The Year of Mercy called by the Pope which began on 8th Dec 2015 has the admirable aim of bringing more of us back into the loving embrace of God's forgiveness. There has been much talk of 'journeying' with the sinner, of pastoral outreach, and penitential pathways. I think we are also invited this year to take a clear look at the circumstances of sin, for it is sin that ultimately can put the supreme obstacle between us and God's mercy. If this were not the case there would be no need for Christ's salvific action, for the Sacraments, or the Church.
Here we are introduced to the first choice that the soul makes in hell, which is a choice of the imagination. We are invited to see how gradual and excusable the path to sin seems, how innocently and blamelessly we might be tempted to see ourselves as we start on a path that will lead to our damnation. How important it is to be awake in the spirit, understanding that we are constantly making choices between good and evil, even just in small lazinesses and through the thoughts and desires that we entertain, and those we reject. A solid education in the human condition, in how flawed and wretched we are or can be, is not something the Church should flinch from, knowing how little the modern world likes to hear such things. It is the supremely merciful thing to do to confront the soul with the reality of its choices, and where those choices will lead.
If anyone is qualified to talk about the way Dante describes the dalliance of the soul with 'lussuria' or indulgence, sexual infidelity etc, it is Charles Williams. By all accounts an odd, charismatic man, he was a fine theologian, and his understanding of Dante impressed many, including Dorothy Sayers, who translated and annotated the Inferno. But his personal life was highly unusual to say the least, and whilst married, he carried on many romantic liaisons with women. I won't go into that here, but I believe the passage I have reproduced is evidence of the way in which:
Williams, as his interest in Dante grew and as he began to publish on the great poet, began to present him as he had “very seldom” been understood before: “as a poet among poets, creating . . . ‘an accurate image of actual experience.’” (from this excellent blog post)
From the Figure of Beatrice, by Charles Williams:
"they come to the circle where the lecherous are tossed on a storm. This is the place of what is probably the most famous episode in the whole Commedia, the episode of Paolo and Francesca - which is always quoted as an example of Dante's tenderness. So, no doubt, it is, but it is not here for that reason, nor even for the more important reason of poetically lightening the monotonous gloom of hell. It has a much more important place; it presents the first tender, passionate, and half-excusable consent of the soul to sin.
Up to this point (Inf. V) the Imagination has been in suspense; it has not chosen- whether from a shameful shrinking from choice into a spiritual cosiness, or from its not being confronted with this religious choice. It is now shown as choosing, and the choice is made as plausible as it possibly can be, Francesca's description of how she and Paolo read together, how in that reading their eyes sometimes met and their colour changed, how they came to the moment when Lancelot kissed Guinevere; how
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca mi bacio tutto tremante-
'he who shall never be divided from me kissed my mouth all trembling; the book was a pander, and he who wrote it; that day we read no more': Francesca's description of Love itself, with a certain reminiscence of Dante's own poem, 'Love and the gentle heart', for she says : 'Love, which quickly knows itself in the gentle heart....Love which excuses no loved one from loving....Love does not yet abandon me'- all this heightens comprehension until Dante himself sighs to think 'how many sweet thoughts, how great a desire, brought them to this dolorous state'.
What indeed was the sin? It was a forbidden love? yes, but Dante (in the place he gives it in the Commedia) does not leave it at that. He so manages the very description, he so heightens the excuse, that the excuse reveals itself precisely as the sin. [italics mine]. The old name for lechery was luxuria; lussuria is the word Virgil uses of this circle, and it is lussuria, luxury, indulgence, self-yielding, which is the sin, and the opening out of hell. The persistent parleying with the occasion of sin, the sweet prolonged laziness of love, is the first surrender of the soul to hell - small but certain. The formal sin here is the adultery of the two lovers; the poetic sin is their shrinking from the adult love demanded of them, and their refusal of the opportunity of glory. Hell, in Dante, is in the shape of a funnel, and a funnel is exactly what hell is; and this moment of the lovers' yielding is the imagination swept around the inner edge of the funnel. Here all is still good except the very good itself; all is still valuable except value itself; 'il ben dell' intelletto' quivers and a little disintegrates.
The adultery here is only the outer mark; the sin is a sin possible to all lovers, married or unmarried, adulterous or marital. It is a sin especially dangerous to Romantics, so much so that its essence has often been taken to be a mark of Romanticism. But this, if we allow Dante and Wordsworth to be true Romantics, it hardly is; it is much more the sign of the pseudo-Romantic- in life even more than in letters. At the Francescan moment the delay and the deceit have only begun; therefore their punishment- say their choice- has in it all the good they chose as well as all the evil. Their love is as changeless as the storm. A consolation lingers with them through the infinite 'forever'. So in the poem; and could the soft delaying indulgence of the soul so delay perpetually, the imagination and the will might also be content to lose heaven for that.
It cannot; it has entered hell. It has, as the two poets, following their own way of discovery, so well see, to lose gradually what good was still left to it. In the Francescan moment each of the lovers had delight in the image of the other, and both of them had a mutual delight in their love. Their mutual lussuria indulged this. But lussuria cannot in fast stop there; the mutual indulgence is bound too soon to become two separate single indulgences. It is true that lussuria is to be distinguished from the sollagia of the Convivio. Sollagia, with all the rest of Pleasantness, is a moral duty - to oneself as to the other; eros itself is in that sense not only permissible but must be enjoined. It is part of our 'honourable estate' - of nobility - to amuse and be amused; the Convivio is in that sense a commentary on the words used in the marriage rite according to the use of the Church of England. But when the sollagia dominate, they become lussuria; they set up in the human organism a hunger for them which , from being mutual, becomes single. An appetite for the use of this Image prevails; this is Gluttony and this is the next circle of hell (VI).
The souls lie there under a foul and heavy rain, and below the claws of an Organism of hell, Cerberus, who deafeningly barks and sharply tears them for ever. They lie turning restlessly from side to side to shield themselves as they may. The stinking earth is more difficult lying than Francesca's bed, though if anyone were to discern a sexual interpretation in this circle, I do not know that he need be contradicted. Dante was writing about sex as well as all the rest. This is the result of prolonged incontinence, incontinence of mind as well as body; gluttony of delicacies as of vulgarities, of quality as well as quantity. The fatal development of sin in the soul might all be read in terms of gluttony as well as lechery. Over-indulgence, culpable delay, the beginning of perversion, is the same with whatever kind of flesh. Or mind or spirit.