Monthly Archives: February 2010

Inferno Canto 4: How Low Can Ya Go?

By Pier Kooistra

To this Dante neophyte,* Inferno’s Canto IV is both a lark and a nightmare.

On the lark side, what fun to imagine sidling up, at a sort of netherworld cocktail party, to some of the superpeople—actually former persons, now shades—whom Dante encounters in Limbo. So long as the down-under visitor were well versed in ancient languages (and these shades convivial), s/he should be able to conjure up rich conversation. Even if the netherworld sojourner could only manage a little medieval Arabic and some classic Greek, how fascinating to be able to launch into tete-a-tete’s with openers like these:

-“A pleasure to meet you, Saladin. I’m curious: Having ruled over both Egypt and Syria, you at all surprised at the old U.A.R.’s having come apart, or would you have expected it to fracture? Whose regime do you think is worse—Mubarak’s or Assad’s? What would be your road map to Middle-East peace?”

-“Ptolemy. THE Claudius Ptolemy? Wow! Bad enough that you were relegated to this place. Cruel, on top (bottom?) of that, that you’ve been consigned to the historical margin of science. Have you had a chance to read Copernicus and Galileo? Whaddayathink? Hey, wait a second while I pull up something cool on my iPhone. Check out these nebulae as photographed by Hubble.”

-“A great privilege to meet you, Hippocrates. I can’t resist asking: If forced to choose just one, which of these technologies would you prefer to have at your disposal for doctoring—the simple blood-pressure cuff or arthroscopy? Why?”

But, on the dark side, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These, of course, are the words of Martin King, penned in the Birmingham city jail, in Alabama, in April of 1963. They’re King’s words, but the idea has a long history. Moreover, it has lived long outside history, in innumerable hearts and minds whose flickerings and broodings have never been recorded. The consignment to Limbo of such luminaries as Ptolemy and Hippocrates, not to mention Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid (all of whom Dante encounters in this canto), was a searing moral problem for many Renaissance Christians; they couldn’t help but react to this situation as an acute injustice.

As he enters the first circle of Hell and discovers the presence there of so many heroic contributors to human civilization, Dante is deeply troubled, especially when his guide, Virgil, acknowledges that the inmates of Limbo “did not sin” (Canto IV, l. 25). Their status is not a result of their having done anything wrong. The issue, Virgil continues, is that their “merit…can’t suffice without / Baptism” (ll. 25-6) to secure their entry into Heaven. “Knowing how many souls endured / Suspension in that Limbo” (ll. 34-5), Dante asks Virgil whether any have been released, and Virgil explains that, yes, Christ, “A Mighty One who descended here, arrayed / With a crown of victory…re-called / Back from this place the shade of our first parent [Adam], / And his son Abel, and other shades who dwelled / In Limbo” (ll. 42-6). These Christian forebears—including also Noah, Moses, Abraham, King David, Israel/Jacob, Rachel—have been saved. Virgil says of Christ’s intervention in Hell, “His / Coming here made them blessed, and rescued them” (ll. 50-1).

But to what degree have the souls in Limbo, in general, been rescued? Virgil is still there. Inasmuch as Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell begins in the year 1300 (on the day before Good Friday), and Virgil died in 19 BCE, the poet of the Aeneid and the Eclogues, for all his contributions to humanity (not to mention his taking care of Dante in this harrowing place), has wallowed in Limbo for thirteen centuries, so far. The duration of his punishment is perhaps numerologically apt; he is profoundly unfortunate. But it seems far from right. Though Dante is quite particular about telling us that the denizens of Limbo express only “shadowy sadnesses, not agonies” (l. 22) and, moreover, that the virtuous but un-Christian heroes there speak in “courtly voices” (l. 99, suggesting a courtly atmosphere) and inhabit a stately “enameled green” (l. 102), nonetheless these good and generally socially constructive people are kept apart, denied the fullest salvation, only because they “lived before the Christian faith, so that / They did not worship God aright” (ll. 29-30). Here we are in only the first circle of Hell. If fundamentally good people are suspended in Limbo, then it seems clear that we need to ask a question that the term Limbo (in one of its other iterations) suggests: HOW LOW CAN YA GO? No doubt, far lower. This really is gonna be Hell.

*(Regarding my participation in this little Inferno blogging group, I can’t resist saying what delighted amusement I felt, while reading Canto IV, in coming across lines 86-7: “I made a sixth / Amid such store of wisdom.” I don’t compare to my co-bloggers nearly as favorably as Dante does to Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan, the ancient literati in whose company he finds himself in Limbo. My companions in this e-space far surpass me in erudition, insight and prior experience of this text, which I’m diving into for the first time. I cast a smaller shadow—and also less light. But what fun. With the line, “How low can ya go?” echoing in my mind’s ear, I find myself thinking happily, “Deeper. Just give me time.” Till next Saturday, and Canto X. –Pier)

Inferno Canto 3: Anti-baptism?

By Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Canto 3 is liminal in character. It is about crossing over from one reality to another. It is a transitional space and time.

It strikes me that Canto 3 has great resonance with the season of Lent. Pastoral leaders in the early church created Lent for the purpose of navigating the liminal space between paganism and Christian faith within the context of the church. The forty days provided time and space for converts to cross over from lives lost in labyrinthine confusion into the promised land of salvation in the community of the redeemed. During Lent, candidates for baptism would come daily to the church in order to receive instruction in the rudiments of Christian belief and practice, to be exorcised, and to pray. These candidates (called “catechumens”) would always have a sponsor to guide them through the process of transformation and transition into membership of the Body of Christ.

The whole process would culminate during the Easter Vigil. Beginning on Easter eve, the catechumens, their sponsors, and the entire Christian community would gather to pray their way into Easter and to initiate the newcomers. The catechumens would cross over into membership in the church by passing through the waters of baptism. Often, the baptismal rite would invoke liminal imagery from the Old Testament: the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage; the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land by passing through the waters of the Jordan River; and the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry in the waters of the Jordan. Crossing the baptismal river led to a life of faith, joy, and hope in the fellowship of the church and in unity with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Canto 3 read against the Lenten practices of Christian initiation would appear to be a kind of anti-baptismal narrative. Nearly every element of the scene depicted in Canto 3 has an anti-type in the Lenten journey culminating in baptismal initiation into the church. Here, the condemned pass over from life into a living death by passing over the river. The ferryman is  a catechist of condemnation, conducting souls from one reality to another.  This new reality for the damned is one of woes, pain, loss, and divine judgment. The bottom line of the inscription over the portal to hell is, in fact, the metaphorical bottom line: “Abandon hope, you who enter here.”  The new reality means the death of hope.”

Dante’s theological insight takes one’s breath away: hell means living without any hope whatsoever. If we invert this spine chilling word, we see that life in fellowship with God is a life of hope. During this Lenten season, Dante can help us to see both the horrors of life lived without hope and also the life-giving power of life lived with hope.

Inferno Canto 2: “Love Moved Me”

By John Timpane

First thing: read the canto and then come back here. Ten minutes max. I’ll wait.

One of the many wondrous things about Canto II – and we haven’t even reached the Inferno yet! – is how almost everything and certainly everyone in Dante’s imagined world is more than themselves. The characters are themselves, but they also telescope out into other people who pre- and postfigure them.

Dante is Dante, the Florentine who suffered exile, who descends through the Inferno and ascends through Purgatory and Paradise to find blessing, meaning, and justification in God and Beatrice – but he’s also Aeneas, who descended into Hades. He’s also Paul, who spoke in Corinthians of ascending to the third heaven. Aeneas, a Trojan, founded Rome; Paul, a pagan, founded the future of Christianity. Each had to make an arduous, cleansing journey to another realm before they could remake history. And Dante – can he do it, too? No wonder he’s scared. Paul’s world replaced Aeneas’ as popes replaced caesars – how might one pilgrim’s renewal usher in a new order of the ages?

Canto II suggests an answer. Dante sees Aeneas as a prophet – as a man who spoke the future into being. Paul is the great Christian prophet. Could Dante, as a pilgrim, as a Christian searching for his way through life, as a poet working his way through his losses and griefs, reach a place where he can say the future, a new, better future? And if so, how the heck can he get there?

The second telescoping figure is Vergil. We already know from Canto I that Vergil encompasses many guides, all great poets, “the glory and light of the other poets.” He’s not only a great stylist, as Dante keeps saying – he’s also, for him, a Roman without Christ who nevertheless foresaw the coming of Christ. So Vergil, too, is a prophet.

And Beatrice – isn’t she great? I love how, in this Canto, Dante is rescued via a chain of women. We can work back up that chain all the way to Paradise. Remember our problem: Dante is scared, scared he’s not up to the journey, scared he has nothing to say, nothing to contribute, not as pilgrim, not as poet, not as a person. Who will help him?

His saving chain begins with the Intercessor of all Intercessors, Mary. “The Lady is gentle in heaven who feels such compassion / For this impediment where I send you / That hard judgment there [in heaven] is broken.” They’ll budge the rules up there for the sake of the Mother of God. She turns to Lucia, a patron saint of vision and light, among other things – the shortest day of the year is named St. Lucia because, once that day is done, the light does nothing but increase! And Lucia goes to Beatrice, who, stirred by Dante’s steadfast love for her, hurries down to him.

There’s the beautiful third telescope of this Canto: Mary-Lucy-Beatrice. Lucy calls Beatrice “the true loda of God” – and loda has all sorts of meanings, including “glory,” “treasure,” and “praise.” Remember that.

All this telescoping reminds us that (1) this is an amazing, multilayered poem by a writer in firm command, in clarion awareness, of history, literature, and theology. All the relations are present to him, clearly, in an instant, at once. But (2) this is also a way of thinking we see in the medieval Christian mind, of seeing one thing as the type of others, of human history as a constant mirroring, a constant teaching by the repetition of immemorial patterns established throughout history by an instructing, guiding God. We are not just like Adam; we are Adam. We are not just like Paul; we are, each of us, a Paul. It’s not simile, it’s not metaphor – it’s a mystical identity. That’s a good (3): this poem plays out the constant awareness of our unfurling mystical identities, back and forth, to heaven and back, resonating constantly.

It doesn’t take Beatrice long to buck Dante up. All she has to do is remind him of the women who support him in Paradise. Energized, he hits “lo cammino alto e silvestro” – the “deep and wooded [meaning wild] road.”

I could say a lot about the poetry. I am, as a person who reads and tries to write poetry, blown away by the verse in this Canto. Dante wields a poetic line both tight (it follows a strict rhythmic and stanzaic form) and fluid (it is seldom crabbed, often conversational, often simple and direct, often lyrical).

But I’m not supposed to do that. Instead, I want to think through Lent in terms of this Canto and vice versa.

Dante, we just saw, telescopes back and forth into all sorts of historical and theological figures. But there’s one I haven’t mentioned yet: the reader. Here’s a figure wracked with sin, terror, doubt, and suffering, in search of meaning and redemption. He can’t do it all by himself – he needs a guide, he needs champions in heaven (Mary/Lucia/Beatrice), and he needs God. He’s got what he needs to make the journey, but he seldom realizes it. Dante’s plight is mine, is yours, is ours. He telescopes into us, and we into him.

What a Lenten thought that is. I often find myself hesitant before ducking beneath the lintel of another Lent, another long, harsh passage, nothing but faith and an honest appraisal of oneself for company. I hope for healing. I hope for health. I always wonder whether I am up to it.

Two things Dante learns: (1) we bear a lively, constant connection to the divine, with lots of folks working hard on our behalf; and (2) what redeems us, what always redeems us, what brings us closer and closer to God, what is always our resource and our hope, is that we have loved. The universe does not forget that we have loved.

Lucia asks Beatrice: “How could you not help one who loved you so much / that he left, for your sake, the order of the common man?” Dante loves Beatrice so much, and so hard, and so faithfully, that Beatrice courses down through Limbo to speak to him on the path to the Inferno. Why do all this, if you’re Beatrice? She tells us, in one of the truly beautiful apercus in the poem: “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” something like “love moved me; it makes me speak.”

So we’re never alone, no matter how dark, how deep, how savage the road.

And if we love, we deal in salvation, of ourselves and others.

Which brings us to this: Dante can remake the future because he has loved. He can succeed Paul as Paul succeeded Aeneas, and by the same act: the rediscovery and renewal of love. Each of us can. Whenever a human being is saved by love, saved through God, the future is redeemed, for that person and for the cosmos.

Lent is supposed to be both personal and communal, but in practice, maybe I’m wrong, but it tends, relentlessly, unbearably, to focus on me, on making me better, on looking with clear eye on what needs to change, what needs healing and health. It can be a terribly lonesome time. There’s so much about Lent you can’t share. Sometimes it seems as if the Unblinking Gaze is Closed. For one thing, I don’t deserve it. For another, who am I that Thou shouldst be mindful of me?

Beatrice rushes down with the message of Mary, of  weeping Lucia (“her illumined eyes weeping”), the message that is God’s message: there is mercy, there is compassion, it is known that you suffer, it is known that you fear you are lost.

It is also known – here’s the main thing – that you love. Dante has loved, Lucia knows it, and Beatrice loves him for it. And when she says, “Love moved me,” she means more than just the personal experience of love. She means what that experience connects us to: capital-l Love. Fear had made Dante forget that, forget his power to love, forget God in love, and God’s love in his love for Beatrice.

We are not built to keep things in mind. That’s the burden of living in time: we have to go with the flow, pass from this to that. We forget what we possess, what we have been given. Lent could, at least potentially, be a time of great joy. Because, wouldn’t it be joyful, in the midst of a grey, hard Lent, all banged up, so far from the spring – to rediscover what we had all along, what will get us through: the ransoming power of our maculate love? Love as connection to God, a connection we re-enact each time we know love.

Maybe Dante just needs to see the love in her eyes, the love that sent her. “Why hesitate? Why hold back?” she asks Dante. Why, indeed? “Go now,” he tells Vergil. Dante is ready now. He’s ready to write the prophetic poem he hopes will remake the world (as it has), remake his life, remake his past . . . and he’s ready to undergo the work and suffering on the long, overgown, untamed road to understanding and blessing.

Inferno Canto 1: I Found Myself…Lost

by Jeff Vamos

Of the 14,000 (or so) lines of the poem, here’s where we begin: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself…lost”.

I first read, and fell in love with, The Divine Comedy when I was about 39 years old. Like Dante, right smack in mid-life. Typical of that stage, I found myself in my own dark wood, wandering in the mist of dissatisfaction and confusion. (And for anybody reading this – I won’t bore you with the specifics; suffice it to say it was painful). And somehow, this poem washed up on the troubled shores of my life.

And I discovered in its strangeness, its otherness, a certain balm for my soul. A giant prayer-wheel that spoke to my spirit’s longing. Dante’s story somehow became my story; his lostness my lostness. And I realized that this time in my life required something of me, something important. Something that needed to be examined and experienced, and not just gotten past. And this poem seemed to offer the symbolic landscape with which I might understand that struggle.

The poem begins with a paradox. Do you get it? “Midway through our life’s journey, I found myself…lost.” For those of us who have heard “Amazing Grace” about a billion times, it should be clear. The only way to be found is by being lost. Finding oneself means the willingness to embrace lostness, not to wallow in it, but to be present to it, to be willing to learn from it.

This is how the poem begins: with Dante–in his era the cultural equivalent of a rock star–getting lost in some woods at night. He is totally unconscious of how he got there: “how I came to enter, I cannot well say, being so full of sleep”. And he tries to get past this painful reality on the cheap: the irony is that he sees the goal of his journey at the very beginning of it. He sees the holy mountain (the mount of purgatory he’ll get to later), and the heavenly sun beyond, and he starts climbing. He “sees the light” from the very beginning, and feels some sense of relief that it’s only a little way off.

But here’s the deal: you can’t get there from here.

Three mysterious beasts – a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf – prevent him. What these symbolize is not terribly important to us, methinks – Pinsky’s notes give us the traditional understanding: that they are symbols of the sins of lust, pride and avarice. The things that have probably gotten us lost in the first place. The thing that prevent us from getting to where we’re going.

But the message is clear: the only way past hell is through it. You can’t go around. T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, puts it this way: “the way up is the way down”.

But Dante – like many of us who’ve been lost – does not have to journey alone; he finds a guide that had been sent to him. Not just any guide, his mentor. The person who inspired his own poetic fame: the Roman poet Virgil. And Virgil speaks of another guide who will come later, one even more “worthy” than he – Beatrice. The female Christ-figure who is the inspiration and the destination of the journey in the first place (who will be a primary character in the next canto).

I’ll end on this note – a few lines at the end of this canto that tell something of the nature of the hell he’s about to enter. Dante’s moral instruction will happen by witnessing the “lostness” of other souls who “lament…the second death they must abide.” But this kind of existence, this mode of living, is contrasted with that of those existing in the realm just beyond hell – in purgatory, the second stage of the journey (and the subject of the second Canticle):

“Then you shall see those souls who are content / to dwell in fire because they hope some day / to join the blessed…”.

What we shall learn in a few cantos here is that the souls in hell want to be there; that’s the irony. And their torment is their inability to imagine any other way of being. In that is true suffering: ultimate stuckness in one’s own pain. They “have lost the good of the intellect” (III.14, 15)

But on the other hand, at the very beginning of the poem, we understand what it takes to get to heaven: to see suffering as meaningful, literally “purgative,” purifying. A willingness to dwell in the pentecostal flame.

I suppose I learned that lesson in my own “lost” experience. But the only way to see that – the meaning of one’s suffering – is on the other side of it.

Postscript: If you’ve made it this far – hope you will keep reading. A few things to note:

1) This blog is a group effort, among my colleagues who have agreed to share their insights and reactions to the poem; and hope you’ll chime in too (via the comments).

2) I’ve set up a page (which I hope my colleagues might contribute to as well) of “Dante Basics” – some basic information about the poem to help get you oriented as to some general information about Dante and his Medieval context.


A Canto a Day (Keeps the Demons Away?)

I suppose, since I’m in the business of encouraging others in their spiritual disciplines for Lent, I ought to adopt one for myself. Having much experience at this time of year in fasting from (vino, sweets, etc.), this year I decided I would instead feast upon. Add instead of subtract.

So this is what I decided today, in the shower, on my day off. Couple days late I realize. (Is there a place in Hell for procrastinators?)

My spiritual discipline this year will be Dante.

And I thought it might be fun to invite a few friends to join me in Hell.

I’ve spoken so many times to my literary friends about how great it would be if we could get together a group to study together, climb Dante’s (literal, I might add) literary mountain as a group. Never seemed to be enough time. So, I thought…this would be the perfect time to make this a (virtual) group effort.

So, joining me are my friends John Timpane (he of Philly Inquirer fame, and other exploits); and Prof. Gordon Mikoski, of Princeton Seminary.  I will let them introduce themselves…when we figure out how to do all this. And, there may also be others joining us as well.

And, if there are still others out there who want to join us in this motley band, descending through the harrowing gates…join us! Chime in! I understand this blog service is pretty easy to make comments. Please blast away. It would be lovely if we could all make it to Purgatory together.

No experience necessary; indeed, we hope you will enter with, as the Buddhists would say, “beginners mind”, and engage with the poem out of its strangeness. It would be rich if you would bring your questions and curiosity – as we will seek to do as well.

So, here are the rules. A Canto a day. Each of us “contributors” will weigh in with a reflection on the Canto for the day, and then we invite others to comment or reflect with us. Appropriate for Lent, our commitment is only to read the first Canticle, Inferno. All 34 Cantos. Which adds up to about a Canto a day (excluding Sundays, which as you liturgically savvy folk out there know, don’t count for Lent anyway). Beyond that…? Club Purgatory? We’ll have to figure that one out later.

And when do we begin? Canto 1 is on for Wednesday, February 24. 1300.

For any out there who want to follow along with us, here are the resources we plan (at this point) to use:

We will primarily be reading the Pinsky translation of Inferno. It’s really excellent, in my opinion. You can probably get it at the library. Good alternative: the Ciardi version. But, any old translation will do – and there are online translations out there too. (We’ll try to get more resources up here at some point).

I also plan to use the free (what a great word) audiobook/podcast of Longfellow’s translation. How great is public domain? It will take about 7-10 minutes to listen to each canto, I figure.

“Then he set out, and I followed where he led.”

– Jeff Vamos

PS – bear with us as we get all this together!