by James Sale
Reviewed by Francis Etheredge Profiles in Catholicism
Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk” (John 5: 8)
Helen Roseveare said: “God never uses a person greatly until He has wounded him deeply”[i]. On the one hand, there is James Sales’ ‘real battle with cancer’, an encounter with his ‘ex-wife’ and the loss of a child to ‘abortion’ (StairWell, Foreword, Evan Mantyk, p. xii, xiii and Sale, p. 40 ff). On the other hand, what God allows because He can bring good out of it is not the same as what God causes to exist: ‘St. Thomas explains that … “God allows evils to be done in order to draw forth some greater good”’[ii]. At the same time, while a number of these authors would be unknown to Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) would be well known to him as he was Dante’s teacher[iii] – both well versed in faith and reason and, therefore, inspiring the like in his pupil. We have, then, Sales own faith journey which, currently, has taken him to the Anglican Church[iv]; and, therefore, there is a sense that we are reading, in StairWell, an account of encountering the mercy of Christ which is clearly at the root of Dante’s own inspiration.
Pope Francis quotes Dante’s beautiful expression, saying:
“But infinite Goodness hath such ample arms
That it receives whatever turns to it” (Purg. III, 118-123)’ (5)[v].
While the problem of translation abounds, Dante is clearly referring to the Lord “who” receives whoever ‘turns’ to Him! But does not just turn to Him but, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son (cf. Lk 15: 20) – embraces all who turn to Him in His ‘ample arms’!
Thus, whether like Pope Francis and his predecessors, Dante, Sale or myself, who have been saved in the embrace of those ‘ample arms’ of the Lord, or whether you are still striving for the freeing truth (cf. Jn 8: 32) or even, in the spirit of this work, you are yet to encounter even the possibility of this meeting – this work is for all and at every stage of starting and even those of us, especially, who are well behind the starting line! How fitting, then, that Dante accompanies Sale, the poet, throughout his journey upward. What, then, an auspicious and momentous task: to modernize an awakening to the truth, the call to conversion: to an encounter with God!
Where to go from here? To go back in order to go forward!
To continue, then, this is Sale’s second volume of Dante’s trilogy, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, otherwise known as the Divine Comedy; and so Sale started with HellWard and he is now ascending through StairWell and is going on to DoorWay[vi].
It is argued that the Divine Comedy, ‘inaugurated realism and self-portraiture in modern fiction’[vii]. Indeed, if there is a kind of realism, it is a superrealism to which Sale appeals, dramatically and effectively, as his account demonstrates.
Speaking of his mother’s death, Sale lets her recount the moment of her death as a part of her narrative response, as it were, to what her life has been about:
‘I coughed so gently, just two times, before
The nurse worked out my heart, indeed, had stopped;
And while they fussed – the doctor through the door –
My spirit spun in spirals ever down
Through blackness in a blackened corridor’ (StairWell, p. 23).
Sale’s realism, an embracing realism, which includes his mother’s account of her own death and as a part of which she gives the impression that all is lost: ‘My spirit spun in spirals ever down/Through blackness in a blackened corridor’.
Sale then goes on to say that his mother met her mother who had tormented her; but, instead of blaming Sale’s grandmother, his mother says, ‘But mine is not to blame’ (StairWell, p. 24). Thus the death of his mother has a kind of “break” about it: the almost chain reaction of generational harm being “broken” by his mother’s pause, saying, ‘But mine is not to blame’. Thus death is an expansive moment, to be expanded both before and after, as it were, not as a “passing death” but indicating a saving, spiritual event. And this is the point. The realism which is spoken of here is not to be confused with a banal and empty empiricism which, for all its name, stands for the contradiction of “materialism”: an account of reality that cannot even account for its own existence as an explanation of what exists. Rather, Sale’s realism is an encompassing one, communicating the rich and complex reality of human experience: the full import of which is told throughout his poetry and drawing on its ancient roots.
The theme of his mother, from hell to purgatory
Starting with an excerpt from my review of HellWard, Sale’s first Canto, and an excerpt from it that goes with it, I then take up the theme of Sale’s relationship to his mother as it strikes out afresh in StairWell.
‘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 discharged their freight
So much she loved them, and their toxic bite,
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)’[viii].
But when Sale recounts his encounter with his mother, in StairWell, there is a superbly vivid image of a person searching, but not abstractly, for what really matters – but in the very flesh of her existence. At the same time, this gives the reason, as it were, his mother did not remain in hell, where hell is understood in a wide, biblical sense, of being the place before Christ’s appearance after the Resurrection releases those trapped there. Nevertheless, there is still the meaning of hell as a place “inescapable” to which I shall refer in due course. Here, though, given the context of Dante saying to Sale that “’You are about,’ …, ‘to find love’” (StairWell, p. 20), wherein both mother and son ask each other for forgiveness (StairWell, p. 21), Sale says of encountering his mother, that
‘A holy wailing wrapped me in in its cask;
So solid, pain was tangible – visible –
Peeling the skin as acid might a mask:
Wherein – I saw her – clawing for her soul,
Stripping away the layers plastered there
Through years, which now in shreds, plopped in the bowl
Beneath her bed,’ (StairWell, p. 20).
Thus an account both vivid and, paradoxically, understated: that of his mother searching her own flesh ‘for her soul’ which, as she does so, plops ‘in the bowl/Beneath her bed’. A truly evocative image, especially considering the “Word made flesh” (Jn 1: 14) which entered into the real human history of lived experience and, illuminating it from within, makes it possible for us to see the significance buried, as it were, in the flesh of experience. It is possible, therefore, that the flesh that is here described as ‘plopped in the bowl’ is that bloated corruption of our appetites that both destroy us and those with whom we come into contact; as, in the end, other people are either “used up” in a kind of consumption of pleasure or they are the “but” of our gross self-ignorance. But what redeems these awful pages is the call to communion, within the very family that seemed to have disfigured Sale so; and, indeed, even as he passes on, he is called to pray for them and bring them, as it were, with him albeit according to the pace of their own salvation (cf. StairWell, p. 29).
We have, then, this beautiful plea for prayer, by Sale’s mother, that what is broken in family life can be healed in the life of the Christian family:
‘She paused. ‘Pray James, for me, and pray in full –
Pray every time your eyes close, while you live;
Pray, knowing nothing deflects His searching will
That will not be gainsaid its harvest – love.
Inscrutable His majesty and power;
My heart yearns to suffer and be above
With Him where, at last, He will tread the hours
To dust, and we will freely be like Him.’
Her speech astonished me – certain, assured’ (StairWell, p. 27).
Thus the pages describe this encounter, which includes the loving forgiveness she denied her husband on his deathbed but now attends to him, as she can (StairWell, pp. 24-25). In so doing, Sale includes the whole psychological drama of words uttered in a vile way that bear a destructive virus and, what is more, the spiritual battle entailed in not being destroyed by them shows the presence of the transforming grace of God as how we suffer accounts, exactly, for what is needed to restore the wholesomeness of human love which, in reality, is divinized when it is completely fulfilled. And if it is supposed that these accounts are, as it were, fanciful, I can testify that through years of different kinds of sufferings, whether it be psychological crises, spiritual promptings to go to confession and listen to His word, the compelling impulse to pray, four operations, never mind the almost destruction of my legs from blood clots, through the blocked blood attacking them (varicose eczema) – these sufferings are experienced by the whole person who, as they are experienced, seeks the connection to his life and sinfulness and the mercy of God: the years of resisting forgiveness and nursing “unforgiveness” and forgetting and forging sins, the reality of which has a brutally biting impact on others[ix].
As the journey continues so we discover the hitherto secret reason that Sale’s mother is not a permanent resident in hell, ‘Where those persist who cannot change their fate’ (StairWell, p. 31), as Dante explains:
‘How late your prayers’ potent efficacies
(Were laid and willed before the world was made)
Transport your mother finally to bliss.’
I stood stunned: this gift, an unworldly trade,
That One above whose mercy knows no measure,
Released her because – and I wept – I prayed (StairWell, p. 32).
Hell and suffering: Purgatory and suffering
C. S. Lewis says vividly: ‘“To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is 'remains'”[x].
In Dante’s work, ‘Each sin's punishment in Inferno is a contrapasso, a symbolic instance of poetic justice; for example, in Canto XX, fortune-tellers and soothsayers must walk with their heads on backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because that was what they had tried to do in life: and since he wanted so to see ahead he looks behind and walks a backward path’[xi].
However true that maybe of a sinner suffering in Dante’s Inferno, and I seem to recall that there was a definite influence on Sale in his first Canto, HellWard, what that account demonstrates, as it were, is the “logic” of hell as a permanent state of repudiation: of that terrible despair of ever loving or being loved that those who have irrevocably rejected forgiving or being forgiven experience in that they are “trapped in their sin”. Nevertheless, even if there is a “poetic justice” in that the suffering of sin can be expressed in such a way that its “spiritual secret” is shown through a specific torment, two things need to be addressed.
Firstly, suffering is also remedial and, through the action of God, it is about calling us to conversion – even the terrible sufferings depicted in the Book of Revelation are an expression, paradoxically, of the divine desire that no one be lost.
‘However, as with our own, personal sufferings, so with the sufferings we go through as a community, as a world-community, the good the Lord seeks to bring out of it all is the good of our eternal salvation (cf. Ps 7: 12; Ez 11: 1-21 and 38: 21-23; and Rev 9: 20-21 and Jn 3: 16-21)’[xii].
Secondly, there is the great question of the suffering of the innocent. Indeed, in view of the growing warmth between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People, mediated by the three Initiators of the Neocatechumenal Way, one of them, Kiko Argüello[xiii], composed a symphony on the theme of the Suffering of the Innocents, especially remembering those who lost their lives in the Concentration Camps of the Second World War[xiv]. It also seems, however, that this theme runs deeply in Kiko’s life and was a part of his conversion to the Catholicism he inherited:
‘In the early 1960s, Francisco José Gómez Argüello (Kiko), a Spanish painter, winner of the Special National Painting Prize in 1959, after a deep existential crisis, discovered in the suffering of the innocents the mystery of Christ Crucified, who is present in the last ones of the earth This experience led him to abandon everything and, following in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld, he went to live among the poor in Palomeras Altas’[xv].
Thus we come to Jesus Christ, the suffering Innocent One, and how our redemption follows on His divine, risen presence among us, both historically and sacramentally, in the mysteries of the Catholic Church. And, while we could dwell further on other aspects of this work, perhaps it is timely to draw this piece to a close and to point, as it were, in the direction of heaven through that coming DoorWay Sale is now working on.
While there are both allusions to classical figures which escape me and, at the same time, questions of poetic competence which are completely beyond me[xvi], it is clear from reading and re-reading StairWell that Sale, like Dante, succeeds in the basic task which is a participation in the divine work which seeks ‘to raise mortals from the state of misery … and lead them to the state of happiness’:
‘Dante’s work, Pope Francis says, shows eloquently and effectively “how false it is to say that obedience of mind and heart to God is a hindrance to genius, which instead it spurs on and elevates”. For this reason, the Pope continued, “the teachings bequeathed to us by Dante in all his works, but especially in his threefold poem”, can serve “as a most precious guide for the men and women of our own time”, particularly students and scholars, since “in composing his poem, Dante had no other purpose than to raise mortals from the state of misery, that is from the state of sin, and lead them to the state of happiness, that is of divine grace”’ (Part I)[xvii].
Finally, the poignant reflection on Sale’s relationship to his mother and, in the course of the whole book, others whom he has known, brings out the contrast between death being a non-event and a divine opportunity, taking us beyond the ‘millions moaning in their dull/Lament, which I for sure wanted to leave’ (StairWell, pp. 33-34). If we, then, you and I, come to Sale’s text with our lives and ponder all that this journey entails, maybe we can have the possibility, too, of being reconciled where we thought reconciliation was impossible knowing, in the end, that nothing is impossible to God (Lk 1: 37). Moreover, without disrespect to Sale but, rather, in keeping with the impulse of the commemoration of Dante’s work you might, like me, seek a copy, even in translation, of Dante’s Divine Comedy and hope to discover afresh whatever is to be found there, having trod upon a StairWell that goes that way!
Francis Etheredge, author of 13 books on Amazon, with 3 more forthcoming in 2023, including Lord, Do You Mean Me? A father-Catechist! all from En Route Books and Media.
[i] Helen Roseveare : https://www.azquotes.com/quote/533895 [ii] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 3, 1, 3 and 3; cf. CCC, 412, quoted in The Navarre Bible: Pentateuch, p. 55. [iii] Benedict XV, IN PRAECLARA SUMMORUM, 4, https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xv/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xv_enc_30041921_in-praeclara-summorum.html. [iv] Email correspondence with James Sale, 11/01/2023. [v] Pope Francis’ letter on Dante, Cantor Lucis Aeternae, https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2021/03/25/0181/00393.html#ing. [vi] Email correspondence with James Sale, 29/06/2023. [vii] By Eric Auerbach, cited in the Divine Comedy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Comedy. [viii] Cf. Etheredge, review of James Sale’s HellWard,https://www.hprweb.com/2021/12/book-reviews-january-2022/#cantos. [ix] Cf. various books by Etheredge, notably and simply, The Prayerful Kiss: https://enroutebooksandmedia.com/theprayerfulkiss/; Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry: https://enroutebooksandmedia.com/honestrustandgold/. [x] C. S. Lewis quotes: https://libquotes.com/c-s-lewis/quote/lbk9s6n. [xi] Inferno, Canto XX, lines 13–15 and 38–39, Mandelbaum translation, quoted in the Wikipedia article, Divine Comedy (cited previously). [xii] Short extract from Etheredge, An Unlikely Gardener, forthcoming from En Route Books and Media, 2023. [xiii] The other two are Fr. Mario Pezzi and Carmen Hernandez. [xiv] Cf. for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FAfVz4ZUaI. [xv] “What is the Neocatechumenal Way”: https://neocatechumenaleiter.org/en/history/. [xvi] There are plenty of references and notes at the end of StairWell for those who want to pursue the classical allusions and to investigate the structure of the poetry, pp. 175-196. [xvii] Pope Francis’ letter on Dante, Cantor Lucis Aeternae, Part I.