Shopping the Inferno

shutterstock_89559520There are seven deaths and ninety injuries on record attributed to seven night’s worth of Black Friday Shopping for the last seven years. Not exactly an actuarial tsunami, and perhaps not an iron clad statistic, but imagine how much insult and damage go unreported? Though chances of surviving Black Friday are very high, even if you do get trampled, it ought to jar us out of our material complacency to learn that by comparison, Black Friday is more deadly than running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Though it is comparing apples to oranges, it is still interesting to note that there have only been fifteen deaths since 1910 and only one since 2003. Running with the bulls is an activity that intuitively seems as if it would be much more perilous than shopping on a Friday.

By comparison, there is a romantic allure to running with the bulls. It begins with the rush that one is taking his life into his own hands in an act of bravado that harkens back to a time forgotten. Running with the bulls is steeped in a tradition that began in the 14th century as bulls were escorted either to the market place or to the bullfights. Being gored by a bull, though a dismal end, possesses an air of the heroic compared to death caused by a seething hoard of bargain shoppers. How will this go down in the history books? Running with the Black Friday Shoppers? Are we witness to a budding American tradition? Such a burgeoning trend is an ill omen for the future of this country, but bodes infinitely worse for the eternal disposition of our immortal souls.

Our growing compulsion to “shop” is a tragedy that causes too little alarm. As our gaze lowers to materialism, there is a corresponding forgetfulness that Hell is real. Pope John Paul II regarded consumerism a threat to human freedom by causing a person to give into the inferior demands of material desires, rather than the higher demands of properly ordered love. Our mad rush to embrace a frenzied consumerism moves us further away from the vision of our Founding Fathers and hastens us towards a vision we would likely want to forget; that of the ante-chamber of hell so chillingly described by Dante Alighieri in Canto III of the Inferno. The shopping scene on Black Friday is beginning to bear a resemblance to that unforgiving landscape.

As Dante descends into the valley of shadows on a daunting trek down the deep and savage road to the underworld with his guide Virgil, he comes to the horrid threshold with the terrifying words “cut into stone” above the very gates of Hell:

“I am the way into the city of woe.

I am the way to a forsaken people.

I am the way into eternal sorrow.

 

Sacred justice moved my architect.

I was raised here by divine omnipotence,

Primordial love and ultimate intellect.

 

Only those elements time cannot wear

Were made before me, and beyond time I stand.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

These are hard words made incomprehensible by fear, and when Dante asks Virgil to explain them, the sage guide tells him that his fear must be left behind and to “gather your soul against all cowardice,” for they are going to see those fallen souls “who have lost the good of intellect.” Americans caught up in the vicious cycle of rabid consumerism have lost more than just the “good of intellect,” our very souls may be approaching a similar state to those Dante witnessed in the pit of the ante-chamber.

As Virgil and Dante begin further descent towards Hell proper, Dante begins to hear chilling laments, “sighs and cries and wails coiled and recoiled on the starless air, spilling my soul to tears. A confusion of tongues and monstrous accents toiled in pain and anger. Voices hoarse and shrill and sounds of blows, all intermingled, raised tumult and pandemonium.”  The video footage of many Black Friday scenes foreshadows a parallel to Dante’s description of this ante-chamber of Hell.

Dante looks down to witness teeming masses, overrun throngs of souls “naked in a swarm of wasps and hornets that goaded them the more they fled, and made their faces stream with bloody gouts of pus and tears that dribbled to their feet to be swallowed there by loathsome worms and maggots.” They are all running after a golden banner, trampling one another, pummeling one another in an endless pursuit of the thing that dazzles their eyes, eerily similar to the shopaholic who holds the allure of the sale above all other considerations of justice, duty and decorum. Violence characterizes the swirling throng of numbed souls in the ante-chamber as they chase the golden flag, unnervingly similar to mobs undulating at the entrance and throughout Walmart as they chase the bargains on Black Friday.

Dante asks his guide Virgil, “What souls are these who run through this black haze?” And Virgil answers: “These are the nearly soulless whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise. They are mixed here with that despicable corps of angels who were neither for God nor Satan, but only for themselves.” God will “not receive them since the wicked might feel some glory over them.” These are the souls that are “hateful to God and to His enemies, these wretches never born and never dead.” These are the lukewarm, who have become habituated in chasing worldly treasure.

Unbridled consumerism is a sign of a much deeper disorder of the American soul. As St. Augustine reminds us “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Disordered shopping is our attempt to fulfill needs for ourselves that we are not equipped to fulfill. We will notice that consumerism, far from truly fulfilling us, breeds apathy in the human soul. Like the souls doomed to the ante-chamber, we run the risk of being lukewarm about those things that are above  and this danger leads to a warning we ought to heed in Revelation  3:16 “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” The poor souls in the ante-chamber were not in league with the Father of Lies, but self-interested in material habits similar to those recklessly cultivated by American culture embodied by new traditions like Black Friday.

Our politicians, professors, and psychologists are steeped in brave and bold social utopian ideologies that would see all human souls equally satiated with material abundance. The experts use the acquisition of material goods as the measure of progress towards “heaven on earth.” It is no small irony that even though we have more material riches than any other time in history, the closer we get to their stated ideal of “perfection,” the less we have heaven and the more our world begins to resemble Hell.  Unrestrained consumerism is the downward spiral towards chasing the golden flag in the ante-chamber of the underworld described by Dante. Christ reminds us that “my kingdom is not of this world.” The Devil’s kingdom is of this world. Black Friday indeed!

image: littleny / Shutterstock.com

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

By

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert, a catechist, a school teacher, a Catholic writer and speaker on matters of Faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative, a regular contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.

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  • JMC

    I learned long ago that Black Friday was a good day to avoid stores…even in small-town America. Something truly weird happens to people on that day, and it’s a weirdness I want no part of. If I run out of something on Black Friday, I’ll do without rather than go to a store, *any* store, because that weirdness is still infecting people even in the feed stores that dot the landscape in farming communities. It’s a good day to just stay home…and pray for the poor souls who have to work in the stores that day.

  • Dad of 11

    My oldest son went to UCSB to get a business degree. He finished last year with a ‘Religious Studies’ degree that has left him decidedly un-Catholic and what I would call irreligious. We have some interesting conversations now. I know he is on a journey, I pray for his return. Any thoughts?

  • Steven Jonathan

    Dear Dad of 11, yes it is one of the oldest stories in the world, that of the prodigal son, one which almost all of us re-enact. I have a particularly deep experience with that timeless story. Lamentably, most of the parochial schools prepare our children for the same fate as your son. But the public universities, they take it to a completely different level. UCSB was bad when I was there, I have heard much worse about it now. I suffer similarly with my children and I believe we ought to seek the counsel of the saints:

    “The faults of children are not always imputed to the parents, especially when they have instructed them and given good example. Our Lord, in His wonderous Providence, allows children to break the hearts of devout fathers and mothers. Thus the decisions your children have made don’t make you a failure as a parent in God’s eyes. You are entitled to feel sorrow, but not necessarily guilt. Do not cease praying for your children; God’s grace can touch a hardened heart. Commend your children to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. When parents pray the Rosary,at the end of each decade they should hold the Rosary aloft and say to her,”With these beads bind my children to your Immaculate Heart”, she will attend to their souls.”

    – St. Louise de Marillac
    Pray without ceasing for your children, hope with reckless abandon for the Kingdom and be prepared for the homecoming!

  • Dad in CO

    Thanks for these words for St Louise de Marillac. I had never read them before (and know nothing about St Louise!) but they bring me comfort. Our son left the Church after being in parochial school (K-12) and while attending a Catholic university. I do pray for him daily, and like the prayer recommended at the end of each Rosary decade. I will be saying this!

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