Canto 26: Non Plus Ultra

mc_in_haitiBy Fr. Daniel White

On March 4th, four religious sisters of the Missionaries of Charity—the religious community founded by soon-to-be Saint Teresa of Calcutta—were brutally murdered in Yemen for doing nothing other than serving Jesus in the poorest of the poor. The attackers gained access to the sisters’ facility by posing as friends and relatives of the home’s elderly and disabled residents.

It is not yet clear who exactly is responsible for this atrocity. Yemen, though, is in the midst of a civil war that is religious in nature. Moreover, the conflict is being taken advantage of by outsider groups like ISIS and al-Qaida. These facts and details about the attack itself strongly suggest that it was religiously motivated. A clearer contrast between true and false religion could not be imagined. The sisters were serving the humble of this world. In them was verified the scripture, “Not minding lofty things, but associating with the humble” (Rom 12:16). In contrast to the sisters, the attackers—relying upon their own natural powers—were presuming to use brute force to establish in the world something as lofty as the Kingdom of God. The sisters did not rely upon their senses but looked past the exterior to see Jesus whom they were serving in the poor. The attackers, on the other hand, could only apprehend what registered with their senses—the raw political realities of a war zone. After all, it is within this empirical reality that they aim to set up their religious utopia, looking to this earth and expecting to find heaven. Seeing past Jesus’ “disguise” of the poorest of the poor, the sisters served Him in love even unto death. The attackers, disguised as loved ones, used weapons of death to spread hate.

With this recent event in mind, let us consider Canto 26 of the Inferno. Here in the eighth “bolgia” are punished the “fraudulent counsellors”. The exact nature of their sin is complex. They are deceivers. But their sin also seems bound up with inordinate curiosity and a sort of Luciferian pride which leads to their downfall. This is seen in the character of Ulysses whose sin of fraudulent counsel knows no bounds. He persuaded Achilles to join the Trojan War where he meet his tragic death [lines 61-62]. Ulysses’ evil genius was behind the theft of the Trojans’ sacred Palladium [line 63]. His fraudulent counsel was also responsible for the famous Trojan Horse. Unbeknownst to the Trojans, this artificial horse concealed within its belly the crafty Greeks who would finally succeed in conquering the city of Troy from within [lines 59-60].

But after deceiving and destroying others, Ulysses’ final fraudulent counsel would lead to his own destruction. After the war, Ulysses sailed back home where familial piety should have made him remain. But his lust for adventure spoke louder than the demands of virtue and impelled him and his old comrades to set out again on the high seas—this time towards the western most part of the Mediterranean Sea. Ulysses’ domestic obligations could not “conquer in [him] the longing that [he] had to gain experience of the world…” [lines 97-98]. Upon approaching the extreme limits of the inhabited world, the Strait of Gibraltar with its “Pillars of Hercules” upon which are written, Non plus ultra: “(go) no more beyond (this point)” (cf. line 109), Ulysses persuades his comrades to sail past these boundaries. He says to them: “to this so brief vigil of our senses that remains to us, choose not to deny experience…of the world that has no people” [lines 114-117]. They are going where no man has gone before. The outcome of his impassioned speech is a crew of men whose desire to transcend human limits is stirred to fever pitch. They do not wait for a favorable wind but immediately turn to their own natural strength, making of their “oars wings for the mad flight…” [line 125]. After five months of extreme sailing [lines 130-131], they glimpse from afar the vestibule of heaven—the mountain of Purgatory [lines 133-135]. They have gone where men by their own powers do not go, but their success turns to tragedy as a whirlwind sinks their ship, plunging them into the depths of the sea [136-142].

There are strong parallels between Ulysses and the religious extremists who murdered the Sisters of Charity. Ulysses used a deceptive stratagem to gain access to the city of Troy. So also did the attackers use disguises to gain access to the sisters’ facility. Just as Ulysses attempted to use his own natural powers to gain access to the divine realm by going ultra or “beyond” the limits of human nature, so also do today’s religious extremists attempt to gain access to eternal salvation through force and violence. Ulysses and his men did not wait for a favorable wind but used their oars as wings to carry them “beyond”. So also do religious extremists shun the grace of God and attempt to use machine guns as wings with which to fly to heaven. And yet, the one who aims to gain access to the divine by means of the natural ends up aiming only for the natural. Ulysses’ aspirations ended up going no further than the empirical world. After all, if he longed to go where no man has ever gone, this was still within the world that was open to sense perception. His aspirations remained mundane. The supernatural beatitude of heaven was never his real goal. So also do today’s religious extremists seek to establish a paradise that is merely earthly—a perfect political order in which every last human being on earth adheres to their intellectually narrow and spiritually bankrupt version of religion.

In contrast to all of this madness is the humility of the sisters, their reliance upon divine grace, and their aspiration for true transcendence through faith in the unseen and through love of neighbor. On March 6th, during the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis publicly offered his condolences to the Missionaries of Charity and prayed that Mother Teresa would “accompany to paradise these daughters of hers, martyrs of charity, and that she would intercede for peace and a sacred respect for human life.” If, along with Dante we seek to go “beyond” and enter paradise, let’s do it by following the example of the sisters and not that of those who murdered them.

Fr. Daniel White attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and was ordained a priest on June 5, 2004. He currently serves as priest-secretary to The Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano, Bishop of Rochester.

Posted in Inferno

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