In the End, We Get What We Want

Dante, poised between the mountain of Purgatory and the city of Florence, displays the famous incipit Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita in a detail of Domenico di Michelino's painting, 1465.

By Jim Tonkowich Published on March 17, 2024

During Lent, I’m again reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. Reading two canti a day takes you from the gates of Hell on Ash Wednesday into Paradise by Easter. But even if you can’t see reading all three volumes—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso — make a note to read Inferno 1 and 2 next Ash Wednesday. They read, in part:

Midway in the journey of our life

I came to myself in a dark wood,

for the straight way was lost.

Ah, how hard it is to tell

the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—

the very thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter death is hardly more so. (Inferno 1.1-7)

There’s good instruction here for all of us about God turning us over to our own desires when we don’t repent. In light of that, do we really want the things we think we want?

The Way Up Starts with Down

The Comedy begins in despair. Dante tries to escape the dark wood and recover the straight way on his own, but is thwarted at every turn. There is no way out.

Looking down in love from Heaven, Beatrice sees him and receives permission to ask the virtuous but unsaved Roman poet, Virgil, to lead Dante out of the dark wood onto the straight way to salvation. So Virgil leads him via the only path there is: through the depths of Hell. The way up is the way down. Without understanding sin and its consequences, salvation is impossible.

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In the circles of Hell, Dante meets sinners suffering in ways that are appropriate for their crimes against others, against nature, and against God. In the third circle of Hell — the circle of the gluttonous (Canto 6) — Dante meets Ciacco wallowing in freezing rain, mud, and filth while gorging himself on that mud and filth with all the other unrepentant gluttons. What he wanted most in life — eating and eating and more eating — he now has forever.

Similarly, the schismatics who tore apart the Body of Christ are sliced open, then walk around their circle of Hell while healing, only to be sliced open again (Canto 28). And traitors — along with Satan, the great traitor — are frozen in ice, eternal retribution for the cold calculation they cultivated and enjoyed in order to perform their misdeeds (Canti 30–34).

Coming Into the Light

Last week, I finished Inferno. With Dante and Virgil, I climbed down the flanks of Satan to the center of the earth, turned around, and clambered up to the far side of our planet. And like Dante, I felt enormous relief when “we came forth, to see again the stars” (Inferno 34.139).

But I keep thinking about Hell. Dante’s descriptions are, in some cases, completely over the top. Some are even comical, but there is hard truth everywhere.

The major point is this: In the end, we get what we want.

Gluttons in Hell get to gorge themselves. It needn’t be in Dante’s mud and filth. A magnificent, elegant all-you-can-eat buffet would serve the same purpose. The point is that the just punishment for gluttony is eating and eating and eating — just what you always wanted — forever.

It makes me wonder if the writers of The Twilight Zone read Dante. In the episode titled “A Nice Place to Visit,” Rocky Valentine, a gambler and gangster, dies in a shootout with the police. Then he wakes up in a place where he’s informed that his every wish will be granted. Certain that this is Heaven, Valentine wishes for and receives all the things he wanted on Earth: luxurious living, lots of beautiful women, only good luck while gambling, pool-shooting skills to put Minnesota Fats to shame. The initial result is, of course, tremendous happiness — but that fades over time into frustration and boredom.

After breaking the racked-up pool balls and watching all fifteen fall into pockets, he says he’s tired of Heaven and wants “to go to the other place.” Cue the diabolical laughter: “Where do you think you are?”

In the end and through all eternity, we get what we want.

The Desires of Our Hearts

Which, of course, raises the question: What do I want? What do you want? Food and drink? Sex? Power over others? My way or the highway? Entertainment? Popularity? Fame? Getting even? Getting more? It’s all there in Dante’s Inferno, where each sinner gets what he or she wanted most in this life.

 In the final analysis, they’re all idol worshippers. Something that is not God — and therefore is not worthy of worship — found its way to the center of their lives, and for all eternity they now get what they wanted, and quickly come to hate it.

So is it wrong to want things? No, the good things in life are indeed good. But regarding them as if they will ultimately fulfill us is sin, and we need to repent and recalibrate our desires along the lines Pope St. John Paul suggested:

It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.

It is he who welcomes the repentant ones trudging through Lenten penance, anxious to look up “to see again the stars” on Easter.

 

James Tonkowich is a freelance writer, speaker, and commentator on spirituality, religion, and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life after Mid-Life and serves as director of distance learning at Wyoming Catholic College. He also hosts the college’s weekly podcast, The After Dinner Scholar.

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