Walking just now across the snowy campus of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan — where I’m speaking tonight at 7, if you’re in the area and would like to come — I was talking with a professor about the Commedia, which he’s teaching this semester. He spoke of how Dante’s journey into his future takes him into his past — that is, how along the way, he encounters shades of people he knew or knew of back in his earthly life, and how those shades, and their experiences, and his relationship with them, directs his pilgrimage. The medievals believed in the concept of habitus, which is to say the personal culture and worldview one carries in one’s head as a result of how, where, and among whom one lives. Our habitus shapes us; even when we have left people in our habitus behind in our journeys through life — and indeed, in the Commedia, Dante is propelled relentlessly forward, and repeatedly told in Purgatorio not to look back — the people from Dante’s habitus as a Tuscan of the High Middle Ages are unavoidably part of his habitus, even if they define the sins he’s trying to overcome. Dante the pilgrim has to go down into Hell so he can go up into Heaven. We pilgrims may have to go back to our past in some sense, to confront our personal histories, so we can go forward to a future that is more holy and peaceful.
The professor’s words made me think of my own pilgrimage back to my hometown in a new, Dantean light. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world, now that I think about it. But I hadn’t quite seen it that way until he said what he said.
Today we are on the terrace of Envy, where those who suffered from Envy are purged of that sin. As at the beginning of the terrace of Pride, Dante is confronted by examples of the virtue he needs to acquire: Generosity. He hears the voice of the Virgin Mary saying, “We have no wine” — her request to her Son to be generous to the wedding guests in Cana. We heard the voice of Pylades falsely claiming to be Orestes, so he may die in the place of his condemned friend. Then we hear the voice of Christ instructing His followers to give love in exchange for the hatred of others.
Now, it’s important to know at this point that the medievals didn’t think of Envy as we do: wanting what others have. They saw it as not wanting others to have good things. Keep that in mind as we read Dante’s next words, upon seeing how the Envious are purged:
I do not think there walks on earth today
a man so hard that he would not have been
transfixed by pity at what he saw next,
for when I had drawn close enough
so that their state grew clear to me
my eyes were overwhelmed by grief.
Robert Hollander says of this bit:
Perhaps no passage indicates more clearly the disparity of attitude required of an onlooker in hell and purgatory. There the growth in the protagonist was measured, in part, by his ability not to respond pityingly; here compassion is an essential part of his ceremonial purgation.
This is a point hard for us moderns to understand. As they move through the Inferno, Virgil instructs Dante not to pity the damned. To do so would be to question the judgment of God. After all, pity does them no good; they are damned for all eternity. For another, the journey through Hell is to re-awaken Dante to the seriousness of sin. Remember, the damned have lost what makes them human; in life, they chose sin (which is to say, Self) over God, and so in the afterlife, God let them have what they wanted. They are physical embodiments of their besetting sin. Virgil wants Dante to understand how high the stakes are, and how he must not be deceived into thinking that sin isn’t as bad as all that. Part of his losing the straight way in life was in becoming insensitive to sin. The souls in Purgatory, though, have the assurance of Heaven, after their purgation. Allegorically, in this life, all people have the hope of Heaven, if only they repent. We must not sympathize with their sin, which threatens to murder them in eternity, but pity them as suffering creatures who might yet be delivered of their sin. In the infernal afterlife, the identification of sin with sinner is complete, which is why the damned have lost their humanity.
Back on the terrace of Envy, Dante sees a remarkable sight, one that renders his eyes — his eyes, notice — “overwhelmed by grief”: the shades are huddled by the edge of the mountain, holding fast to each other, unable to see:
for iron wire pierces all their eyelids,
stitching them together, as is done
to the untrained falcon because it won’t be calmed.
In life, the Envious cast their eyes with malice on others, and wished them harm. In so doing, they separated themselves from the community. In Purgatory, they are temporary blinded, and are forced to take hold of their neighbor, depending on him for safety and help in not falling off the mountain ledge. Tears of repentance flow through the cracks in their eyes. In a sign of his own moral awakening, Dante leaps to ask if any of the shades are Italian, so that he might serve them by asking prayers on their behalf when he returns to the world.
He meets Sapià, a woman suffering for having “rejoiced much more at harm done others than at my own good fortune.” For unclear reasons, she prayed for God to allow her people to be killed in battle with their enemies. She received her satisfaction, but repented before death. In another reminder of how much the dead depend on the prayers of the living, Sapià tells us that she would have had to spend more time in Antepurgatory if not for the prayers of a saintly hermit, Peter the Comb-Seller, on her behalf — an act that’s especially poignant given how her sin, Envy, destroys the natural solidarity between people, even family members.
Sapià asks the pilgrim if his eyes are not sewn, as she suspects, and if not, why not? He replies:
“My eyes,” I said, “will yet be taken
from me here, but for a short while only,
for small is their offense in looks of envy.
“Greater is the fear, which fills my soul with dread,
of torments lower down, those heavy loads —
I can almost feel their weight upon me now.”
Here Dante concedes that Pride was a much bigger sin for him than Envy. But still, he must suffer a bit for what Envy he does carry in his heart.
I wonder to what extent Americans suffer from Envy in the sense Dante means here. There’s something about our culture that admires people who find fortune. We don’t hate the rich; we want to be the rich. You’ve seen me write here before about a French computer scientist friend who left his own country to found a business in Silicon Valley. He could not stand the attitude of envy that pervaded the culture back home, he told me. If your neighbor saw a car in your driveway bigger than what he thought you deserved, he would assume that you had gotten it through cheating on taxes, and would call the tax authorities to report you. My pal said this kind of thing made it difficult to work harder to innovate, because you were always afraid that your success, if you found it, would be punished by some anonymous Envious person bringing a tax audit down on your head.
Still, we do suffer from Envy, God knows. In this canto, I find it interesting that Dante’s moral vision improves, as he is learning to see with the eyes of compassion (he’s becoming able to bear more light, in other words). And, the eyes of the Envious, like that of a falcon in training, are deprived of vision so they can learn to depend on their neighbor more, and to “see” their neighbor with the inner eye of compassion and solidarity in shared suffering and shared protection from danger. When the wires come out of their eyelids, they will literally see with different eyes, with a vision that has been purified from the distorting lens of the self.
There is no sanctity without suffering. This is becoming ever more clear, isn’t it? Observe too that the penitents suffer, but they suffer in joy, because they know that their suffering will make it possible for them to move on to Heaven, which is what they want more than anything. Even terrible privation is a blessing when received in a spirit of humility and love of God. What a difficult lesson this is for us to learn — and what a necessary one.