by James Sales
Reviewed by Francis Etheredge
Read! Repent! And Rejoice!
Even the contemplation of Hell is a message of mercy in that it is the will of God that no one go there! As James Sale says in an interview at the end of his book: ‘it’s not so much that God puts us there, but that we end up where we want to be’ (HellWard, p. 143). Therefore, it is a mercy to see and stop where we have seen we could be going and to beg, if we are willing, to beg as beggars for the help of God to get us to heaven!
.Introduction: Pope Francis and James Sale
In part three of Pope Francis’ letter on Dante, Cantor Lucis Aeternae, Francis says: ‘by poetry, the art of the word which, by speaking to all, has the power to change the life of each’ (3). Thus we discover that the goal is so to depict the reality of sin and redemption so that all appeal to the mercy of God so generously expressed in Christ’s forgiveness of sins (cf. Lk 23: 34) and receive the Spirit of the Resurrection (cf. Jn 20: 19-23). Thus, adapting the English translation of Dante to bring out its personal welcome of the sinner, this Lent and Easter, indeed every Lent and Easter and indeed in every “in-between”, let us turn and turn again to what Dante describes as God’s ‘ample arms/ That … receive whoever turns to him (Purg. III, 118-123)’.
If you, then, like me, need various helps into these great works read around, as I have done, and begin to see the almost palpable sense of discovering, through James Sale’s near death experience, the reality of our life: here and hereafter. So, whether you read his autobiographical introduction or the interview at the end of his book, read what helps you enter this prose that strips what shows to show the glow of grace (cf. Sale, HellWard, p. 58) or its heinous absence!
Christ, Sale himself, and Dante
Although it is the 700th Anniversary of Dante’s death, and various reference’s to Dante’s work abound, I confess to scarcely knowing very much about this poet and the first part of “The Divine Comedy”: Dante’s Inferno or Hell; indeed, I recall, that a comedy is not what we think it is, somewhat carelessly, a piece of light humour – rather a Comedy is an account of life which includes tragedy as well as triumph, where triumph, in this case, is not triumphalism but the victory of Love within us. Thus “The Divine Comedy” is not only the scope or scape of human life opening upon eternity, of where Love triumphs but, in ghastly detail, it includes what it looks like when we reject the inner-work of God which would turn us to confession and to salvation.
As you might detect, then, from my opening words, the beginning of Sale’s epic modernization of Dante’s ancient account of life and death and all that ranges hence, from hell to purgatory to heaven, is a shocking depiction of what raw vice looks like – indeed to those, like me, unprepared for what is to come, the shock is somewhat akin to coming to the edge of a camp on a beautifully lit summer’s day, bearing marks of what is still unclearly seen but suggesting, in ways that railway tracks and high barbed wire fencing might make you start to think about what is happening and still to come. And then the shock – not unlike the shock of seeing pictures of the aftermath of an atomic bomb; but not, as you might imagine, of how it impacts people we do not know but, rather, how it implicates those close to us and our relationship to them: my mother; my pupil; my boss; and so on to others in my life.
Imagine, then, like Christ says in the Gospel, between Lazarus and the rich man who did not help him there is a fixed divide which, even if we wanted to, we could not cross (cf. Lk 16: 19-31) and then, as I say, imagine that there is one whom we loved on the far side of this impossible divide and the anguish we go through as we cannot help – but can only pass on – and you will begin to experience what is depicted.
To take, then, but one of many examples, but one more compelling in that the poet tries to save his mother who, while he tries to lift her off her bed, and console her, discovers in the attempt the impossibility of freeing her from what, hiddenly, holds her fast:
To see her passive and in love with fate,
And those sheet folds around still clinging tight
Like coiling snakes who’d not discharge their freight
So much she loved them, and their toxic bite, 190
That God Himself – but then the plaster fell,
Showered our heads with dust and shattered bits –
Could not undo the hell of her free will (Sale, HellWard, pp. 14-15).
On the other hand, however, each of these people, some more widely known and named, either by name and deed or neither, may also be real in order to be rebuked lest they be lost; but then, again, they may be sufficiently imagined to stand for all who have power over the lives of others and waste, indescribably, the opportunity to love.
Dante as companion
So Sale, the man who began to enter the bluey beauty of a HeavenWard thermal from the operating table and who yet returns, from glimpsing God, finds that he has not died and is no longer alone but is sent a companion, Dante himself, to accompany our modern poet on a downward journey – going HellWard all the more dramatically because of the prior brightness to which he rose, albeit so briefly, and on the basis of which the poet begins to see more clearly the possible realities of people he has loved but who are now unveiled from what, it seems, had hidden what they were really like. Thus hell, as the place of un-masked human hearts bares, now bluntly, the corrupt attitudes and actions that a person has really brought to exist is all too clearly described and defined ‘in season and out of season’ (2 Tim 4: 2).
Thus Sale gives us many striking instances of a strongly pulsed way of pitting words against our hardness of heart (cf. Ps 94) and, hopefully, piercing any complacency we may possess that Lent may enter in and unfold through Easter through the Resurrection of our Redeemer! So, on entering the room of what the poet had once thought to be a friend, and we are prepared for something disturbing in the preceding verses, we find that the wall is alive with embedded faces, expressing what we will discover as the verses continue beyond this excerpt, that his friend had fathered children without being a father to them:
‘I’d knew you’d find me; knew you’d like my work.’
What work? I thought. Then heard some sullen sobs:
The walls themselves had faces in, each hurt –
Each face half-formed, deformed, and like a yob’s
Made so through lack of love and fatherhood,
But each one spoke, as one collective, mob; (Sale, HellWard, p. 19).
So what if this Lent we really ponder the possibility that we are that person we once thought we knew but are now nakedly evident for what we really are but, having hidden ourselves instead of availing ourselves of the sacrament of repentance and confession, we are now “stuck” with our unrepentant reality as we had rejected both our reality and its remedy of God’s mercy – will it help us as this work is meant to do, to go to the physician for healing (cf. Lk 5: 31) before the complaint is set in an eternal, unreachable, fixity?
Just, however, as the descent seems to be unmitigated in its enfleshing of what is vicious within us we come upon the sudden change in Sale, as he descends, in such a wise as to intimate and then to announce a further, future brightening:
Thus Dante turned, to see me, who had died
Almost, but now the corridor was lit
Ahead from light my own being supplied.
‘Know,’ Dante said, ‘the grace is all of it;
To waver one moment is to quench this flame
Which out of you now flickers but a bit (Sale, HellWard, p. 58).
And later, when Sale slumps, there is a good strong image of Dante jump starting Sale again. Again, it is the contrast between both the various attempts to ruin Sale’s life, and the overwhelming presence of an almost sweet word which spelt death for so many, that gives the one genuine friendship of his companion, Dante, reason to be there, it seems, to kick start Sale into life again:
To horrors here as was this fading gulf.
And thinking so, as my whole weight went slump
Against my teacher, I found his soul’s stern proof
Could hold me up, and its energy jump-
Started my body with a vital power –
As null and dull myself, and he the lamp (Sale, HellWard, p. 95).
Altogether, then, we have many turns of phrase and stunning images which both help us now, in HellWard, to grasp the reality of our lives and, at the same time, press us forward with intimations of what is to come as Sale goes on to Purgatory and, eventually, to Heaven in the two volumes of this modernization of Dante’s Divine Comedy which are to follow.
From Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on Dante, Cantor Lucis Aeternae, we have Dante’s words with which to take us to our conclusion, both for James Sale and for us, words which tell us what rekindling the work of a great poet is about (5):
“After I had my body lacerated By these two mortal stabs, I gave myself Weeping to Him, who willingly doth pardon. Horrible my iniquities had been; But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms That it receives whatever turns to it” (Purg. III, 118-123).
Thus we can see that even the contemplation of Hell is a message of mercy in that it is the will of God that no one go there! Thus all poets who express this can say, adapting the words of Dante: ‘by poetry, the art of the word which, by speaking to all, has the power to change the life of each’ (Cantor Lucis Aeternae, 3) – to the good if graced by God! While still further we can widen the word of witness to announce, in any way by which the grace of God becomes visible, a word of salvation that, in saving us, hopes in the divine hope of saving others!
For those who want to know more about James Sale, his work and “The Wider Circle”, go to: “The English Cantos: Journeys with Dante”: https://englishcantos.home.blog/t