Purgatorio, Canto IX
The Dante translator John Ciardi tells us that the ancients believed that dreams that come just before dawn are often prophetic. So it is with the pilgrim Dante, who begins this canto with a dream in which a “golden-feathered eagle” swooped down from the sky and snatched him up. Dante compares himself to Ganymede, who was taken by Zeus, in the form of an eagle, to Mount Olympus to serve as cup-bearer to the gods. Dante’s eagle carries him to the “sphere of fire,” which consumes both him and the eagle. The trauma of the dream shakes Dante from his slumber.
Just as Achilles woke up in a daze,
glancing around himself with startled eyes,
not knowing where he was or whence he came,
when he, asleep, was taken by his mother,
borne in her arms from Chiron’s care to Skyros
from where the Greeks would lure him finally —
so I was dazed, when sleep had fled my face;
I turned the deathly color of a man
feeling the freezing grip of fright on him.
According to Greek myth, Achilles’ mother, hoping to deliver her son from a prophecy that he would die at Troy, bundled him away to Skyros (it did no good; the Greeks found him, and indeed, as we read in The Iliad, he did perish at Troy). This is a fascinating comparison, made moreso by the way it recalls the beginning of the entire Commedia, which starts with Dante waking up in a “dark wood,” not knowing where he was or how he got there, and terrified. We are about to learn that the pilgrim Dante is at the very gate of Purgatory, which formally begins the second part of his epic journey through the afterlife. What could he mean, comparing himself to Ganymede and Achilles?
Ganymede is not hard to figure out. Dante sees himself as in the grips of God, carried up the mountain to be perfected for the sake of serving Him. But what of Achilles, and why the obvious allusion to the opening of the Inferno? I think it’s because Dante the poet wants to emphasize the power of Christian hope to overturn tragic destiny. Achilles could not escape his fate, which was to die fighting the Trojans. Dante the pilgrim is on a journey in which the old man — the one he says in this canto carries with him “Adam’s weight” (that is, original sin, whose punishment is mortality) — will die in battle with himself on this mountain, but who will thereby be reborn as a new creature in Christ, who conquered death by death. But Dante the pilgrim does not yet know that, hence his fear and confusion. And, as in the first canto of the Inferno, it is Virgil who steadies Dante’s mind:
“You must not be afraid,” my leader said,
“take heart, for we are well along our way;
do not hold back, push on with all your strength…”
An Orthodox friend is struggling with his first Lenten fast. In a spirit of great anxiety, he told me the other night that he’s having a terrible time of it. He has lots of pressures on him at work, and in those moments of high anxiety, can think of nothing but eating and drinking.
“Look,” I said to him, “the fast is not about following the rules. It’s about healing. If you’re obsessing over food, maybe you should just go have a hamburger and be done with it, then get back to the fast.”
“No!” he said, with an emphasis that surprised me. “I want to be comforted by food. This has been a problem for me all my life. Every time I get nervous or worried, I want to drink a Coke, or eat junk food. It’s like a drug. I weigh more than I should, and it’s because of that. I don’t want to give in to that urge to eat for comfort.”
I saw what he meant. I thought my friend was dealing with ordinary temptation to eat, the same urge that caused me yesterday afternoon to eat a couple of pieces of candy in the afternoon, breaking the communion fast and rendering myself ineligible for the Eucharist later in the evening. In fact, food had a far deeper and more sinister meaning for him.
“You’re right,” I said. “The fast is working for you. You’re dying to your old self, and it’s painful. Keep up the struggle. Don’t give up.”
Virgil is a more reliable guide for Dante than I was for my friend. Now that Dante is awake, Virgil tells him what happened while he slept:
… a lady came. She said ‘I am Lucia.
Come, let me take this man who lies asleep;
I wish to speed him on his journey up.’
Sordello and the other shades remained.
She took you in her arms at break of day
and brought you here. I followed after her.
Before she set you down, her lovely eyes
showed me the open entrance; then she left,
and as she went, she took away your sleep.”
This, of course, is St. Lucia, identified in Canto II of Inferno as “the enemy of cruelty,” designated by the Virgin Mary to go to Beatrice and ask her to help save the beloved Dante. Beatrice, in turn, went to Virgil, who answered her call, and approached the lost Dante in the dark wood. In his compromised state, Dante could not have borne the sight of Beatrice, much less that of Lucia; this is why God, through the divine chain of command, deputized Virgil as his messenger for the first and second stages of Dante’s journey. It is why Lucia — an early Christian martyr whose name, in its Latin root, means “light” — is key to understanding a core theme of the Commedia. Dante’s journey involves going from ignorance to understanding, from slavery to freedom, from separation from God to unity with Him — all of which is encompassed by the metaphor of moving from darkness to light.
Yet in his humanity, Dante cannot bear too much light at once. Recall in the previous canto, Dante observed that the same light that makes things visible can also blind. We cannot gaze directly upon brilliant things without losing our vision. We can only approach them indirectly, until we have developed a stronger vision. The glory of the all-powerful, infinite God must ordinarily be veiled for us to approach it in our finitude and brokenness. Here is C.S. Lewis:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people.
You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Dante is not yet strong enough to bear with his eyes the glory of God, not even reflected in his perfected saints. So St. Lucia came to him in a dream, disguised as an eagle. She took him to a sphere of flame, where they were both destroyed (Hebrews 12:29: “for our God is a consuming fire”). At this point in Dante’s journey, this image is mysterious, and scary. Think of it: an eagle picks him up and carries him off to a realm of fire, which obliterates them both. If, like the people of Dante’s day, you believed that dreams before down may prophesy the future, wouldn’t you be terrified? In his spiritual immaturity, the pilgrim compares this experience to classical mythology, which tells him that he is being kidnapped (Ganymede) and is ultimately going to die (Achilles). Virgil, who knows better, calms him, and reveals to him, in effect, that God is in charge, and what is about to happen to him is part of the divine plan for his salvation.
What Virgil cannot know, and what Dante will not fully grasp until he enters Paradise, is that the dream was entirely prophetic. The eagle — St. Lucia — did, in fact, carry him off to a realm where they are both consumed by fire. To progress in heaven is to be filled entirely with the light of God, which is to say, with God. The boundaries between ourselves and our creator burn away, and we become transparent in our unity with Him and, in Him, with each other — while at the same time, mysteriously remaining ourselves. The Orthodox Christian term for this is theosis, which describes salvation; it begins with repentance, and if we follow it through, ends with total unity with God in eternity. Dante’s Paradiso is entirely about theosis, consumed by the light of God, which burns brighter than a million suns, yet somehow, mysteriously, like the Burning Bush beheld by Moses on Sinai, is not consumed.
Note well that the eagle (St. Lucia) did not ferry Dante straight to Paradise, but rather to the Gates Of Purgatory. That’s because the fire that consumes the old man and liberates the new begins to burn here, in sparks that will, in time, become a roaring flame. Allegorically, our salvation is not a one-time event, but a process that starts with our conversion, when we first begin our repentance and turning towards Christ. Said Lewis, “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” There is no such thing as staying in place. In every moment of every day, if you are not being born again, you are dying towards eternal death.
But our hero is not yet strong enough to see any of this. In fact, as he approaches the Gates of Purgatory, he sees there an angel, sitting on the highest step.
And in his hand he held a naked sword;
so dazzling were the rays reflected thence,
each time I tried to look I could not see.
Yet Dante and his Guide approach the angel and the steps — three of them.
White marble was the first,
and polished to the glaze of a looking glass:
I saw myself reflected as I was.
This is the first step to true repentance: seeing ourselves as we really are — helpless sinners in need of God’s mercy.
The second one was deeper dark than perse,
of rough and crumbling, fire-corroded stone,
with cracks across its surface — length and breadth.
The second step of repentance: confession of and profound sorrow over our sins.
The third one, lying heavy at the top,
appeared to be of flaming porphyry,
red as the blood that spurts out from a vein…
The third and final step: penance, which requires an act to demonstrate the genuineness of our contrition.
Dante ascends the steps to the top, where the Angel of the Lord sits. Does the Angel open the doors of the gate for Dante? No. There is one more thing the penitent pilgrim must do: humbly ask the Angel to turn the keys. This Dante does, falling down before the Angel, striking his breast three times (in the old Catholic confessional ritual, the gesture one makes while saying “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”), and begging for mercy.
There are two keys — one silver, and one gold. The Angel tells Dante:
“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised:
‘Admit too many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.'”
This refers to Matthew 16, in which Jesus entrusts Peter with the “keys to the kingdom of heaven.” It also points to humility and mercy as triumphing over justice. St. Peter, who was given the power by Christ to bind and loose, would rather err on the side of mercy.
Ciardi interprets these mysterious metaphors thus: the gold key representing the authority of the confessor (that is, the Church) to open the gates of Purgatory, and the silver key representing the confessor’s spiritual discernment — that is, his judgment of the sincerity of the sinner’s repentance. Both must turn before the penitent can move on.
Fortunately for Dante, the gates open. Before he passes through, the Angel takes his sword and carves seven Ps upon his forehead (P for peccatum, Latin for “sin”). These represent the seven deadly sins that Dante must purge through suffering in his climb up the mountain. These wounds must be healed, one by one, or he cannot ascend.
Then, pushing back the portal’s holy door,
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned:
to look back means to go back out again.”
These are among the most profound words spoken in the entire Commedia. It warns us we cannot dwell on our past sins, or we risk losing all the progress towards holiness we’ve made. Once forgiven, we must resolve only to look to the future, and not look back in nostalgia for the life we once led. To do so would be to do as the Israelites did in the desert, sick of the suffering and uncertainty of the Exodus, and longing for the security of slavery in Egypt. To look back at the Egypt from which we have been delivered would be to risk building a Golden Calf.
This morning, I spent some time with a Baptist pastor friend in Baton Rouge. We were getting caught up on things happening in our lives since we last met. I told him about a situation I’ve struggled with and turned away from, but still face. This time, though, I do it without falling back into the old drama of longing, anger, and resentment that held me in its grips. The difference? Aside from grace, it was Dante, and specifically, the words of the Angel at the Gates Of Purgatory.
“I’m obsessively analytical,” I told him. “Prayer, and therapy, and reading Dante got me out of that hole I was in last year. I’m tempted to start thinking about how it all happened. But I know myself well enough to know that if I did that, before you know it, I would be back in the mud, wondering how on earth that happened. In those moments, I think about what the Angel said: ‘To look back means to go back out again.’ And so I choose to look ahead.”