Not only has your age been graced with many gifts and talents; you have been showered with a wealth of instruments and opportunities for the doing of good. Nevertheless, in the midst of plenty, you continue to bury them under the ground rather than invest them in and for God’s Kingdom. You must relearn what you have so conveniently forgotten: that we are not our own but were bought at a price.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Dante: On Gifts

As Virgil and I made our way through upper hell, I was reminded again and again of the parable of the talents. I’m sure you know it. It begins when a master calls his three chief stewards to his side and shares with them his plans to leave immediately on a long journey to a distant land.

Before leaving, he takes seven talents and distributes them among his stewards: to the first he gives five talents, to the second two, to the third one. After many years, the master returns unannounced and calls upon his stewards to give an account of how they have used the money he entrusted to them. The first two stewards are commended by their master, for, in his absence, they had taken their talents and doubled their value.

But not the third. Rather than make use of the talent he had been given, he had buried it in the ground to keep it safe. When the master learns this, he does not commend him for being careful and prudent but condemns him for being a wicked and lazy servant who wasted away the gifts that had been placed in his care.

Oh, my friends, I cannot tell you how sad a place hell is. So much waste, so much apathy, so many lost opportunities. Like the prodigal son, the incontinent sinners had squandered their inheritance—but none of them had returned to confess their guilt and seek forgiveness. Instead they fritted away the light they had been given on lust or gluttony, on avarice or riotous living, on immoderate rage or intemperate sloth.

Not only have you as individuals been graced with a multitude of gifts and talents; your age has been showered with a wealth of instruments and opportunities for the doing of good. Nevertheless, in the midst of plenty, you continue to waste away your gifts, burying them under the ground rather than investing them in and for God’s Kingdom.

Part of the problem is that your age, unlike my own, does not recognize that the gifts are gifts, that you were given them, not to satisfy your own desires, but to serve God and your fellow man. You lack gratitude, preferring to ascribe your talents to impersonal nature rather than the personal God who created nature. This error has made you bitter, cynical, and thankless. You no longer think of yourselves as stewards guarding a sacred trust, but as spoiled children of privilege to whom a life of pleasure is somehow owed.

You must relearn what you have so conveniently forgotten: that we are not our own but were bought at a price; that every good and perfect gift comes from above; that it is the Lord, not we, who gives and takes away; that to those who have more will be given while from those who do not have even what they have will be taken away.

These are sobering words for an age that thinks itself entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but you must hear them, or you will end up like the sinners I saw in upper hell: blown about ceaselessly by the winds of lust; fed upon ravenously by a gluttonous three-headed dog; locked in a sick and futile wrestling match between those who hoard and those who waste; thrashing about in a swamp or fixed forever in its slime.

Learn now, before it is too late, to acknowledge the divine source of your gifts, to be thankful for those you have been given, and to make full and fruitful use of them.

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If only I could end my letter here with that admonishment to use your gifts. Alas, not all who use their gifts use them wisely or well. It is a terrible thing to waste away the light that was given you, but it is a far worse thing to use that light for the purposes of darkness. So I learned first hand as I moved downward from the sins of incontinence to those of violence and fraud.

Whereas upper hell lodges those who buried their gifts in the ground, lower hell is reserved for those who twisted the gifts that were given them and used them for evil. If the former sinners inspired in me feelings of sadness, the latter inspired rage and fear: rage at those who corrupted what they should have used for good; fear that I might do the same with the gifts that were given me.

Three sinners in particular I met who held up the mirror to my own aspirations . . . and temptations. They offered me both a glimpse of my own potential, and a warning of what I could become if I sought to achieve that potential in a way that violated God’s nature and his law.

The first was the noble aristocratic Farinata. Though he had been a member of a rival faction, he had performed a heroic deed that saved my beloved Florence from ruin. When I met him in the circle of the heretics—for he was one who denied the resurrection of the dead—he seemed to hold all hell in disrespect. He would not even speak to me until I assured him that my family was of sufficient rank to merit his condescension. His glance and his stature and his words were measured and dignified, but all this was belied by his eternal state: a naked soul stuffed into a burning coffin with a thousand other souls who shared his sin of heresy.

The second, Ser Brunetto, was a poet whom I looked to as my model and my teacher. But the glory that should have been his was dwindled by his enslavement to sodomy, leaving him to run naked across a barren plain of burning sand.

The third, Ulysses, had used his great rhetorical skills to seduce his men into accompanying him on one last voyage of discovery. The voyage took him, along with his crew, to the base of mount purgatory, but that was as far as his pride, unassisted by divine grace, could take him. A squall rose and sank the ship, dragging Ulysses down into the circle of the evil counselors where he dwells forever encased in a tongue of flame.

Even now my friends, some two decades after my infernal pilgrimage, I have to remind myself daily that Farinata and Ser Brunetto and Ulysses were not as brave and self-sacrificing as they appeared to me to be. They had violated the gifts given them by God and chosen to be guided by their defining sins rather than by God’s Spirit.

Beware, my friends, that you too do not discover, too late, that you have transformed your gift into a curse.

—Dante

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Parable of the Talents” (2013) by A.M Mironov (1975-present), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. The image has been slightly modified for coloration.

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