overcome survival for all (or the vast majority). I suppose what appears as a long time as millenia and centuries really is a blink of an eye. Patience.

    Excellent topic for introspection.

  11. I am currently dealing with so many things at this point in my life and came across the name of your poem, The Dance, on a cancer survior web site. I Googled it and read your words. It truly touched me at this difficult point in my life. I shared it with my husband and kids in an attempt to put things right. My son decided to move to Europe while getting his Doctorate and this has caused some disconnecion issues in our family. He has finished his studies and has decided to stay there and work. I think that the words helped to bring some empathy and understanding to my son. He is not the most emotional human being, much like I was before life humbled me. I don't want him to have to be humbled in order to recognize and understand his own humanity. We will be going to Zurich for the holidays and the second that I see him, I plan reach out my hands and dance with him.
    Thank you so much for your beautiful and timely words, you spoke to his soul and gave him understanding without pain.
    Catherine Post