When I saw the title of Tim Muldoon's recent post on the Ignatian Spirituality blog - 'Love in Hell' - I hoped it would be about Paolo and Francesca da Rimini in Dante's Inferno, and it was. Dante meets the two lovers in Hell, whirled about together by the fiery winds, and Francesca tells the story of how their love began with a kiss while they were reading chivalrous romances together. Rossetti's painting, shown here, illustrates the story (Dante and his guide Vergil are the two characters in the middle panel).
Tim Muldoon uses the story of Paolo and Francesca as an example of Ignatius' teaching, in the Second Week Rules, about the 'enemy of our human nature' appearing as an angel of light: leading us, under the guise of good, away from God. (And Tim links to a thoughtful article by Rod Dreher which further explores this point - do read that too.) But, oh, the questions - can there be love in Hell? Isn't one of the definitions of Hell utter loneliness, forever cut off from love? And - dare one say - would it really be Hell to be forever in the embrace of the one I love?
No, I don't think there can be love in Hell, and that's the point. Does Francesca truly love Paolo? Or did she fall in love with an idea, an idol, of him as Lancelot, her imagination inflamed by a captivating story. Rod Dreher's article points out that, like other characters in Dante's Hell, Paolo and Francesca are not being 'punished' for erotic love. It's more subtle, and a more chilling lesson for us. You see, I keep saying 'Paolo and Francesca' - Dante's readers would have known the story and therefore the names of the key players. But, in the text, Francesca never names him. Indeed, he never speaks. It struck me: is Paolo actually there at all? Or does Francesca merely clutch an idol, blown about like a withered leaf? In Rossetti's painting, even that first kiss looks awkward - their faces slightly distorted. The beginning of the deception? As they drift in the wind they clasp each other but their eyes are closed. They do not - cannot - gaze at one another and neither can we.
And here's an even more chilling thought... Wouldn't it be true love, the highest form of love, to choose to enter Hell for the sake of the one I love? Isn't that the Easter love of Christ, after all? Ah, there's the angel of light par excellence. I am not Christ; I cannot, in my own strength, come anywhere near to loving like that. As 'angel of light', the enemy leads subtly into the lie of pride: I don't need a Saviour; I don't need God. And that's... Hell. What the Francesca in me is really saying is not, 'I will go into Hell for his sake', but 'I'll drag him into Hell with me (viz. I am like God: I can decide another's destiny). And if I can't possess him (because ultimately I'm not God) I'll make an idol and to Hell with him (ha!) because I don't really care about the person he is...' That's the sin; that's the pride. And it's not beautiful, like two lovers forever held in one mutual embrace. It's sickeningly ugly.
This is the danger with any kind of love. If you want to see it in modern dress, read C S Lewis's The Great Divorce (steeped in ideas from Dante, of course) There's a frightening description there of a mother's love distorted. And in today's Office of Readings there's a passage from St Augustine's Sermon to Pastors: how shepherds are nourished by the milk from their flock and clothed in their wool, and that's good; but there is a risk of the shepherd becoming so attached to what he gets from them that he loses sight of the sheep themselves and neglects those too sick and weak to give him anything, because they don't match the 'idol' of the perfect flock he's created. (I paraphrase, of course, but that's the connection for me).
We love, we desire, because we are made in the image of God. And we are fallen, and can all to easily be deceived. I think that's why Ignatius advises us to speak out our desires to God - all of them, unedited: to voice our id quod volo, whatever it may be, so that it's brought into the light. But that's for another post...
Augustine, Ignatius, Dante... Paolo and Francesca, wherever you are, pray for me.