Mohammed by Salvador Dali

I’m still working my way through Anthony Esolen’s excellent translation of Dante’s Inferno, and have walked through the ninth ditch of Malebolge–which holds the schismatics. They are tortured by being split in half by a demonic sword. It’s a harsh image and Esolen captures the earthy Italian of Dante describing one of the schismatic souls as a barrel with the “midstave split apart…so burst wide from the chin severed down to where we fart.” Yucch.

It is interesting that Dante puts Mohammed and his son Ali into the circle of schismatics. He follows the medieval understanding of Islam as a Christian schism. The imagery is violent because schism eventually leads to violence. Notice the violence of Islam. Notice the violence of the wars of religion and centuries of revolution and bloodshed after the Protestant Revolution in Europe. When Christendom is broken heads must roll.

As usual, in Dante’s vision the punishment fits the crime. Schismatics sin against unity and so they themselves are split asunder, and as usual, the visual and violent imagery that Dante uses reflects an inner, psychological and spiritual reality. Schism splits us asunder. It divides the church. It divides families. It divides communities. It divides the individual. We cannot have unity within ourselves if we are out of unity with one another and with Christ’s church.

Schism, in all its forms, is simple assumption that “I know best.” My own opinion becomes the truth. My own Biblical interpretation becomes dogma. My own limited understanding becomes the benchmark for all knowledge. My own private interpretation or personal revelation is the only truth and all the truth. The kind of individualism which our society exalts is simply the sin of schism writ large. Each man and each woman a law unto themselves with no unifying factor, no unifying belief, no unifying set of morality, no unifying authority structure.

The result of this schism for the individual is modern man’s search for identity–his search for a soul. We don’t know who we are, so consequently we make an image for ourselves. We are ‘self made men’ and proud of it. We try on different persona. We re-invent ourselves. We are cut off from the source of unity and we suffer from an inner schism which has become a chasm of emptiness within.

On a societal level (and I feel this living in the USA) we are just as divided and broken, with no real shared sense of religion, values or goals. We have no shared culture. It is visible in the shallow, diffuse and superficial American society. It seems that nothing is real. Nothing has an inner integrity. When you go down the shopping street it is like Disneyland. Here a Mexican restaurant made to look like a hacienda. There an Italian restaurant which is a fake Tuscan villa. Here a church built in Gothic style and next to it a fake neo classical style church. The schismatic society is one big smorgasbord of quality and trash all thrown together buffet style for each individual to sample and then move on to the next artificial experience.

These are surface observances from a schismatic society. We’re split up into millions of little groups with no real connections between them. We’re a confederation of contradictions: ethnic groups, religious groups, political groups, broken families, broken lives–all the result of schism and a flight from unity. In fact, the only thing these groups seem to have in common is a shared hatred of any authority or any system that might provide unity in the midst of sectarian chaos.

This is why, increasingly, my Catholic faith is so vitally important. There is nothing else in this modern society which can give anyone a connection with the deepest sources of unity. All other religions are themselves schismatic and sectarian. No other philosophy or culture can transcend all the plethora of divisions except the Catholic faith. The Catholic faith provides the source of unity for the individual and the society. We draw together around the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic faith and this leads us to an inner unity as individuals, but as each individual approaches unity they also come closer to one another, and so societal unity begins to come about.

This is difficult to articulate, but I realize that through the unity of the Mass, through the unity of the church, by being part of one flock following one shepherd, my own tendency to schism and individualism is corrected. There is a deep sense in which, the more I make a loving submission to the church, the less I matter, and the more I am being gathered up into a far greater cosmic unity than I could ever have imagined.

This unity obliterates my shallow individualism, but it does not obliterate my personality. Instead it fulfills my personality. Instead of being in pieces it brings me to a place of peace. Searching for, and living in the Unity brings me at last to the place I ought to be. This is one of the greatest and unexpected blessing of becoming a Catholic–that I am called to mover further up and further in to the Unity. Bit by bit I take my place within the ranks of the blessed and find “my peace in his will.”

I do not profess to have attained this, I feel like I have only begun the journey, but at least I believe I can see the destination.