One of my favorite encounters in the Inferno is Dante’s standoff with the Medusa. The demons of hell resent that Dante, a living being, is being allowed to take a tour of the afterlife and they bar Dante and Virgil’s path.
Virgil, Dante’s afterlife tour guide, goes on ahead to try and bargain with the demons, but they slam the gate shut in his face and mock the defenseless pilgrims. Perhaps Disney’s Frollo was right, “God in his plan . . . made the devil so much stronger than a man.” Dante and Virgil, as mere mortals, are powerless to overcome the demons, but Virgil tries to comfort Dante. God’s grace wills their pilgrimage, which means help must be soon on its way. But even Virgil starts to get nervous.
That hue which cowardice brought out on me [Dante],
Beholding my Conductor [Virgil] backward turn,
Sooner repressed within him his new colour.
He stopped attentive, like a man who listens,
Because the eye could not conduct him far
Through the black air, and through the heavy fog.
“Still it behoveth us to win the fight,”
Began he; “Else. . .Such offered us herself. . .
O how I long that some one here arrive!”
Well I perceived, as soon as the beginning
He covered up with what came afterward,
That they were words quite different from the first;
But none the less his saying gave me fear,
Because I carried out the broken phrase,
Perhaps to a worse meaning than he had.
“Into this bottom of the doleful conchLongfellow Translation, Project Gutenberg
Doth any e’er descend from the first grade,
Which for its pain has only hope cut off?”
Dante’s last response put more simply is this: perhaps God isn’t sending help because he has abandoned me. I deserve to be damned and God’s punishment is rising my hopes with this strange pilgrimage then dashing them.
Abandonment. It’s a feeling that will weigh on every believer’s heart at some point. We face trials, and we ask God for aid. We know that we cannot do it without him. And we wait. And wait and wait. Virgil tries to comfort Dante, but you can tell he is having doubts (“O how I long that someone here arrive!”) and his broken speech increases Dante’s worry.
Things quickly get worse for Dante and Virgil:
“Medusa come, so we to stone will change him!”
All [Furies] shouted looking down; “…
“Turn thyself round, and keep thine eyes close shut,
For if the Gorgon appear, and thou shouldst see it,
No more returning upward would there be.”
Thus said the Master; and he turned me roundCanto IX, Longfellow, Project Gutenberg
Himself, and trusted not unto my hands
So far as not to blind me with his own.
One popular interpretation is that the Medusa represents despair. Dante is being tempted to believe that this journey through hell is for naught, that help will not come and that he is going to be stuck in the Inferno forever. But if he looses hope, he will turn to stone, e.g. become powerless to continue the spiritual journey.
Is is only when all hope seems lost that the Angel of the Lord comes:
Even as the frogs before the hostile serpent
Across the water scatter all abroad,
Until each one is huddled in the earth.
More than a thousand ruined souls [demons] I saw,Canto IX, Longfellow, Project Gutenberg
Thus fleeing from before one [the Angel of the Lord] who on foot
Was passing o’er the Styx with soles unwet.
Quite a change of fortune! From terrifying demons to cowards fleeing like how frogs flee a snake! The power of God, manifested in this angel, allows them to breach the gate with “no resistance” and allow Dante entry “without any contest.”
Which begs the question, why did God wait if such power is so readily available? Indeed this is a situation that comes up in the bible itself. ‘Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”‘ (NABRE John 11:21). Jesus does do the miracle, but why delay so long to do it? Or what about this famous encounter?
The Calming of a Storm at Sea.35 On that day, as evening drew on, he said to them, “Let us cross to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. 38 Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. 40 Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” 41 They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”NABRE Mark 4 35-41
Do you not care that we are perishing? Do you not care that the Medusa is closing in on me? Do you not care that the world is still starving, that we are still in suffering from pandemic, from hatred from violence? Does God sleep?
Why does God wait?
Sometimes, it’s because if God solved our problems for us too quickly, we would learn nothing. Jesus wants the disciples to have faith, and so he allows the situation to persist for awhile. Thus, they will learn their dependence on him, and gain the courage to stand in the face of uncertainty. Their faith and their love would not have been strengthened had it always been sunny.
We wish there were no shut gates in our lives, that the path to heaven would be an easy one. But we grow in the struggle, we come to a deeper faith in times of adversity. And though we may not fully understand why, we can trust that for any challenge, God will, in his own good time, send us the aid we need. In these times we must do what we can, and leave to God what we can’t. We must not obsess on the waves and sink, like Peter did when he tried to walk on water. We must keep our eyes focused on Christ, so that we can continue the journey without our hearts turned to stone.
And that Lord, who had led me thitherward,Canto VIII, Longfellow, Project Gutenberg
Said unto me: “Fear not; because our passage
None can take from us, it by Such is given.
God has a plan for each of us. If we stay loyal to him, no matter how many crosses we encounter on the road, you can be assured that somehow, your passage will be assured, even if it is a more difficult road than one may wish.