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!
Oriah Mountain Dreamer (c) 2010