In our mortal lives, we can often hide the desiccated state of our souls from others; in the afterlife, we can no longer hide from others what we truly are inside. Let go of your rebelliousness and disobedience, my friends, before it is too late, before you find yourself circling the path of futility.

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 Sin

I warned you in an earlier letter that I would be writing to you about the woeful manner in which sin twists and disorders the human soul. It’s not a pleasant topic, sin, but it must be acknowledged and faced by every culture and by every generation.

In many ways, your age is more tolerant and merciful than my own, but you have lost something that the men of my day, even those who rejected the teachings of the Church, knew and felt in their bones. What you’ve lost is a clear sense of the nature and extent of human depravity, of that deep-set spiritual sickness that attends us from birth.

Sin is not simply another name for bad choices or erroneous judgments. It is also not the result of our personality type, which follows us from birth, or of our upbringing, which helps to shape our given character traits. Nor again is it a product of culture or environment or institutions.

Sin is a state of mind that stands in opposition to our Creator and his design and purpose for our lives and our world. Once it gets a foothold in our rebellious nature, it spreads like a cancer, killing all within us that is healthy, innocent, and spontaneous. Left untreated, sin distorts us into a parody of ourselves, a mockery of the noble creatures God intended us to be.

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Oh, my friends of the future, I saw it again and again as I made my way through the levels of the inferno. If it weren’t so sad, so tragic, it would almost be funny. Though the damned seemed blissfully unaware of it, the horrible things that sin has done to them were all too evident for anyone who gazed upon them.

Take the fortune tellers, those who had tried, through unnatural and unlawful means, to peer into the future. Their punishment was a perfect reflection of the nature of their sin. Though they seemed whole and unharmed from the neck down, their heads had been violently wrenched in the other direction, so that when they looked down upon themselves, they saw not their feet but their buttocks.

The sight was so pathetic, so mournful that it caused me to weep. Immediately, my master rebuked me for my tears, for it was, he explained, a most arrogant thing to feel sorrow for those whom God had justly judged. Virgil was right, of course, to rebuke me, and yet, my friends, you too would have wept and sighed had you seen those sinners circling endlessly along the path of their prison.

And then there were the schismatics, the sowers of discord, who had set one religion against another, citizens against their leaders, factions against rival factions. In the same way they had caused the body politic to be torn asunder, they themselves were split apart by a mighty devil wielding a merciless sword. With one swish of his scimitar, the angel lopped off their arm or leg or split them down the middle.

So torn into fragments, they made their way around a circular path. As they did so, hobbling and groaning in pain, their wounds healed and their body reassembled itself into its former unity. But their joy at the healing was short lived, for as they passed the devil, he once again ripped them open with his sword.

There in that gruesome ditch, I saw a thing whose horror remains with me still. A man whose body ended at his neck holding his severed head by the hair and swinging it before him like a lantern. He had been one who had set a father against his son, and he bore the nature of his terrible crime in the grisly state of his mangled body.

Some of you, no doubt, will try to dismiss what I have shared with you as nothing more than juvenile examples of punishment to fit the crime. But they are far more than that. The punishments I witnessed in my journey were, in reality, external embodiments of what sin does to the human soul. In our mortal lives, we can often hide the desiccated state of our souls from others; in the afterlife, we can no longer hide from others what we truly are inside.

Such was the case with the sodomites. As their sin resulted in utter barrenness, so they were forced to march naked along a desert of burning sand. As they made their way along the circular path, they were forbidden to pause even for a moment. If they did, they were made to lay prostrate on the fiery sand beside the blasphemers, whose rage against God led to an even greater barrenness of spirit.

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I do hope you noticed that in all three of the above examples, the sinners whose eternal states I witnessed were made to move perpetually in a circular motion. Such was the case for almost half the denizens of hell.

I trust that the significance of this will not be too hard to discern. Hell is not only a place of torment; it is a place of futility as well. The sinners I met learned nothing whatsoever from their punishments. They had become so set in their sinful ways that they had, quite literally, become their sins. There was, ultimately, no sinner there at all, just the sin going on and on forever.

Your age has done great and mighty things, but you have accepted too quickly and uncritically the belief that rebelliousness is by its very nature a positive, liberating act that sets us free to be more truly ourselves. Alas, as I learned first hand, the rebels in hell are all imprisoned in their own self-delusions. They think they have grown into fuller, richer versions of their former selves, when, in fact, they have lost their former selves and become living embodiments of the sin which they chose to honor and serve over God.

If you are not careful, citizens of the twenty-first century, that insidious process will begin even now while you live and breathe upon the earth. Even if you haven’t noticed it in your own face, you’ve all seen it in the face of a self-righteous, self-absorbed man or woman in his fifties or sixties. Slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the pride or greed or selfishness starts to engrave itself upon the color of the eye or the curve of the lip or the wrinkle in the brow.

Let go of your rebelliousness and disobedience, my friends, before it is too late, before you too find yourself circling the path of futility. There is still time to change, but it will not last forever.

—Dante

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Barque of Dante” (1822) by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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