Abandon All Hope
No Locked Gate
Upon first reading this canto many, many years ago I was confused that there were no locks to Hell. I’d heard, of course, that Peter had been given the keys to Heaven, hence the golden gate to Paradise was locked. Not so for the Inferno. Wide open. It seemed almost inviting. But, were not people FORCED to go to Hell? Would they not WANT to flee out the wide open gate? Here we have the first of several opportunities to visit the reasons for the ontology of this reality: why was Hell created in the first place? Regardless of what Rob Bell writes in “Love Wins” or others presume is the reason for Hell, Dante seems to be fierce in his assertion that free will and the right exercise of ‘intellect’ decides one’s place in this life and the afterlife, hence there must be a place for those who want no part of the divine presence or reality.
In point of fact, we also have several places where Dante the Pilgrim must intentionally choose to step into a place of uncertainty and fear, crossing a threshold with absolute trust in his particular guide, despite all appearances to the contrary that all will be well. It would be a good study, if one so chooses, to mark the places where Dante the Pilgrim must cross a new threshold, or find a way further along the journey and to see how many times he must trust another. It rankles some, at times, to see in fact how there is a balance between Dante’s choices and Dante’s letting go of control. Perhaps, then, that is the road to holy wisdom, knowing when to choose and knowing when to trust, knowing when to walk and knowing when to be carried.
The Danger of NOT Choosing
Indeed, there is wonderful counterbalance in this Canto of what one should let go and when one should fiercely take a stand. In line 9 we have that famous line on the Gate of Hell:
9 ABANDON ALL HOPE,
9 Lasciate ogne speranza,
In the Italian, if your version has that option, one can see that speranza is to be completely cast off. No hope. And at the same time, Dante is told a few lines later to also abandon something:
14 ‘Here you must banish all distrust,
14 ‘lasciare ogne sospetto,
One must know when to let go, and when to “let God” so to speak. And we are given a perfect example of those who never stood firm, of those who were afraid to take a stand, and who were afraid to trust one leader and follow that path to the death. Dante the Pilgrim comes upon the massive crowds, both angels and humanity, who never took a stand for or against anything. And so they are blown about by every wind of chance, following any flag that flies in the wind. They go back and forth, despised by both Heaven and Hell.
I want to mention just briefly the fact that we will come across scenes such as this throughout the Commedia: the very geography and landscape reflects the theological and moral reality that is being addressed. Dante is not simply about finding new and inventive ways to gross people out with tortures in Hell or shock people in Purgatory or mystify readers in Paradiso. That truth which Dante the Pilgrim is required to learn in a certain circle is reflected in the actions and accidents of the geography he witnesses. We will speak more of this as we journey with him.
Fear Turned to Longing
We return to the absence of locks at the entrance of Hell. People seem almost eager to cross the river Acheron.
121 'My son,' said the courteous master,
122 'all those who die in the wrath of God
123 assemble here from every land.
124 'And they are eager to cross the river,
125 for the justice of God so spurs them on
126 their very fear is turned to longing.
Perhaps another way to express this is as follows: that to which we give all our energy, time, intelligence and power is that which begins to form our very being. To spend our life in accumulating power or trying to win some perceived competition or nursing past betrayals or injuries means that, in fact, we BECOME that very reality toward which we strove our entire lives. If our world is narrowed down to a self-referent neutron star that gathers only that which feeds our self, then we simply become a black hole, out of which no light shines. Dante the Pilgrim will discover, through his walk through this moral landscape, indeed how who the denizens of Hell were in life has determined what they have become… in the afterlife.