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

 

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About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary View all posts by gmikoski

One response to “Canto 15 – Visions of Gentleness

  • bobsinner

    Thank you Gordon and Pier. Your words ring oh so true.
    I beg pardon of you both for writing such a long comment / reflection – but you both obviously struck chords I did not even know were in my heart. This is my refection on Dante and both your pieces. I am posting it in both sites, as I cannot decide how to divide it up.
    With gratitude, Bob

    “Wrath” – even (especially?) “Righteous Indignation” and “Wrath” – what is a person to do? “Do unto others before they do unto you??”
    I have always been greatly disturbed by this entirely human (all too “normal,” as Gordon notes) reaction to hurt and pain inflicted by one upon another. What is a “Good soul” to do? A “good soul,” who is all too human, in all respects of what that means? What do I do?

    It isn’t that we haven’t been told. It’s not that we really don’t know. Oh, we have been told. Over, and over, and over. Consider:
    “First, do no harm” – Hippocrates [not for physicians only]
    “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you” – Hillel the
    Elder;
    “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” – Confucius
    “Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to
    kill – Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha
    “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your
    own loss” – Lao Tzu
    “The most righteous of men is the one who is glad that men should have what is
    pleasing to himself, and who dislikes for them what is for him
    disagreeable.” – The Qur’an
    Jesus told those “who would follow him” what to do in The Sermon on The mount:
    “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” [Matt 5:38-42, NIV]
    and again:
    ” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. … Do to others, as you would have them do to you. [Luke 6:27-31, NIV]
    Turn the other cheek – do on to others as they would do onto you – The “Golden Rule” finding so many reflections and echoes in all major religions. The “Golden rule,” “The Silver Rule,” common decency; ethical reciprocity and on…

    So why.? Why on September 11, 2001, did so many good people, Americans and others turn to hatred, and anger, and fear, and wrath? I think Gordon and Pier have summed it up all so well.
    Like Pier, I was teaching when the airplanes struck the towers on the fate filled September morning. I was teaching a course on one of mankind’s oldest evil, pastimes, … in a course for seniors at a private prep school located on Second Mountain in New Jersey, facing the gorgeous outline of New York City. It was titled ”Military in the Modern World.” How horribly appropriate. My students had a front row seat to the explosions and fires in the two towers where many of their parents worked. I will not go into detail about that day or how the course immediately changed direction. But, I will note two things: the immediate impact on own of my academically weaker students who was a local volunteer EMP. Jon disappeared from my class for two days – he went to help – without telling the school, or me or even his parents. John was one of those Pier mentions, albeit not on 9/11, but rather during the next couple days. He was never the same. But, he did something constructive.
    The second thing is not only how people reacted, but also how they distorted. I must note that I have a weakness for satire, and much light literature. But, beyond the stupid, terrible things many Americans did in reaction to the strike [such as attacking a Sikh, because he had a turban, and was ‘obviously a Muslim,’ and, thus a ‘terrorist’], there were those who twisted others’ words and works, all to their own purposes.

    An example: “The Binch,” a bastardized version of a private email sent by Rob Suggs to some friends, that became one of the most published and forwarded e-mails in American history – to date.

    Let me preface this by stating I enjoyed the parody at the time. And also, that I was later pleased to read the author’s explanation. See as follows:

    “Weblog: The Untold Story of America’s Favorite E-mail Forward”
    Article By Ted Olsen, Christianity Today; posted 10/01/2001, 12:00AM
    “Every U down in Uville liked U.S. a lot.
    But the Binch, who lived Far East of Uville, did not.
    The Binch hated U.S! The whole U.S. way!
    Now don’t ask me why, for nobody can say.
    It could be his turban was screwed on too tight.
    Or the sun from the desert had beaten too bright
    But I think that the most likely reason of all
    May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

    But, whatever the reason, his heart or his turban,
    He stood facing Uville, the part that was urban.
    “They’re doing their business,” he snarled from his perch.
    “They’re raising their families! They’re going to church!
    They’re leading the world, and their empire is thriving,
    I MUST keep the S’s and U’s from surviving!”

    Tomorrow, he knew, all the U’s and the S’s,
    Would put on their pants and their shirts and their dresses,
    They’d go to their offices, playgrounds and schools,
    And abide by their U and S values and rules.

    And then they’d do something he liked least of all,
    Every U down in U-ville, the tall and the small,
    Would stand all united, each U and each S,
    And they’d sing Uville’s anthem, “God bless us, God bless!”
    All around their Twin Towers of Uville, they’d stand,
    And their voices would drown every sound in the land.

    I must stop that singing,” Binch said with a smirk,
    And he had an idea — an idea that might work!
    The Binch stole some U airplanes in U morning hours,
    And crashed them right into the Uville Twin Towers.
    “They’ll wake to disaster!” he snickered, so sour,
    “And how can they sing when they can’t find a tower?”

    The Binch cocked his ear as they woke from their sleeping,
    All set to enjoy their U-wailing and weeping.
    Instead he heard something that started quite low,
    And it built up quite slow, but it started to grow –
    And the Binch heard the most unpredictable thing…
    And he couldn’t believe it — they started to sing!

    He stared down at U-ville, not trusting his eyes,
    What he saw was a shocking, disgusting surprise!
    Every U down in U-ville, the tall and the small, was singing!
    Without any towers at all!

    He HADN’T stopped U-Ville from singing! It sung!
    For down deep in the hearts of the old and the young,
    Those Twin Towers were standing, called Hope and called Pride,
    And you can’t smash the towers we hold deep inside.

    So we circle the sites where our heroes did fall,
    With a hand in each hand of the tall and the small.
    And we mourn for our losses while knowing we’ll cope,
    For we still have inside that U-Pride and U-Hope.

    For America means a bit more than tall towers,
    It means more than wealth or political powers,
    It’s more than our enemies ever could guess.
    So may God bless America! Bless us! God bless!

    Now, “actually, the poem, a 9/11-themed parody of Dr. Seuss’s ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ titled ‘The Binch,’ was written by Christian humorist and cartoonist Rob Suggs… ‘One version of the message being circulated suggests that he works for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. He doesn’t. A common tag on the forward suggests he wrote it ‘to further explain the [terrorist attack] to the children.’ Nope. As Suggs told CT this morning, ‘This wasn’t a grand gesture, a premeditated desire to minister to children, or an effort to speak to America through cyberspace. It was a parody that I spent ten minutes writing after considering the mythic parallels between Dr. Seuss’ character and this horrific contemporary figure who was suddenly thrust like a dagger into the middle of our national psyche. … I merely wrote the verse for a few adult friends on the Net, not children—not even my own kids, who are 8 and 10. I tossed it off without even adding my name, and I had no expectation of forwarding’ ”

    To conclude:
    I fear John, and other the many other ‘angels of mercy’ like him, may still suffer torment, mental and physical, for their good deeds to this day. Meanwhile our own “Great Satan” is laughing himself silly throughout much of the land, for so many still believe “”He who has the gold rules.”

    For Snopes clarifications on poem see: http://www.snopes.com/rumors/binch.asp
    For actual article see: http://www.ctlibrary.com/ct/2001/octoberweb-only/10-1-22.0.html
    For stuff on Wrath, Hatred, Bigotry, Idiocy, Small-mindedness, well, just Google “Binch,” and see what you find!

    Bob

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