Dante is now at the end of the terrace of Lust, the final one on the seven-storey mountain. He stands on the edge of the wall of flame. Then “God’s angel of joy” appears to them:
Upon the bank beyond the fire’s reach
he stood, singing Beati mundo corde!
The living beauty of his voice rang clear.
Then: “Holy souls, no farther can you go
without first suffering fire. So, enter now,
and be not deaf to what is sung beyond.”
Beati mundo corde is Latin for, “Blessed are the pure in heart” — for, as Christ said, they shall see God.
Dante hopes to see God, but before that, he hopes to see Beatrice. He cannot behold her until and unless he first walks through the wall of flame, a baptism by fire that will purify his heart. He has to mortify the flesh before he can live in the spirit. Dante says these words made him feel “like a man who is about to be entombed alive.”
Gripping my hands together, I leaned forward
and, staring at the fire, I recalled
what human bodies look like burned to death.
They burned criminals at the stake in Dante’s Florence. Dante had seen this happen. Indeed, he himself had received the same sentence, should he ever show his face in his city again. To walk through the flame would mean a sentence of excruciating death. But Virgil assures him, “O my dear son, there may be pain here, but there is no death.”
This canto is personal to me. When I was a young man, in college and right out of college, I wanted God, but only on the condition that I be able to withhold obeying Him with regard to my sexual behavior. It wasn’t that I was that much of a lothario, but to put it crudely, I wanted to keep my options open. I was willing to change in any number of ways, but that one was off-limits. It seemed an impossible demand to fulfill. Who could live that way? What late 20th century American male can live that way?
I was determined not to live that way. Why couldn’t I be a Christian but also up to date in my sex life? Well, because it’s dishonest, is why. There is no way to reconcile sex outside of marriage with the Christian faith. It cannot be done without first doing so much violence to Scripture and Tradition that it has little binding power left. I was not (and am not) the kind of person to put it like this, but it’s true: either Christ is the Lord of all your life, or He is not really your Lord: you are. I knew this. I knew I was lying to myself that I could have both. And I knew that my desire for my sexual freedom was greater than my desire for God. God would have to wait.
Meanwhile, I came very close to making a mess of my life, following my own desire. I hurt women. I didn’t mean to hurt them, but I did. I was selfish. I couldn’t think clearly. More than anything else, I wanted to be in love, and to be committed to one woman, but I didn’t know how to do that. And then I had a moment of reckoning — the details aren’t important — that made me realize how reckless I had been, and how my selfish behavior — my lustful behavior, to speak frankly — stood to wreck truly wreck, more lives than my own. At one point, I even began to fear for my soul.
I told myself that compared to many guys I knew, I was leading a good life. But this wouldn’t do. I was comparing myself to others, not to the standard I perfectly well knew was set by Scripture. True, there were clergymen who would tell me — who did tell me — that everything was fine, jack. But things weren’t fine.
Somehow, God became more important to me than my own desires. I did not want to walk through that fire, but I knew that if I stayed where I was, in that dark wood, I would die. So, walk I did.
Whenever I hear people complaining that the Church makes too much of a big deal about sex, I assume that those are people who wish the Church said nothing about sex at all. I knew from the inside why the Church’s teaching made sense. For all the lies I told myself, and that our culture tells us, about what sex is for, living by the world’s rules left me feeling hollow and unsatisfied. I could tell that the women I had been with, for most of them it hadn’t been just one of those things. And truth to tell, it wasn’t really that for me either. I kept trying to talk myself out of that empty feeling, but it only got stronger. I didn’t want sex; I wanted love. I mean, yes, I really wanted sex, but that desire, decoupled from love, was a counterfeit. It was destructive to me and to the women I had been with. I realized around this time that by trying to banish that guilty feeling so I could be as free as I wanted to be and thought I had a right to be, that I was killing off the most humane part of myself.
After I became a Catholic, I committed myself to chastity, not knowing if I would ever get married. This might be a lifetime thing. The thought filled me with dread. But the prospect of going back to that Egypt from which I’d just been delivered was worse. So on I went, trusting that God knew what was best for me, and that I would rather die to my body with Him than live in my body without him.
I can’t tell you that I was 100 percent successful in those first years, but I was better than I had been, and the confessional helped me get better. Learning to tell myself no was a new thing, and an important one. I learned to steer myself away from getting involved with women who didn’t share my faith. Being chaste, I began to understand better how I deceived myself, and got myself into messed-up situations by following my, uh, heart. When I moved down to south Florida, things were especially difficult for me, and particularly lonely, because I had no religiously observant friends, no Catholic community. That was when the fire was the hottest, and I prayed the hardest.
Then, as many of you longtime readers know, I made a trip to Austin one October weekend, to meet my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, in the Texas capital for a speech, and to show her around one of my favorite towns. It was there, at Frederica’s reading, that I was introduced to Julie, an undergraduate at UT. And I knew right then and there that something unusual had just happened. Three days later, me back in Florida and her in Austin, we were e-mailing, talking about marriage. Four months later, after only a few weekends spent together, but many, many e-mails and phone calls, I flew to Austin and, kneeling in front of an icon of Mary, I proposed marriage. She accepted. We drank Veuve Clicquot and ate chips and salsa. Late that same year, we married (see photo above). That was 17 years ago.
How in the world had that happened, and happened so quickly. Yes, I’m a romantic, but I am absolutely convinced that if my own heart had not been purified by those three years I spent walking through the fire, I would not have recognized the smile of the pure-hearted woman who was my own Beatrice, for whom I had been praying and longing for many years. Walking through that particular fire for so long purified my heart and clarified my mind, rightly ordering it and teaching me to see love and sexuality as God sees them, even if it made no sense to me at first. Virgil says to Dante:
Remember all your memories! If I
took care of you when we rode Geryon,
shall I do less when we are nearer God?
Dante trusted his shepherd, and stepped into the fire. I, in those days, trusted the voice of the Church. And I was right to have done so. Dante:
Once in the fire, I would have gladly jumped
into the depths of boiling glass to find
relief from that intensity of heat.
Boiling glass as a comfort! But he trusted the voice of his shepherd:
My loving father tried to comfort me,
talking of Beatrice as we moved:
“Already I can see her eyes, it seems!”
And then they were through. Dante has now reached the summit of the mountain. A voice says, in Latin, “Come, blessed of my Father” — the entire verse is Matthew 25:34, in which Christ says that in the final judgment, the great King will separate the sheep from the goats, and invite the sheep into to possess their inheritance, which has been prepared for them since the beginning of the world. The shimmering Angel removes the final P from his forehead. He has been restored to innocence, and can walk on, if he likes, into the Garden of Eden, which is at the mountaintop.
Tellingly, in light of that Bible verse, Dante describes himself now as a goat at pasture, indicating that he is not yet ready for Eden. He lays down and has a prophetic dream of Leah, the older daughter of Laban. In Genesis 29, Laban forces Jacob to work seven years in his service for the hand of his younger daughter Rachel in marriage, but at the end of the seven years forces him instead to marry Leah. Jacob then works another seven years for Laban so he can also marry Rachel. In this canto, the dream portrays Leah as an allegory of the active life, and Rachel as an allegory of the contemplative life. The role of eyesight is symbolically important here. Genesis tells us that Leah had weak eyes. But be patient, we will discover the meaning of this dream soon.
Now we come to the end of Dante’s time with Virgil. In perhaps the most moving passage in the entire Commedia, Virgil tells Dante that on this day, he will receive “that precious fruit which all mean eagerly go searching for on many different boughs,” and that it “will give, today, peace to your hungry soul.”
Virgil explains that Dante’s will has been perfected. He has gone as far as pure Reason can possibly take him. From now on, he is truly free. He can trust his desires, for they have been perfected. Virgil:
I led you here with skill and intellect;
from here on, let your pleasure be your guide:
the narrow ways, the steep, are far below.
Behold the sun shining upon your brow,
behold the tender grass, the flowers, the trees,
which, here, the earth produces of itself.
Until those lovely eyes rejoicing come,
which, tearful, once urged me to come to you,
you may sit here, or wander, as you please.
Expect no longer words or signs from me.
Now is your will upright, wholesome and free,
and not to heed its pleasure would be wrong:
I crown and miter you lord of yourself!”
What a moment of majesty! The crown and the miter are symbols of cosmic authority: the State and the Church. By God’s help, and through the rigors of penance, Dante has achieved perfect mastery of himself. His will is perfectly free. He has been restored to an Edenic state; “pleasure” can be his guide, because the things that bring Dante pleasure from here on out will be the right things. Giuseppe Mazzotta points out that as Dante ascends into Paradise, his spiritual growth is no longer a matter of moral improvement, but sharpening the aesthetic sense, growing in the love of Creation and the One who is everywhere present and fills all things.
That line of Virgil’s — Your will is upright, wholesome, and free — brings to mind something a friend of mine told me about her passage from a life of sexual indulgence to one of purity, one that ultimately resulted in a religious conversion. She said that the turning point for her (this was years before her conversion) was seeing the love inherent in the ordinary family life of a friend, which made her think: “All my life I’ve been waiting for somebody to give me permission to be wholesome.”
That was all it took: seeing the truth, the goodness, and the beauty in wholesomeness, and realizing that it’s not a lie or an unrealistic dream. You first have to desire it. Though she didn’t become a Christian until later, her desire for the true and the good and the beauty inspired her to turn from her previous life, and to walk through the purifying fire. She’s still there, and is an inspiration to me. I’m sure that to many people in her world, she looks like a freak. She’s young, and beautiful, and very available. But she knows what she left behind, and she trusts what’s ahead, on the other side of the fire. On she goes, eyes wide open, becoming more free with each step.
By the way, if you haven’t yet listened online to the BBC’s one-hour radio dramatization of Dante’s Inferno, you’re missing out. It’s a riveting play. You have till Saturday to listen to it before it leaves the site.
UPDATE: Thinking just now of the layers of self-deception I shed, I am reminded of one cold Saturday morning on Capitol Hill in 1995, when I was reading a book my friend Tom Sullivan had given me for my birthday that week. It was the Letters Of J.R.R. Tolkien. Here is an excerpt from a letter Tolkien wrote to his son Michael in 1941, warning him against idealizing romantic love. He says the courtly love tradition that came out of the Middle Ages made not God its ultimate desire, but “imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady.
It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity — of the old-fashioned “his divinity” = the woman he loves — the object or reason of noble conduct. This is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril.
Yes, I thought back then, this makes sense. Had I not been doing that, seeking a perfect woman, La Belle Dame Sans Merci? Making Love and the Lady my own deities, and embarking on an impossible quest. Tolkien goes on, saying that the chivalric ideal can be beautiful, but it’s misleading:
It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).
It was as if a malignant spirit had been named as a prelude to a forced exit. For some reason, I felt an overwhelming desire to go to church at that instant and pray. I put my shoes and my coat on, and padded up A St., NE, and over to St. Joseph’s church. I walked in, and without taking off my coat, knelt alone in that cold stone church, and prayed to be set free. I can’t say exactly what happened, but I felt something lift. When I went home, I went upstairs to my bedroom, and there I saw the giant movie poster above my bed, the one I’d carried with me since my undergraduate years, and put in a place of honor in my bedroom, with new eyes. Betty Blue is La Belle Dame Sans Merci. She had been my goddess. It was she — that passionate but destructive romantic ideal, to whom the writer sacrifices himself — who kept me from seeing women as they are. Now I knew. I took the poster down and threw that false image away, and kept on walking through the fire.