The 13th century Florentine author, Dante Alighieri, wrote The Divine Comedy to give an allegorical look at life after death, and Volume I, Inferno, describes the famous circles of hell. At one point, Virgil leads Dante in a protected journey across the burning sand of those punished for violence against the image of God and the created order (Canto XV). Traversing this flaming desert reserved for blasphemers, usurers and sodomites, he meets Brunetto Latini, a famous Florentine intellectual, who in real life was Dante’s former caretaker and a known homosexual.
The striking thing is Dante’s righteous reaction to his mentor. He is not disgusted or disdainful. When Brunetto requests his company, Dante’s reply is: “With all my heart I beg to, and if you wish me to sit here with you, I will…”
But they must keep walking together, because of the sand’s flames. Dante takes the opportunity to thank his friend for all he taught him in his life. Dante, who under Virgil’s guidance represents the right way, shows us an attitude of compassion toward those lost in their desires that contradict God’s will for them. Dante exclaims,
Oh, if all I wished for had been granted, you certainly would not, not yet, be banished from our life on earth;
my mind is etched (and now my heart is pierced) with your kind image, loving and paternal…
And while I live my tongue shall always speak of my debt to you, and of my gratitude.”
Even in the thirteenth century, we see heart-piercing affection recommended for a lost friend (a lot like Romans 9:3). Does this sound like a homophobic diatribe?
At the same time, we see through Brunetto’s speech that it is not really his same-sex attraction that has consigned him to this circle of hell. It is instead where he has put his trust. His sole wish of Dante is not reconciliation with God, but that the poet would help people on earth remember his great literary work, an encyclopedia Brunetto produced.
Seriously…?! His encyclopedia?
People remembering his encyclopedia? Is that what matters to this man in hell? Yes, and that is his soul’s problem. Before death or after death makes no difference. This celebrated atheist will not turn to Christ for His meaning and fulfillment. Rather they will rest in his own way of relations and his own paltry achievements. So he wanders aimlessly—again, before and after death—on the burning sands of vanity. I think Dante got this right.
The same remains true today. Homosexuality never sent anyone to hell. But rather we are damned in refusing to bring all our desires to God, good and bad, to receive Christ’s forgiveness for our sin and His justification for our life.
At the same time, the same struggle of compassion that the poet felt should be there in us for those we love who will not agree with God’s counsel on relationships.
Let us agree with Dante for our friends, “my mind is etched (and now my heart is pierced) with your kind image…” and let us acknowledge our debts to them, whatever their condition.
Is there a Brunetto in your life?