Purgatorio, Canto XXXI
When we left Dante yesterday, he stood rapt before the figure of Beatrice, who was high up on a triumphal chariot, across the river Lethe. He had walked through Hell to see her, and up the mountain of Purgatory, and she did not comfort him when she appeared. Rather, she challenged him to repent. Remember, it was she who, grieving for him, lost in the dark wood, came to Virgil and recruited him to save her beloved Dante from the prison of Self. Beatrice is no Siren; she is not going to offer him false comfort. Because she loves him, she is going to administer the bitter medicine he needs to be fully healed. When we left them yesterday, Beatrice accused Dante of losing his path through life because he gave himself over to the pursuit of things that only looked like the Good, instead of the Good itself (which is to say, God). Essentially, she accused him of prostrating himself before false gods, of worshiping idols instead of venerating icons, of which she, for Dante, is the greatest icon.
A further word about that. I spoke yesterday about why it had to be Beatrice in that chariot, not Jesus Christ (or for that matter, the Holy Virgin, or anybody else). God had used Beatrice to awaken young Dante to the reality of Beauty and Goodness. As we are about to see, Dante’s love for Beatrice was disordered; this is about to be corrected. The point is, God can use anything to speak to our individual hearts. Tens of thousands of people walk into the Chartres cathedral each year, but it’s likely that only a few of them walk out converted. I have been to places others find holy, but have been personally unmoved. That’s fine. I do not wish to tell God how He may or may not call His own children back to Himself. Maybe you’ve been reading the Purgatorio with us this Lent, and have enjoyed it, but only that. Maybe it didn’t turn you inside out, like it did me last fall and winter, and like it continues to do me on this second reading. That’s fine too. God reveals Himself to us as He will; it is up to us to accept the revelation (or to reject it), but we will ultimately be held responsible for the movement of our own hearts.
Today, Beatrice speaks words that slice through Dante’s pilgrim heart like a sharp blade: “Say it, say if this is true.”
Are you guilty? Then confess.
He cannot speak, so lost is he in “confusion and fear.” He mouths the word, “Yes” — then collapses in sobs, a broken man. Beatrice asks him to tell her what obstacles he had found blocking his path toward the Good. (Recall that the entire Commedia begins with Dante lost and terrified in the dark wood, unable to leave because his paths were blocked by wild beasts representing his sins.) Now that his journey up the mountain is near its end, Beatrice requires him to state the nature of those beasts.
In tears, I said: ‘Things set in front of me,
with their false delights, turned back my steps
the moment that Your countenance was hidden.’
In other words, when Beatrice died when both she and Dante were in their mid-twenties, Dante lost the vision of the Good that he beheld in her. Beatrice advises him that it is good that he confessed this, because God knew it anyway. She adds:
“But when a man’s own blushing cheek reveals
the condemnation of his sin, in our high court
the grindstone dulls the sharp edge of the sword.”
The pain of guilt doesn’t hurt as much when the guilty soul feels true contrition. Now that he has confessed, and is truly sorry for his sins, Beatrice is going to tell him how to go forth and sin no more. She says her death should have strengthened his belief in the Good, and desire for it, and kept him on the straight path.
“Never did art or nature set before you beauty
as great as in the lovely members that enclosed me,
now scattered and reduced to dust.
“And if the highest beauty failed you
in my death, what mortal thing
should then have drawn you to desire it?
‘Indeed, at the very first arrow
of deceitful things, you should have risen up
and followed me who was no longer of them.”
Beatrice teaches Dante that nothing mortal lasts, and to place one’s hopes in things of the world, even in the “highest beauty,” is to lash oneself to the passions, and ultimately to damnation. Art cannot save you. Sexual pleasure cannot save you. Intellectual delight cannot save you, nor can power, nor can riches, nor can patriotism, nor filial piety, nor anything you love more than you love God. Every soul in Hell loved something or someone (perhaps themselves) in a way so disordered that it drew them straight to Hell. We are all on that path if we love the world more than we love God, and the Good. If we first love God, though, we can love the world through Him; only He is Absolute. When our love is rightly ordered, then, all the world becomes an icon, through which the glory of God shines.
Take a lesson, says Beatrice: Everything that you treat as God that is not God will lead you into a dark wood — and, if you persist until death, to eternal separation from the One you rejected in life. In his study of Dante, Ascent To Love, Peter Leithart clarifies:
Beatrice’s death should have encouraged Dante to seek joy, love, and satisfaction in that which cannot be changed and cannot die. He should have learned to distinguish, like Augustine, between that which can be used and that which can be enjoyed.
Now we see why he met Matelda first, and that she is lesser than Beatrice. She represents the active life of the soul, the Useful. She dwells in the earthy paradise, in a fleshly existence, though without sin. Beatrice, who represents the contemplative life, the Joyful, now dwells perfected in the heavenly Paradise. When things are rightly ordered, we see that what Matelda represents is a relative good, because it still exists in mortality, but what Beatrice represents is an absolute good, which is eternal. We may think also of Mary and Martha, from the New Testament. Staying busy for the sake of the good is fine, but there are times when it is better to be still and enjoy the presence of the All-Holy.
Beatrice says she’s telling him these things to save him in the future from the Sirens whose sweet song threatens to draw him off the straight path. You’ll recall the Siren from an earlier canto, the one who looked like death, but who appeared as a beautiful, desirable woman to Dante in a vision. That Siren represented the false allure of comfort. Dante was exhausted from his mountain climb, and still had a ways to go. She promised him rest and pleasure in her company — but it was a trap.
This brings to mind a conversation I had once with an Orthodox Christian friend who had come to Orthodoxy from a charismatic megachurch, in which he burned out. He explained that in the church circles he was in back then, to feel pain, confusion, or depression was a sign that the Devil had a foothold in your life. The theology he was taught placed a high premium on feelings of ecstasy. The church services were all about pumping the congregation up, to set them on fire for the Lord, and so forth. My friend said his spiritual formation was such that any bad feeling he had about his life and how things were going brought forth horrible pangs of guilt, because this was evidence that he didn’t love God enough, didn’t have enough faith. This, he said, set up a cycle where the deep problems in his life, and buried in his heart, became covered over by emotion, and the constant search for a feeling of religious ecstasy — flashing lights, pumping Christian rock music, hands in the air at every worship service.
The comfort in those moments of ecstasy and exaltation became the holy grail for my friend. It was like a drug. And it didn’t work. He said when he came into Orthodoxy and began working with a spiritual father, the priest that heard his confessions, he began to understand that the life of the spirit does give us tremendous joy, but it also commands us to work through our pain, to not run from it or accept a substitute for it. My friend told me his priest would not tell him what he wanted to hear, but what he needed to hear for his own spiritual growth — and that was a blessing.
Back to the poem: Beatrice tells Dante to man up. Seriously, she does. After comparing him to a baby bird who can’t figure out how to fly, Beatrice says:
you are grieved by what you hear, lift up your beard
and you shall have more grief by what you see.”
Beatrice turns to the Griffon, who is the image here of Christ, and in so doing becomes even more radiantly beautiful, more beautiful than Dante had ever seen her. He says:
The nettle of remorse so stung me then
that whatever else had lured me most to loving
had now become for me most hateful.
The intense power of that confession! Sometimes, my Orthodox convert friend said to me, when we sit in the middle of our pain, in all its violence, calling out for mercy, we are closest to God. I thought of that last night when I found online this poem by the Dante translator Andrew Frisardi:
Maybe the only missing piece of knowledge,
The whole, is known.
Everybody’s mum about it;
A moment of acknowledgment
Would lift the sanction.
But there is a kind of half-life to learning–
An oil spot’s changing ratios
Of blue, gold, and green.
And violence, sometimes, is a way
To beauty: momentary rainbows
Inside the drenched prisms.
God has patented the formula
For emptiness. A diptych shows
The Mithraic-Christian knight
Spearing old Wormwood.
A hinge away, serenely Byzantine,
The sorrowing Madonna, her face
Concentric, mother of mercy
Cradling the swathed spitfire,
Violence, sometimes, is a way to beauty. The emotional violence of Dante’s final repentance, the climax of Dante’s struggle against his Self, delivers him to the breaking point. He is killing the sin within himself, while on the other side of a yard-wide stream, there is Beatrice, filled with grace and the glory of God as she gazes upon the Griffon, an icon of Christ.
He must cross the miraculous stream, the river Lethe, which has the power to cause him to forget his sins. This is his baptism into new life. Matelda, walking on the waters of the Lethe — an obvious reference to her acting in persona Christi — leads Dante into the holy water up to his throat. He drinks, and emerges on the other side. Four lovely ladies, standing for the Cardinal Virtues, greet him, introducing themselves as the handmaids of Beatrice. They tell Dante:
“We will bring you to her eyes. But to receive
the joyous light they hold, the other three,
who look much deeper into things, shall sharpen yours.”
There it is again — to be saved and ultimately to be glorified is to learn how to see, and how to allow the divine light to pass through your eyes and into your soul. The “other three, who look much deeper into things,” are the Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity, which take us farther into Reality than the natural virtues.
Dante stands at the breast of the Griffon, his eyes gazing upon the emerald-green of Beatrice’s eyes:
A thousand desires hotter than any flame
bound my eyes to those shining eyes,
which still stayed fixed upon the griffin.
Even as the sun in a mirror, not otherwise
the twofold beast shone forth in them,
now with the one, now with its other nature.
She continues to gaze upon Christ — and importantly, Dante sees the true dual nature of Christ (fully God and fully Man) only as it is reflected in her eyes. This leaves him “struck with wonder”; he can’t understand how the creature can “itself remain as one but in its image ever changing.”
Understand the symbolism here: the poet is telling us that we cannot, in our state, gaze directly upon God, but we may perceive Him in images and in persons who reflect a higher reality. Seeing the Christ in Beatrice’s face, Dante describes the feeling:
While my soul, filled with wonder and with joy,
tasted the food that satisfying in itself,
yet for itself creates a greater craving…
Dante, of course, is not eating; this is a remarkable image of synaesthesia. The “food” is the presence of God Almighty, which both satisfies the pilgrim’s desire, and stokes it even more. This intense craving for unity with the All-Holy will drive the rest of Dante’s quest, to the very summit of Heaven.
Back in 2006, Father Robert Imbelli reflected in America magazine about Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est (God is love), which the Holy Father said was inspired by the conclusion of the Divine Comedy, in which Dante finally achieves a vision of the Holy Trinity, who is Love Itself. Father Imbelli wrote:
In an address to a symposium organized by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (the Vatican office that oversees Catholic charitable organizations), Benedict declared the remarkable ambition: “I wish to express for our time and our existence something of what Dante summed up in his daring vision.”
The vision to which the pope refers is the one at the culmination of the entire journey of the Divine Comedy. Dante achieves the full satisfaction of his spiritual quest in an ecstatic contemplation of the triune God in the form of three radiant circles of diversely colored light. But this achievement is not Dante’s doing. It is the gift of God’s condescension. Dante’s loving desire, eros, is subsumed and transformed in God’s self-giving love, agape. And what enables and undergirds this consummated union is the appearance of a human form within one of the circles of the Trinitarian mystery. Jesus Christ himself is the union of the two: God and humanity, agape and eros, eternity and time.
Benedict’s encyclical is a profound meditation upon what constitutes the newness of the new covenant and, hence, upon what is radically constitutive of Christian identity and discipleship. His response is: Incarnation and Trinity are the novum of Christian faith and existence. This theme of “newness” sounds as a leitmotif throughout. What is distinctive about the encyclical is not the pope’s notional assertion of this truth, but his profoundly Christocentric evocation and exposition of the revelation it affirms: God is love. He writes in No. 12, “The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts—an unprecedented realism.” Were we to ask, how does the Christian know that God is love, as the First Letter of John proclaims? The answer can only be the one given in that same letter: “In this is agape, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
If Dante is the great Catholic poet, the unsurpassed poet of the both-and, so Benedict develops this core vision in a manner that is comprehensively catholic. In a nonpolemical way, Benedict takes a stand against the dualisms that over the course of the centuries have sometimes bedeviled Catholic thinking. He resolutely appropriates the deeper biblical and patristic streams of the Catholic tradition. Thus human eros is not repressed, but fulfilled, in divine agape.Indeed, in a radical move to which commentators have given little attention, Benedict attributes eros to God. God shows himself, in Christ, to be passionate for humankind. Christ’s free self-gift reveals God’s passion for communion with us—a passion that renders God vulnerable, even to death on a cross.
I did not understand the pope’s encylical until I read Dante. Now I get it. Boy, do I get it — and I rejoice in it! I apologize for the long quote, but it’s necessary here. Pope Benedict wrote, in answer to the question, “Did Christianity destroy eros?”:
Two things emerge clearly from this rapid overview of the concept of eros past and present. First, there is a certain relationship between love and the Divine: love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence. Yet we have also seen that the way to attain this goal is not simply by submitting to instinct. Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation. Far from rejecting or “poisoning” eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur.
This is due first and foremost to the fact that man is a being made up of body and soul. Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness. The epicure Gassendi used to offer Descartes the humorous greeting: “O Soul!” And Descartes would reply: “O Flesh!”. Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love —eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur.
Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.
6. Concretely, what does this path of ascent and purification entail? How might love be experienced so that it can fully realize its human and divine promise? Here we can find a first, important indication in the Song of Songs, an Old Testament book well known to the mystics. According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love. In this context it is highly instructive to note that in the course of the book two different Hebrew words are used to indicate “love”. First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabà, which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.
It is part of love’s growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being “for ever”. Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25). In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.
The pope said two days before his Dante-inspired encyclical was published that he hopes it will help to recover the true meaning of the word love, “so tarnished, so spoiled and so abused, that one is almost afraid to pronounce it with one’s lips.” As we near the end of the Purgatorio, Dante enters into the realm of mystical ecstasy. His eros has not been destroyed by agape, but united with it, made pure by it. He is riding a rocketship that will soon rise into the stars.
UPDATE: God continues to use Dante and his poem to convert me. All through vespers tonight, I thought about this canto, and about the things I have put, and continue to put, ahead of God. And I thought about Andrew Frisardi’s poem about mercy. When I went to confession and told my priest about these things, and all my troubles and struggles, and I told him about how the violence (I mean symbolically) that I had been suffering had led me closer to God, though the path was painful, I was able to say, with conviction, “God has been so good to me. I never would have been so near to Him if not for all this.” True.