“I climb from here no longer to be blind.” — Dante, Purgatorio XXVI
I stayed up late last night to finish Dante’s Purgatorio, and what a moving finish it was. The poet completed his ascent of the Mount of Purgatory, where Beatrice awaited him in the Garden of Eden in the climactic scenes. I was not prepared for how emotional I became, having gone so far with Dante, out of the selva oscura, through the Inferno, and up the mountain, and now, finally, to meet his true love, the one whose prayers summoned him away from his lostness to sin and back to God. He has had mankind’s prelapsarian nature restored to him through repentance and the acceptance of divine grace. When he sees Beatrice, she makes a strange remark to him:
Look over here! I am, I truly am Beatrice.
How did you dare approach the mountain?
Do you not know that here man lives in joy?
What does this mean? Charles Williams, in his study The Figure Of Beatrice, translates the Italian as “How did you condescend to approach the mountain?” — meaning, “How did you lower yourself to undertake the ascent to joy?” Williams:
Dante has had to be moved and persuaded and commanded and threatened before he would condescend to be happy; he has almost had to be scared into joy. The single word, in a sense, reverses the whole poem. It defines that state in which man ordinarily exists, call it pride or egotism or self-rootedness or whatever; it is, simply, the state from which man audaciously condescends to the good and to joy. It has taken not only the tears of Beatrice and the talk of Virgil, and all manner of vision of Images, to draw him from it, but still other things of which no word is yet said but the silent, twy-natured Griffin [a figure of Christ — RD] is the only present hint. There are those who have refused to condescend — all those hidden within the earth below the Mount, and the chief [Satan — RD] who champs and weeps forever in the central ice. Dante, one way and another, had spoken a good deal about that original Image by which he was once confronted — praising and adoring and studying and explaining. But as for union, he had turned away down the side-paths of that savage forest with its wild vegetable growths and its loss of the ‘self’, so that in the end, when he recollected that self, he found all his life fathered against him in the fierce bestial shapes; and the she-wolf’s cravings his only future.
He has been saved from that.
We may expect that when Dante finally sees Beatrice, there would be exultation and warm embraces, but that’s not what happens. She speaks to him with some harshness, but it’s because she loves him, and desires the Good for him. He cannot achieve it unless he makes a final act of penance. She tells him that when she was alive, she was, for him, the image of divine grace. When she died, he lost the path to union with God that had been revealed to him through her beauty. In the poem, the angels can’t bear to see Dante’s sorrow as he stands in Beatrice’s presence, reflecting on what he threw away, but Beatrice tells them he must come to terms with his sin. She explains that Dante, in life, had been given a vision of God’s goodness, and had so much potential to live up to it, but wasted his opportunities. Why? she asks him.
Dante, broken, confesses that after her death made him lose her image, he ran after false images of the Good that misled him, and caused him to become lost in the savage wood (selva oscura). She tells him that her face was for him the purest icon of divinity; when that experience of awe was withdrawn from Dante by her death, he failed to keep faith with what he saw in her. This is the core of Dante’s sinfulness: to have failed to have been a saint (what Leon Bloy calls “the only real tragedy”). That is, Beatrice in life gave Dante a glimpse of divine love in the flesh. Had he remained faithful to that initial vision, he would not have been deceived by false images of the Good. She tells him that if he had refused to embrace those false icons when he was first tempted to do so, he would not have suffered. What Beatrice is doing here is helping Dante complete his purgation by leading him to understand the root of his sin, and how he first left the true path and became lost in the savage wood — and how this final repentance, in tears, will open the gates of Paradise for him.
What we see in this stunning dialogue is an allegory for how we, having once believed, lose our faith. The initial encounter with Beatrice awed Dante into an awareness, in his flesh, of the higher things. He perceived divine grace in her face, and it made him want to pursue the holy. It’s important to get it straight that Beatrice was not divine; she was a sinner in need of redemption, like everyone else. But for whatever reason her image struck Dante with awe, which is the beginning of religious awareness. He saw in her image a reflection of God. Think of a time you were surprised by awe and struck by an awareness of the divine in what you beheld. It may have been a scene in nature. It may have been the extraordinary love of someone. For me, it was the Chartres cathedral. The point here is that having seen God’s reflection, and become aware of His presence, so many of us forget the original vision that inspired us. By not guarding our consciences, we fall prey to false icons, to things that purport to be Good but which are not. We find ourselves in the earthly life mired in confusion and darkness, beset by our sinful passions — and may find ourselves in the afterlife in the Inferno, or, if we have shown even the least repentance, in Purgatory, preparing for final union with God in Paradise.
Dante saw the light of God in Beatrice, but by his own weakness, lost that vision, and fell into darkness and despair. We learn here that it took many tears and prayers of Beatrice in heaven, as well as the devotion of Virgil, to get Dante to the top of that mountain. As he told the shades in Purgatory, “I climb from here no longer to be blind.” He desires to see. When Beatrice asks him why he “condescended” to approach joy, she means that everlasting joy only comes to those who sacrifice their all-too-human pride humble themselves in profound repentance, so that they can at last see God, or to put it in more theological terms, attain the Beatific Vision.
I am thinking of the incident in the Gospel of John, Chapter 5, in which Jesus approaches the chronically ill man at the Bethesda pool. He asks the man, “Do you want to be healed?” It’s a strange thing to ask; of course the man wants to be healed, right? But on second thought, it is by no means clear that we really want to be healed. Many of us think we want to be healed of our afflictions — I’m speaking in the spiritual sense here — but the truth is, we have made icons of our passions, and even our brokenness, and are frightened by the prospect of life without them. The sicker we are, the stronger the medicine to restore us must be. Dante is not sentimental about this. We face an arduous climb to overcome ourselves and our passions. Longing for Divine Grace — in the Divine Comedy, represented by the figure of Beatrice — propels us forward; note that in Purgatory, we can only move as fast as we desire to move. God, in His infinite love for us, will not compel us to come to him. We have free will. We have to have within our own breasts the desire to see ourselves as we really are, and God as He really is, so that we can at last renounce that which separates us from Him.
We must climb so that we will no longer be blind.
Our tragedy is that we prefer the false comforts of blindness to the adventure of ascending to knowledge, to purification, to perfected vision, and to the ultimate joy of unity with the Creator.