The first Circle of Hell is Limbo, and we are way beyond the ken of my Southern Baptist/Pentecostal/Assemblies of God upbringing. The Protestant denominations I’m familiar with don’t have things like Limbo or Purgatory, which isn’t to say that they were somehow kinder or less stringent in their Damnation Dogma. All Christian denominations, as far as I can tell, have Terror as their destination*; they just all have their own road maps on how to get there. Some take you through a lake of fire and utter loneliness before hanging a right at despair; others take the Interstate through Tennessee.

[* “But what about Unitarians? They’re a Christian denomination, and they don’t have this obsession with Hell.” Unitarians aren’t Christians. Oh, they want you to think they are so that they can muddy up the debate. Zach and I went to a Unitarian Christmas Eve service which did little but baffle me. Unitarians are that one friend you hate to go out to eat with, because he wants to special-order everything, and asks for complicated stuff “on the side,” and then changes his order ten minutes after the waiter left. Unitarians want to keep the training wheels of religious belief on their overloaded tricycle of philosophy — not noticing that the rest of us let go of their tricycle several blocks back and, dude, it’s a tricycle. Also: grow a pair and go atheist or grow a pair and go Christian but mostly just go. But I digress.]

When my brother and I were younger, my mom sent us every Sunday to the Assemblies of God. We weren’t particularly religious, so I’m pretty sure mom was just looking for free childcare one day a week. The story I remember the most is the time we learned about the Parable of the Talents. A rich man, preparing to leave home on a trip, divides talents among his three servants. To the first, he gives five; to the second, he gives two; and to the third, he gives one. It’s not clear why he likes the first servant more than the second, and the second more than the third*, but then again this is a story from a man obsessed with mustard seeds and who smites fig trees any chance he gets. Anyway, he leaves on his trip, and when he returns, he asks what the three servants have done with his money.

[* The story also shows up in Luke, with some slight modifications. For instance, the man leaves ten talents — or minas in Luke — with ten servants; and at one point some of the servants send a delegation after the rich man to tell him that they weren’t interested in his becoming king. The rest of the story plays out similarly to the way the Matthew version does. However, the Luke version ends with the awesome “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.”]

The parable itself doesn’t include a scene where the rich man, on his way out the door, says, “Guys, do something with these.” So it continues to confound me each time I reach it that the guy would come home and expect his three servants to be wearing those green-tinted bankers’ visors. Anyway, the first servant doubled his five talents to ten and the second his two talents to four. Much impressed, the rich man says, “Great! I’ll give you more responsibility and you’re now my favorites.”

And that third servant? The one who was only given one talent? What about him? Well, he returns the one talent to his boss — the one talent that didn’t belong to the servant in the first place; the one talent that was owned by someone else; and, since we’re in between two dashes here, I just want to say that investing money is a gamble, and depends on someone else’s hard work, not your own, and the first two servants really did squat in this story except hoof it down to the bank and make a deposit and what if their investment tanked or what if the tent bubble burst due to speculation and those talents invested in the bank for interest returned no earnings and that rich guy came home with only the one talent carefully saved by the third servant? Didn’t think about that, did you dickhole — and says, “I kept this safe by burying it. You’re a hard man, and you seek to harvest where you have not sown; and you seek to gather where you have not scattered seed.” And the rich man calls this servant wicked and lazy. The talent is taken from the third servant, given to the first, and then is cast out into “outer darkness.”*

[* Here’s the thing about Prosperity Theology — it’s as valid as any other theology in the Bible. This parable of Jesus’ seems to suggest that to those that have a lot already, more will be given. To those who don’t have a lot, a lot will be taken from them. And one can read all of that metaphorically, sure, geh, gezunt a heit. But in a pissing contest over whose idea is the most crazy, there’s still the fact that everyone ends up covered in pee.]

Now, this story was told to us in Sunday School through the magic of puppetry. This story was also told to us without explaining that a talent is a unit of currency. What we knew of talents were things like running fast in brand new shoes or backwards skating or drawing convincing spaceship explosions. And Joe Bevel, my brother, didn’t consider himself a very talented kid. Other kids didn’t consider Joe Bevel a talented kid, either: he was made fun of for his stutter and his interests and lack of mastery of ordinary social interactions. According to the story we had just heard, Joe Bevel would end up like the poor orange puppet who represented the third servant, with his foam nose tore off and his hair pulled out and flung from the puppet stage into what represented outer darkness for the Assemblies of God: a wading pool filled with red Kool-Aid to represent blood. We then sang, “Oh you can’t get to heaven without S-A-L-V-A-T-I-O-N.” “Great,” Joe Bevel said, “I’m not very good at spelling, either.” He was fucked.

My point being: what? Hell sucks? Religion makes no sense? That humans will never tire of punishing themselves not only corporeally in this world, but incorporeally in the next? Yes to all of those. And that’s what makes reading The Divine Comedy a bit of a challenge. I have to read it ironically. Dante means it to be read as seriously as a heart-attack.

So we’re in Limbo and I don’t get it. It’s a complicated concept, and Dante contradicts most of what the early church fathers taught about it. For the world outside of the Divine Comedy, there appears to be two kinds of limbo (the Virtuous Pagans that we’re going to meet a little later in this Canto are part of an invention of Dante’s; they aren’t part of the official Catholic dogma): The Limbus Patrum or Limbo if the Patriarchs (which, as of today, stands empty; Christ went through after his crucifixion and took all the Old Testament characters to heaven — though one wonders how those early Christians grappled with the story of Enoch, who “walked with God; then…was no more, because God took him away” since this happens in Genesis and there’s no way Enoch knew Christ); and The Limbus Infantium or Limbus Puerorum, the Limbo of Infants. “But Mike, didn’t the Church do away with limbo a couple years ago?” And the answer is…maybe. That “children” thing has really caused a lot of tsuris through the years, and whether or not unbaptized children definitely have to go to limbo, or if, once in limbo, they get to come out of limbo, or if, once in limbo, they’re there to stay has directed any evolution that might be attributed to the Catholic Church in its thinking on this topic. In 1992, the Church seemed to be softening its stance, saying that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” Additionally, and in a rare acknowledgment of a theological shrug, the Church also said, “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.” The debate received more attention in 2007, though still focused primarily on children, and what looked like the closing of limbo all together is instead a little more nuanced: Limbo, the Church now says, is consonant with the Church’s teaching; however, it’s not an official teaching. Also, there are other denomination of Catholics who haven’t turned away from this idea. It remains a clusterfuck of fucknuttery.

For Dante, though, there’s only Limbo, and it’s not separated into wards with the Patriarchs in one and the children in another and anyone who died not knowing Christ, but who is also not a Patriarch or not a child, in yet another ward. It’s all one big messy and distressing circle. Dante describes it thus:

Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare,
non avea pianto mai che di sospiri,
che l’aura etterna facevan tremare;

ciò avvenia di duol sanza martìri
ch’avean le turbe, ch’eran molte e grandi,
d’infanti e di femmine e di viri.

“Here, as far as I could tell by listening,
was no lamentation other than the sighs
that kept the air forever trembling;

These came from grief without torment
borne by vast crowds
of men, and women, and little children.”

This passage has lost none of it’s distressing terror from when it was written to now. Thomas Aquinas said that children in Limbo would not experience grief or torment. Dante, though, says, “Of course these kids are suffused with grief and torment: they can’t leave Limbo and they can never know the love of God. However, they can know that they are denied the love of God.”

And this is where I start to re-think this plan of reading the whole thing. This Limbo that Dante sends himself — and us — through is as noxious as Hell’s Antechamber. It’s as morally inconsistent, too. I’ll admit to hoping to discover a certain satisfaction when I read about truly terrible people suffering punishments in one of the circles. But so far I’ve yet to meet anyone who deserves to be there. And I know that’s not the point Dante is trying to make (hence my mentioning that I have to read the poem ironically; I’m not as repugnantly equipped as Dante to read this as literal).

What are we to do with the phrase “grief without torment” (duol sanza martìri)? It appears an apt punishment for a place like Hell — to feel inexpressible sadness with seemingly no antecedent. (As Edna St Vincent Millay writes, “Weeping I wake/waking I weep, I weep.”) But does Dante mean it as a softening measure for this circle of Hell? That one is sad here, in Circle One, without being tormented externally by some awful punishment like those poor souls chasing the blank flag, stung by wasps, and whose blood feeds a floor-ful of worms?

When I went through one of my depressions several years back, it wasn’t the grief without torment that troubled me. It was these inexplicable thrums of happiness. They were too much for me. I didn’t know where they came from. I couldn’t understand why, for no reason, while on the Metro or walking home from the train station or making a left turn I would be flooded with not just happiness, but conflicting feelings of deep empathy with the universe and bittersweetness at the condition of everyone. I would be so happy about everything that I would start to cry. “This can’t be right,” I remember thinking. “I can’t be this in love with the world.”

And I don’t think I was. I think I actually was tormenting myself with happiness. I think I had reached a point of sadness so numbing that I could no longer respond to it. I ignored it. So my mind, ever helpful in being unhelpful, channeled these feelings in an unexpected direction, leaving me tired and baffled and feeling more alone because I was sure that no one could feel such waves of love for me. I was convinced that I was a narcissist with low self-esteem; a martyr too insignificant for a cross.

Of course, it gets worse. As Virgil explains to Dante, e s’elli hanno mercedi,/non basta (“though they have merit, it is not enough”). That merit means bupkes without baptism, and baptism means bupkes without Christ. This seems to be the answer to the atheistic non-question, “Isn’t it enough that I’m a good person?” Not if you want to go to heaven, it’s not. Heaven isn’t for good people. It’s primarily for those who have followed the rules. And following the rules has nothing to do with goodness. (Taking this literally, I nearly ruined a fun afternoon of miniature golf with Zach because I could not let go of the fact that the people in front of us, with their eleventy million children, weren’t following the rules. Because the rules clearly stated that each group should only have four members. How many were in the group in front of me? At least a hundred. “You’re exaggerating,” Zach said. “Let’s just go around.” “But I don’t want to go around,” I said. “I want to play this in the order it was intended. They’re trying to tell a story here–” it was a themed golf-course with animatronic monkeys and what looked like a cadaver lynched to a gum tree but who was, I think, supposed to be Tarzan “–and we paid for 18 holes and I want to play the 18 holes.” Only I really didn’t care at all about the 18 holes. I cared that the rules weren’t being followed, and not because I love rules, but because there was no way as a child I would ever have been allowed to not follow the rules; at least, not without harsh consequences. I exploited the fiction of order in order to control a situation bubbling up from my past. When breaking the rules suits me, I demand the exception. When following the rules puts me in a position of reveling highly in my dudgeon, I’ll take that too, please, with a side of self-righteousness. Why does anyone want to know me? I’m terrible. I contain multitudes, all of them unpleasant.)

Virgil also explains that:

Per tai difetti, non per altro rio,
semo perduti, e sol di tanto offesi,
che sanza speme vivemo in disio

“For such defects–” (i.e., no baptism) “–and for no other fault,
we are lost, and afflicted but in this,
that without hope we live in longing.”

That sentence — “without hope we live in longing” — may be the saddest thing I’ve ever read. “These lessons,” I want Dante to say, “are noxious. This God is a monster. I’ll take my chances with that leopard, thankyouverymuch. This here? Is bullshit.” But then I remember that Dante wrote this poem. These ideas mean something to him. He and I couldn’t meet today and have a meaningful conversation because we are vastly different people. William Blake, coming 500 years later, at least seems tormented and unsure about his religious visions. They’re externally internal, by which I mean that the poems are Blakes way of trying to find some meaning, to reach some conclusion, about what God is doing to him. Dante, though, seems like he’s trying to one-up God. “Can you top this?” Dante seems to ask. “Because I can go meaner.”

And he will.

But first, Virgil wants to introduce Dante to the other Virtuous Pagans inhabiting Limbo. They’re mostly Greek and Roman poets, with a smattering of rulers and warriors. Caesar is there, as well as the bugger Socrates and his student, Plato. And once Virgil is done shepherding Dante through the Inferno, it’s here that he’ll return. And that’s heartbreaking, too, not just because its then back to the daily grind of hearing Caesar go on and on about that one time he was stabbed by everyone in Rome, and how great his salads are, but because for a few moments Virgil got to leave Hell. Remember that Dante meets him in the dark wood (selva oscura) near the foot of the mountain. For a few moments, Virgil isn’t trapped in an abyss of grief without torment, of merit with no recognition, of longing with no hope.

Dante had asked Virgil, earlier in this canto, Uscicci mai alcuno, o per suo merto/o per altrui, che poi fosse beato? (“Did ever anyone, either by his own or by another’s merit, go forth from here and rise to blessedness?”) And Virgil must have thought, for a moment, “Yes, me — only not to my blessedness. For yours.” That seems yet another unwarranted cruelty on Dante’s part. But Virgil instead explains that the only ones who have left Limbo are the Old Testament Patriarchs, who left with Christ after the Harrowing of Hell.

I also wonder, if only for a moment, how much hope the Virtuous Pagans fostered when Virgil first left. It must have appeared to them that Virgil now, too, was being harrowed. Maybe there is a chance, they may have thought. Maybe Limbo isn’t permanent. But then those hopes are dashed when Virgil returns. “Oh,” they say. “It’s you again.”

The canto ends with the line E vegno in parte ove non è che luca (“And I came to a place where nothing shines.”)

Next week: Canto V.