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Purgatorio, Canto VIII

I was re-reading Canto VIII just now, as I stirred the miso into the simmering water for supper. Hence the cubed tofu and green onions in the background. We came in a short time ago from the Presanctified Liturgy, a communion service Orthodox Christians have on weekdays during Lent. It’s such a beautiful service. I […]

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I was re-reading Canto VIII just now, as I stirred the miso into the simmering water for supper. Hence the cubed tofu and green onions in the background. We came in a short time ago from the Presanctified Liturgy, a communion service Orthodox Christians have on weekdays during Lent. It’s such a beautiful service. I prayed long in tonight’s liturgy for the dead, mentioning all of my dead family members I could think of by name, and others. I told God that if anyone was delayed in their movement to unity with Him because of a lack of forgiveness on my part, then I forgive those souls and release them; I asked Him to welcome them into His kingdom. It was a powerful moment, I must say, because as I prayed, I thought of several people in my past who had wronged me seriously, and against whom I was bitter. Even though the anger has faded over the years, it seemed important to me to make an affirmative prayer of forgiveness, and to pray God’s mercy on their souls, if they need it. You never know. Pray for others, as you would have them pray for you.

Reading Dante with y’all made this happen tonight. Thank you for this opportunity to pray, to reflect, and to repent. It’s a small thing, praying for repose of the souls of the dead, but it’s something.

In Canto VIII, Dante and Virgil linger in the valley as night falls. An unnamed shade there sing a 7th-century compline hymn, Te lucis ante terminum (Before The End Of Light), asking God’s protection throughout the dangers of the night.  The beauty of the hymn and the intensity of the singing “drew me out from all thoughts of myself,” says Dante — which is exactly what worship is supposed to do.

Dante the poet then gives us a strange tercet (a “tercet” is a three-lined verse; the entire Commedia is composed in tercet form):

Here, reader, set your gaze upon the truth,

for now the veil is drawn so thin

that piercing it is surely easy.

What does that mean here? It will become clear in a moment.

Suddenly, two angels, “green as newly opened leaves” — a symbol of hope, of new life — holding “flaming swords, their blade-tips broken off,” descend from the sky, and take up positions guarding either side of the throng.

My eyes could see with ease their golden hair,

but could not bear the radiance of their faces:

light that makes visible can also blind.

This tercet touches on something that will become more important as Dante goes along, especially in Paradise: the progressive strengthening of the pilgrim’s sight, meaning his ability to behold the brightness of the things of God. His vision is so weak (from his sinful nature) that holy personages overwhelm him by their brightness. An interesting paradox: he’s blinded by the light, the very thing that gives him sight. We come to understand that our sanctification, then, is a process. If we take things too fast, before we are ready for them, we risk losing our way. I think of how eager converts to a faith can be, wanting to know everything right now. It seems to me that this tercet is a warning against being too eager for truth, lest we stray from the straight path.

This calls to mind the days when I was making my first steps in becoming a Catholic, back in the early 1990s. How I wanted to devour theology! A Catholic friend invited me to work at the Missionaries Of Charity mission near downtown. We washed dishes and peeled potatoes. I was bored and restless, and didn’t go back there. I wanted to read books instead. Looking back on the path I took, and how I fell off of it, I can see that I ought to have closed my books and spent more time washing dishes and peeling potatoes with the nuns. It’s not that reading theology books is bad, not at all; it’s just that my formation would have been far better served through working in the soup kitchen. As it was, the brightness of Catholic ideas dazzled me, as they continued to in all my years as a Catholic. And this undid my power of sight. It is a constant temptation for me, even today, to want to know more than I am ready for. What’s so subtle and wise about these lines from Dante is the implicit warning that immersing yourself in truths that you aren’t prepared to bear or to understand can not simply puzzle you, but make it impossible for you to see.

After a conversation with a shade called Nino Visconti, Dante’s eyes rise to the heavens, at three new stars he describes as “brilliant torches.” Virgil comments:

“Those four bright stars you saw

this morning, now are underneath the mount,

and these have risen here to take their place.”

Remember the four bright stars Dante saw when he arrived that morning on the shores of the mountain? They stand for the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. In Catholic teaching, these are the natural virtues — that is, virtues that all men can know and live by without divine assistance — on which all other natural virtues are built. The three theological virtues that blaze in the night sky are Faith, Hope, and Charity (caritas = love), which are praised by St. Paul in I Corinthians 13. They are called theological virtues because they depend on the revelation of God to be known. The reader Sigaliris commented perceptively on this in the previous post.

Suddenly, a serpent appears in an opening in the valley! This is, clearly, Satan. Quickly the two angels swoop down on the snake, driving it away. Now we understand what Dante meant when he told the reader to prepare to pierce the veil to get to the truth. What we’ve just seen is a morality play staged for the edification of the shades. They were never in real danger from the serpent; though they are in Purgatory, not Heaven, their salvation is assured; they cannot yield to temptation here. Sordello knew the serpent would show itself, and he knew the angels would drive it away. These angels have broken swords (perhaps, says Ciardi, a symbol of how God’s mercy blunted His justice); they wouldn’t actually have to use them. God has made the souls in Purgatory safe from Satan’s threat, but they are close enough to their own sins to need reminding of the adversary from which they were delivered.

That the devil came to them here in the form of a serpent is a reminder of the Edenic drama, and the curse of original sin from which all men suffer, and from which Christ delivered them. The message to the reader, and to penitents beginning their climb, is that we should ever be mindful of the goodness of God in saving us from sin in our earthly lives, and therefore from an eternity spent in Hell with the serpent. This scene is also, I think, a foretaste of how the blessed in Paradise regard their own past sins. If you read on into Paradiso — and I hope you will! — you’ll learn that the blessed do not, and cannot, think of their sins remorsefully, because they have been perfected in the Holy Spirit (which is why they are in Heaven); instead, they consider their sins only as occasions for outpourings of the merciful God’s love.

In that sense, this staged drama with the snake in Purgatory is basic training for the souls who will be ready for the divine gift of pure sanctity when they reach the summit and complete their purification. Remember, Purgatory is not about earning forgiveness for sins by working your way up the mountain. Nobody can earn forgiveness; it is a free gift from God. Rather, Purgatory is about cleansing the soul of the tendencies to sin. Allegorically, Purgatory is about the Christian’s life in this world, in which he has to struggle against the will, against human tendencies to slide backward into sinfulness — tendencies that can only be conquered through ascetic labors (prayer, fasting, repentance) supported by divine grace.

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