Purgatorio, Canto XIX
Last night, I went to a big street party behind my house. Going home was a simple matter of slipping through the back gate of my fence. As I was leaving the party, I found myself standing in the darkness behind the Masonic Lodge, talking to an old friend I’ll call Nate (in fact, I don’t know anyone in West Feliciana named Nate and never have; I’m obscuring some identifying details for the sake of protecting privacy).
Nate and I go way back. I can’t say we’re good friends, but we are friends. He’s not a bad guy, but we do have history. Truth to tell, I have a lot of anger at Nate for some things in the past. One of Nate’s less endearing qualities is his obliviousness to the messes he makes. He never does it on purpose, or at least I’ve never observed him doing so. But he’s kind of a mess himself, and has hurt people by his willful cluelessness, which most people, in my judgment, find easy to forgive.
When it comes to Nate, I am not like most people, for reasons that are too personal to disclose, having a lot to do with why I left this town so long ago. So, last night, I found myself talking in the shadows to Nate. We were making small talk, and then, for a reason I cannot fathom — maybe it was because we’d all been drinking — Nate said, “Hey, did I ever tell you what happened to me?”
Nate told me a couple of horrible stories from his deep past. He had been so young and so innocent, and had been terribly victimized by people he trusted to take care of him. I had never known, nor suspected these things. And I knew they were true. As he talked, I could see that these evil deeds done to him explained so much about the way he is and has been for as long as I’ve known him. They eat away at him to this day. I could barely see his face in the darkness, but it was clear to me that this man has suffered, and does suffer, in ways that I could barely comprehend. But there it was.
We said goodnight, and I slipped through my back gate, and into the house. This morning, at liturgy, I thought again about my conversation with Nate. Why had he told me these things? Oh, of course, the reason he said he wanted to talk to me in the first place: he had read The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, and had been thinking a lot about the past, and how it affects the future. Something about that book (and, I suspect, the liquor) made him want to confess to me, where no one could see him. “Yeah,” he had said, “this town isn’t what you think it is.”
He wasn’t putting the town down; rather, he was signaling to me that in the corner of our town that he inhabits, reality is not as rosy as it seems to outsiders. Earlier in the evening, I had spoken with an older gentleman at the party, someone I knew as a boy. We shared happy stories of old times, of things we all used to do together back in the day. This morning, I remembered that while thinking about Nate’s stories, and was struck by the realization that the things the old man and I remembered fondly were at times for Nate occasions for suffering, when nobody could see. (I wish I could be more specific, but again, I have to protect the privacy of those involved.)
Standing in liturgy, I thought about Nate, and I thought about Dante on the terrace of Wrath, and his learning that anger blinds one’s moral vision. Had my low-level but constant anger at Nate blinded me to his suffering? Yes, it had. Though I had no idea that Nate had suffered so traumatically, I knew he had not had it easy growing up. But he, in turn, had not made it easy on others around him, and was blind to the trouble he caused for them. For this, I had not been sympathetic to Nate. Now, though, I could see that my old friend was far more hurt than I had known, or, I suspect, most people know, because he’s so good-natured in public.
Today, in Orthodoxy, it is the Sunday of the Exaltation Of The Cross. Father Matthew ritually placed a cross surrounded by flowers on a stand in the center of the church, then led the congregation in prostrating ourselves, one by one, in front of the Holy Cross. In his sermon, he spoke of the power of the Cross to conquer sin in our lives, but we have to be humble enough to allow our own passions to be crucified upon it. Don’t be like the Israelites in the desert, looking back fondly to slavery in Egypt when the going got rough crossing the desert to the Promised Land. We have to move on, walking the desert road in radical humility, allowing ourselves to be purified by the Cross so that we too can see the Promised Land.
“This, brothers and sisters, is Lent,” he said.
After the sermon, I remembered that we are on the terrace of Sloth. Please Lord, I said, give me the grace of zeal to be compassionate to Nate, to crucify my anger and frustration with him. Often I feel as if Father Matthew preaches directly to my heart, but today was special in that regard, because our reading of the Purgatorio here has given me such an effective framework for examining my conscience, and understanding the way my own dispositions to sin keep me from God, and keep me from being who I want to be. One you readers said to me in a private e-mail that reading Purgatorio this Lent has been like peeling back the layers of an onion. That’s exactly it for me as well. And so it was this morning, during the liturgy, as I prayed and contemplated.
As I prayed for Nate, I thought about what Dante teaches about how we are all part of each other, whether we see it or not. In fact, part of our fallen condition is that we don’t see the fundamental unity we share; after all, we pray the Our Father, not the My Father. Nate and I have a shared history in this community, and it was this sense of history, I think, that made him open up to me about his suffering. Now that I knew this about him, I couldn’t un-know it. What was I going to do about it? That poor guy, having gone through all that, with nobody to help him, with his private tormentor publicly respected by all. He had been so isolated, so afraid, so alone. The Orthodox have a saying, “We are saved together, but damned alone.” Nate’s confession had, on reflection, given me the opportunity to confront the hardness in my heart, and the anger I’d long carried within myself when I thought of him. He had now given me the chance to repent, and to root out anger in my own heart, and whether he realized it or not, helped me along the road to my own salvation. Now, I was determined, somehow, to do something for him — and not to be slothful about pursuing the good for Nate, either.
As I allowed myself, in prayer, to enter into Nate’s world, I became so ashamed of the way I had thought of him. It was understandable, perhaps; how could I have known the things he’d suffered? We don’t know the pain that people carry within their hearts, and the scars they bear on their bodies, and their souls. But now I knew, and I knew I had to change. Dante — or rather, God, through Dante — had prepared my heart for conversion this morning. Dante had prepared me to receive Father Matthew’s strong words. Together, they cracked my heart this morning.
After the liturgy, I prostrated myself three times before the Cross, and left my anger at Nate there with it, crucified.
It took focusing my imagination on Nate’s story this morning to lead me to see what my own guiltless ignorance, but guilty anger, had concealed from myself. But as we see in the beginning of Canto XIX, the imagination can work the other way, so blinded by sensual desire that we see something ugly as beautiful. Dante has a dream in which a hideous, deformed woman appears before him.
I stared at her. And as the sun revives
a body numbed by the night’s cold, just so
my eyes upon her worked to free her tongue
and straighten out all her deformities,
gradually suffusing her wan face
with just the color Love would have desired.
See what’s happening here? To satisfy his carnal appetite, Dante’s will wants to see this wretched woman as beautiful, and his imagination complies. She is a Siren, one of the same who tempted Ulysses with her irresistible, bewitching song. In The Odyssey, Odysseus (Ulysses) survived the Siren song only by having his crewmen, their ears filled with beeswax, lash him to the mast of his ship as they sailed by — a symbolic crucifixion of desire. Perhaps the version of the story Dante heard resulted in Ulysses’s death — or, as it seems more likely to me, the Siren represents the ever-present temptation to lie to ourselves and others about what we want and why we want it. In the Inferno, Ulysses is in Hell for using his extraordinary gift of speech to convince his exhausted crew to sail on with him, looking for glory, when in fact he was merely curious — and led them all to their deaths. Or maybe, as Giuseppe Mazzotta believes, she’s just a liar, plain and simple.
The Siren is a liar, but Dante feels compelled to succumb. Suddenly, an unnamed “saintly lady” (Beatrice?) appears at Dante’s side, and in alarm, urges Virgil to rip the veil of illusion from the Siren,
exposing her as far down as the paunch!
The stench pouring from her woke me from sleep.
The symbolism here is clear: Dante had no power himself to resist the bewitching of the Siren, but Faith directed Reason to unmask the witch so that Dante would flee.
But there’s a lot more going on here below the surface. Mazzotta observes that the Siren appears to Dante in a dream, when he is by definition passive, and not alert. It means something that this happens on the terrace of Sloth. The Siren lies to him about her true nature, and makes false promises to him that he will be satisfied if he follows her. Mazzotta says that the Siren stands for the Ulyssean notion that there is no knowledge worth having that does not require transgression to acquire. Mazzotta writes:
And Dante knows where he has placed the Ithacan wanderer [Hell; see Inferno, Canto 26 — RD], but he cannot get Ulysses out of his mind because Ulysses stands for something powerful. What he represents is the idea that there is no knowledge worth having that is not connected to transgressions. The great temptation for Dante is thus to believe that his journey reenacts that of Ulysses, which is exactly what the siren is telling Dante here, that she can make him happy just as she did Ulysses. It’s a lie, of course, because Ulysses never stopped at the island of Capri, in whose grotto the siren is said to reside. He did listen to her song, but he was bound to the mast of the ship, so she never brought him any pleasure. There is a transgression and a binding going on at the same time. The siren is making false promises, claiming to be the end of all Dante desires, urging him to conclude his journey and stay with her.
Mazzotta says that the Siren and the Saintly Lady who opposes her stand for two kinds of poetry. The Siren’s voice is “sweet, meretricious, and false, the other one very harsh but true.” Mazzotta again:
One forecloses Dante’s journey, encouraging him to be like Ulysses and call it quits. The other one claims exactly the opposite: the journey has to continue. The song of the siren seems sweet but also has the stench of death attached to it. The more austere voice instead insists that the true language of sweetness is that of love as an ongoing quest.
How can you tell the difference between the two? How can you judge which one is telling the truth, and which one is lying? Mazzotta says you have to look beneath the surface, and see which one leads to life, and which one to death. Right reason pierces the veil of illusion. Dante learns that to be satisfied with abandoning the quest would mean to accept death, while continuing up the mountain of austerity and pain will actually lead to life. Mazzotta reminds us of that scene in Canto II of Purgatorio, when the pilgrim and the others gather around Casella, and enjoy his sweet songs and poetry. Cato chastises them for sitting still when their task is to move onward toward the top of the mountain. In this dream, Dante, who is about to climb the three terraces concerning sensuality, learns that sensual beauty (e.g., poetry, sexual desire) that does not serve a higher end, only pleasure, leads to death.
Only when we subject our senses to the Good — that is, God’s will — can we enjoy these sensual goods without being lured by them to our doom. Only when we lash our bodies to the Cross can we endure the siren song of sensuality. Christianity does not teach that the things of the body are evil; that is a heresy. Rather, it teaches that things of the body must be enjoyed in a measured way. This is what the great fast of Lent is about: recalibrating our sensible and spiritual lives around the Cross. Dante leaves the terrace of Sloth after learning that the easy way — giving up before the journey is over, and giving in to our sensual desires — is the way of death and destruction. The harder way, the more austere way, the way illuminated by desire for Heaven, not the world, is the way toward life.
On the next terrace, the terrace of Greed, Dante finds
spirits stretched out upon the dust,
lying face downward, all of them in tears.
These are the penitent Greedy — who, in Dante, are guilty either of hoarding or wasting. That is, they had a disordered relationship to money, either being miserly about it, or spending beyond their means. Because they spent their lives on earth focused on worldliness, “attached to worldly goods” instead of looking to Heaven, these penitents must stay in Purgatory with their noses ground into the dust, backs to Heaven, eyes on the ground.
The penitent with whom Dante speaks here is Pope Adrian V, who confesses that greed “quenched all our love of good.” When Dante realizes he is speaking to a pope, he shows him deference. Adrian will not have it.
“Why are you kneeling at my side?” he asked,
and I replied, “Your dignity commands.
My conscience would not let me stand up straight.”
“Up on your feet, my brother,” he replied.
“You should not kneel: I am a servant too,
with you and all the others, of One Power.”
In Purgatory, which is a far province of the Kingdom of God, everyone is equal. Before the Holy Cross, every knee bows in humility.