Monthly Archives: March 2011

Canto XX: What Would Hugh Capet Say?

            This is the perfect Canto to read at this particular political moment, when (we are being told) the most important thing our country can do is to decrease our deficit, cut social programs, and keep taxes low at the same time.

        We’re on the fifth level or niche of Purgatorio. It’s a hard Canto to read if you’re not up on medieval history. And even if you are. Which I’m supposed to be, so I guess I am.

        But what’s a real shock is the Canto’s spokesperson, Hugh Capet, founder of a line of kings that, by Dante’s time, was almost 500 years old. Capet was a Frankish king who ruled unsteadily over a chaotic region of many languages, laws, and economic systems. Despite an often tenuous hold on power, and despite most of the land more or less ignoring he was king, Capet managed to establish Paris as the center of power, get his son Robert crowned, and thus start an authoritative line of succession, and other steps that began modern France. As kings go, he was wealthy but not conspicuously so.

        And yet Capet is the one who looks back on history and tells us it’s driven by avarice. His descendant Philip IV suppressed the Knights Templar, all so he could dissolve a debt hanging over his kingdom. Popes are kidnapped and go mad; kings sell their daughters for money. It’s all driven by greed.

        Capet, portrayed as a good man, sorrowfully surveys what he started, what has been going for half a millennium, and like Koheleth of the Old Testament, he sees it is emptiness, empty striving, sinful striving, whose effects must be “wrung out” in Purgatory or punished forever in Inferno.

        History is driven by avarice.

        As are we all.

        Avarice runs rampant in these fields. Hundreds of millions of us want to hold on to every last cent that comes our way, pay out nothing to anyone else . . . and yet have a golden, socially secure retirement.

        Honestly – our entire culture has been industrialized, mercantilized, and commercialized. You can walk away from it – you easily can – but if you want to be part of it, in even a small way, you find yourself awash instantly, and instantly compromised – I almost wrote contaminated. Popular culture projects all our choices and values as financial, indeed commercial. This begins with the cliché of the “American dream,” which is, sadly, to own our own homes, to be wealthy.

Don’t worry – I’m as greedy as the next person. I want lots more money than I have. I’m right there, with every greedy beat of my miserly heart. But surely few other countries are as emptily, confidently built on the assumption that riches are what count.

Is anyone else tired of the feathery, sweet word wealth, lisped in our ear, ad after ad? Is anyone else afraid of how much our news – what we say matters in the world

 We’re told we must be rich before we die. A thousand retirement commercials seek to strike the fear of indigence into us – but really, even more than that, sinfully more, what they’re saying is: “You don’t want to be old and not be rich! Not be comfortable! Not ‘do the things you’ve always dreamed of doing!’ ”

I particularly love the ones that suggest “starting a small business” as a nice occupation for your elder years. A lot of us would rather be kicked in the front porch by a mule. Hey, yeah – when I turn 80, I want to dive back into the nasty, scrabbling world of having and getting.

Now, if you feel different and like that idea, great. And if you feel you want to be comfortable and wealthy when you get old – well, so would I. But I don’t think about it very much, and I don’t see it as a right. And I wouldn’t see it as a terrible tragedy if, when I retired, I wasn’t really rich.

 Money is important; it helps set up things that really count. The mistake is to think it’s money itself that counts. The mistake is to forget what avarice takes away – humanity, human relationships, love. The tragic error is to deny what avarice can destroy – our closeness to God.

When we balk at taxes, well, it could be avarice speaking. When we balk at having to pay more so we have better health care, or Social Security, or a better environment, it could be avarice speaking. When we fight tooth and nail so that we keep government trapped and cornered, so we can do what we want, oh, I dunno, there’s an ennsy-weensy sliver of a fading light of possibility avarice is involved. When we fight our guts out to make sure billionaires have tax holidays, not only our avarice but also that of the financial idols we adore, oh, I dunno, something vaguely resembling a second cousin, or, say, third cousin to avarice could possibly be involved. What we are told are our rights may be nothing more than the ghosts of avarice. All these threats of big government, taxation, social programs – maybe such demagoguery is avarice in new clothes. I’m not confirming this. I am saying maybe. Possibly.

Hugh Capet says history is driven by avarice. And we’re history. So . . . what would Hugh Capet say?

I’m trying to think of a way to give up avarice for Lent. Actually, given my life and the culture in which I’m sunk, maybe there isn’t a way. Or maybe I’m making an excuse. I’ll think about it later. Have to go pay my taxes. Looking for loopholes . . .


Canto XIX: “Adhesit Pavimento Anima Mea” (“My Soul Clings to the Dust”)

As we encounter Dante in the Nineteenth Canto, he is still on the Terrace of the Slothful – the Terrace of Apathy.

Dali - Dante's Dream, Canto XIX

Falling into the Siren’s dream, Dante finds he is unable to escape on his own. He needs the help of Reason (Virgil) to unmask the Siren, and to help him awaken.  He also needs Divine inspiration (Beatrice) to communicate hope to him.

Dante soon comes to realize that the evil desires inspired by the Siren, the sins of the flesh and the excessive love of material things, are the basis for the purging that will take place on the final three terraces.

As Dante and Virgil arise to a full day’s sun, the Angel of Zeal guides them to the cleft leading to the next level.   As the angel invites them to ascend, he fans them with his wings, and pronounces the beatitude, “Benedicti qui lugent” (Blessed are they that mourn) upon Dante.

In so doing he relieves Dante of another “P” from his forehead.

As Dante continues to contemplate all the evil the Siren has caused and can cause, Virgil urges him forward,

“Let it teach your heels to scorn the earth, your eyes

to turn to the high lure the Eternal King

spins with his mighty spheres across the skies”  (61-63)

They have arrived at the Terrace of Avarice and Prodigality, where those possessed of the opposite extremes of proprietary incontinence do penance.

“My soul cleaves to the dust,” I heard them cry

over and over as we stood among them;

and every word was swallowed by a sigh.”   (73-75)

For, indeed, the pair discover this next group of repentant souls are lying face down n the dirt, weeping and reciting the psalm, “Adhesit pavimento anima mea ” (“My soul clings to the dust; Revive me according to Your word,” Psalm 119:25-32).

It is a totally fitting penance for those who had always looked toward earthly objects for fulfillment. So too, must Dante trample upon earthly enticements and turn his eyes toward Heaven.

The first of these they encounter is the recently deceased Pope (“Successor of Peter”), Adrian V (d.1276), whose few worthy weeks in office were poor compensation for his years of avarice.  Adrian explains that because he had so loved earthly goods, rather than heeding God’s call, he and the other greedy souls about him were groveling face down in the dirt as penance.

And what does all this say to us, today?

Well, is there a Madison Avenue?  Are we a consumer society? Does conspicuous consumption run riot? Are we ‘born to shop?’

Indeed, Avarice is a sin that our culture not only encourages, but one which demands commitment.

Countless messages scream at us each day:

Get more! Buy more! Have more!

And where does this lead us?

Not only to waste, spoilage, and,  worse, to “False Gods.”

It leads us to solitude, loneliness and despair.

I feel the old Simon and Garfunkle song [“The Sound of Silence”] of 1964 is as sadly true now as it was then:  “Hello, Darkness my old Friend”…

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

 

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you”

But my words, like silent raindrops fell

And echoed

In the wells of silence

 

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls”

And whispered in the sounds of silence

 

Allan Kaprow, "5 minutes de retard," 1993

As an anonymous blogger recently wrote:  The Sound of Silence is the contented quiet of the devil, upon receipt of all his souls.

Materialism alienates us from other people, and, especially from God.

What do I fear more than “The Sound of Silence?”

Hell isn’t brimstone; it isn’t People;

It IS the absence of God.

The absence, the silence that screams at me

– The Emptiness, the Agony,

– The very VOID itself awaits!

Adhesit pavimento anima mea.

Kyrie Eleison!!


Canto XVIII, Take II: Lookin’ For Love

[Editor’s note: Jeff and Bob decided to do a sort of tag team, and “bonus” entry for Canto 18 – so popular, they wished to do two “takes” on it. Bob will post later this evening on Canto 19]

As I read Jake’s reflection on Canto 17 (and by the way we’ve just crossed the imaginary line between these Cantos marking the very middle of the Canticle), I can’t but help to think of the medieval alchemists. In the smoke-fed shroud of scientific naivete, the imagination of the medieval mixologists flourished, the dream of gold impelling their crazed search. Such rich imagination made bad science, but excellent metaphor; excellent theology; excellent psychology (especially for all you Jungians out there). Even though they never produced gold, might they have seen the truth, beyond the shroud of naivete? Because of the shroud of naivete?

I remember a friend of mine who once recalled the memory of seeing an angel in the desert when she was young, naive, ignorant of all the hifalutin’ theology she now possesses to enrich her well educated brain. But she reported sadly that it’s unlikely she’ll see an angel again: she knows too much.

Perhaps an ironic beginning to a reflection on a Canto celebrating human reason. I mention it because I think Dante has an advantage we do not: to play in the naive smoke that Jake mentions, and to be able to see through the shroud (perhaps) some truth that we find hard to make stick onto our scientifically self-assured, and (naively?) rational modern sensibilities.

Try this on…what if we believed, as Dante did, as Aquinas did, as the medieval theologians did: the world, the universe is powered not by energy or light or nuclear fission; it’s powered by love. The whole universe is pulsing, throbbing with…love. It’s what directs everything. What makes the fire’s smoke rise? It’s love seeking that unseen thing up there with which it seeks to unite. What if that is the story, the essential narrative, that governs not just everything, but every human being? We have got an inborn, innate desire to unite with that thing that loved us into being.

We are indeed “restless until we rest in thee.”

Dante has been saying that it’s desire that makes us human. And not just any desire, not an instinctual, animal love, but a desire that can lead us to love that very one who implanted love in us in the first place. And (contrary to my previous remarks) the only chauffeur capable of getting us there: Human Reason. Even though, how it actually works, how it all isn’t just automatic (hey, why punish or reward people for what they are born do do anyway?), is still a mystery, only to be revealed in Canto 5 of Paradiso, courtesy of Madame Beatrice.

What if we were to think that the addiction of the alcoholic; the frustrated attempt to satisfy our deepest desires with “the perfect mate”; every love song ever written – what if we thought that all of it is engendered by this nuclear reaction within our souls that is seeking to unite with what is most desireable? To desire is to love. And so what if all of that is really a misguided attempt to love the ultimate; to love God.

But for Dante, it’s not automatic. Not everything desirable is worth loving. As in Canto 10 of Inferno, what is being refuted here is the heresy of Epicurianism. The Epicurians believed that everything pleasurable could not, by definition, be evil. For Dante, any object of desire is useful only insofar as it leads our soul upward toward that object that is ultimately desireable. If we love anything out of proportion or direction – in the wrong way, or not enough, or too much – we go off track.

What if we understood, for example, that, just as we look back at the medieval cathedrals as markers of this desire for heaven, so too in our era: what if people were to see that the mega-malls that mar our landscape are the (misguided) shrines to this very same innate desire within us? And our frustrated attempts to meet that desire?

Dante knew in his time what we know damn well too: that the pleasures of the Epicurians are eventually going to disappoint us. Any of us who have stepped back to take in the sickening sight of the orgiastic aftermath of a Christmas morning, and the heap of plastic and cardboard and detritus that result from it – can see how ultimately, such pleasures are empty and disappointing.

Love gives us the energy. Reason guides us in the right direction. Grace provides the means.

And so goes Virgil’s little lesson in love. And so goes the explanation of the very neat (and naive?) schema of this place, so closely matched with the hopeless sins of hell: to get there means working through those vices that have to do with misdirected desire (Pride, Envy, Anger), with not enough desire (Sloth), and with too much desire (Avarice, Gluttony and Lust).

Interesting that here, the shades of the slothful – those who were given to that vice that made them inattentive to the good that ought to have impelled their attention heavenward – are purged of the stain by superenergetic activity. And note that here, we see the desire is not just for themselves; but rather to “strive on that grace may bloom again above.” Here we have the reverse phenomenon to contrast with what we’ve witnessed previously: instead of the living praying for the dead, vice versa.

How do we get there, though? Back to that question. I guess I’m not alone in my ambivalence about human reason: at the end of this Canto, Dante too admits that his mind is “scrambled” essentially. The chauffeur is just a chauffeur. Reason can drive us only so far.


XVIII: “Sloth & Unexpressed Love: The Central Canon of the Central Canticle”

“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started out with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet which fails so regularly, as love.“ 
- Erich Fromm

As we already know, “Commedia” recounts the spiritual journey of Dante Alighieri’s alter ego, a pilgrim, through three regions of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His goal was to reach spiritual maturity and a fuller understanding of God’s love.

In his central canticle, Purgatorio, Dante shows what happens when one finally turns away from the different vices.  We know that Dante’s “Purgatory” was his own construction; it was not as his own church depicted it.  Official doctrine, as it pertained to repentant sinners, provided for a realm of fiery torment, closer in most respects to his Inferno than to his Purgatorio.

On Dante’s terraced mountain, each level was designed to purge a specific mortal (remade venial by repentance) sin.  The purging was done sin by sin, to cleanse the soul of all its various vices, thereby freeing it to advance.

Love is central to the entire process.

Love is the ONLY salvation: saving Grace.

Man embraces Love, but often perverts it, misuses it, misunderstands it.

Here on the fourth terrace of Purgatory, that of “Slothful Love,” we discover a rather strange twist to the apparent scheme of things.

“The soul, being created prone to Love,

is drawn at once to all that pleases it,

as soon as pleasure summons it to move.

From that which really is, your apprehension

extracts a form which unfolds within you;

that form thereby attracts the mind’s attention,

Then if the mind, so drawn, is drawn to it,

that summoning force is Love; and thus within you,

through pleasure, a new natural bond is knit”

– Purg, XVIII Ciardi, 16-270

Love: embraced,             refused,             abused,             twisted,             ignored

is the driving force of the entire “Commedia,” Love, acting through “Free Will,” is the source both, of all human good, and all human evil (Purg XVII: 103-105).

It is the prime mover throughout the canticle, and especially within the eighteenth canto.

As the canto opens, we are on the fourth terrace.

It is a terrace that we definitely would recognize in our present, post-modern, jaded age.  This is the “Terrace of the Repentant Indolent.”

The sin here is SLOTH, which Dante defines as a total lack of sufficient love.

Venial sloth is not simple “laziness,” but rather something very close to an omnipresent “sin” of our own day, BOREDOM.!!!

Boredom

Even those who love only themselves, at least

love something.  But, the slothful do not even

love themselves.  They readily sink into self-

destructive inactivity.   Nor do these laggards

love anything or anyone outside themselves.

The tepid are bored with the world.

To Dante, Sloth is the counterpoint vice to the virtue of decisiveness and zeal, and especially zealous love.

To turn toward a thing, to move toward it, to desire it, is Love

(Purg. XVIII: 26),

while to simply fail to try to do anything is Sloth.

The Slothful Souls run about the mountain senselessly, reciting tales of success (Mary; Caesar) and failures (including the Israelites in the desert and Aeneas’ followers in Sicily) in the past. Where previously, on the lower terraces, we had seen distorted love, love of the wrong object, in this case the very presence of Love is simply too weak.

We know by now that, for Dante, one’s relationship to Love is the source of all good and evil. He views each of the seven (deadly and venial) sins is a result of some problem with Love.

We should note his list of seven virtues varies from other traditional lists:

He combines the four cardinal virtues of the classical pagan world — Wisdom, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, with the three New Testament virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  He holds that Christians overcome their tendency toward each of these sins by learning to ‘love correctly.’

One of the problems in any translation is achieving precise meaning.  A major problem for an English translation is that the word love can refer to such a wide variety of feelings, states and attitudes.  It can run the gamut from passionate desire, to intimacy, to romantic love, to erotic love, to familial love, to the platonic love of friendship, to devotional religious love.

To Dante,  “God is love” (e.g. Agape, as found in the canonical gospels), a concept central to many western religions.   Christian Love is, in fact, one aspect of, and conduit to, God Himself.  But, further, Dante constantly uses the word Amore (Romantic Love) and his beloved Beatrice, as representatives of “The Divine.”  He seems to meld the concepts.  His “Love” is similar to that of his beloved Provencal troubadours, and sometimes still is found in Western culture of the present day.

I venture so far as to wonder whether or not Dante would have a problem with Paul Stokey’s “The Wedding Song:”

He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts.

Rest assured this troubadour is acting on His part.

The union of your spirits here has caused Him to remain

for whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name

there is love. Oh, there is love.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

“There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail.”

– Erich Fromm

– Erich Fromm

On the Third Terrace, Dante learned that man was born with both knowledge of good and evil, and a “free wanting” (Purg. XVI: 76).

Therein lies both the road to damnation and salvation.

If Earth’s evils had their source in Heaven, then:

“Free Will would be

destroyed, and there would be no justice

in giving bliss for virtue, pain for evil”

– (Purg XVI: 70-72)

Because“Love, acting through free will, is the source both of all human good and all human evil . (Purg XVII: 103-105).

The cause of evil on Earth, therefore, comes not from Heaven, but from man.  The very concept of “Free Will,” the ability to choose to sin or not to sin, was central to medieval Catholicism.

Virtue becomes a matter of self-control.

Love takes hostages

And gives them pain

Gives someone the power

To hurt you again and again

Oh, but they don’t care

“Love is Hard,”

– James Morrison



Canto XVII: A Notebook

Wheels within wheels.  Light in light.  The poet dreams inside his dream.  The act of writing is itself, in a way, inscribed on the recorded journey, as the poet records the images given to him in Canto XVII (of Procne, Haman, and Amata).  This is something that could not have happened in hell:  inspiration.  Inspiration:  this is also something that could not happen in paradise.  Only in purgatory, a land of smoke and bleared suns.  A land of scattering fog and a sun obscured by its own excess.

Georg Gudni, Landskap (oil on canvas, 1994)

It reminds me of Celan, whose poetry very often traverses the purgatorial.

THREAD SUNS

above the grey-black wilderness.

A tree-

high thought

tunes in to light’s pitch: there are

still songs to be sung on the other side

of mankind.

(trans. Michael Hamburger)

Thread suns: illumination unspools from above.  (We only ever see the ray shooting out and never the whole spool.)  Here, under a thread sun, a figure falls into the poet’s high fantasy (l’alta fantasia) (XVII: 25-26).  The verb in line 25 is piovve, rained: the crucified figure of Haban rained down in the poet’s high fantasy.  When that image bursts like a bubble, the next image springs up, rises up in the poet’s vision (the verb is surse:  think source, think surge.)  This inspiration, this imaginative generation, happens organically, it rains down and shoots up, if the landscape is right. 

And what about that mole!  His whole skin an eyelid!    

Purgatory is good land for poetic photosynthesis.  I think it’s the land I’ve been searching for.  You find it when you read Celan.  A tree-high thought tunes in to light’s pitch.  The poet, between the sun and the grey-black wilderness, has found the fertile ground where visions grow within him (19).  The poet meets no one in this canto—only his own uncanny imaginativa, which steals him from the sensory world, and has the power to muffle trumpet blasts.  Poets live and die for want of this zone.        

It’s not just the land between the smoke and the sun; it’s the land between wrath and sloth.  The poet, at his best, always negotiates the track between wrath and sloth.  Between love run amok and love run down, between the overkill and the under-lived.  Between those moments when we thirst for vengeance and those moments when our legs move like lead toward the object of our love, there’s a moment, bubble-fragile, of pure innerness, of visionary gift.  It’s as if the poet is at once carried along by smoke and held in place with rays of light, each element capable of dispelling the other, but meeting for an instant, for the space of a canto. 

Not just Celan, but René Char as well.  Here’s a purgatory poem if ever there was one:

THIS SMOKE THAT CARRIED US

This smoke that carried us was sister to the rod that splits the rock and to the cloud that opens the sky.  She didn’t dislike us, took us as we were, scanty rivulets nourished on hope and confusion, with stiff jaws and a mountain in our gaze.

 (trans. Susanne Dubroff)


Canto XVI: The Breath–not the Wrath–of God

I’m not sure I read Canto XVI. Ciardi’s intro to the canto pushed all kinds of buttons in me, and those, I’m pretty sure, read it for me—or, more properly, read into it from me. Anyway, for what it’s worth, my reaction:

“The Poets,” says our translator and editor, “enter the acrid and blinding smoke in which THE WRATHFUL suffer their purification. As Wrath is a corrosive state of the spirit, so the smoke stings and smarts. As Wrath obscures the true light of God, so the smoke plunges all into darkness” (p. 419).

The wrathful suffering in darkness, their spirit(s) corroded, with the True Light obscured. As I read these things, all I could think of was 9/11. 9/11. 9/11. And I don’t just mean the heinous crimes of the day itself but our in many ways dark, wrathful response.

On the day before Thanksgiving of 2002, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Dennis Smith, a former New York City firefighter. Smith expressed frustration with the then-recently-selected final proposals for the World Trade Center site’s 9/11 memorial, none of which planned specifically to remember the heroism of the emergency-services personnel who rushed to Ground Zero. I remember sharing Smith’s concern, but what struck me most about his piece was the broader concern of his closing line: “It is time to think more deeply about how we want to remember September 11, 2001.” Amen.

For the most part, our memories of that day are grim. We recall the violence: Jetliners bearing down, fires raging, great towers hurtling toward Earth. The brutality of these images seared them into our minds’ eyes. And we recall the fear: The sickening realization that the growing disaster wasn’t accidental but the product of malevolence. Once we understood that in the course of one morning a deadly conspiracy had reached all the way from Boston to New York and Washington, and then into the Pennsylvania countryside, we knew that the next horrible blow could fall anywhere, and we all felt threatened. So it’s hardly surprising that, when the day comes to mind, our first reflex is to call up ghastly pictures and for our guts to churn with dread.

But we need to remember more. What happened started with crashes and conflagrations, but in the midst of—and beyond—all that destruction born of hatred, there was compassion. At first it was institutionalized, arriving in the form of police officers, firefighters and paramedics who had been summoned to their professional duties by radio calls and alarms. Yet almost immediately the response became broader, medical students and store clerks rushing into the chaos, summoned in an instant by conscience and heart.

Hundreds of millions of human lives have ended since 9/11, many in hideous ways—
that few of us saw (or that, in some cases, we saw but failed adequately to feel). But on that brilliant September day, people all over our planet, from the Jersey suburbs to Rio and Bombay, saw fellow human beings clinging to their lives when it was clear that they were in grave danger. We saw faces piled on top of one another in the narrow windows of the Twin Towers, struggling for air. We saw men and women desperate for aid waving towels to attract rescuers. And then, only after long minutes lived with them, spent second by second growing to comprehend their plight—only after we had imagined ourselves in one of those windows, or imagined ourselves attached to someone who was—did we see hope yield to hopelessness and bodies plunge through the sky. Only after our minds had raced in search of happy endings did we see those skyscrapers shudder and roar to the ground. The impact of 9/11 has been so enduring because we didn’t hear the news of the tragedy afterward, spoken, for just a few seconds, by a calm baritone next to a still picture; we experienced the day’s events as they unfolded. We really felt what happened, the agony of thousands becoming the anguish of millions riding the Earth somewhere else but made present through live TV.

And so, for an extraordinary moment, witnesses to the same shocking events, participants in the same grieving, huge numbers of us all over the U.S. and around the planet felt a deep sense of belonging with one another in a wider human family. Iron workers from the Midwest trekked, unbidden, across the country on the hunch that their skills could help with the rescue and clean-up efforts in lower Manhattan. A staggering sixty per cent of American households donated to 9/11 relief funds. For once, something terrible had happened but not disappeared into the spaces between us. Something terrible had happened and, in fact, built bridges bringing us together. Jean-Marie Colombani, the editor of Le Monde, declared, “Nous sommes tous Americains—we are all Americans.” What he really meant, of course, was something like this: Though across the ocean, we here in France are also with you. We, too, have seen these mothers and husbands clinging to life, and, knowing love, we have yearned to reach out and help. We have seen the bereft crying over their losses. Your pain isn’t yours alone. It is in all of us.

Alas, time not only “heals all wounds” but “wounds all heals.” And in this case its passage quickly eroded the bonds forged during those hours of shared pain. Once our TV’s were off and no longer drawing us into the same experience, we wound up pretty much back where we had started, in Jersey or India or France. Only warier and angrier. Thus dis/engaged, our minds and hearts ceased to be the primary seats of our remembering. In fact, to a large extent, we stopped re-membering – that is, re-flecting, re-examining, re-considering. After a little while, instead of reaching back into 9/11 to sort out its meaning, most of us moved on, leaving the day to reach back into us – through our guts, as shadows promoting fear and anger. Wrath!

As the terrors of September 11 reminded us, there is, of course, much for us to fear beyond fear itself. But if we’re going to confront the dark forces taking aim at human wellbeing, fear and wrath are not enough. Since the events of 9/11 continue nearly a decade later so powerfully to inform—and deform—our attitudes about the world in which we live, and since fear and anger are so overwhelmingly what that fateful day calls up in us, if we want to do more with the future than lash out at shadows or curl up in our shells, then Dennis Smith is right: We need to think more deeply about how we want to remember September 11.

Clearly, we need, still, to mourn those we lost. We need to celebrate their lives and to express our outrage at the cruelty that took them from us. But we must quickly put outrage aside—must move out of rage—so that we can consecrate ourselves to carrying forward this world that the lost loved.

How? Mostly, of course, we have to be present for the people around us, and the problems that beckon to our particular talents, one at a time. But there is something extraordinary about the commitment made by those firefighters, police officers and paramedics who rushed to Ground Zero that, I think, if we were to grasp it more fully, might help us. Those first responders hurried to the rescue of people they had never met, to a place where they didn’t really know what was going on. All they knew for sure was that someone had recognized trouble and summoned them to help. And, in anticipation of such moments, they had trained to be useful, and then committed themselves to appearing whenever such a summons might be made.

How might those of us who aren’t part of a fire department or an ambulance crew live so that we could do more to respond to pressing needs without waiting for an emotional cataclysm to launch us into action? Especially when we consider that too often a reflexive reaction can be one of darkness. One of wrath.

In 2001 I worked in New York. I worked with high-school students from all around the US and the world who had ventured to the Big Apple to study the city. One weekend in early December of that year, I took downtown with me all of the students with whom I had shared that tumultuous autumn. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and we took advantage of its unseasonable warmth to sail back and forth across New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. On the return trip to Manhattan, about two dozen of us were standing in the bow. Our eyes were fixed on the scene in front of us (and our imaginations on those two colossal absentees). As we looked, and our hearts struggled, we became aware of a sound, a voice and then many voices, reaching to us from the center of the boat. It was a choir, and as its members moved toward us to form ranks in the doorways opening onto the bow, their voices became hymns. Shortly into the choir’s second offering, three women next to me, clearly in the city for a pre-Christmas shopping jaunt, joined in. I wish I could remember the tune and the words. What I do remember is the spirit then among us—a group of students, three women trailing huge Burberry’s bags and decked out to take on 57th Street, and (as it turned out) a modest Mennonite choir from Ohio, who said that they had come to offer New York a gift of encouragement and healing.

Ciardi’s intro to Canto XVI says, “Within [the darkness], Dante hears souls singing THE LITANY OF THE LAMB OF GOD. The Lamb, of course, is the symbol of the MEEKNESS of Divine Love. As such, it is the opposite of Wrath. A further purification is implicit in the fact that the souls all sing as if with one voice, for Wrath is the sin that soonest breeds division among men, and only Spiritual Concord can reunite them” (p. 419).

What healing there was in those loving voices on the Staten Island Ferry! What purification! After months of raw nerves and grieving, suddenly those of us in that little gathering on the deck weren’t adrift in a world of sorrows. We were gliding along accompanied by our better angels, especially Goodwill and Hope, warmed by the pink and gold of the lowering sun, and heading back to a city, and a future, that many of us now felt much readier to rebuild.

This is the spirit that re-membering 9/11 should promote. This—not something stupidly called the “Freedom Tower”—is what rebuilding should be about. For years, the Statue of Liberty has welcomed the world to our shores and promised sanctuary and freedom. Having gathered into ourselves the strength and wisdom of those drawn by Liberty’s light, and having been reminded again by the horrors of 9/11 that each life must be protected – each mother kept safe for her children, each restless young man kept from losing his soul in hatred – my hope is that we will build something that can move us Americans to sail back out of our harbors on missions of goodwill, something that can signal to our global neighbors that the new beacon lighting our way is lit not by fear but by compassion. By, as Dante and now Ciardi propose, a commitment to Spiritual Concord. Not to being warriors but to being firemen and paramedics rushing to protect life.

Down with acrid and blinding smoke. Down with corrosion of the spirit. Purgatorio must be a process, not a quagmire. It must be purgative, purifying, not just a limbo. We must respond to darkness with reflection, not just reflex. Build memorials to keep our dead, rather than death, present. So that we may be not only susceptible to difficult memories but engaged in active remembrance. So that as we re-member, venturing back into that brilliant late-summer day to recollect how it touched us and prompted so much of humanity to reach out, we will make sure that whatever monuments we construct near lower Manhattan’s hallowed ground can help us to reach past nationalism into the true meaning of America’s vision of “Liberty and Justice – for All.”

Pier Kooistra


Canto 15 – Visions of Gentleness

In Canto 15, we find Dante and Virgil at the third terrace of Purgatory. Here, Dante must address the deadly sin of wrath or uncontrollable, destructive rage. Due to our fallen state, it is inevitable that wrongs of various kinds will be committed against us during the course of our lives. The natural (dare I say “normal”?) response to the wrongful actions of others is anger, sometimes to the point of destructive rage. When painfully wronged, anger and a desire for restitution or even punishment flares up within. When acted upon, wrathful anger inflicts pain on the offending party which, in turn, evokes anger and a desire for revenge on their part. What could be more familiar to us all than the destructive dialectic of pain-driven anger that begets more of the same until both parties are engulfed in wrathful action aimed at the destruction of one another. In every age, we see and experience this deadly dance of destruction at the micr0, meso, and macro levels of human society. Sadly, wrath seems to make the world go around.

Breaking the cycle of pain turned to anger which escalates into wrath requires intervention. Left to its own devices, this cycle spins out of control until a kind of insanity of ire leaves destruction of lives and relationships in its bloody wake. This cyle, familiar though it may be, is not inevitable; it can be interrupted or broken. Drawing from the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Dante lifts of mercy or gentleness as the chief antidote to wrath. “Blessed are the merciful” is the key that unlocks the purgative meaning of this canto. Because spiritual principles, true as they may be, are usually not sufficient to change behavior, the canto points to the possibility and even the necessity of divine intervention. Dante is given three visions, each of which emphasizes mercy or gentleness that turns away wrath. The first vision poetically recalls the story from Luke’s Gospel in which the middle school aged Jesus goes off by himself to the Temple for three days without telling his parents where he was. When they finally reunite, Mary’s response to Jesus speaks honestly of the pain that his actions have caused her, but without falling into anger or wrath. The second vision comes from Greek literature: an exchange between Pisistratus (tyrant of Athens) and his wife. In the face of his wife’s demand that Pisistratus execute a young Athenian man who dared spontaneously and without permission to kiss the princess, Pisistratus turns away wrath with a wise and gentle word that reframes the meaning of the event in question. The third vision recalls the stoning of Stephen the deacon as recounted in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. While being stoned to death, Stephen prays that the Lord would have mercy on those whose wrath will momentarily lead to his painful and bloody martyrdom. These three brief visionary narratives – two biblical and one pagan – are the instruments of divine intervention. Their aim is to help Dante to see the possibility of gentleness as an antidote to wrath.

It may be worth noting that the three merciful characters supplied by the visions refuse to omit themselves from the articulated responses. They refer to themselves and their pain when responding to wrath. They do not simply focus on the morally problematic behavior of the one who has caused pain. They do not turn the offending person into a demon nor do they dehumanize them. Subtly, there seems to be here a call to own one’s pain and to deal with it in a way that frames it. Perhaps owning one’s pain and putting it into some sort of larger frame of meaning is one of the keys that makes mercy or gentleness possible.

The visions given to Dante suggest that story and narrative may also be key in funding gentleness in the face of wrath. Perhaps destructive anger is, in the end, a failure of imagination.

 

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary