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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

 


Canto 14: Our Narrow-Gauge Souls

O humankind, why do you set your hearts

On what it is forbidden you to share?

Well, I know the answer to that one. Because we want it. And we don’t want anyone else to have it. Or if they have it, we want it, too, so our displeasure in anyone else’s having will be at least balanced by our own pleasure in having.

Competition, baby. It’s built in. Hard-wired. Inescapable. Even in those of us who disdain competitiveness, it’s bred in the very strings and pith of what we are, and there’s no escaping it.

Capitalism is the codification, systematization, and sanctification of envy. Many excuses are made for it, and in fact religion makes very uneasy playpals with capitalism, since the latter is based on notions of success and failure, and therefore victory and defeat. We are told “that’s how we survive,” and this survival system is elevated to such a height that it stands without effective question or effective alternative. It gets to this extreme — that what we forbid in life, we allow in the marketplace, that for some unexplained, undefended reason, morality stops at the door of the bank and the shop. We don’t compete to be equal; we compete to get ahead. Losers be damned.

That’s how deeply envy is woven into our socioeconomic structure: it is  our socioeconomic structure. 

Most religions advise against envy, because envy is destructive. It’s a great incentive to destroy, steal, and murder. There’s a spiritual dimension, too: envy destroys the envier, distorts what he or she really is. We revert when we envy; our less spiritual side takes over. Concupiscence, greed, gluttony – that side.

Envy is so potent that it inevitably becomes comic. We become a travesty of ourselves, as we envy, and try to hide envy, and act out of envy, and possess out of envy.

Envy also is a toggle switch. Once we envy, the world is simplified. Black and white. Two-dimensional. Somebody’s got what I want, and I hate that and hate them and want it twice as bad.

In Purgatorio, Dante reminds us that sinfulness lies not only in what we do when goaded by envy – but also in merely feeling it, indulging it. It rapes sense. Guido lands in Purgatorio because he envied all his life, and now he “reaps sad straw” in this between-state, denied companionship with God until such time as time itself has sourly scoured the dregs of envy out of him. Envy oozes out of his very salutation to Dante, since it’s clear he envies the living man the privilege of being in the flesh and being able to leave – neither of which is something Guido has. I really like the poison energy of his denunciation of Tuscany and all the realms along the course of the Arno. He also gives it to poor, wordless Rinier, whose decayed house really takes some insults right on the bean. Guido is simply obsessed with the decay of great houses, of great cities and realms; his is a decayed imagination. Guido’s got has a long way to go, I figure, before he’s released from Purgatorio. He hasn’t had the envy wrung out of him yet.

But the true glory of this Canto is when the actual Rein of Envy tugs on us – in the form of the voices of Cain (a brother who sinned out of envy of a brother and Aglauros (a sister who sinned out of envy of a sister). Their voices come from Inferno. “Whoever finds me shall slay me,” comes the hair-raising voice of Cain, condemned to wander the world fruitlessly. And “I am Aglauros, who became a stone!” – the deforming power of envy.

Dante is all flesh, shot through with all the failings of flesh still. So he cowers behind Virgil. I admire what Virgil tells him, that we’re always taking the Opponent’s bait. We don’t even know it, we’re so weak. Those limits, hemming us in, ensure that we improve only with incredible effort (hello, Lent!), so that “it isn’t worth much either to curb you or to call you” (poco val freno o richiamo).  Dante cowers because he doesn’t know enough not to be afraid; he doesn’t realize nothing can hurt him if he stands up in the spirit of God. He can’t have faith that strong (obvious though Dante-the-poet makes it that such faith is always warranted, is the faith we should have).

And then Virgil says something daunting, something I heeded more, along with everyone else: the capacity to see the universe around us for what it is, for all that it is. Our directional attention, our constricted peripheral vision, our self-narrowed souls, mean we keep forgetting just where we are and what we, and God, are doing: “The heavens call you and wheel round about you, showing you their eternal beauties, and still your eye stays fixed on the ground.” We’re always looking in the wrong place, making the wrong list of priorities, assuming too much about our interests and forgetting the innately magnificent cosmos within and around us.

Envy is a great narrower, winnowing all experience down to WHAT HE GOT and WHAT I GOT, driving us to keep score, forget and forgive nothing, take the success of others as a personal affront, and valuing the exact wrong things for the exact wrong reasons.


Canto 13: I Liked Bob’s Post Better

…and Jake’s, and John’s and Gordon’s and Pier’s. They are such bloody good writers. And I…. You get the picture.

Envy. For Dante, the color is not green, it’s…well, I guess purple would be the closest to the word livido. Whatever is the color of a bruise. This is the color of the shades in this cornice of the Purg, and they are all wearing it this spring, along with the single mode of fashion, a hair cloak. The sin that is caused by making comparisons is healed by the thing that cannot bear comparison: mutual suffering. Those who were too busy comparing themselves to others to lean on them are healed of their woundedness by…leaning on each other.

I can hear music too…Bill Withers playing in the background.

“You just call on me brother…when you need a hand. We all need somebody to….” It’s the lesson the envious need to learn.

Dante is riffing on several levels here, as he continues some of the strands that he began in the previous cantos. First, there’s the riff on the senses: they can both cause our downfall, and effect our salvation, and in Purgatory the purification of the senses involves using one thing for the opposite (what’s seen is what’s heard; what’s heard is what’s seen). Here, it’s our sense of sight that is the culprit (literally): hence the color of bruising, as the envious eye wounds the soul of the envious by what it sees, by the mechanics of comparison. The cure? The envious have eyes sewn shut (as a falconer does to a falcon, to calm it down), in order to effect another, inner organ of sense: to cure the eyes requires the ear.

The “whip” here on Cornice Number Two does not consist of what’s seen, as in the previous canto (the bas relief that looked more real than reality). Here, the whip is what’s heard. (As Paul said, faith comes by hearing).

The healing of the soul requires the development of some other sense, that is in effect…beyond sense. That seems so clear in many of the references in the previous cantos: light too bright to perceive, images too real to understand. To “get” heaven, you have to develop a whole new set of senses, to be able to groc it.

I think somehow of Gloucester in King Lear, ambling along in mutual suffering with Lear along the fields of Dover. It’s only in losing his sight that Gloucester can actually see. “I see…feelingly.” Not to see enables these shades ultimately…to see clearly that sun that guides Dante and Virgil on their journey, whenever the “self-humbled” decide for themselves that they have had enough, and their will is pure enough to see what will allow them to continue.

And interesting isn’t it, the way Dante gives us an example we would not expect: instead of displaying someone who would typify the way we would obviously think of envy – desiring that of someone else’s we do not have – he gives us the negative space around which the vice subsists:  Shadenfreude. Leave it to the Germans to coin such a brilliant word to lay bare the darker but natural impulses of the heart: “harm-joy”. That Sapia rejoices at the downfall of Salvani shows the real trajectory of such a tendency: to abandon fear (and respect) for the ultimate power, that of God, which is indeed love; and to give ourselves over to love’s negative: desire for the other’s harm.

Vinum non habent. That’s for damn sure. But…it’s coming. It’s coming.


Canto 12. Perverted Love and Undeserved Help

 

Architecture of Purgatory from La Comedia Divina de Dante Aligheri, "Il Purgatorio"

The sins caused by ‘perverted love’ set the scene for the first three terraces of Purgatory.  As the Twelfth Canto opens, we find Dante contemplating the yoked sinners about him.

These are the sins of “love’s harm” done to others. As Jake has noted in his penetrating exploration of Canto XI, the first of these sins (in order and significance) is Pride.   On this terrace, where proud souls are purged of their sins, Dante and Virgil see beautiful sculptures. These carvings present the cardinal virtue of humility, pride’s natural opponent.    Humility can be seen as ‘not thinking less of yourself, but rather, as thinking of yourself less. It is a spirit of self-examination.

Jake pointed out that “the prideful must give back what they never had in the first place, and prayer is the vehicle for returning stolen goods.” And, to do this, they first must realize that they never had them.  Tis ‘a bit of a Conundrum for the children of Eve, to say the least.

As Dante proceeds, he continues to note so many souls, all condemned by their own excessive, defiant pride – their hubris. He lists them all, from the great fallen angel, Lucifer, himself, to the magnificent wreckage of the city of Troy (‘sad, proud Ilium‘).    And, among those he noted was Nimrod and the ruins of his great tower.

 

Nimrod's Tower by Breugel The Elder

[Compare to images of Purgatory itself, above]

“I saw Nimrod in Shinar overseeing the proud builder

at the foot of his great tower.”

Dante is among the first to connect Nimrod and the Tower of Babel.

A product of his time, Dante viewed pride as inseparable from the human condition; from being virtually synonymous with the original transgression – the disobedience of Adam and Eve.   Dante is familiar with Aquinas’ great “Summa Theologiae”: “The mark of human sin is that it flows from pride.” (3a.1.5) Everything ill flows from pride.

Now Pride is normally considered a cardinal (mortal) sin, and we found it well represented among the damned of the “Inferno.”  So, why are these “overly proud souls “ here in Purgatory?  Shouldn’t they be in hell?  Ah, but these “proud souls” have repented sufficiently to have been given a second chance to save their souls.  And, hence, they carry their burdens up, around the spiral ramps of Purgatory.

Dante made progress, as well.  He ascended to the second cornice much faster than he had to the first. Why is this?   Virgil points out that the “Angel of Humility” has removed one of the peccatum from his forehead.   The angel had brushed Dante’s forehead with his wings, erasing one letter “P” (peccatum), the one representing pride.  It seems that its weight had been an extremely heavy one.

Humility's Angel (Blake)

And, the angel wondered:

Why do people so seldom respond to this invitation?

You are born to fly, so why fall down in a little wind?”

It is then that Dante notes the glorious sound of the singing of “Beati pauperes spiritu” (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” –  Matthew 5:3.)

“We set out on the climb, and on the way

‘Beati paupers spiritu’ rang out,

more sweetly sung than any words could say. (109-111)

Dante is hearing a Beatitude being sung.

While The Ten Commandments dealt with human actions,” The Beatitudes” deal with attitudes that can lead to actions.

In essence, “Christian Law” is summarized in The Beatitudes, in Christ ‘s command to love God, and one’s neighbor as oneself  (see Matthew 5:3 – 12; Luke 6: 20-26).  Therefore, Dante is hearing Divine Law being sung – and, it is praising humility and the desperate.

In Matthew, the first and most important Beatitude is:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit:

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

And, so, in his awe, Dante’s spirit rose,

and he moved ahead and upward, lighter afoot,

with rather undeserved assistance.


Canto XI: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

…The poet loves that someone loves his shadow: this is the poet’s pride…

All this talk of pride and stone calls to mind an aphorism from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books:

 Even if one cannot hew a house out of a granite cliff, one could perhaps hew the ruins of a house out of it at no very great expense, so that posterity would be forced to believe a palace had stood there.

The poet is a constructor of ruins (would Eliot like this formulation?).  He may wish to hew a house, to carve his grand project from the raw cliff of the tongue, but the expenses—solipsism, exhaustion, rejection, (madness perhaps)—are too great.  Time is well spent instead on the delicate crafting of shambles.  Let all who hear or read rebuild the world that was never there to begin with. 

As the poet himself implies: the glory goes to whoever can scrap together the best nest.  (XI:99)

Don’t be fooled by all the tiers, the terraces, the cornices.  This is no complete world.  Only a couple of poets climbing a pile of stones and prayers ringing in the air.

Prayer, in the marvelous phrase of the philosopher Jean-Louis Chrétien, is the wounded word.  It is an act that opens a gap, that tears the subject, by putting one in a place that is other than oneself, before God.  Chrétien (in The Ark of Speech) discusses the way in which the voice is the element, in all of speech, which does not belong to us.  It is always out before us, circulating in the world outside of us.  In prayer we offer what we do not possess.  Chrétien: ‘The human voice becomes a place in which the world can return to God.’ 

The canto begins in medias preces—in the thick of prayer.  The prideful, cowed under slabs of rock, offer their paternoster.  In this way they are each an Atlas, hoisting the world up to the sun.  Except it is their voices that bear the world, not their backs.  The prideful must give back what they never had in the first place, and prayer is the vehicle for returning stolen goods.  Another way of saying this—returning stolen goods—is giving thanks. 

It is here, in Canto XI, that I sense a crucial distinction between the poet and the pray-er. 

The poet offers up his carefully hewn ruins and requires posterity to contrive the palace.    The one who prays, at the very first Our Father, shoulders the entire world back to God.

The poet must bring his tiresome chisel to bear (terza, terza, terza) on the granite and wait for posterity to award its laurels; the pray-er heaves the whole slab of his voice in a direct line to the One who has hewn the world and causes all laurels to brown and grass to wither. 

Perhaps this is why the poet stoops down to the level of the prideful supplicant to ‘better know his state’: he wishes to return with a measure of that world-hefting humility.

I fear the poet can never pray and remain a poet.


Canto X

Canto X

“Wretched souls and small,
who by the dim lights of your twisted minds
believe you prosper even as you fall—“ (118-20)

That resonates. Misunderstanding is one of our great specialties.

But:

“What have your souls to boast of and be proud?
You are no more than insects, incomplete
as any grub until it burst the shroud.” (124-6)

Really?
This is one of those little passages in the text that make clear to me how I just can’t buy into the Dantean program.
“No more than insects”—fine. They too are marvels of Creation.
“Incomplete”—sure. We never quite put it all together.
But “incomplete / as any grub until it burst the shroud”?
Am I reading this right? To mean that we can be completed only by dying?
I feel compelled to refer once more to the first passage above.
To me that sounds like trying to “believe you prosper even as you fall.” Hmmmm.

Pier Kooistra


Canto 9: The Airborne Heaviness of Seeing Anew

                               

I give up with this Canto, I really do. So much goes on, you just sort of have to give up.

OK, I’ve stopped giving up now.

The first eight cantos reorient us, so to speak, to being in, or being about to be in, a place called Purgatory. It’s something of an overture. The Purgatorio itself doesn’t really get rolling until we leave Ante-Purgatory, go through the gates, and enter the terraced mountain proper.

And we need a running start, because it is here we begin to face what Purgatorio, the place, is really all about: repentance, penitence, metanoia (Greek for something like “getting a new mind”).

Our age, in which we set ourselves up so often as unimpeachable beings, does less well with notions of personal fault and repentance than, possibly, with any other issue. Death we can do. Sex we gladly do. Money saturates our worlds. Add to this that most of us live in democracies, whose citizens have the right to express themselves as they wish, without fear of being suppressed. We can live, largely, any way we want. Society, except in the case of crime, is forbidden from intervening and forcing us in any direction. Rule of law is supreme – but rule of self is utterly private. And since no one can tell me what to do (how often have we heard that somewhere around us, or perhaps from our own lips?) , the matter of being my best is a private matter, too. It’s up to me to know when I’ve messed up and take steps (if I want to) to clean up the mess, and get better, and get righter.

The entire Comedy is pervaded, from heights to depths, with an awareness of personal fault and human fault. Not a popular way to see things as of 2011.

But those three little steps across the threshold at the gate to purgatory – they remind us.

That eagle – like dreams generally in the Comedy, it has an explicit function, but, like the dreams of the Siren and of Leah and Rachel later, it’s ultimately unexplainable. It is an astonishing moment, an experience, numinous and resistant to interpretation. To be sure, it is the exhausted, fleshly Dante dreaming of being taken by a magnificent bird that carries him almost to the Sphere of Fire, which, burning Dante, wakes him up. We get overtones here of the Icarus myth, in which he flew too near the sun and perished, and although the dream here is obviously different, there is a sense of lack and failing in Dante, a sense of being unable to approach the Sphere of Fire, a sense of having to turn back.

The dream is parallel to what’s happening in the waking world of Purgatorio, that is, Lucia transporting him physically to the foot of the Gate. But the dream goes well beyond that role, fascinating as it is.

Once again we get a dawn scene here, not the first in Purgatorio. This is a place, unlike Hell, where you can have dawns. But light alternates with night here, reminding us that we’re not altogether out of the darkness, but that we are somewhat closer to the light. Which, in turn, reminds us that life on earth, subject to the laws of physics and the turnings of the universe, is maculate, imperfect, only fitfully in the light.

And add to this what Lucia is. Patron saint of the blind. Her very name derives from Latin lux or light. She tends to pop up when Dante needs transfer from a state of less wisdom toward a state of more. She is yet another of his escorts toward the light.

But the poetry and imagery are so vivid . . . this is another example of something that emerges out of a poem and just is itself. The power of the raptor, the helplessness of the taken. Some of what the dreaming Dante thinks and says within the dream don’t make especial sense. His comparison of himself top Ganymede is apposite enough . . . but what is this “Perhaps his habit is /to strike at this one spot; perhaps he scorns / to take his prey from any place but this.” Sure, many commentators have had a crack at this, but what is he talking about, and why does it matter? Has anyone ever heard of a free-wheeling eagle striking in only one place? The eagle has wings of gold, is “terrible as a lightning bolt” and snatches him “up high as the Sphere of Fire,” and all this time “It seemed that we were swept up ina great blaze/and the imaginary fire so scorched me/my sleep broke.” Whirling all about are images of dazzling luminescence, of fire, of light. So, in part we are allowed to imagine that the luster and luminosity of Lucia as she holds the slumbering Dante is somehow working into his dream. But the uncanny vividness and clarity of the dream are so striking that no one, I believe, will ever really understand why this dream, why now.

The three steps across the threshold are haunting: penitence, contrition, resolve.

As a Catholic, I was always taught to take Lent especially to heart, especially hard. And this year they really smeared the ashes all over my head, about a pound of scorched palm frond. Whether it’s habit or whether it’s personal tuning, I can’t resist doing my Lenten duties with an especially profound sense of limitation, fault, and grief. Like most people, I want to do better, I want to be better, and like all people, sometimes I improve in this or that instance, but mostly, I flail and welter. It’s not that I never improve; it’s that the struggle is never over.

Whatever else is true, it seems evident that penitence is more than being sorry. Sorrow would be understandable: it’s senseless to pretend this is all a party, or that there isn’t a dark side, a down side, to human life. But clearly, penitence is a state of clearsightedness, rejecting delusion, an ac ceptance of things as they really are, oneself as one really is.

I hereby submit an old poem of mine:

Maker of makers

I always was

In your hand

All that I have

All that I’ve had

All that’s worth having

You have given

Therefore I regret

That I have added

As much to your burden

As I have

For you work

And you work

And it is so far from me

And so deep within

That I hope it does not hurt

If all I can muster

Before this

The wild

The original

Are reverence

And awe

For your sake

I will try

To learn to

Love as

You love

Painfully

Powerfully, strewing

Errors like nebulas

Along the uncertain way.

It’s important to accept that we add to the burden, and if we accept that, we also accept the sadness of the terrific weight of which are a part.

And that entails getting a new mind, re-penting, rethinking, seeing anew. Renewal is not the flip side of being sorry – renewal is the main point, the main idea, personal resurrection as an image of what Christ has offered the world. And that can lead to all kinds of gratitude and even elation . . . but not so fast. The main point is that renewal is far from free. It’s hard. It can break you. (That’s why the keeper of the Gate asks them to identify themselves, because, if they aren’t meant to be here, they could get hurt. Once he learns Lucia brought Dante, he’s good with it.)

So there is a heaviness to Lent, and it’s a good thing, a building thing, a challenge, a chance to lose the delusion that we are fine, perfect, don’t need to work on anything. What will we see when we straighten up and, with unclouded, sober eye, see the world, and ourselves in it, as it really is? What will we do to get even closer to the light?


Purgatory Canto 8: A Paradise for Procrastinators

I’m an ENFP on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Always have been (meaning: same result each of the dozen times I’ve taken the thing). Probably always will be.

When I first took the MBTI, I think about mid-way through seminary, the results came as both a revelation and an affirmation. One of the descriptors of my “type” read thus: “Works more by inspiration than perspiration.”

And so afterward, I to myself: that explains why I was never able to start the paper three weeks in advance, read two books and three magazine articles, keep the notes neatly organized on notecards, and finish the first draft the week before. That explains why I’m up all night in a flurry of excited creativity, photocopies strewn about and highlighter stains on my fingers, until the thoughts flow like water through a dry irrigation channel. Inspiration. Not perspiration. I’m an ENFP, by God! It’s who I am!

Right.

I think this section of Purgatorio (meaning, Cantos 2-6; meaning Ante-purgatory) is ideal for ENFP’s. Meaning…procrastinators. And oh, I am not implying that we’ll all end up here – but there’s perhaps a better chance than most that this is our crib, initially, in heaven.

Dante’s playing around here, it seems to me, with this question: how do we get there? Is it by perspiration? Or by inspiration? Before I too hastily say that we ENFP’s have the right answer (inspiration), let me say that I’m sure Dante (being the extremes-avoiding, died-in-the-wool Aristotelian that he is…especially in this Canto) would say it’s got to be both.

But before we go there, first of all, let’s consider this: where is the “there” we’re trying to get to? It’s clear that what Dante’s after is the ultimate there: symbolically, it’s the thing that is represented by an entire 1/3 of the poem: Paradiso. It is the thing most to be desired, the ultimate joy and fulfillment of the human soul. It is that the place governed by that love that scratches our ultimate itch: a love that is love-in-loving. Whether we realize it or not, this is the ultimate thing that ought to capture our attention and desire, and it’s what we human beings are built for. Hell is where it gets totally screwed up beyond repair, and we forget the assignment itself; and purgatory’s where we work it out. We get the ultimate extension: all the time you need.

This whole section of Purgatorio is about those who, for one reason or another, were too preoccupied until the very end to apply their attention to what matters most: the disciplined practice of love that gets you there. The steady work that puts you there in your present, in-spired (that is, breath-ful) life, because you’ve gotten a taste of it, and it’s sweet.

Here, we see the shades of those who put it off to the end for seemingly good reason: the rulers mentioned here are “types” for all who neglected their own soul to be in service to others, through their exercise of worldly duties. I’m sure there are a lot of dutiful moms, magistrats…minsters here too? Their reward is a resting place of technicolor beauty (reminded me of that psychedelic Pink Floyd poster I stared at so many hours under a blacklight when I was a kid). One wonders, though – and this is a total riff – if God isn’t giving them a foretaste of the truest distraction that should have preoccupied them: might the beautiful colors represent that vivid brightness that should serve as the ultimate attention grabber. These are the colors of heaven, the brightness of the divine.

Which brings me back to the main point. How do you get there?  The sun, in Dante’s cosmos, plays a very clear and specific role: it is the inspiration part. It is the divine illumination without which one cannot make any progress toward the top of the mountain, toward that-which-matters-most.

This is the law of the mountain: ain’t goin nowhere at night. Not that someone’s blocking you (they’re not). It’s just that, to paraphrase John’s gospel, “cut off from me, you can do nothing.”

This seems particularly resonant right now, and not necessarily in a good way. There are so many I know who are feeling like they are in the dark. Completely unable to lift a toe upward, completely unable to make any progress forward; and it is no fun, let me tell you. And I know, because I’ve been there myself. Dark night of the soul. Theology seems like nursery rhyme. Life makes no sense. It’s night.

We’ll just have to rest the night, and wait until morning. I can testify to the notion that the color is indeed brightest when you’ve fully explored the darkness of night. That’s how it works. And – again having been there myself – I can tell you that morning does come. After night.

How do you get up the mountain? Is it inspiration? Is it perspiration? Presbyterians (so firmly on the inspiration side of the equation) do well to note: it’s got to be both. A holy and wise understanding of both in their place.

Evidence of Dante’s astute Aristotelian mean-ing: just take a gander at Henry III, practically the last visage we see in this Canto. The guy is there for the opposite reason: neglecting his worldly duties for an obsessive preoccupation with piety. Too fascinated by the notes and the drafts to ever actually produce anything at all.

How do you get up the mountain? Here’s an even better answer, and another reason we’re not in hell: It’s not just inspiration. Nor perspiration.

It’s with others. The help of the other, others; the Other.


Canto 6 – Divine Justice: “Are Your Righteous Eyes Turned Elsewhere?”

“And if it is lawful to ask, O Jove on high,

you who were crucified on earth for us,

are your righteous eyes turned elsewhere,

or, in your abyss of contemplation,

are you preparing some mysterious good,

beyond our comprehension? ”  (VI, 118-126)

Salvador Dali: Purgatorio, Canto VI: "Men Who Died Violent Deaths"

In this canto, Dante deals with many issues.

The sixth canto, “Ante-Purgatory: Those who Died by Violence,” opens with Dante’s speculation about the crowding shades all about him, pushing, shoving, imploring. Why do these souls bother him so, to pray for them?

He dwells on how people gamble so foolishly with their lives, when only the winner seems to profit from it.

He then questions Virgil about the power of prayer for others.  He wonders why the poet now states prayer for others is effective (lines 25 – 28), when, in the “Aeneid,” Virgil had written: ”prayer may not alter Heaven’s fixed decree.” It would seem the poet clearly stated prayer has no effect on Heaven.  Virgil prevaricates a bit, but notes that he wrote the epic before he knew the Christian era.  The question here arises, how can Justice be served, when prayers of others are credited to the soul of one who has passed beyond the test of life?

But, then, in the final section of the canto, Dante moves into an extended rant and lament.  Justice is certainly a central question here.   Dante feels his ‘beloved Italy’ has been betrayed.  Betrayed “by Caesar” [Holy Roman Emperor Albert], and, even by God.

Dante was a supporter of a united Italy, under rule of the Holy Roman Emperor.

So, he asks: “My Caesar, why do you not keep me company?”  [Cesare mio, perchè non m’accompagni?].

In doing so, he echoes Christ calling in despair from the cross:

“My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matt. 27:46)

And then, Dante launches into a full diatribe:

“O German Albert, who abandon her

now that she is untamed and wild,

… In that far land, both you and your father,

dragged along by greed, allowed

the garden of the empire to be laid waste.

… Come, cruel one, come and see the tribulation

your nobles suffer and consider their distress.

… Come and see your Rome and how she weeps,

widowed and bereft, and cries out day and night:

My Caesar, why are you not with me?’

Come and see your people, how they love

one another, and, if no pity for us moves you,

come for shame of your repute.” (VI, 97 – 117)

But, Dante ventures further.  The Emperor alone is not to blame.  Dante dares to question whether or not God is any longer paying attention to His “Roman” Christians.  Has Christ, perhaps, like The Father before Him (in the case of Jerusalem: The Babylonian Captivity), turned away from His people?  {see opening verses, above)

“For each Italian city overflows with tyrants

and every clown that plays the partisan

thinks he is the new Marcellus .“ (VI, 118 – 126)

In fact, Dante’s lament reminds one of those found in the Book of Lamentations (the only Book in the Bible that consists entirely, and solely, of laments).

“Lamentations”   bemoans the horrors of the Babylonian seizure of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem. This Book’s recital of the tragedies is an intricately woven fabric of “poetic wrestling” with “the ways of God,” as well as a description of His method of dealing with wayward people.  Dante sees many parallels between Judah’s fate and conditions of his beloved Italy.

“How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!

How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!

She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks.

Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her.

All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.

After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile.

She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place.

All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”

[Lamentations 1, 1-3]

What have the Italian Christians done to be treated so?

One suspects that Dante is treading a very fine line here – he is approaching blasphemy.    These passages show how, at the nadir of his political despair [similar in some ways to that of Machiavelli some two centuries later), Dante questions even God.

He KNOWS that Italy has been abandoned by its Caesar [Albert /

Henry VII].

But, why also by Divine Providence?

Indeed?

Is there a message here for our time and place?


Canto 5: A Notebook

by Jake Willard-Crist

Suppose there was one whose body allowed light to pass through it, and he or she walked among us.  What would our reaction be to a disturbance in the taken-for-granted opacity of normal life?  What if light not only passed through the body but also collected there, pooled inside and pressed against the wrapper of the skin?  The clothes of such a stranger would be dazzling, as radiant as Christ’s appeared to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration—not because of any pure blanching of the fabric, but because of its transparency, its openness.  The body, normally shut, normally in the business of occlusion—blocking light, taking up space, absorbing sound and scent—becomes an open door, or at least, for a fraction of a second, a door ajar.

In Purgatory, where the souls are doors ajar, in states of fluctuating openness, where the souls can at once appear to be bolts of lightning and also wild horses, where the souls slide within luciformity and solidity:  here, a body casting a shadow is a Transfiguration.   Like Peter who wanted to enshrine the blistering moment on the mountaintop, building tabernacles on the spot, the souls of Purgatory cluster around the living poet, wanting to detain him, to win his favor, to tell their stories, to solicit his assistance in gathering prayers on the other side.

It is the job of the poet to find the bodies of the murdered and give them peace.

No matter what the great poets say, no matter what Virgil says, the poet, though he may be heading to Paradise, should never stop enjoying the distraction of his own shadow.

In the final moments of our death, will we be as concerned about the shape of our blood?  Will the manner in which it left us (or clotted within us) become as crucial to the narration of our death as it is for Jacopo and Bonconte of Montefeltro?  How it pools out of our veins?  How it leaves a trail?

We do not pay enough attention to our blood or our shadows.

Andre Kertesz: Place de la Concorde, Paris (1928)

The souls of Purgatory are wonderfully sensitive to solidity, to opacity, to corporeality.  And, come to think of it, so were the souls of Hell, who noticed the way the poet could move his surroundings, could manipulate, by contact, the physical world of the inferno.  What is the root of such fine perception?  The souls of purgatory can see the poet’s corporality, his ‘living-ness’, because their perception is completely awash with hope.  They are creatures being tuned, warping toward a future in which their Miserere opens into anthem. They know what it means for one who lives to step into their world.  Theirs is an overwhelming optimism; they have nowhere to look but forward, and because of the trajectory of their desire, because of the shimmering concentration of their metanoia, they can spot a shadow from a mile away.

We need an anthropology of Purgatory.  Someone needs to get in there along with the poets and record the behavior of the dwellers.

We could spot a transfiguration if our senses were circuited with hope.

To Virgil:  it’s not enough to be a ‘tower of stone’ or a ‘lofty crown unswayed’.  It’s not enough when the poet can be the north face, the tree the lightning loves.

The poet loves that someone loves his shadow; this is the poet’s pride.


Canto 4

“The Ledge of the Indolent.”

That’s basically where I lived during the first two years of high school. Accomplishments of substance took so much effort, such sustained focus, to both of which I felt profoundly allergic.

Not unlike, say, American society in 2011 with regard to our strong disinclination to get moving on the de-carbonization front. Our guts and minds keep telling us we have important work to do, but our feet stay still—right on top of our gas pedals.

No surprise, of course. Newton codified indolence so neatly: A body (politic) at rest tends to stay at rest.

And, to a considerable degree, for good reason. Try to do something big, especially in a collective sense, and you get not just opposite reactions but oppositional reactionaries.

So, moving past (through?) indolence is not for the faint of heart. It requires some kind of catalyst. But of what kind?

The catalyst that propelled me out of my high-school indolence was spiritual, visceral. Literally. In the middle of sophomore year, I was hanging at a pizza joint on a wintry Friday night when, suddenly, I got a jolt in the gut that told me I was, as the saying goes, “going nowhere, fast.” Everything in my being told me I needed to get moving.

Luckily, I also got a jolt telling me how: “Boarding school.” Barely knew what one was, but again my gut offered illumination: “Immersion. Total commitment. Living at school. If you are already in it, surrounded by it, you’ll have a better chance of getting into it.” By September, just turned 16, I was a junior in boarding school. I was moving. (I wasn’t just in a different place. I was working REALLY hard.)

Now, change had come, progress away from The Ledge of the Indolent, not just because I had been moved, not just because of that jolt in my gut. On many levels what was stirring wasn’t about me. It was about me—beyond me. So many other, outer forces were reaching me, helping me, serving me.

Dante talks about those who need help entering Purgatory. “Prayer could help…if a heart God’s love / has filled with Grace should offer it” (Ciardi, Canto IV, 133-4). So many grace-filled hearts offered help. My parents, who didn’t really have the money for such a school, allowed me to apply anyway. People wrote letters of recommendation. Kind admissions personnel interviewed me, despite my applying well beyond the formal deadlines.

Boarding school redeemed my life. At least, it started to. It gave me a fresh chance to grow. It gave me purpose. It gave me my work. Now I’m a teacher, propelled by a calling. To help others grow.

We all need help. We all need to help. To listen for prayers. Then to offer them—in action.

Purgatory is a challenge and, potentially, a blessing, a chance. If we can get—and help others— past the Ledge of the Indolent.

Pier Kooistra, March 2011


Purgatorio, Canto 3: The way that leads to blessedness

At the foot of the mountain of purgation, a fundamental issue pertaining to salvation surfaces. How far can unaided human reason take us toward the blessed life? The answer provided is that it can only take us so far, perhaps only to the base of the penitential mountain. The blessed life cannot finally be attained by reason alone. To obtain forgiveness and reconciliation with God, one must ascend by faith and hope.

The problem with Plato, Aristotle, and the all the other ancient and modern pagan philosophers is that they can only take us so far. They cannot lead us to knowledge of the mystery of God the Holy Trinity. They cannot lead us to the atoning death of Jesus and his life-giving resurrection. For that knowledge, we need the revelation of God made known in the incarnation. Only this heavenly Wisdom born of Mary’s womb can lead us to the higher and more weighty matters pertaining to our existential condition. Reason has to be completed by revelation if we are to attain that for which all of us deeply long: saving knowledge of divine Love.

The way that leads to life is less a way of reason than a way of penitence, faith, forgiveness, and hope. Moreover, this way is not the way of disembodied contemplation of eternal verities so much as it is the way of embodied practice. We cannot think our way from heaven to hell. We must practice in faith and hope, relying on the promise of the love of God to forgive sinners.

Even if through penitence and faith we ascend to the blessed life, we will still never comprehend the ultimate mystery of the all things. No matter how pure and blessed, we will never be able to comprehend the full mystery of the Holy Trinity. It is enough for us to accept that the One God is Three, not to know how that is so. The way we come to know that this mystery is Love itself is by taking up our cross and following the Incarnate One on the way to the top of mount Calvary.


Purgatorio, Canto 2: This Isn’t Kansas, Dante

This is a very beautiful Canto, and unless we have just come from reading Inferno, we might miss a lot of what’s different, instantly, between the world of perpetual punishment and the betweenworld of Purgatorio.

Throughout Inferno, the landscape is tortured and malevolent. Even distance itself is sick, occluded, interrupted, shadowy, riddled with reminders of the utter fallenness of all about us. But in Purgatorio . . . beginning, I believe, with the quality of the verse itself . . . we have a different feeling, a sense of an availing vista, a promise of progression.

Whereas Inferno was a terrible pit, Purgatorio is the reverse, a terraced, graduated mountain. Things shine into, project into, or fly through the air. The first words of Canto II are Giá era il sole, “Already was the sun,” so we begin with light, which is immediately, already, right on top of us, and the Aurora of the dawn, and then the distant light Dante sees approaching, which launches him into an ecstatic simile, again of dawn. As the Angel approaches, the impression is of un non sapeva che bianco, “an I-didn’t-know-what of white.” The energy – already – is different from anything experienced in Inferno.

When the Angel gets closer, and its magnificence begins to burn, indeed very sunlike, Virgil cries, “From now on you shall see / many such ministers in the high kingdoms.” We have come to the realm in which there may be angels, not punishing angels, but angels as harbingers and workers of divine mercy. The new arrivals to Purgatory, the recently dead, are singing “When Israel came out of Egypt,” a Psalm of rescue and ransom, just as they are being rescued from anguished perpetuity by God’s mercy. The sun is “on every hand . . . shooting forth the day.” So, although we may be in a strange and disturbing place, there are plenty of signs of divine love, mercy, and redemption all around us, even if Dante doesn’t recognize them.

As a musician, I’m especially excited to note that the Canto rests on two songs. The already-mentioned Psalm 114 would have been very familiar to Dante’s readers. It sets a tone we see here, also, in Canto II, and with it a theme: God’s rescue renovates all creation. Mercy changes everything. Here’s the rest of that Psalm:

The sea looked an fled; the Jordan turned back.

The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.

Why, sea, did you flee? Why turn back, O Jordan?

Why, mountains, skip like rams? Why, hills, like lambs?

Tremble, Earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob

Who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs.

God can do anything, make the least availing circumstance – rock – into the most – water. At God’s presence, creation rejoices.

I’m not saying Purgatorio is a place of rejoicing. But in Canto II, with little daubs here and there, Dante lets us know everything is different here, and prefigures the issues of Divine Mercy and rejoicing to come.

The second song, performed by Dante’s just-dead friend Casella, is “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” “Love, which in my mind reasons with me,” the second canzone from Dante’s Convivia. I don’t think this poem, although possibly well known, would have been as readily familiar as Psalm 114. It, too, locks into the work of establishing what Purgatorio is and prefiguring what’s at stake and what’s to come. The canzone – an incredible piece of poetic structure, with an intricate rhyme and verse scheme – praises a beloved lady, explores her perfections, and declares her goodness is beyond the intellect. As always, when Dante is discussing the lady love, and how mind contends with her beauties, he’s always also invoking the same set of propositions between us and the Divine – God is worthy of praise, excels all others, is the soul and type of goodness and love themselves, and exceeds the intellect’s power to grasp. She is a portal of divinity that implies a pathway to God: “In her aspect appear things/ that show the pleasure of Paradise . . . They overcome our intellect just as a sunray beggars the vision.” That’s what love is, and love is beyond the intellect, just as, in this Canto, as the angel “closed the distance between us, he grew brighter and yet brighter / until I could no longer bear the radiance, / and bowed my head.” Virgil, and now the very brightness of the approaching Angel, compel Dante to bow, to show he is not worthy, not adequate.

Casella sings Dante’s song, and “My Guide and I and all those souls of bliss / stood tranced in song” – a little piece of self-advertisement, but also a reminder of how overcoming and ecstatifying music (and love) can be.

This isn’t Kansas – and it certainly isn’t Inferno, either. Purgatorio is a place of wrenching, rending frustration, of delay and regret, hazards and obstacles. Dante doesn’t step back from any of that, but in this Canto he’s trying to wake us up to how far everything has moved, and changed.


Canto 1: God Rules

Several years ago I did a workshop at Green Gulch Farm, a working monastery that’s part of the San Francisco Zen Center, taught by the beat poet Michael McClure–pal of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac and other great beat poets of the 1950s. The workshop was based on what McClure called “Shannon’s law”. He offered an elaborate and delightful explanation of what “Shannon’s Law” was about, which boiled down basically to this: The more rules, the freer you can be.

What ensued was a delightful morning and afternoon of poetry writing not based on “free verse” – but instead, based on careful “rules” that constrained the writing. We discovered that the paradox was right: the more rules, the freer you can be.

In some ways, that is an apt description of a major theme of this “middle third” of the poem, the canticle called Purgatorio. It is a meditation on this: what are the rules that both bind and free at the same time? How can rules both oppress and set at liberty the human soul? Ultimately, one of the main questions at stake is this: what is human freedom? How does one attain sovereignty over oneself?

So…before we enter, we need to have a clear understanding of the “rules of the game.” Because, O reader, take note. We ain’t in hell no more. Different house. Different rules.

First of all: there’s weather. There’s a sunrise. Hey – there’s change! Growth! Hell is a place characterized by absence, just as Augustine characterized evil itself: it has no substance, but indeed is the absence of something, namely good. Therefore in hell, the most notable absence is that of change itself. It is a place where people suffer, and continue to repeat throughout all of eternity the very thing that creates that suffering. Hell is the place where suffering has no meaning. Hell is the place where people keep doing the same damn thing (literally) over and over again, expecting a different result.

Here, we learn, is different. We read that in Purgatory, the purpose of Dante’s pilgrimage is to witness the place of those “whose suffering makes them clean.” (I.66) In purgatory, people do not do what they are compulsed to do over and over; they do what they truly desire to do–what they will to do: to suffer. Their will is aligned with the work of suffering. Why? Because here, suffering gets you somewhere. Ultimately, it gets you to heaven.

And we shall see in some detail the means by which that can happen – through confession, contrition, and satisfaction. There are rules by which the soul becomes clean. Rules to make you free.

Dante is well aware that there seem to be rules of a different sort, rules that govern the universe. And there are rules governing the intricate schema he’s devised (or recorded, we might imagine) that describe how hell, purgatory and heaven function.

AND YET. Here’s a weird thing. We enter this brand new realm, Purgatory, and encounter a sight that should cause us to do a double-take at our programs. Dante and Virgil cast their gaze on the solitary figure of Cato, and we are meant to think, “Huh? That dude shouldn’t be here.” It’s a violation of the rules!

Cato’s presence in purgatory seems a violation of the careful plan that Dante has laid out, the very precise rules that govern the spiritual physics of the universe: how is it that this guy, a pagan, and a suicide to boot, gets the job of guarding purgatory–the place that in essence is heaven? Why does he get a free pass, and the other sots in limbo not get there?

Perhaps he would appreciate Emerson’s famous dictum, “A slavish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Because no, Dante is at his subtlest here in this first Canto of Purgatorio. He seems to invite us to reflect on the rules, how precisely reasoned they are. How we need a structure in which to be free. But rules are the scaffold, not the building. Therefore, they are meant at some level to be taken down. “Rules are meant to be broken”, as the cliche goes.

So, why is Cato the exception to the rule? Cato’s story itself is the obvious signal as to what Dante is up to here: Cato lived and died for the sake of freedom. Of liberty. As we read in our Ciardi, he opposed Caesar for the principle of freedom; fell on his sword rather than to lose his freedom.

So…what then is freedom? Is it just doing our own thing, whatever we want (or “will”)? Is the will indeed free if it’s just unfettered? Or is it possible that the lack of any structure in which to experience freedom – true freedom – can be a kind of jail? Can really be a kind of slavery?

At the very beginning, Cato realizes that one cannot escape hell on his own power, with one’s own sovereignty. “Who led you?” he asks Dante and Virgil. “Are the laws of the pit so broken?” In other words, “who changed the rules all of a sudden?”

Virgil explains to him, of course, that no. They are not breaking the rules because here is one who is “still to see his final hour.”

Things here are akimbo. A liminal state, an in-between place where the rules don’t quite make sense. Cato is an almost-saint, one who is not motivated by love, as much by authority. It’s not his former love Marcia that moves him, but the authority of Beatrice. Cato is one moved by what is proper and virtuous. One who follows the rules.

Note some other signs of things to come; other wonderful and beautiful gestures that allude to the things of our spiritual beginnings: Dante washes himself with the dew of a new morning – a reference to the baptism that washes away the sin. And as they begin a new journey, we have another allusion to a key ingredient of this process toward freedom: humility. They begin on a descent. To go up still means that you begin…by going down.

Final note: Hope there are some folk willing to add their own commentary on this canto, by replying here – or to respond to the main reflection. We’d love to hear from you!


Join us in Purgatory!

Greetings, O Reader!

As the season of Lent begins again, we continue our blogging adventure with the second canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy, 33 cantos chronicling Dante’s journey through Purgatorio. We are back, more or less the same motley band of bloggers as last year, with one change. Sadly, Adrienne Perry needed to bow out this year due to time constraints, and because her many writing projects are bearing down upon her especially now as she finishes her MFA. Hope you hear us cheering for you, A!

Enter Bob Sinner, who was a frequent commenter last year, a retired teacher of history, a member at The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, a wise mind, and a genuine good guy. We are aware that we have an abundance of Y chromosomes in this project – perhaps part of the purgatorial agenda will be to diversify. We will indeed work on that.

If you’re a new reader and would like some additional background on the project, and how it got started, read the first entry in this blog. You may also find our About page and the other pages in this blog helpful for orienting yourself.

Most especially though, we fervently hope you will join us in making this adventure part of your Lenten discipline – please do read the canticle, and comment along with us.

Tally ho!


Canto 34: Judecca – A Few Musings

By Pier Kooistra

Until now, Dante’s Hell has been a kinetic place, erupting, seething, its denizens trapped but moving (albeit mostly while making futile efforts to limit their suffering or, like the Malebranche, while multiplying the misery of their fellow hellions). How strange, then, to encounter, at long last, the King of Hell and to find him largely inert, frozen in place. Satan here bears little resemblance to Satan as we’ve seen or imagined (at least, as I’ve seen or imagined) him outside this realm constructed by Dante. Sure, some of the basic components of his situation are the same. For example, as usual he’s been expelled from Heaven for having dared to challenge the primacy of God. But this Satan has been not only cast out but cast down. In fact, to a striking degree he’s been casted—surrounded, incapacitated—in addition to having been hurled from his previously dizzying height to a nearly annihilating depth. This is not a Darth Vader/Emperor character, a dark lord capable of projecting power to any corner of the universe. This is not a Bond-film villain, skilled to the Nth degree in a million forms of malefaction, elegant in his brutality, as polished as his deadly hidden weapons. This guy isn’t really the King of Hell; he’s a mock-king. He’s huge but ungainly, not a wicked Zeus but a bumbling grotesque, a Cyclops, stuck—and, worse, attacked, humiliated—in his own cave. He bosses no henchmen. He convenes no cabals. One can’t call where he is a dominion, as he rules over nothing. And, therefore, one can’t really call this figure Satan or Lucifer, in the sense that those names usually connote. More properly, this is Dis. Or, rather, Dissed. And his Hell has nothing to do with Pandemonium, that sprawling, autonomous hideaway of all the devils in the cosmos, a place that, generally, I’ve envisioned as every bit as rowdy and humming with action as the greenwood of Robin and his merry men, if taken up with the hatching, rather than the foiling, of nefarious plots. There is nothing majestic about this figure we see in Canto 34. He makes no choices of his own. To be sure, he is heinous, chewing ad infinitum on the head of Judas and the legs of Brutus and Cassius. But there is no malevolence here, no whiff of the evil genius licking his lips with relish, the torchlit hallways of his lair echoing with cackles of excitement about the loosing of his next horrible scheme. Once the arch-machinator, this guy has been reduced to a machine, an instrument of someone else’s justice. Having dared to prosecute the ultimate act of insubordination, he has been, as recompense, completely subordinated, stripped of all initiative, all volition, hurled to the absolute bottom of a territory that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Heaven.  Huge and hideous but defanged, Dissed has been put on display in a sort of Underworld’s Fair, the chief exhibit in the No-No Pavilion. For Heaven’s sake (literally), the erstwhile master of malignancy has been so utterly tamed, in fact rendered so impotent, that a couple of lilliputian (if literarily gigantic) poets can clamber right past his midsection and not be totally fucked. There is no wrath, no vengeful fury for them to contend with. Virgil and Dante can gawk instructively, seriously up close and personal, at the tethered former fiend, and, so long as they’re willing to put in a good walk, just saunter home. This is a devil that is decidedly separate from God—and not equal. That’s the first thing about this canto that strikes me.

The second is who else, along with Satan, has been consigned to this infernal stratum reserved for the lowest of the low. I can see, of course, how the most notorious acts of Judas, on the one hand, and Brutus and Cassius, on the other (turning Jesus over to the authorities, assassinating Caesar) constitute more than peccadilloes. But if Judas’s crime was instrumental to the redemption-through-Crucifixion project, and if Brutus and Cassius were motivated even just in part by an impulse to curb tyranny, it’s hard for me to see these characters as the lowest of the low. My twenty-first-century-liberal mind, if charged with assembling a list of malignancies meriting cutting-away from human society and searing in retributive flames, would gravitate toward the murderous-despot crowd, the fomentors of genocide, such as Leopold of Belgium, Hitler and Pol Pot, not to mention thugs like Milosevic and Karadzic and the demon-leaders of Akazu. Nicole Pinsky says in her notes that those cast into “the final division of Cocytus and the innermost part of Hell” are “those who betrayed their benefactors.” How about those who have betrayed their putative beneficiaries—who, in fact, have turned on their own peoples, such as Stalin and Mao and other wielders of homicidal state power like Ceausescu and Pahlavi, al-Bashir and Amin, Mugabe and Pinochet? Surely there must be a roster of Herods from the ancient world with whom to fill the Wholly Unholies.

If, by some unlikely chain of circumstances, these underconsidered jottings of mine were to be canonized (rather than cannonized) and scrutinized by some poor soul seven centuries hence, I’ve got to believe that such a far-off reader would notice in my brief catalog of especially hellacious human beings a dearth of North Americans. We all have our biases. Mine notwithstanding—in fact, likely as a result of mine—I am struck by the possibility that what to Dante are crimes explicitly constituting the betrayal of benefactors (for, surely, Jesus did minister lovingly, generously unto Judas, and Caesar did in significant ways champion Brutus and make him a protégé, and these actions in both cases appear to merit a high degree of loyalty and special consideration) may also amount to violations of the expected social order. Dante inhabited a world of clearer and more keenly delineated castes and classes. He lived under podestas e principi (and under their edicts and bans). His, far more than ours, was a world of clergy and laypeople, masters and apprentices, superiors and servants. Perhaps that heavily hierarchical social context helps to explain why his Cassius and Brutus are highlighted as the most abject of lowlifes and why his Judas, the unfaithful, if unintentionally helpful, disciple qualifies for such flagrant opprobrium. In other words, is it possible that B, C and J come in for such stark punishment as much for having done offenses to factors (big movers and shakers) as for having violated benefactors (doers of good)? They are, after all, thrown in with (in fact, into) the ultimate upstart, Satan. For what it’s worth, if consigned to Hell myself, while I wouldn’t be psyched about serving as a stick of the arch-fiend’s eternal chewing gum, I’d rather cast my lot with the denizens of Judecca than with the terrors of the modern world whom I’ve named above.

Except for one thing: Judecca—that name troubles me. I know it’s supposed to denote the particularly ruinous, ruined condition to which Judas has been condemned for betraying the Christian savior. But does it also suggest a more general collecting place for traitors to the body politic and/or mainstream culture—or “Jews” in the slipperiest, most denigrating sense (denigrating, that is, to labeler and labeled alike? Nicole Pinsky says in her notes on Canto 34, regarding Brutus and Cassius, “Their crime was seen in the Middle Ages as an offense not only to the murderers’ great benefactor, but to the progress and history of the Roman Empire and the Church.” Is Dante suggesting that Brutus and Cassius are not only Judases but “Judahs,” followers of a corrupt agenda, flouters of Roman Christendom’s hegemonic march? Maybe I, the loving husband of a Jewish wife, the adoring father of Jewish sons, am prone to suspecting anti-Semitic ugliness where it isn’t. But as Virgil and Dante emerge from Hell to see the stars, I can’t help but wonder how their transit through the infernal depths may influence the way in which they interpret the signs above them—may prompt them to assemble constellations of thought predisposing us to steer a troubled course. The journey began “In dark woods, the right road lost” (Canto I, l. 2). To what degree have climbing over the devils’ crotch, hiking through the runnel-tunnel and emerging from that “round aperture” (Canto XXXIV, l. 138) set our guides, and ourselves, on a trajectory uncomplicated by mis- (or mal-) perception?

Your thoughts, companions?


Canto 33: Anti-Eucharist

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Surprisingly, the lowest level of hell is icy cold. Those who have committed the worst sins of all – the treacherous – must suffer in bitter, barren cold for eternity. Who knew that there is something worse than unquenchable fires?

In the midst of this canto Dante and Virgil encounter Ugolin0 della Gherardesca. He pauses from chewing on the head and brains of his archenemy Archbishop Ruggieri  in order to share with the visitors the account of his death and that of his children (and grandchildren, actually). Ironically, Ugolino spends more time describing the horrible circumstances of his death than in owning up to his own treachery and double dealings. Is there anything worse than a victimizer who portrays himself as a victim?

Ugolino relates how he and his younger family members were shut up in a tower and left to starve to death. His children offer their very own flesh and blood to him as a way to sustain his less than meritorious life. At first, he refused to engage in cannibalism of his own children. Eventually, he succumbed to the power of hunger and ate the flesh and blood of his own progeny. Now, in hell he perpetually cannibalizes the brain of his enemy.

When reading about Ugolin0’s ugly end, it is hard not to think of Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist in John 6. There, Jesus spoke of giving of his very own life to sustain the life and faith of his disciples. He went so far as to say that his followers would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Jesus Christ, the meritorious one, willingly gave his embodied life for the lives of others. On the very first Maundy Thursday (during the institution of the Eucharist), Jesus connected the broken bread with his broken body and the common cup with his shed blood. The powerful pours himself out for the weak and vulnerable. This feasting on another shows forth and concretely communicates life-giving love born of integrity, uprightness, and commitment to the truth. What a contrast to the circumstances of Ugolino and his horrible tale.

I find it fascinating that Dante entered hell by passing through the waters of a river and at the final destination of his journey he encounters one who eats the flesh of another. It seems fitting, somehow, that the journey to hell ends up being a counter-narrative to Christian initiation through participation in baptism and the Eucharist. Whereas baptism is the entrance into the church and Eucharistic participation is proleptic fulfillment of the eschatological messianic banquet in warm fellowship, hell is the exact inverse of this pattern (passing through water leads to the death of all hope and the end of the journey involves savagely devouring both one’s loved ones and one’s enemies in icy barrenness).

Zooming out a theological level or two, we can see in the Inferno a profound insight first articulated by St. Augustine: evil is the privation or corruption of the good. Far from having independent existence, evil (and hell) are parasitic upon the good, the true, and the beautiful. We can only really conceive of hell in terms of the inverse of the Reign of God. Inasmuch as this is the case, even hell itself points – obliquely, to be sure – to the goodness and mercy of God.


Canto 32: This Is How Low You Can Go

By John Timpane

So at the bottom of the bottom, “where all heaviness convenes,” all rocks press down together, what do we find? Whom does God punish most harshly? Among the damned, all of whom are hopeless, who have the most humiliating, most painful burden of hopelessness?

Dante is pretty specific. This final, lowest circle of hell, which will end in the buried body of Satan (the ultimate fraud, ultimate traitor, ultimate treacher) himself, is devoted to frauds. But not just any frauds. Fraud, after all, is involved in almost every permutation of perversion and sin seen in Inferno – pretending to be what one is not; ignoring the truth and acting as though it were not true; lying to oneself or others; doing to others as one should not do; trying, on all levels, in all ways, to get away with it.

These are those who work hard to impose their fraud on others. They betray. They get you to trust them – they even hold high office of trust for powerful regimes – and leverage that to terrible ends.

When trust is betrayed, most of the time, it’s all gone. We are taught to forgive, but a breach of trust is hard. Many people, for example, can’t find the strength it takes to forgive a wayward spouse, even though sexual infidelity (the kind of betrayal most often in question) doesn’t necessarily ruin the structure of the relationship. Spouses often forgive financial breaches, breaches of habit (I say I won’t gamble any more, and then I do), failures to live up to the implied equality of duties within a marriage (you never cook, or do the dishes, or care enough about the kids, or fix the house) – all of these, in practical terms, are potentially far more harmful than a breach of sexual trust.

But that breach stands for all others. Many feel that if that is breached, all others are threatened – perhaps destroyed.

In intimacy, we come to the trusted one literally without dressing, with all guard, all defenses, far away. Intimacy, the embrace of another person, whole-body, whole-self, is the very idea of trust. And when that is betrayed — when it is treated like garbage, or like just another option, nothing special, or when it is discounted or taken for granted — it stands for all betrayal. This has much to do with Christ, actually.

When writing this entry, I asked myself why, when betrayed, we feel such a rush of wounded, vicious fury. It’s obvious why: in extending trust to one we now see has betrayed us, we laid ourselves open, rendered ourselves vulnerable. We came to the other as children and were used.

The thought arises: surely God never did this. But then again: Christ. Who else is the very metaphor for vulnerability, the ultimate in laying oneself open, the great teacher of childlikeness, sacrificial love, turning the cheek 490 times, not worrying about what you shall eat or what you shall wear? In setting the all-time standard for taking on all pain, all human suffering, Christ was also the great teacher of the necessity of trust. Trust in God, and therefore trust in one another.

Once we realize our betrayal, often we see our former, trusting selves as naive, as childlike. “How *could* I have been such a fool?” is a common question. You get a lot of pop songs based on this idea . . . leading to the time-honored genre of “never again” songs, as in that old Bacharach/David chestnut, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Once trust has been abused, we’re wary of ever extending it again. Many of us learn, literally, to trust no one if we will survive.

Then again: Christ never did this. He is disappointed in people. He sees his betrayal coming, first Judas in major, then Peter in minor. But Christ never quite washes his hands, never refuses forgiveness, asks God to forgive human beings closed to their own sinfulness.

And this is the central point of Lent. This laying open of self to suffering, this spectacular, tragic embrace of sacrificial love in our names, each name and the name of all, comes to mind at each specious sacrifice we make during Lent. This is one of the trickiest things to explain to friends who do not observe Lent but want to know “why you give stuff up.” Sure, there’s an instrinsic value in changing habits, avoiding excess, disciplining body in the name of concentrating on our faults, finitude, fallibility. But the real reason we give things up during Lent is as a spur to remembrance.

We do without and we remember. We do something for someone else, and we remember what was done for us. The cosmic betrayals that summoned this sacrifice . . . Judas, yes, but also Cain, also Clay (Adam) and Breath (Eve), also the betrayal of Heaven by the Angels . . . these are images of our own continual, small, characteristic betrayals. Sadness is appropriate, is necessary. As the marvelous poet (and pal of Shakespeare) Ben Jonson once wrote of his relation to God, “A broken heart/Is my best part.” Our capacity to feel pain, sadness, suffering, in light of our betrayals, image of these terrific and terrifying betrayals of God, is one of the best, most glorious things about us.

In “To Heaven,” Jonson writes, “Good and great God, can I not think of thee / But it must straight my melancholy be?” Sometimes, yes, and as that poem makes so clear — it’s a very Lenten poem, actually, one of the best — when we think in clear-eyed honesty about ourselves and what we really are, about how our motives are often pretty corrupt, then a degree of melancholy is appropriate. We’re close, however, in Canto XXXII to the end of Inferno, literally the lowest of all low points, and, as I’m sure somebody will point out in Canto XXXIV, a turnaround is about to happen. Which, after all, is what we’re hoping for, with all this work, all this meditation, all this trust.

But in this canto, once again, Dante is definite. There’s an end. It’s not that the angry God of the Old Testament bursts into a rage and starts destroying His enemies. It’s simply that once time ends for us, if we have defrauded others, we risk sinking as low as you can go, freezing in the consequences, gnawing bone.

The conundrum is that we cannot survive without trust. We could not get through a single day if we did not assume that the people all around us would perform roles that allowed us a place in the world. Moment to moment, we present ourselves each to another. We cannot but do so. And that furnishes an opening to all who would betray, first and foremost the busiest and most vigilant of all Betrayers, he whose body is the axis between hemispheres.

Dante’s Inferno is a museum of betrayal, of fraud, descending, level by level, from terrible to even worse, to unimaginable. He settles old scores, smacks political rivals and enemies who threw him (through treachery, so he implies) out of his Florence, gives us a detailed taxonomy of transgression and punishment. Inferno is the creation of a God who cannot forget because God exists outside time, in an eternal Now in which all transgression happens in an instant alongside its consequences. No forgetting can exist in a timeless now, and thus . . . what of forgiveness?

We are taught that, when furious or hurt or disappointed in someone, we “give it time” before acting on our feelings. No time with God. No before, no after. It’s instantaneous. Sin, always, on some level, is fraud against the God Who cannot be fooled. All the other things sin is – self-delusion, self-betrayal, hubris, blindness, perversion – fan out from this root. Sin begins and ends in betrayal. Whether we’re stealing pies off the windowsill, boffing the wife next door, or selling U.S. nuclear secrets to Iran, we start by ignoring the trust we have created with others and asked from God. That first step seals it, and whether the betrayal is small, and therefore lands us, say, in Purgatorio, to suffer for centuries until we’re Elysium-ready, or in Inferno, another timeless Now, the first step carries the sinner beyond mercy and toward punishment.

. . . and because this is one of the most trenchant analyses of politics in all poetry, it’s important to stop and consider how we feel toward those who have betrayed our country. Since Watergate, and since new ethics laws were instituted, sneaky, sly politicians have found a way to use those higher standards to create a continual train of indictments of their enemies. The problem is that many of those whose careers were ruined richly deserved it, and a few of those whose careers were not (Bill Clinton, maybe?) also did. Public service is a promise, and a huge promise, since it is taken in the name of so many, who have little choice but to trust that the people who pass laws and spend funds in their names do so for the good of all. And when that doesn’t happen, again the furious resentment. Dante has made such fury a theme through this poem: the fall of Florence, the double-dealing that dealt him right out of his beloved city, the corruption of Lucca, the diseased fraud of Pisa. As a political man, Dante challenges us to see the rotten body politic for what it is, the way, he believes, God sees it.

Ugolino, icelocked (and this might be the most gelid of all poetic passages . . . I love that part in which Dante writes that shivers always come back on him “whenever I see icy ponds”), frozen to the body of Ruggieri, his co-betrayer, each gnawing the other’s skull . . . how much lower can you go? Not too much. Beyond this lie only Brutus, Judas, and Satan.

Since I am a male, I want to point out how intimate, how central the sense of fraud is to the male psyche, if any. It’s often said that men never grow into security . . . I tend to think no one does, actually. I know only that many men are raised to be insecure. You can’t ever be as big as Daddy, ever strong enough or smart enough or perfect enough. Maleness plunges us into a life in which maleness is constantly questioned and attacked. Even the best among us is constantly looking over his shoulder, constantly worried that some day, the veil will fall, and the world will discover what a fraud we really, truly are. I assume women have their own versions.

However fraud pervades our lives and characters, somehow we get where we get in spite of what we truly are. Some of that is grace, thank God. . . . in fact, all of it is. Grace is what gets us forward.

And that’s the only comforting thing. God, in Milton’s formulation, gave us enough grace to do the dang deal. We are “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” Yet there is not a one who does not fall somewhere, somehow. The key is not to fall this low, to let in the kind of fraud that undoes everything, even grace itself. This Lent, I’ve been praying hard that I never let my genius for fraud overtake absolutely everything else.

What is frightening is that each of us, man and woman, chooses repeatedly to play traitor, ignore the grace and trust we are shown, by all those around us, and by the source of grace and trust. We don’t really believe in the end of time, the end of life, the end of chances “to get out of it,” the end of mercy. Dante manifestly does, or manifestly hopes for it. He hopes for a place in which living souls will be locked in ice and gnaw each other for all time. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.