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Purgatorio, Canto XV

This canto begins with another instance of the pilgrim’s being struck by wonder — that is, by a blast of light that nearly blinds him. It means that an angel is approaching. Virgil comforts Dante: “Don’t be surprised if you can still be dazed by members of the Heavenly Court,” he said. “This is our […]


This canto begins with another instance of the pilgrim’s being struck by wonder — that is, by a blast of light that nearly blinds him. It means that an angel is approaching. Virgil comforts Dante:

“Don’t be surprised if you can still be dazed
by members of the Heavenly Court,” he said.
“This is our invitation to ascend.

Not long from now, a sight like this will prove
to be no burden, but a joy as great
as Nature has prepared your soul to feel.”

We’ve been hearing this again and again on this journey: don’t worry, this is hard, but you’ll get used to it, and eventually you’ll take joy in it. Why do you think Virgil keeps repeating it, and Dante (the poet) keeps having his fictive self blinded by the light? Virgil has to make this point again and again to his pupil because Dante is in a state of transition, and it’s frightening to him. He is metaphorically dying to himself, and is becoming a new creature. His master, Virgil, is coaching him and encouraging him to keep going. You might say that he’s pastoring Dante. Second, as we’ve seen, Dante, in typical medieval fashion, uses light as a metaphor for acquiring wisdom and holiness. The wiser and more holy the pilgrim becomes, the more he is able to bear God’s brilliance. He still has a long way to go, though. Christ said in the Gospels (Matthew 6:22):

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”

The journey up the mountain of Purgatory, and ascending through the heaven, is about making the eyes healthier, so they can behold more light, and thereby allow the body to be filled with light and healed — which is to say, fully restored in unity with God. The ease with which the pilgrim Dante is blinded by theophany — God’s showing His glory, as in the face of His angels — is a metaphor for Dante’s spiritual weakness.

As we know from the terrace of Pride, Dante’s “graduation” to the next stage of spiritual progress is marked by the appearance of an angel, who removes a P from his forehead, and invites him to ascend to the next terrace up. We don’t see it happen here, but learn later in the canto that it has happened.

The heart of this canto is Virgil’s explanation for what Guido said in Canto XIV — see yesterday’s post — in his denunciation of the corrupt people of the Arno river valley for their Envy:

O race of men, why do you set your hearts
on things that of necessity cannot be shared?

In today’s Canto, Dante asks Virgil to tell him what Guido meant by that. Virgil’s explanation is a gloss on this passage from Matthew, Chapter 6, two lines of which I just quoted:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Virgil explains that Envy emerges when people fix their eyes and set their hearts on the things of this world, not the things of heaven. If their disposition is to make earthly things — the acquisition of riches, or of power, and hating those who have more of those things than they do — then they will dwell in darkness. Purgatory, remember is not a place where sins are punished — that is hell — but where dispositions toward particular sins are corrected. This is why Dante is here: to learn to see and to desire the things of heaven. Says Virgil:

But if your love were for the lofty sphere,

your cravings would aspire for the heights,

and fear of loss would not oppress your heart;


the more there are up there who speak of ‘ours,’

the more each one possesses and the more

Charity burns intensely in that realm.”

Charity — caritas, the self-giving form of love — is the governing principle of heaven. Souls who burn with caritas love God above all, and through the grace of God, their neighbors above themselves. Envy destroys charity; envy exiles God from one’s heart. Dante still doesn’t quite get it, though. He asks Virgil how a single good shared by many makes all who have it richer than if it were held exclusively only by a few? Virgil tut-tuts his pupil, telling him he’s still stuck in worldly habits of thinking, therefore “from the true light you reap only the dark.” He continues:

That infinite, ineffable true Good

that dwells in Heaven speeds instantly to love,

as light rays to a shining surface would;


just as much ardor as it finds, it gives:

the greater the proportion of our love,

the more eternal goodness we receive;


the more souls there above who are in love

the more there are worth loving; love grows more,

each soul a mirror mutually mirroring.

This is so beautiful, and so profound. It must be conceded that the simile depends on a misunderstanding of the physics of light: the belief that light is attracted to light. It also depends on a misunderstanding of economics: the idea that there is a finite amount of wealth in the world, and that one person’s gain necessarily comes at the expense of others. Nevertheless, there is much spiritual truth here. There is something about the nature of love, says Virgil, that breeds potentially boundless increase. Because God is Love, and He is infinite, the more we open our hearts to His love, the more light dwells in us, flowing out of us into our neighbors, and from them back into ourselves. Giuseppe Mazzotta explains:

This image thus leads us to the generative idea of charity, that is to say the idea that charity produces more charity. It has the power of generate itself and multiply itself. This is the principle of mercy for Dante. The whole of creation is sending back light, without any loss of its original light. This is the metaphysics of Dante’s mirror. The world exists, therefore, on the basis of mercy, and not from the point of view of envy, from which we do not even see the light in the first place. Charity completely allows for a God who creates without envy and with generosity.

Isn’t that marvelous? And look, it’s not simply beautiful poetry and inspiring moral theology; there’s a scientific basis for charity — altruistic love — generating more of itself. Stephen G. Post is a bioethicist and academic researcher (SUNY-Stonybrook), a man I got to know somewhat when I worked at the Templeton Foundation. Dr. Post has made the study of altruism his life’s work. Here he is on Big Think with a 3-minute video delving into what science tells us about the physiological benefits of altruism. From the transcript:

When people are less focused on self and the problems of the self, there is a kind of alleviation of stress.  There’s nothing like reaching out and contributing to the lives of others to give a person, first of all a sense of significance and purpose. The idea of the helper’s high has been around since the early 1990’s.  Allen Lukes, a psychologist, had individuals going out and helping others in various ways, at low thresholds, a couple of hours of activity at a soup kitchen or helping down the block or whatever it might be.  And about half of the individuals, and this is a kind of half full/half empty paradigm, reported a feeling of elation; a kind of emotional buoyancy, if you will.  Forty-three percent reported a sense of warmth and tranquility.  Certainly many of them reported a sense of significance and meaning in life.  And interestingly, even 13 percent said they felt an alleviation of chronic aches and pains.

Now since then, scientists have been studying this care and connection axis in human nature and know that it involves certain hormones, like oxytocin, sometimes called the compassion hormone.  Oxytocin is related not only to compassion, but also to feelings of tranquility or serenity, if you will, and also to social trust.

This is true. Paul J. Zak is a neuroscientist and economist whom I also got to know a bit through Templeton circles. Dr. Zak is best known for his work on oxytocin, which he’s dubbed the “moral molecule.” He’s proved in the lab that the presence of oxytocin in the brain has dramatic effects on social trust and morality. Here, in a TED talk, he explains his discoveries:

So oxytocin is the trust molecule, but is it the moral molecule? Using the oxytocin inhaler, we ran more studies. We showed that oxytocin infusion increases generosity in unilateral monetary transfers by 80 percent. We showed it increases donations to charity by 50 percent. We’ve also investigated non-pharmacologic ways to raise oxytocin. These include massage, dancing and praying. Yes, my mom was happy about that last one. And whenever we raise oxytocin, people willingly open up their wallets and share money with strangers.

But why do they do this? What does it feel like when your brain is flooded with oxytocin? To investigate this question, we ran an experiment where we had people watch a video of a father and his four year-old son, and his son has terminal brain cancer. After they watched the video, we had them rate their feelings and took blood before and after to measure oxytocin. The change in oxytocin predicted their feelings of empathy. So it’s empathy that makes us connect to other people. It’s empathy that makes us help other people. It’s empathy that makes us moral.

More Zak:

Now this idea is not new. A then unknown philosopher named Adam Smith wrote a book in 1759 called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” In this book, Smith argued that we are moral creatures, not because of a top-down reason, but for a bottom-up reason. He said we’re social creatures, so we share the emotions of others. So if I do something that hurts you, I feel that pain. So I tend to avoid that. If I do something that makes you happy, I get to share your joy. So I tend to do those things. Now this is the same Adam Smith who, 17 years later, would write a little book called “The Wealth of Nations” — the founding document of economics. But he was, in fact, a moral philosopher, and he was right on why we’re moral. I just found the molecule behind it. But knowing that molecule is valuable, because it tells us how to turn up this behavior and what turns it off. In particular, it tells us why we see immorality.

So, in a very real sense, neuroscience shows what Dante the Christian poet knew 700 years ago. But here’s something Dante — a great poet, but a lousy economist — did not know, but an economist like Adam Smith figured out four centuries later, and scientists like Paul Zak demonstrated in our time. From Zak’s TED talk:

 I studied one single virtue: trustworthiness. Why? I had shown in the early 2000s that countries with a higher proportion of trustworthy people are more prosperous. So in these countries, more economic transactions occur and more wealth is created, alleviating poverty. So poor countries are by and large low trust countries. So if I understood the chemistry of trustworthiness, I might help alleviate poverty.

In other words, the more you invest in caritas, the more you and others prosper spiritually, and the more everyone prospers materially. This isn’t theology, or at least isn’t only theology; it’s also science.

And it’s in Dante.

What the pilgrim’s experience on the terrace of Envy reveals is how corrosive Envy, the opposite of Charity, is to social trust. We begin by despising our neighbor for having what we don’t have. If we don’t repent, and if others repay our envy with envy and spite, we may end by destroying social trust, the common good, and the basis for our own prosperity, and condemning our children and their children to dwell in darkness and poverty.

Back on the mountain, on the next terrace up — the terrace of Wrath — Dante finds himself suddenly within a vision. He’s standing in a temple, in a crowd of people, and spies a lady whispering tenderly to a boy, “My son, why hast Thou dealt with us this way? You see, thy father and I, both of us in tears, have searched for Thee.”

This, of course, is the Virgin Mary, finding her lost son Jesus preaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. She did not react to his running away with wrath, but with gentleness, with meekness. As we’ve seen, the journey on each terrace begins with examples of the virtue the purgation there will help one acquire. Next, he sees the grieving and angry mother of a teenage girl caught with another boy, trying to shame her husband, Pisistratus, the benevolent tyrant of Athens, into taking revenge on the boy. Pisistratus, serene, deflected her wrath with a word of love.

Finally, we see Stephen, the first martyr, dying under a hail of stones. Dante’s description: “His eyes were open gates to heaven.” It is through those eyes that divine illumination flows, into his heart and out of his mouth, as a prayer for God to forgive his murderers. The Hollander translation has Dante describing the protomartyr’s face as having “a look that must unlock compassion.”

The visions end. Dante comes to himself. What’s wrong with you? Virgil says.  You’ve been stumbling around in a daze. The pilgrim replies that he was so overcome by his ecstatic vision, one so powerful he could “scarcely move [his] legs.” Virgil replies that he knows exactly what Dante saw, and he only goaded him on so he would remember that his task is to keep pressing forward.

The importance of this moment in the journey is easy to overlook, but we had better linger to take its meaning. Dante the pilgrim had a revelation here, a series of imaginative visions that awakened him morally (it’s a neat irony that the ecstasy’s effect on Dante’s body was to weaken it temporarily). The visions were so powerful that the visionary, Dante, lost sense of time and control of himself; indeed, the last one, of the face of St. Stephen, serene and loving even as he died horribly, had such a powerful effect that it opened the locked doors of compassion. Dante the poet is showing us here the transformative power of mimesis — that is, the desire to be like someone else, overwhelming our hearts and converting our souls. He’s telling us that we must imaginatively enter into the stories of others, to make ourselves emotionally vulnerable to them, to allow them to enter into our intellect and change us.

This is what the future Pope Benedict XVI meant when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he said that the best arguments for the truth of Christianity are not propositions and syllogisms, but Art and the Saints — that is, beauty, and holiness visible. Read the Holy Father’s reflection on the power of Beauty to reveal truth to us. In it, the pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas, thus:

“When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound.”

What we desire, we wish to possess. What we see, and embrace in our imaginations, we shall come to be. If we fill our eyes and our minds with light, we will dwell in the light; if we fill it with darkness, we will dwell in darkness. This is not a pious platitude; this is reality.

Cardinal Ratzinger continued:

All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it “has a wax nose”: In other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough. Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”

The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.

In a rich way Pavel Evdokimov has brought to light the interior pathway that an icon establishes. An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes, as he says, “a fasting of sight.” Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendor of the glory of God, the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.

Now however, we still have to respond to an objection. We have already rejected the assumption which claims that what has just been said is a flight into the irrational, into mere aestheticism.

Rather, it is the opposite that is true: This is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.

You see? Virgil, the personification of Reason, could not share Dante’s ecstatic vision, but he knew that Dante had seen something true in his private revelation, and was reminding him that it was time now to act on what he had seen. We see the holy terror the artist possesses: the power to awaken men’s souls to hidden realities, and to guide their actions to the good, or to deceive them, and mislead them to evil. The pilgrim is coming to see why his old teacher, the damned scholar Brunetto Latini, who told Dante to keep following his own constellation, to worldly fame and glory, was so devastatingly wrong. The vocation of an artist comes with immense power, and immense responsibility. To whom much is given, much is expected.

And now, at the end of this canto, comes Dante’s time of testing:

Then gradually, a cloud of smoke took shape;

slowly it drifted toward us, dark as night;

we were not able to escape its grip.


It took away our sight, and the pure air.

They have entered into the choking, blinding cloud of Wrath. Fear not. As we go deeper into the Purgatorio, we live out with Dante the prophetic truth proclaimed by Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” God reveals Himself to us in his Word, certainly, but also in the saints and in art. I think as I write this about that evening three years ago, standing under an oak tree outside the Methodist church at my sister’s wake, not much more than a stone’s throw from where I sit tonight, I beheld the goodness of the people of this town, inspired to acts of charity by the love Ruthie, and my family, had shown them over the years. It was a revelation of the reality of God, just as my sister’s 19-month walk with cancer had been. The more light she received, the more she radiated, and the more it shone in the faces of those who looked upon her. When she died from the cancer, her lovely face was shrunken and gray, but the glow lasted in the faces of all who came to look on her body in the church that evening. I saw it too, and it changed my heart, and my life.

So did the theophany God gave me in the matchless art of Dante Alighieri, which healed me of a wound I had carried all my life. And now, I ask you to give an exhausted writer, who has been doing this straight for 13 hours, unable to stop telling you about Dante, the grace to say: How good God has been to me, in His saints and in His artists! Glory to Him for all things! I could write about this all night. It is a kind of ecstasy. You can’t put the kids to bed on wobbly legs.



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