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Or, How to Sing Your Way Out of Hell
by Anthony Esolen
A red light glares over the broken city. The ground everywhere is buckled, deformed by a strange pressure from within and without, humped and hollowed as mudflats by the sea. Objects stick out of it at odd angles. They are open tombs, their slabs hanging beside.
All life here is dead, and death alone lives. Still, prompted by man’s hunger to know, which is also a natural expansiveness of the heart, the traveler asks his guide whose tombs they are and whether he can peer within or speak to any of the imprisoned souls. The wise Virgil replies that they are in the cemetery of the heretics, and that each tomb is crammed full of men who followed the same error.
Most prominent are the disciples of Epicurus, who asserted that the soul dies with the body. That prominence is just. The fundamental heresy, that which most foolishly misconstrues the world, is to believe in the rule of nothingness, or death. If God is pure act, if his very essence is his own act of existence, then to believe in death is an affront not simply to God’s goodness or wisdom, but to his very being.
Behold the open lid of the tomb, and that narrow little window whence the souls, for a time, can rise, expand the chest, and look up. Not at the stars; for the souls in Hell are prave, crooked, wicked, fixedly bent awry from their inborn desire for the kingdom above. So says Charon with savage glee, greeting them as they gather on the Acheron to cross over to their eternal woe: “Nevermore hope to look upon the skies!”
Birds may navigate by those lights far away, but only man looks up to them in wonder, sensing in them a home not here, and an adventure to come. Imagine no stars, no sky, but the close, dismal ceiling of Hell. In the case of the heretics, even that little shall be taken away. Says Virgil, of the lids:
These will be bolted on the day of doom
when from the valley of Jehosophat
the souls bring back their bodies to the tomb.
Behold the cramped world of the materialist, wherein beauty is a neural tic, goodness an adaptive feature like a thumb or a tonsil, and the stars no more than tiny sputterings of decay in a vast and purposeless morgue.
Reason can demonstrate that it is not so, but there is something glorious in the heart of man that anticipates reason with bully laughter, roaring out that if that is the world, then its greatest mystery is how man ever got into it, because it certainly is not a world for him. Paint a spangled sky above his cage and the canary is happy, but man is a sort of creature who suffocates without infinity.
He dwells within his skin and knows he must someday return to the earth. Yet he gives thanks for skin and earth and sea and sky, thanks to Someone other, Someone beyond. If he ever should be persuaded that there is no one to thank, he must curl in upon himself and wear the hours away dabbling in trivialities and selfishness. He must be thankful, or he will lose what makes him man. When he ceases to praise, he begins to die.
If, as Christians affirm, man is made for God, then man is made for praise. But what is praise?
Not so long before the time of Dante, a little poor man roamed the hills of Umbria, half-literate yet preaching the word of God to merchants and beggars and, if we are to trust the legends, and in his case I see no reason to doubt them, to birds and to one notorious wolf, whom he persuaded, by means of elementary catechism and a guarantee of a daily dinner, to leave the good people of Gubbio in peace.
I speak of St. Francis. If there ever was a man who could help us define praise, Francis is not he, but if we want praise in its purity, we cannot do better than to overhear him singing his famous canticle of the sun:
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
Far from asserting himself in the presence of God, Francis gives him all the glory, and, delightfully enough, seems to glory in the infinite distance between them. One hears always the laughter of Francis, his breathlessness, as he addresses the Almighty and is all the more enraptured because God is almighty. “Praised be you, praised be you!” he cries again and again, for praise is the expression of a full heart, of our joy when we behold the excellence of another.
When we praise God, we surely render unto him what he does not need. But for precisely this above all do we praise him, that he does not and cannot need our praise. There is always something bravely extra about praise, something overbrimming, like a zucchini flower or a bird of paradise. In this sense it resembles creation itself, as Francis saw:
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
God did not need to create, but created in exuberant love all these spangled things that by their very existence reflect Him Who Is. And man who looks upon these things, man who alone among mortal creatures can see and love the playfulness and gratuitous beauty of the fire, gives God praise in return, a grateful heart for the grace of creation.
Such praise on our part is far more than a decorative finial; it springs from the core of our beings. Scripture tells us that God made man in his image and likeness, and therefore gave him dominion “over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” graciously deigning to rule his own creatures by means of the rule he grants to man.
And as by our good stewardship we share in God’s dominion, so by our praise we share in the glory of his creative act itself, because then our gratitude, which seeks nothing for itself beyond the joy of its own expression, mirrors the grace of God.
He is the One infinitely to be praised, and we, made in his image, glory in his glory, and are likened unto him by praise. The sixteenth-century English poet Philip Sidney captures the relationship most memorably:
Wit learns in thee perfection to express:
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.
That is why, when we behold beauty in wonder, our hearts are lifted closer to the eternal maker of that beauty, and we share in that beauty; it is the most wondrous thing about us. St. Francis saw the glory of God in the birds and the streams and the stars, in all the creatures of our God and king. He was not imagining it; he was no jaded primitivist! He was in love with God and longed more than anything to praise him aright.
Therefore he fell in love with God’s works. Most of us, not so clean of heart, must be led to God as Thomas Aquinas says, pedetentim, step by step, beholding things about us whose beauty we can sense.
So it was with Dante, whose first object of praise was the beautiful woman named Beatrice; and at the top of the mount of Purgatory when the poet has been cleansed of his vices, that beauty he loved is not drowned in the beauty of God but is returned to him, overbrimming more than ever. The ladies Faith, Hope, and Charity intercede on the poet’s behalf, that Beatrice may heap blessings upon him and grant him to behold not only her eyes, but her smile:
“Turn, Beatrice, turn your holy eyes,”
so did they sing, “unto your faithful one,
he who has come so far to look at you!
Do us the grace for grace’s sake, unveil
your lips to him, that he may finally
behold the second beauty you conceal!”
The poet, lifted beyond himself, can only end the canto in speechless praise:
Eternal radiance of living light!
Who ever sipped of the Castalian spring
or paled upon Parnassus’ wooded height,
Now would not feel his mind a burdened thing,
attempting to portray you as you seemed,
where Heaven had shaded you in harmony
And freely in the air your beauty gleamed?
Now there is something about Dante’s rapture here that may escape us, so easily do we take it for granted. The ladies, note, do not simply beg Beatrice’s favor—they sing their request. And Dante does not simply say he has nothing to say. He sings it too, blending the harmony of his verse with the harmony of Heaven and the free gleaming of the beauty of his beloved.
He who sings prays twice, said St. Augustine, and we must not think that that is simply because song engages our feelings more immediately than does the spoken word. If language is merely an economical device for signifying, then song must be wildly unnecessary; it is as silly and unnecessary as play. But then it is most fit for praising the Lord who made us.
In Hell there is no praise, and therefore no joyful superabundance, no singing, and no play; instead, a small-hearted withholding, wordless groans, ominous silence, immobility. It is a sort of perpetual Cocytus interruptus. In Hell we have the clipped speech of Camiscion de’ Pazzi, who identifies his fellow traitors in the ring of ice just to get rid of the poet sooner, “so that you won’t weary me with talk.”
So the heretic Farinata identifies, in his tomb, “Frederick the Second and the Cardinal,” and will not deign to speak of the rest. So when the glutton Ciacco tells Dante that the great Florentines of his youth dwell with the damned, he cannot be troubled to give the details, but simply says, “Go far enough and you will find them all.” When that soul falls silent, Virgil says he will not speak again until the trump of doom.
Most terrible is the silence of Satan, imprisoned in ice, flapping his wings forever like an automaton, like a parody of an intelligent, willing, living thing. Forever he refuses to acknowledge the power of God; forever he seeks to rise by his own power, and forever therefore his wings raise the very gale that reduces the river Cocytus to ice and imprisons him in its perpetual bonds.
No praise, no play. Slapstick, maybe. The grafters attempt forever to trick the harpoon-plying demons, popping up out of the boiling tar when their enemies aren’t looking. If that is sport, it is a tarred and crusted parody of it, an endless, pointless, tedious attempt to deceive.
But as soon as the realm of grace returns in Purgatory, singing and play return too. The souls ready to disembark upon the shores of the mountain are leaning forward together, singing that burial psalm which is also a song of hope for the land flowing with milk and honey, “ When from the land of Egypt Israel came.”
And when one of them recognizes Dante and they have a happy and pleasantly silly moment of greeting, Dante asks him, if he can and may sing, whether he will sing one of Dante’s old love poems. He can and may, and even though he sings absent-mindedly (for the souls do have the more urgent business of prayer at hand) the song is still playful and harmless:
“The Love that pleads its reasons in my mind,”
so sweetly did he then begin to sing,
I can still hear the sweetness of his sound.
And so my Teacher and that throng of souls
and I stood listening so contentedly
it seemed our minds were touched by nothing else . . .
More than that, the singing is an echo of playfulness to come. When Dante reaches the top of the mountain, he dreams of a beautiful lady in a meadow of flowers, culling them and singing, as if the most useful thing in the world were to gather up beauty for beauty’s sake, and the most wondrous thing simply to gaze in wonder:
“Let anyone who may demand my name
know I am Leah, and I go to make
myself a garland by my lovely hands.
Here I adorn myself for the delight
I will enjoy when looking in my glass.
My sister Rachel never leaves that sight
But gazes in her glass the whole day through.
She for her lovely eyes, I for my hands—
her yearning is to see, and mine to do.”
The glass or mirror before which Rachel and Leah gaze in delight is none other than the mind of God. The metaphor may help us see the essence of play, and the playfulness of praise. For, as the historian Johan Huizinga argued in Homo Ludens, play in its purest form is not entertainment, or business, or emotional escape, but an entry into a sacred space. It suspends the world about us, perhaps for deeper or more joyful entry into that world. It is an engagement, often light-hearted enough, with the mystery of being.
So it is no accident that our liturgies have been degraded along with our sports: Preachers and wide receivers both cavort in the end zone, calling attention to themselves. If sport is a business, then so is church, with its own franchises and free agents; if sport is a healthy diversion or a force for social change, then so is church, with its faddish feminism and easy approval of this or that political cause.
Thus our praise of God is reduced to work or to sport that has lost the heart of play. It is for the workday, or for the weekend, which is indistinguishable from the workday in any case. It does not raise us beyond ourselves.
But that is true servility. What a low ceiling beetles down upon the materialist, and how bare are the walls of the church that does not sing, first and last, as expressing the fundamental relationship of man to God, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!”
The old Tlingit Indians, notes Huizinga, made an extravagant display of their freedom by a ceremony called the potlatch. They would put on an enormous feast, invite friends and rivals both, and what wealth they did not consume they would throw into a huge bonfire. Then the rival would be compelled by honor to try to put on an even bigger potlatch the next year.
Apply such wild play to our praise to the Lord, and the two great meanings of freedom merge. If we want to be free, that is, at liberty, we must be free or openhearted with our praise for God and all his works.
Freely we were given; freely at every moment we are given our existence itself, upheld alone by the free grace of God. Then let us give freely in return. The man who cannot praise can neither sing nor play nor escape the cold shell of his self-regard. Satan’s sin was pride, but in act it was his fundamental rejection of God’s free grace. Satan the sober fell by ingratitude.
But the free man is given everything in return, freedom for freedom and praise for praise, good measure, shaken down and brimming over. So the souls rejoicing in Paradise do not restrain their delight:
“To Father and to Son and Holy Ghost,”
sang all the heavens, “glory!”—filling me
with drunken joy; it seemed what I beheld
Was laughter of the universe, the glee
of laughter whose inebriating swell
enters by what you hear and what you see.
O joy! O happiness ineffable!
O riches safe, no worry of desire!
O life of love and peace, perfect and full!
Nor do they lose sight of the material world, that to which the materialist heretics reduced all things and mistook by so doing. The heretic Farinata tells Dante what will happen when the material world as we know it meets its consummation. At that time the damned will suffer an enclaustration far worse than the spatial. For the lid on the tomb is a lid on man’s heart and mind besides:
“Hence you may clearly see that evermore
dead will be all our knowledge from the time
the future ends, and judgment shuts the door.”
Not so for the saints. At the end of the Paradiso, looking upon the face of God, Dante is granted a vision of that great unnecessary act of love, the creation itself:
I saw the scattered elements unite,
bound all with love into one book of praise,
in the deep ocean of the infinite;
Substance and accident and all their ways
as if breathed into one; and, understand,
my words are a weak glimmer in the haze.
The universal Being of this band
I think I saw—because when that is said,
I feel the bliss within my heart expand.
We do not praise our freedom but gain freedom by praise, as we blurt out with Peter in wise and foolish ecstasy, “Lord, how good it is for us to be here!” Not good for God, but for us. We are made for that exaltation, as of the high-spirited David playing before the Lord.
We are made for praising him who wills for us no day but the everlasting Sabbath, no lid but the vast sweep of the heaven of heavens; no tomb, nor even treasure-box, but the stars shutting in Christ and his mother and all his hallows. There, by the indwelling fire of Love, will those same blessed saints be made worthy of praise: beautiful and playful, robust and strong.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.