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The Commedia In The Coffee Shop

View from my coffee table at Starbucks this morning
View from my coffee table at Starbucks this morning

My son Matthew is reading Purgatorio, the second part of the Commedia, with his homeschool tutorial literature class. As with The Odyssey in 2012, and The Iliad last year, my role is to read it with him, and help teach him by talking it out. This could not have come at a better time for me, given how my mind is on fire for Dante, precisely because Dante changed my heart and set me free from a real mental bondage. (To be theologically precise, I would say that God set me free in large part through the work of Dante, whose poetry revealed the Truth to me in a way that drew me in closer than I could have imagined.) In a letter to a friend, Dante explained that the purpose of the Commedia is “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.” It works! It’s not only one of the greatest works of art ever created, but it is also a map and guidebook to freedom. This I know from personal experience. I hope to write a book about this, after I have had time to reflect on my experience at greater length; though I would with great gusto get started on that book right now, it would be unwise to force it. Happily I have another book project in the pipeline first. But I’m going to write this book, and I’m going to call it The Commedia In The Coffee Shop. It’s going to be a serious but conversational journey through Dante’s masterpiece, pitched at the level of the ordinary person — the way people who get together in a coffee shop would discuss the book. Think of the Theology On Tap program, but with Dante. I had always thought the Commedia was high literature of the sort that is inaccessible outside of the classroom. Not true! The Commedia is life! True, you do need a guide to understand many of the depths of its teachings, but above all, it’s a terrific adventure story, one that everybody — not only Christians — can read, understand, and relate to at some level.

A friend of mine who is a very fine actor is working on a book that will, in part, talk about the way art can redeem our suffering, give us the strength to carry on, find purpose in our lives and pain, and triumph over it. This is what the art of Dante Alighieri did for me. I have been so excited on this blog about Dante of late not because the Commedia is the greatest book I’ve ever read (though it is), but because that book changed me, and brought me out of darkness and bondage into light and freedom. If you were sitting here in Starbucks right this very second, as I typed this, you would see me sitting in the armchair weeping like a child. It’s all about wonder, joy, and gratitude to God for giving us Dante, and giving him and his unsurpassed work of beauty and truth to me, for my restoration and deliverance through love.

Wonder. Joy. Gratitude. Truth. Restoration. Deliverance. Love. Does it get any better than this? It does not. I tell you, I want to give this to others. I want to help others, people like me, in the fix I was in midway through the journey of our life, find their way to the master, Dante. I do not have the gift to write a book that can “remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.” But I know who did. If I can lead others to that book, I will have played my part. It feels, I dunno, missionary.

Here’s what clarified this for me this morning. I have a 14-year-old boy, my son Matt, and I am to be his teacher. His class at Sequitur just read the first three cantos of Purgatorio, so he and I discussed it on the 45-minute drive into the city this morning. After I dropped Matt off, I texted Julie, saying, “I love Dante, and I love Matthew!” Except what I mistyped was, “I love Dante, and I live Matthew!” In a way, this was a happy fault, because correcting myself in a subsequent text made me consider that in these intense conversations like my son and I had this morning, I was living Dante because I love Matthew. That is, I have come to love Dante not only for his artistry, but because God used that artistry to give me a deeper understanding of myself and others, in such a way that led me out of the bondage of my own “dark wood,” and into the light, into freedom. Because I love my son more than I love my own life, I want him to be good, and free, and happy, and wise. Part of that is wanting to teach him how to know himself, how to know the world, and, ultimately, how to know God. Through Dante (but not exclusively through Dante), God called me back to the straight path. If I had known at 14 the things I learned at 46 from reading the Commedia, how much suffering and unhappiness in my life I would have escaped. Matt is not me; one big theme of the Commedia, and the pilgrim’s healed vision, is the pilgrim coming to learn that the light of God shines throughout the universe, but it is refracted through each soul according to their God-given nature. If I had known just that at 14, how much clearer and happier my path would have been. Anyway, point is, I’m trying hard to avoid telling Matt how he must take the Commedia, but rather helping him to receive the poem as he is, in his own particularity. The truths in that masterpiece are both particular and universal. Dante the poet’s sins were not the sins of everyone in his Inferno and Purgatorio, but all sin shares the same nature, and works on us in the same way. Each pilgrim must find his own way out of Hell; the Commedia can only be a general map. I can be the guide, but the pilgrim has to walk his own path to freedom, with the legs God gave him.

A digression: as I drove to Starbucks this morning after dropping Matt off at school, I I reflected on the short-sightedness of some of this blog’s readers, who have said in the comments section things to the effect that they couldn’t possibly take the Commedia seriously, because they can’t imagine believing in a God who created Hell. This reminds me of pious Christians who will not read Virgil, say, because Virgil was not a Christian, therefore there’s nothing really to learn from him. I’m thinking too of a woman I overheard in the Catholic cathedral in Baton Rouge back when I was in college. I wasn’t a Catholic then, but had gone to the cathedral to see a concert of some kind. As the crowd was leaving, a woman passed me with her companions, and said within my hearing, “Well, that music was nice, but I hate to be here in this temple built to the Pope of Rome.” The utter impoverishment of that statement still shocks me after all these years. Neither one of us was a Catholic, but this poor woman, who had apparently been dragged there under duress (maybe a relative was one of the performers), was completely blind to the truth and beauty — and truth in beauty — surrounding us in that cathedral, all because of her prior ideological commitment.

It’s like a Christian tourist to Istanbul who would keep himself blind to the staggering beauty of the Blue Mosque, and shield himself from what that ordered beauty might disclose to us about the nature of life and the cosmos, simply because Islam misses the mark (from a Christian point of view) on ultimate theological truth. Let’s not be fundamentalists about this! The Commedia wouldn’t have lasted all these centuries if it were nothing more than a statement of medieval Catholic piety. We should cultivate an imaginative vision — a small-c catholic vision, if you like — that is capable of seeing truth where it manifests itself, in whatever imperfect vessel. If you are not a Christian or a theist, you can still appreciate the penetrating psychological insights Dante shows in the Commedia.

From a purely psychological point of view, the poem is about the stages of becoming free from bondage to thoughts and practices that make us miserable, and keep us from thriving. Inferno is about admitting we have a real problem, and facing down the ways we conceal the true nature of our problem from ourselves (that is, coming to take responsibility for ourselves). Purgatorio is about dealing with the underlying tendencies that made us susceptible to giving ourselves over to those bad habits. Paradiso is about renewal, about learning to fill the cracks in our hearts and minds with positive ways of thinking and living — this, to replace the lies with which we had previously filled those cracks.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you are an alcoholic who has wrecked his own life and the lives of those around him with your slavery to drink. Inferno is about learning to see the reality of your alcoholism — what it really is, what it’s doing to you and to others, and the excuses you make to avert your eyes from the hard truth about yourself and your situation. You end the journey through Inferno by turning from away from booze, without qualification. After you’ve quit drinking, it’s time to deal with the underlying issues that caused you to surrender to alcohol; this is Purgatorio. After you’ve mastered that, then you are ready to replace the old, bad ways of thinking and living with healthy ones, so that you can live at your fullest, so that you can thrive.

All of that is in the Commedia. Mind you, that’s an extremely reductive way of reading the poem, but it’s by no means an invalid one. We take what we can out of these things. I cannot “read” the Blue Mosque as a faithful Muslim can, but only a fool would refuse to look upon it and try to understand what truths about the cosmos are embedded in that great work of art, however imperfectly understood and expressed. I think Mohammed, our Iranian friend and reader of this blog, would agree with me from the other side, with regard to great Christian cathedrals. So, secular or liberal Christian friends who object to the idea of Hell, don’t let that keep you away from the Commedia. There is lots of truth there about human nature; even people who don’t believe in God or Jesus Christ can see it, and profit from it. In these blog entries, though, I will write as a Christian, and read Dante through Christian eyes, because his vision was throughly Christian. Through his particular  elucidation of Christianity, he spoke to the universal. Point is, you don’t have to be a Christian to read and profit from Dante, but it helps.

OK, on to Purgatorio‘s first three cantos. Consider what I say about it in this and subsequent “Journey through Purgatorio” posts — I’m going to take you readers through it with Matt and me, in part as an exercise to outline what I hope The Commedia In The Coffee Shop to be. What follows, then, are nothing more than lecture notes, notes that are meant for you readers to invite your own ideas, and conversation. If the Commedia is going to work its magic, the reader has to become a pilgrim too, not merely a student. You become a pilgrim not by sitting there and reading about the journey, but by walking with us.

So. When the poem opens, Dante (the pilgrim; an important distinction, because Dante is the author of the poem but also a character in it; the convention is to refer to Dante the “pilgrim” when talking about the character, as distinct from the author) — anyway, the pilgrim and his guide, Virgil, have emerged from the Inferno and find themselves sailing across a sea to the Mountain of Purgatory, which is an island. They arrive on Purgatory’s shore — Ante-Purgatory, this region is called — and Dante is comforted to see four stars in the heavens above. These are an allegory of the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.

An old man, the guardian of the mountain, wants to know who they are and where they come from. Once placed in Hell, therefore signifying the death of the soul (because it permanently loses contact with God), no one escapes. Virgil tells him who they are and what their mission is. This old man is Cato the Younger, a pagan Roman and statesman who lived before Christ.

Wait — what is a virtuous pagan doing in Purgatory? In Inferno, we saw that God prepared a pleasant place in Hell for virtuous pagans. They are not punished there as others in Hell are; the only thing they are deprived of is eternal bliss in the presence of God. But here we have Cato the Younger, a noble Roman Republican, guarding the entrance to Purgatory. How does that work? Moreover, Cato the Younger (his grandfather was Cato the Elder) committed suicide. There is a place in Inferno for suicides; how can one find himself outside of Hell, stationed here at the base of Mount Purgatory, overseeing the arrival of newcomers?

This is an important clue to Dante’s spiritual vision. Cato the Younger was known as a brave and principled statesman, one who refused to participate in the rampant corruption of the dying Republican order. He stood firm for what was right — even though it led him to fight Julius Caesar’s ultimately successful attempt to overthrown the Republic and proclaim himself dictator. Seeing himself defeated, rather than live to collaborate in any way with Caesar, Cato the Younger chose death by his own hand.

This is interesting in part because we have just come from the final canto in Inferno, which shows Lucifer gnawing on the bodies of the three men Dante considered history’s greatest traitors: Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus Christ, and the two chief betrayers of Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus. Wait — what could Dante the poet mean by that? He has Caesar’s betrayers in the deepest pit of Hell, but has a man who killed himself rather than collaborate with Caesar’s accession to power escaping Hell, and dwelling permanently (it appears) at the base of Mount Purgatory. Isn’t there an inconsistency here?

Yes, apparently — but only apparently. Dante the poet demonizes Cassius and Brutus as “treacherous to their masters,” as was Judas. In 14th century Italy, the greatest political problem was that there was no stable government, no good order. Dante’s beloved Florence had nearly destroyed itself from factionalism — from everyone pursuing their private interests instead of the common good. Anarchy is worse even than bad government. Dante the poet longed for a monarch to unify Italy and pacify it. He despised what the medieval popes had become: worldly monarchs who usurped their God-given roles as masters of the spiritual government. Throughout the Commedia, Pope Boniface VIII, in fact, is condemned repeatedly, in harsh terms by the poet, who greatly resented Boniface’s political machinations, which had directly resulted in Dante’s permanent exile from Florence.

And yet, even though Dante despised Boniface and what he and his predecessors had done to destroy Italy and the authority of the Church, Dante deeply respected the papacy itself. He was a faithful Catholic, and as such, believed that Christ had instituted the papacy to govern the earthly outpost of His spiritual Kingdom. Just because the pope is a bad king does not render the monarchy, so to speak, illegitimate. Later, in Purgatory, the pilgrim will meet a penitent pope, and will insist on addressing this great sinner with the respect due to a pontiff. Dante respects the office, if not the person who holds it, because maintaining right order requires it.

In the final days of the Roman Republic, Cato the Younger had fought for truth and justice, and lived with utmost integrity, despite the rot all around him. He served the Republic. It’s important to remember that Julius Caesar, his great enemy, was not the rightful ruler of Rome when Cato stood against him, but rather an opportunist who took advantage of the weakness and disorder among the Republic’s leaders. Years later, when Cassius and Brutus betrayed Julius Caesar unto death, they rebelled against the man who was their Master. Right or wrong, by then, a new constitutional order had been established, and Cassius and Brutus owed Caesar their allegiance.

Dante’s placing Cato the Younger here and not in Hell seems to indicate the complexity of the poet’s moral vision. Julius Caesar was the kind of figure for which Dante the poet longed: a strong monarch who would put down factionalism and restore order, which is a prerequisite for genuine freedom (remember, the Commedia is in part a poem about the transition from slavery to liberty). He hails Cato, however, as a virtuous man — one of the best pagan statesmen who ever lived — who fought the good fight for liberty, and died as liberty’s martyr. If I’m reading Dante correctly, Cato is a tragic figure — but God, in His mercy and justice, honored Cato’s integrity by sparing him Hell. Cato stood against Caesar not because he was defending his private interests, but because he was standing for righteousness, and defending his doomed Master, the Republic, for pure and noble reasons. That is worth honoring, in Dante.

Here is the moment when Dante first sees Cato, “an ancient man, alone, whose face commanded all the reverence that any son could offer to his sire.” More:

The rays of light from those four sacred stars

struck with such radiance upon his face,

it was as if the sun were shining there.

(The translation I’ll be using in this and subsequent posts is Mark Musa’s, from The Portable Dante.)

Here is our key clue. In the Commedia, the Sun is a symbol of God. Cato, as a pagan, could not look upon the light of God more directly. But in his devotion to supreme virtue, as he understood it, a dimmer version of the light of God is reflected on and in Cato’s countenance. Cato did not know God — he died before Christ’s advent — but he went as far as a statesman could in standing for Godly virtue, even giving his life rather than consent to make peace with what he regarded as evil, and to thereby betray his Master, the Republic. In other words, Cato was not holy, but he was just — and as such, has been granted a reprieve by God.

We have seen so far that the laws of the Cosmos are pretty strict. Nobody is going to be sprung from Hell; their fate is decided. Is there anything else that made Cato the Younger special? Yes, in fact: the way he treated Marcia, his second wife. In an extraordinary arrangement, Cato agreed to divorce her to let her marry his friend Hortensius, whose wife had died without bearing him an heir. Later, after Hortensius died, Marcia asked Cato to take her back, so that she could die as the wife of Cato. He accepted her — a symbol of his merciful nature. (We need not dwell on the cruelty, to our eyes, of his treating her like property in the first place; this was how it was in Ancient Rome.) This is not explicit in Dante, but it could be that Cato’s showing Marcia mercy in that way prefigures the mercy of God, in taking us back and making us his own, even when we have strayed. Any penitent who has made it to the base of Mount Purgatory has arrived there solely by the mercy of God, and their own willingness to appeal to it. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. John Ciardi observes, of Cato:

He has accomplished everything but the purifying total surrender of his will to God. As such he serves as an apt transitional symbol, being the highest run on the ladder of natural virtue, but the lowest on the ladder of those godly virtues to which Purgatory is the ascent. Above all, the fact that he took Marcia back to his love makes him an especially apt symbol of God’s forgiveness in allowing the strayed soul to return to him through Purgatory.

And yet, when Virgil brings up Marcia, who dwells with him in Limbo, in his appeal to Cato’s sympathy, Cato cuts him off. He says there was nothing he wouldn’t have done for Marcia in their mortal life, but in the afterlife, they live under a different constitution, so to speak. Cato’s rightful Master is God — and if God has decreed that there is a final and unbridgeable separation between the Damned and those who are saved, or are to be saved, then that cannot be questioned. The allegorical point here is that as much as we loved the Damned in life, we may not do that here. God is the lawgiver, which includes the new law of Mercy. If He has decided that Marcia does not merit eternal life in Paradise, or even Ante-Purgatory, then it is a form of disordered Love to doubt Him, or to allow ourselves to doubt His love by trying to subject it to human categories. In Paradiso, St. Thomas Aquinas instructs Dante not to be quick to judge others in life, because only God knows the full truth about them. The situation between Cato and Marcia is one aspect of this. God has judged her, and denied her Paradise (though Limbo is a pretty great place).

Remember, we are now in a realm outside of Time, in the realm of infinity, versus the finitude of temporality. To think that we know better than God, and that we love more purely than God, is not only impious, it denies reality. This is a mystery beyond comprehension by pure reason; the pilgrim has to keep learning over the course of his journey that it is a fundamental error to think that everything can be explained and fully understood. At the end of Canto I, the pilgrim must pluck a reed from the base of the mountain, and wear it as he proceeds upward. This is a sign of his Humility, without which he cannot hope to rid himself of the tendency to sin, and the blindness that is its root. Later, in Canto III, Virgil alludes to the intellectual humility that anyone who would be united with God must accept:

[M]adness it is to hope that  human minds

can ever understand the Infinite

that comprehends Three Persons in One Being.


Be satisfied with quia unexplained,

O human race! If you knew everything,

no need for Mary to have borne a son.


You saw the hopeless longing of those souls

whose thirst, were this not so, would have been quenched,

but which, instead, endures as endless pain:


I speak of Plato and of Aristotle,

and many others.” Then he bent his head,

remaining silent with his anguished thoughts.

This is a profoundly touching moment. Good, kind, noble Virgil is thinking about himself, and the pain he suffers even within the comforts of Limbo, because he is in permanent exile from God. Virgil’s lesson here is that if the greatest pre-Christian minds that ever were — Plato, Aristotle, and himself and his friends in Limbo — couldn’t comprehend the total mystery of existence through Reason alone, it is folly for any man to think he can do so. Dante is telling us here that Reason — pure cognition — cannot fully unite us with God. We are united with him fully only through establishing a relationship with God in the person of Jesus, who was one of us. This is a lesson to the theologian who thinks he has comprehended God because he knows all his doctrine, dogma, and Scripture. Knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God. Only those who humble themselves to say, “I don’t know; it’s a Mystery that I must accept on faith” can achieve that kind of saving knowledge.

Back in Canto II, after Cato has let Virgil and Dante pass, the two meet new souls arriving in Ante-Purgatory, having just departed the earthly life and preparing their ascent to Paradise. The pilgrim is startled to see in the crowd a man named Casella, a musician and singer whom Dante had known in life. The pilgrim, exhausted by his recently-completed journey through Hell, asks Casella to “sing, and give a little rest to my poor soul.” And so Casella does.

Suddenly, Cato appears to read them the riot act:

And while we stood enraptured by the sound

of those sweet notes — a sudden cry: “What’s this,

you lazy souls?” It was the Just Old Man.


“What negligence to stand around like this!

Run to the mountain, shed that slough which still

does not let God be manifest to you!”

A powerful rebuke! The lazy penitents got on their way quickly. What an important lesson for contemporary Christians, especially those under the illusion that having “accepted Christ as my personal savior” is an assurance of final salvation. This is a trap, the poet warns. Salvation is not merely avoiding Hell; salvation is theosis, or final and complete unity with God. The soldier coming home from the Afghan front first lands at an airbase in Europe, perhaps, and he’s thrilled to be out of the hell of the battlefield. But he is not yet home, and only a fool would be satisfied with resting at the airbase. If he loves rightly, he wants to hurry up with his debriefing so he can get home to his wife and kids. This is what the poet is getting at here.

To press the theological point, Dante is telling us that our repentance — saying the Sinner’s Prayer, in Evangelical parlance — is only the beginning of our journey home. We have a lifetime of purification ahead of us, of ridding ourselves of the tendency to sin. We can’t stop to rest. We have to get on with the business of making our way to God by searching our own souls unceasingly, and rooting out everything within us that separates us from God.

This is the first time we see that an essential nature of Purgatory is motion. In Hell, there is constant motion, for all but those frozen in the lake near Hell’s center, but the motion takes them nowhere. It is an illusion of motion; their fates of those shades are eternally fixed. In Purgatory, though, the penitents are going somewhere: up the mountain, to full restoration to God. The penitents are all joyful, because they know they have been saved, and will ultimately see God, but they also know that they will not see Him unless they complete their purgation. For Orthodox Christians, this is why we routinely fast and confess: as a means to our own purgation, and, ultimately, theosis. Salvation is not a one-time event; we are always being saved, until we enter Heaven, where there is no actual motion outside of relational love, because everything and everyone exists perfectly in God.

Here’s the difference between those in the afterlife and the rest of us: here in Time, we who have begun through baptism or (if you prefer) accepting Christ as our Savior, retain the terrible freedom to go back down the mountain. If we are not always going onward and upward, we risk falling back down, possibly into Hell. We must always be vigilant. After receiving Cato’s chastisement, Dante and Virgil get on the road. Dante glimpses Virgil’s face:

He looked as if he suffered from remorse —

O dignity of conscience, noble, chaste,

how one slight fault can sting you into shame!

See what’s happening here? In the face of wise and virtuous Virgil, Dante sees how serious of sin, and a good example for himself. Surely a weary man stopping for a moment’s comfort in song is a minor fault. But Cato’s rebuke reminds Virgil that this is serious business. There is nothing at all wrong with loving song, but feasting in a season of penance, as the journey through Purgatory represents, is a disordered kind of love, one that can lead to serious problems. If the penitent does not remain vigilant against his old habits, he could slip and fall back into them, or at least impede his progress. In Orthodox Christianity, the monks teach us that those who would be holy should steel their minds against logismoi, or temptations. As soon as they come to mind, we must refuse them; to give them any room to alight on our minds is to risk corruption. Cut them off as soon as they occur to one. This is what it means to purify ourselves of the habits of sin that have led us to such misery.

Note well, Dante is not saying that enjoying music and song is wrong per se, because it distracts us from holy things. He is not a proto-Puritan! He is not one of the pious but misguided old sisters in Babette’s Feast who think that all of life is to be one long fast. Not so! Rather, Dante is telling us that we cannot hope to make spiritual progress if we don’t cultivate a strong spirit of fasting and repentance — and that means in particular that when we are in a season of fasting, we must fast, period. In Dante, recall, Love is the basis of all reality; sin comes from disordered love: loving the wrong things, or loving the right things in the wrong way. It is right to love song, but it is wrong — it is disordered — to love song out of season.

The final lessons the first three cantos of Purgatorio have for us come in Canto III, when Dante and Virgil meet the souls of the Late Repentant. As they stand at the foot of the mountain, they see a crowd of newcomers moving incredibly slow. These are the Late Repentant: those who turned from their sins very late in life. Here in Purgatory, they move with excruciating slowness. This symbolizes the reality of the state of the souls in Hell: for all their infernal motion, their souls are frozen solid, immovable. Had these Late Repentant not turned from their sins and asked God’s mercy at the last moment, they too would have been statues adorning the circles of Hell for all eternity. Don’t fail to notice the allusion here: that our mortal lives are a kind of Purgatory. If we’re not moving towards God, casting out our sinful natures through constant repentance and prayer, then we risk turning into stone, or at least causing so much stiffness and immobility in our souls that we are virtually paralyzed.

Among the Late Repentant is the soul of Manfred, son of Frederick II. Manfred appears in Ante-Purgatory with a gash above his breast. He repented as he lay dying on the battlefield:

As I lay there, my body torn by these

two mortal wounds, weeping, I gave my soul

to Him Who grants forgiveness willingly.


Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

to any man who comes in search of it…

All those readers appalled that a truly merciful God could create Hell for sinners must confront the stunning truth revealed by Manfred’s example: that even the worst sinners can be saved if only they will make the slightest appeal to Divine Mercy, which is boundless. The Commedia teaches that God’s love mandates our freedom of choice. He cannot command us to love Him, because that wouldn’t be true love. His mercy for us is “boundless,” indeed, but we have to make a movement, however slight, to admit our need for it and to ask for it. The damned are damned because they refused to admit their need for mercy, and died in their sins.

Here’s where it gets especially interesting. Manfred tells Dante that the Archbishop of Cosenza, on the angry pope’s orders, had his bones disinterred and thrown off of holy ground — this, because Manfred fought against the Pope’s political ambitions. Manfred says:

The church’s curse is not the final word,

for Everlasting Love may still return,

if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.

Think of it! In Dante the poet’s view — because Manfred here speaks for the poet — the earthly judgments of the Church hierarchy do not necessarily reflect what’s happening in the afterlife. Only God knows the heart of each soul. Pope Clement did not know, and could not have known, that a soldier dying alone on the field of battle repented in his final breaths. All he knew was that Manfred had opposed the papacy’s political designs. This is the hope Dante’s God offers us: that not even the decrees of the Church can separate us from the love of God, Who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves.

Manfred qualifies his statement:

True, he who dies scorning the Holy Church,

although he turns repentant at life’s end,

must stay outside, a wanderer on this bank,


for thirty times as long as he has lived

in his presumptuousness — although good prayers

may shorten the duration of his term.

This is important. Dante the poet will not give ultimate sanction to rebels against the Church (remember that though he, Dante, bitterly opposed the corrupt Pope Boniface VIII, he was careful not to confuse the man with the office. Apparently, in the poet’s judgment, Manfred had not made that distinction. This, allusively, is Dante’s way of asserting that to oppose the pope exceeding the bounds of his rightful sphere of governance is not the same thing as opposing Holy Church. Indeed, Dante was a loyal son of the Church, which made him the bitter foe of Boniface, the man who held and befouled the Petrine throne.

The Manfred episode teaches us again that we humans, who by our finite natures cannot know everything, must be careful not to pass final judgment on anybody. Leave that to God, whose mercy is boundless, and who knows everything. He even hears the Lord, have mercy on the lips of a dying soldier breathing his last in a battle against the Supreme Pontiff. His mercy is boundless; we are the ones who decide to place boundaries on that mercy. It is not our place to establish those boundaries around the souls of others; but we do have the power to establish those boundaries around our own souls. We are free to refuse mercy, even to the very end — and we are free to accept it. If we move toward God, even in the tiniest bit, even in a way known only to ourselves and to Him, we open the floodgates of Divine Mercy, and will be saved.

But if not, not. Because He loves us, we are free.

Look at the time. I’ve been writing all morning. Time to leave the coffeeshop and go pick up Matthew.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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