“Breathe upon me and free me, help me break the long fast and the hunger of my heart, finding for it no earthly food to take…”
Dante is speaking to the Eagle of justice. Dante has a haunting doubt. What of the virtuous pagans? Will they be saved? Can they be saved?
Calvin argued that the pagans seemed to be virtuous. But Catholic teaching suggests, though it is not dogma that some pagans may be saved. “That some of the virtuous pagan only appeared pagan,” as Anthony Esolen suggests in his commentary on Dante’s Paradise. He continues, as Jesus said he is the way the truth and the life, this may be interpreted as ‘All those who come to the Father do so by my work, my merits, my virtue infused into their hearts.’
In all respect, we don’t know who will be saved. “Who is saved and who is not rests hidden in the secrets of divine providence, but that there might be Christians whom Christians do not recognize as such is suggested by Christ himself: ‘And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also must I bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd’ (John 10:16).
Dante is not solely punitive in his vision. He saved three pagans: Cato, Trajan, and Ripheus.
Again, we do not know God’s justice in full: who will be among his fold and who will not. “But here behold: many now cry, ‘Christ, Christ! who’ll be less near to Him on Judgment Day than will the one who never knew of Christ” (Paradise 19, 106). Esolen reminds us in his commentary, he “who betrays the faith will be farther from Christ than the one who never knew Him.”
These words which are from Christ himself “depart from me I never knew you” are frightening. Christ is merciful and just and loving and kind and gives his people grace to come to Him. Yet, he has high standards. In our own strength, we cannot meet this standard, only in Christ. This means we cannot be lazy in our faith. Our wills and affections must be transformed and convicted to become more like Christ. In my thirty-six years there have been times (ebbs and flows) of taking my faith for granted. We must be vigilant in our pursuit of Christ. One misstep, one straying thought, one day of taking it all for granted can lead to destruction and compound as acedia sets in. Of course, we do not have the strength to be hyper-vigilant. No person can be. This is where Christ’s grace comes in. Some days it is just simple obedience. Obeying Christ’s words. Showing up to church. Doing something as simple and quick to obey. If we delay, the moment is lost and we sink into inactivity, sloth, indifference. To do His will is simple, but our acedia, distractions, wandering wills get in the way.
A lot of the time, the prayer, “help me desire your will” is what we need to say or “help me Lord”. The Christian life is no easy road. Much is required. The death of the distorted will, distorted affection. Christ’s words keeping us on the straight path. Eschewing the crooked path. Many temptations are along the road.
My heart is “God save us all”. But You are the Provident One, who knows all hearts and wills. You are the just King who is also merciful. Some will be saved, others will choose otherwise and be lost to the outer darkness. Only God knows. In the meantime, help us, pagan and Christian, to conform to your will and to love You and your will. Lord, have mercy.