Between Heaven and Hell Sermon No 2

Professor Robin Kirkpatrick


The theme that the Chaplain has devised for the addresses this term, is, to my mind, an especially troubling one. ‘Between Heaven and Hell’:  the very word ‘between’ is disconcerting – carrying the suggestion that our lives are lived in dangling uncertainty between the extremes of misery and beatitude.  More troubling still, tonight’s reading from scripture provides no easy consolation or guide as to how we ‘in-betweeners’ should orient ourselves. Proverbs speaks of fear and awe as the beginning of wisdom and launches a satirical attack on ‘Lady Stupidity’, that flirtatious being who distracts so many minds from the awful awareness of ultimate realities – of our fragility and certain death – and seduces the academic mind, in particular, into thinking that its own little research field is the be-all and end-all of truth.  It is possible, perhaps, to wring some comfort (and I shall try) from psalm16 – the Psalms being the songs of those still waiting in the dark. But this cannot erase the terrifyingly unambiguous revelation of judgement that is offered by St Matthew.   All too easily, we  think of Judgement as an excitingly dramatic – if vaguely distant -  scenario.  That seems, largely, to be the spirit in which Michelangelo painted his grandiose fresco in the Sistine Chapel. And a musical equivalent might be the Dies Irae of Verdi’s Requiem. These are both thrilling works of art, but also, I suggest, rather bad theology. Judgement, as St Matthew conceives it, is not remotely arty or something we can chat about in a seminar. It is happening here and now, in Cambridge, in the streets we pedal through, in every face we encounter. The one criterion is that we should respond to every instance that we meet of poverty, pain and violence. Those who recognise in others the signs of our human need for life are saved; they become all one with that divine love that created life in the first place. Those who turn away – who turn away from life as life now is – will themselves be turned away.

Now, it is not my job – thank heaven – to work through the implications of St Matthew’s inescapable words. That, I take it, is what priests are here to do, supported, of course, by all the resources of the Church: by vocation,  communal prayer,  liturgy, tradition and even  by biblical scholarship.  But I shall want to hold up to question  - to judgement, even –  a work which, flirtatiously, has attracted my own academic attention over many decades and might, indeed be said, to have invented our modern idea of Heaven and Hell.  I’m referring to Dante’s Commedia.  Michelangelo read Dante with the utmost admiration, and so did Verdi. But Dante’s influence doesn’t end there.  Brad Pitt, for instance, makes a movie called 7 and thinks he is referring to the punishments that Dante devises for the Seven Deadly Sins.. And when your favourite uncle sets the summer barbecue on fire, he is quite likely to say: ‘Phew: it was just like Dante’s Inferno!’

Now, leaving Michelangelo and Verdi aside, neither Brad Pitt nor your favourite uncle really get Dante right.  Look at the back page of the handout, and you’ll see that the Inferno has surprisingly little to say about the seven deadlies.  Then look at the first page, and you’ll see that ice not fire is the ultimate condition of damnation. I’ll try to say why this should be in a moment. But there is a worse mistake still. And this is to presume that Dante were himself as obsessed by Hell as our over-heated imaginations so often suppose he was. Evidence of that lurid misapprehension could be drawn from sale-statistics. Every year, tens of thousands of copies of the Commedia are sold – not only in Tunbridge Wells but also in Turkey, Iraq and Bangladesh.   Yet sales of the Inferno out-pace the Paradiso and Purgatorio at least three to one (at least in Tunbridge Wells) . And this, I think, is an indication of an awful error which we all commit whenever we say, with a knowing smirk: ‘Ah.  The devil has all the best tunes.’  Dante would say exactly the opposite, and indeed our fascination with Hell would seem to him the first step in our own descent into the abyss.

Think for a moment of Paradise as Dante depicts it. Now the crucial thing really is that Dante does not pretend  that his poem is a picture of what Heaven actually will be like.  It is all too easy to suppose that we shall find in his poem a holiday video of some idyllic destination – angels surfing the celestial foam while saints sip endlessly at delectable pinacoladas, their earphones tuned eternally to Classic FM, immortally mellow. A pleasing dream but ultimately as tedious as other people’s holiday snaps (and Classic FM) must always be.  Yet the Paradiso is not like that. In two senses, rather, it is an invitation to get real.

In reality, as Dante insists, neither he nor any one else can represent what God in his Heaven is actually  like. In that sense he admits, like Proverbs, that awe in the face of the unknown is the beginning of Wisdom.  But mystery need not be only a restriction. It can also be an attraction, an impulse to exploration, a source of wonder and enlargement. And the Paradiso at every point responds to that attraction. Get real:  no human being really wants to live with evil.  We might occasionally relish a disaster movie, or, munching our cultural pop-corn, enjoy the witchcraft of, say, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But no one in their right, human mind would want to live under Macbeth’s regime – or Hitler’s or Pol Pot’s.  Just look instead, as the Paradiso does, at the mysterious evidence of goodness in the created order.  Even if we don’t know where it all comes from or where it is going, it is there: in the beauty of things and of persons, in the cadence of a voice, in the swish of your lover’s hair and above all in the virtue of human achievement, in the skills and sheer brilliance that we all, at heart, want to celebrate.

And that is what the Paradiso does. This is not some soft-focus reminiscence of an avuncular God-trip, but rather a constantly evolving meditation on the mystery of goodness and love, an act of praise to the glory of creation, unremittingly attentive to the details of the created world in all its variety.  For Dante, goodness is not some pale principle of nice, neat conformity.  It is the energy that is generated when our eyes discern and recognise the beauty of particular things and particular persons. On this understanding, it is entirely rational (as it might also be for Richard Dawkins) to want the things we applaud to go on  existing –  evolving before us – for ever. But that is why, for Dante, faith, hope and caritas are also reasonable, which is to say essentially human, attributes:  faith carries with it the unshakeable belief that things and persons do matter; hope demands that they always should matter; and it is love that leads us to participate in the existence of all good things.

This, then, is what you’ll be missing if you purchase only the Inferno.   Actually, one shouldn’t miss this, even in the Inferno – unless one is drugged by a narcotic predilection for naughtiness. Properly understood, Hell, for Dante, is the wilful negation of all the possibilities that he contemplates in the Paradiso.  That is why ‘ice’ is the final manifestation of what Hell amounts to, and also why treachery is, for Dante, the worst of all sins. Ice is the extinction of any possibility of renewal, alteration, surprise and variety.  Treachery, likewise, is the destruction of all the bonds of trust and productive relationship, an attempt to control other people and manipulate to our own ends their essential, and God-given ‘otherness’. Sartre famously declares that ‘Hell is other people’. This, in Dante’s perspective, is an utterly stupid thing to say.   Where Paradise is an absolute openness to the mystery that other beings exist at all, Hell is, for Dante, to be frozen into one’s own boring ego, utterly unresponsive to the need, or newness –  or otherness –  that displays itself in every breath of creation, .  It follows that Satan, as Dante imagines him, is not some ‘ooh-aren’t-you-awful!’ embodiment of demonic iron-pumping. He is rather – as seen in the last canto of the Inferno – a massive but ridiculous machine, flapping his once-angelic wings with the sole purpose, now, of refrigerating the lower circles of Hell.

Conclusions of this order are, in theological terms, consistent with the realisation, developed since the time of St Augustine, that evil is not some power diametrically opposed to goodness but rather an absolute negation, emptiness and lack of vitality. That, however, is not the end of the matter. We still have to confront that perverse human inclination – registered in the shock-horror of Michelangelo’s last judgement, as also in any tabloid slavering over ‘celebrities-without-their-make-up’ –  to be hallucinated by the supposed reality of violence, cruelty and ugliness, moral and otherwise.  It is as if the human mind needed Hell and certainly was capable of creating it without any help at all from God. And that dreadful thought is certainly registered in Dante’s Inferno.  There is very little God in this part of the Commedia.  Judgement here is seen as the logical consequence of human actions, which, left to themselves, will contradict and ruin the potentialities that, mysteriously, all human beings possess and were created to enjoy.

But in pursuing this understanding Dante also displays, self-critically, the extent to which his own mind can become complicit with a perverse appetite for the infernal.  His imagination can produce scenes of nauseous, squelchy horror far worse than anything in The Exorcist One, Two or even Three. I will spare you the detail – but am referring here to Inferno Canto 25. Worse still, however, is the sense that, in trying to anticipate Divine Judgement, Reason – for which Dante has a very high regard – can itself become obsessed to the point of self-destruction with the analysis and diagnosis of moral failings. If you scrutinise the map of Hell, you’ll look in vain for many of the Seven Deadly Sins.  (That’s was Brad Pitt’s mistake – and actually there are as many adulterers in Purgatory and Paradise as there are in Hell.).)  You will, however, find there a scheme derived from pre-Christian philosophers, such as Aristotle and Cicero, invoked to provide a taxonomy of all our possible failings and degeneracies. Significantly, as you go down the sliding scale, the worst sins of all are those where reason – and rational discourse – turn against themselves in acts of deception and cleverly excogitated fraud – which is why for Dante, flattery – a wily art –  is so much worse than red-blooded fornication.

Yet Dante is also agonisingly aware that his own language, his own skill in analysis, can itself become complicit in propagating a destructive delusion.  At one point (illustrated on the hand out, page one) he shows himself tearing the hair out of the frozen scalp of one of the traitors and, treacherous himself, refusing to honour a promise he has made to clear away the tears that congeal in the eye-sockets of these petrified sinners. Don’t traitors, after all, in simple justice, deserve such treatment?

Pursuing this line of interpretation, one would come to the conclusion that in Dante’s view the most intelligent of human judges can easily become a sadistic voyeur.  And there is a comic version of this terrible possibility, frequently played out by devoted readers of the Commedia.  It’s a kind of ethical Desert Island Discs:  what are your seven favourite vices, and how would you rank them?  Is lying worse than shop-lifting; is gambling worse than hypocrisy; is plagiarism worse (or better) than mean-spirited Tripos examining? (Ah yes!) And to what circle of Hell would you confine the traffic warden who has just now wheel-clamped your newly acquired Mercedes? It’s fascinating.  But there is also the serious question here – which, I take to be a seriously Christian question – of how one is ever to get out of this rational but infernal circle. St Paul in the Epistle to the Romans states the question very acutely when he painfully recognises that Law, though good in itself, can be taken over by Sin and become, in effect, a source of sin:  the very act of reckoning what is a sin is can degenerate into self-destructive fixation. For St Paul, the way out of that impasse is to acknowledge God as the transcendent source of all justice, and, equally, of all goodness:  we may tremble in the face of an infinite justice which no finite mind can encompass. But that trembling also shatters our own self-imposed paralysis. And then – through Christ and the Holy Spirit – faith, hope and charity will tell us that humanity was loved into existence by Original Goodness so that, despite its own inclination to self-destruction, it will always be sustained by that goodness in pursuit of an ultimate harmony.

 This, broadly, is Dante’s answer, too. But in developing his own version of it, he offers, I suggest,  a view of the true, real world, the ‘other’ world – the world of others – which has a particular relevance to ‘in-betweeners’ such as we are ourselves.  And to see this we need, in conclusion, to move to Purgatory, which is the middle realm in Dante’s narrative, transitional between the absolute non-existence of Hell and the unimaginable manifestation of life which the Paradiso seeks to explore. 

Now Purgatory has acquired rather a bad name, particularly among protestants – and with good reason. The late medieval Church was deeply guilty of perverting the idea of Purgatory – so that the buying and selling of pardons on behalf of the dear- departed, still languishing in the middle realm,  became a kind of papal protection-racket – which Luther rightly rumbled.  But Dante’s Purgatory offers a very different picture – and one which makes me, at least, recommend Purgatory as the best of destinations for any post-mortem holiday. I’m not alone in this recommendation. Strikingly, it is Dante’s Purgatorio which has attracted the attention of modern poets, most especially T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney and Samuel Beckett.  And each in his own fashion finds a way, with Dante in mind, of transforming our modern condition of anxious waiting, betwixt and between, into a positive mode of attention. Yes: we may be more comfortable nowadays with relativities than with absolutes. But as we wait, we can also watch, our eyes sharpening for any glint of goodness, any chance of bringing relativities into relationship. .

            So where and what is Dante’s Purgatory? Look at the hand-out and you will see that his Purgatory is an island-mountain located in the Southern Hemisphere, at the exact antipodes of Jerusalem.  And how did that Mountain get there?  Well:  when Satan fell from Heaven he hit the earth exactly at the eventual location of Jerusalem and, driving into the depths of the Southern Hemisphere, extruded the mass of earth which now forms Mount Purgatory. Oh yes! And on the top of this earthly mountain, God cultivated the Garden of Eden. 

Now if all of this were true, Purgatory would, I calculate, be somewhere around the Falkland Islands. And of course what we have in Dante’s poem is an exuberant piece of science-fiction. But the symbolism of it all is profoundly significant and profoundly hopeful.  In the first place, even the fall of Satan is seen here not as a miserably failed rebellion but as the means of creating the possibility of new, Edenic life.  And, likewise, Purgatory is a place where human beings are once again free to recover all those possibilities of human existence which, in our earthly lives, we ourselves have lost through our own complicity with the anti-life of evil.  We climb the mountain. That is a painful business – and it may take us many centuries. But we do so, on Dante’s account, not to transcend our human natures but to recognise our original goodness and recover a working grasp on what we were always meant to be.  So Dante’s Purgatory is a natural world, positioned in space and time. Which means, symbolically, that nature itself, for Dante, is good and glorious and, absolutely, worth working for – and working with. But above all his Purgatory is a place of human community, where persons intelligently listen to the life-stories of others. For the purpose of being in Dante’s Purgatory is not simply to refine – in some kind of spiritual health spa – our own personal virtue, but to acknowledge and recover that unity with all other human beings which God originally intended us to enjoy.  That unity is expressed and consolidated in prayer and praise.  We pray for the dead and praise their achievements. The dead pray for us and provide us with examples and encouragement. And, in all of this the fundamental demand that is made upon us is a demand not for judgement but for recognition – not pernickety discrimination (IIis, IIiis and spectacular IIIs) but an intelligent attention to our fellow inhabitants in this in-between world.

So how does Dante conduct himself in Purgatory?  We have seen him a moment ago tearing the hair out of the head of a traitor.  And pretty awful things happen in Purgatory, too. At one point Dante comes across a group of penitents who are slumped one against the other like beggars plying their trade on King’s Parade. And, horror of horrors, they are weeping through eyelids which have, temporarily, been sewn together with iron wires that pierce their cheeks.  (That, apparently, is a device from medieval falconry, intended to ensure that falcons were wholly dependent on their handlers.)  These penitents are the envious – and in envy our sin is to look at the good that others display and, so far from recognising or praising that good, desire to possess it for our own, private satisfaction. Envy could thus be diagnosed as a kind of depressive egotism, the utter denial of generosity. Yet in seeing these sinners – who are all confident, eventually, of reaching Paradise – Dante demands not just pity but also courtesy, generosity and above all recognition:  it is he says absolutely outrageous that he should be able to see these blind beggars when they cannot see him.  We are free – and fully human - when we can look each other in the eye and find delight in doing so. Dante’s Purgatory is, finally, the God-given opportunity to train ourselves in practising just that: eye-contact.

Now are we, I ask, so very far here from St Matthew’s Gospel? The Gospel, likewise, demands that, here and now in our present Purgatorial in-betweenness, we look the local beggar in the eye and recognise her or his divine reality.  As to what will happen to those goats who do not, I leave the Chaplain to explain. But the liturgy and readings he has organised this evening do stand as an encouragement to the sheep among us. The Psalm – written by David, who was, of course, a murderer and adulterer – speaks of a wisdom that we acquire in the night, in our dark, inward parts, in the midst of our sins. But the virtue of such wisdom is that it will lead us out of ourselves to recognise and praise the endless, illuminated glory of the created order. So, too, the concluding hymn:  ‘Glory to Thee My God this Night’.  This will be sung to the Tallis canon setting. And a canon is a kind of Dantean Purgatory. We sing but wait for others to join us in singing, attentive to the moment of our entry into the over-arching song.  And that song is endlessly self-generating.  As voice picks up on voice, the pattern could go on for ever. Let’s hope ….+

Between Heaven and Hell:  Sunday, May 13th 2012

Michelangelo The Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel, Vatican

Gustave Dore:  Inferno 32, where Dante encounters traitors frozen in ice at the bottom of  Hell