In Canto 30, Dante and Virgil are completing their trek through the tenth bolgia, one encounter more depressing than another in its exposure of human self-centeredness and sin. In this canto we meet “The Falsifiers”—impersonators (falsifiers of persons), perjurers (falsifiers of words), and coiners (falsifiers of money). Late in this canto Adam of Brescia, a coiner, converses with Dante. Adam first arouses sympathy if not pity, as he speaks of his torturous thirst, his desire for even one drop of water. Naively one wonders if he is thirsting for physical water or spiritual relief. Is he thirsting for the Living Water of grace? Is he thirsting for forgiveness and mercy? “Justice balances my score,” he says. But it seems he is stating a fact, not a cry for kindness. For quickly his focus turns toward blaming those who brought him into sin and wanting to see them thoroughly punished. Where is any contrition? This sad scene underscores how it is important for us to take personal responsibility for our words and deeds, regardless of whether or not others have influenced us in our bad decisions. We speak of the fire of Hell, but Adam shows us the cold darkness of a soul without responsibility, contrition, and hope in God’s mercy.
Dante asks Adam, “Who are those wretched two sprawled alongside your right-hand borders…” [line 91]. Adam describes two other Falsifiers like himself, and his description of them causes offense and sets off some brutal fighting. Recall Canto 22, the quarreling demons, who illustrate Jesus’ saying that Satan’s kingdom is divided against itself and cannot stand. Those in Hell divide against each other even in their common condition of suffering. This behavior stands in blunt contrast to the Christian virtues of respect, compassion, charity and community that we value, teach, and admire. This behavior shows us even now what we look like without choosing the virtuous life. Preparing to journey beyond all of this to yet another region of Hell we are left realizing that the consequences of sin are greater than we ever imagined, and Hell is all about consequences.
Canto 30 concludes with Virgil Rebuking Dante for becoming too engrossed in the quarrel between Adam and the Shadows. Dante apologizes and Virgil accepts his apology but also advises him to always remember to not enjoy people’s wrangling. Virgil seems to see danger in one getting too caught up in or attracted to or sullied by the disputes of others. Perhaps the lesson here is that we should learn from evil if we can, but that if studying evil requires us to get too close to it or wrapped up in, it’s better to stay away!
Traveling through these thirty Cantos with our companions Dante and Virgil, we have seen and heard much evil. In the face of so much sin and suffering, why does Dante and why should we not be depressed and lose hope? The answer is simple—we have today. We know that in spite of our sins we still can request and receive mercy and forgiveness. We are Scrooge on Christmas morning. Our past need not define us if we will change while we can. Traveling the Inferno shakes us awake to the importance of the consequences of our choices, including the choice to welcome or ignore God’s grace. It is not about being scared into being more faithful but instead about beginning to see the bigger picture. God does not directly will to punish people Hell, but we can get ourselves there by our own bad choices. And Hell drives home to us that as long as we are still breathing in this life we can choose responsibility, contrition, and God’s mercy.
Fr. Paul Tomasso is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He was ordained in 1981 and, since then, has served in a variety of pastorates and assignments. Currently he is Director of Seminarians and Parochial Vicars and is also Vicar General for the Diocese of Rochester.