Wide Road to Hell and Narrow Path to Life

(Homily for Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

One of my projects this summer is to read Dante's Divine Comedy. It has three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). I have to admit that so far I have only made to Purgatory - and I am not sure when I will ever get to Heaven.

As is the case in today's Gospel, Dante helps clear up a misconception about who winds up in Hell or Heaven. Many suppose that Hell contains the sinners, the bad people, while Heaven has those who do good. In fact, all three levels contain sinners. The difference is that those in Heaven admit their sinfulness, while those in Hell deny their sin.

For example, in Dante's Second Circle of Hell are those who have fallen by sensual sins.* It holds a huge number of souls, but they never touch one another because they are blown by a powerful whirlwind. Dante recognizes two famous lovers: Paolo and Francesca. Like sparrows in a strong wind, they move in tandem - up and down, one side to the other. Dante desires to speak to them and his guide (the Roman poet Virgil) tells him to call to them in the name of love. He does and the two stop.

Francesca tells how she and her brother-in-law Paolo happened to be alone and happened to be reading out loud a story or romance. Their eyes met and that afternoon "we read no further." Unfortunately, Francesca's husband (who is also Paolo's brother) comes home early. In rage he kills them and, unrepentant, they fall into Hell. Francesca explains to Dante that they were not to blame because love overtook them. At the same time she makes it clear she hates her husband so much that she hopes he will wind up on a lower level of Hell reserved for (unrepentant) murderers. The souls in Hell do not desire mercy, but justice. They get what they want.

Jesus tells us that the road to Hell is wide and many take it. It involves passing the blame, justifying ones own sin while condemning others. The souls in Hell do not recognize how superficial and illusory is their "love," nor do they see what is obvious to others - that they are driven by an unforgiving hate. The road to damnation is wide.

By way of contrast, the path to salvation is narrow. I thought of this last week as I walked a path which is literally narrow: the Inca Trail. It is part of an ancient system which connected the vast Inca Empire. What we did in four days, the ancient people did in a day and half. The trail is narrow - just enough room for a man and a pack animal.

Walking the Inca Trail, I imagined a man with his family bringing produce from the distant jungle. It would have taken remarkable courage to leave his secure home, surrounded by abundant fruit, fish and other foodstuff. It would also have required faith. Who could imagine a distant city built from cut stones? Who could believe that men would lay thousands of miles of rock paths, all leading to Cusco? On the way he would have faced unforeseen dangers and unimagined trials. Some of his llamas would die from disease or mountain lion attacks at night. As the air becomes thinner, as each step becomes more painful, as his children's pleas become more plaintiff, he considers turning back. Perhaps a word of encouragement from his wife gives him the energy he needs. After several months they arrive at their destination: the beautiful and sacred city.

Jesus tells us that the path to our heavenly home is like that. Few take it because it is rugged, filled with trials. But what a city awaits those who take the narrow path!


*Among the souls in this circle is Semiramis, the legendary Egyptian queen. In an attempt to justify her own sexual excess, she made a law allowing incest. One does not have to look hard for a contemporary parallel.

Spanish Version

From Archives (21st Sunday, Year C):

2013: You Don't Have to Go to Hell
2010: More Important Than Life Or Death
2007: Depart From Me
2004: Wide Road to Hell and Narrow Path to Life
2001: Will Only A Few Be Saved?
1998: I Do Not Know You

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

Bulletin (Aid to Earthquake Victims, Distribution of Blankets, Voter Apathy in Primary Election, Parish Council Nominees)

Hiking the Inka Trail

My bulletin column

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(August 2010)

My Vocation Story (23 minute video, made at Everett Serra Club on August 14, 2010)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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