Tag Archives: Dante

How long, O Lord? Canto 21

According to Plato, we are erotic beings (from the Greek word eros, meaning desire). We are beings who are insufficient in and of ourselves. We are hungry for things outside of ourselves: the world, one another, beauty, God. We are open to and dependent upon these objects of desire for the the sustenance of our lives. We can understand much about our lives and what makes the world go around by thinking in terms of desire and the varied attempts to satisfy desire. For Plato and for the Bible, all of our desires are interrelated and they find their proper coordination when we are oriented toward the ultimate object of human desire: God. When our deepest desire is for God, all other desires fall into their proper place.

Things go badly awry, however, when our deepest desire is for something other than the Highest Good (Summum Bonum or God). Disordered desire is problematic, catastrophic even, in terms of the object of desire and the process of desire. When our deepest desire becomes some part of the created order, we inevitably fall headlong into chaos, brokenness, and despair. Looking for love in all the wrong places always has tragic consequences. Even the process of desire becomes distorted and diseased. Such is the fate of us all.

Canto 21 opens by invoking the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. The Samaritan woman provides an exemplar of disordered desire and its painful consequences as well as the healing and fulfillment of right desire. Having several husbands and living with a partner outside of the bounds of marriage is only a symptom of a much deeper erotic disease. Jesus, the master physician of the soul, begins with a discussion of the presenting symptoms. An avoidance or deflection move on the part of the woman points to the deeper cause of her disease. Her desire for God has been displaced…and she knows it when in the presence of Jesus. Rather than scolding her for her sexual morals, Jesus addresses the root cause of her deep spiritual disorder and offers a cure: making the Lord the object of her highest desire. This move transforms the woman and she runs to tell others and to invite them to come to the great Physician.

One wonders how long this woman lived in a state of internal disorder arising from diseased desire. Multiple marriages and a current relationship are mentioned. Fifteen, twenty, thirty years? It is not entirely clear, but it does seem like a big chunk of this woman’s life. St. Augustine in his spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, recounts decades of his life lived in the living hell of disordered desire. We can readily see examples of people we know who lived for years, decades, even a whole lifetime subject to the chaos and pain that comes with disordered desire. If we demythologize Dante’s Purgatorio a bit, it might be possible to imagine that Dante is asking a similar question. Statius, the great poet of Rome’s “silver age”, tells Dante and Virgil that he has been in this level of purgatory for 500 years. That is a very long time to suffer before something clicks and he is able to move forward and to ascend to blessedness. Many of us dwell in the living hell of disordered desire with all of its wretched consequences for what seems like centuries. At some point, though, many of us “come to ourselves” like the younger of the two prodigal sons (Luke 15) and reorient our desires toward the one thing that can truly satisfy our deepest desire as human beings: God.

During this Lenten season, Dante lifts up before us the woman at the well and Statius. He seems to ask us about our desires. He invites us to reflect deeply in order to determine that which is our highest desire. He invites us to repent and to make “the main thing” the main thing.

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary

 


Canto XX: What Would Hugh Capet Say?

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

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

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

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

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

        History is driven by avarice.

        As are we all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Dali - Dante's Dream, Canto XIX

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

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

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

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

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

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

to turn to the high lure the Eternal King

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

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

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

over and over as we stood among them;

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

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

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

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

And what does all this say to us, today?

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

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

Countless messages scream at us each day:

Get more! Buy more! Have more!

And where does this lead us?

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

It leads us to solitude, loneliness and despair.

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

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

 

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you”

But my words, like silent raindrops fell

And echoed

In the wells of silence

 

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

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

And tenement halls”

And whispered in the sounds of silence

 

Allan Kaprow, "5 minutes de retard," 1993

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

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

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

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

It IS the absence of God.

The absence, the silence that screams at me

– The Emptiness, the Agony,

– The very VOID itself awaits!

Adhesit pavimento anima mea.

Kyrie Eleison!!


Canto XVIII, Take II: Lookin’ For Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Love is central to the entire process.

Love is the ONLY salvation: saving Grace.

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

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

“The soul, being created prone to Love,

is drawn at once to all that pleases it,

as soon as pleasure summons it to move.

From that which really is, your apprehension

extracts a form which unfolds within you;

that form thereby attracts the mind’s attention,

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

that summoning force is Love; and thus within you,

through pleasure, a new natural bond is knit”

– Purg, XVIII Ciardi, 16-270

Love: embraced,             refused,             abused,             twisted,             ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boredom

Even those who love only themselves, at least

love something.  But, the slothful do not even

love themselves.  They readily sink into self-

destructive inactivity.   Nor do these laggards

love anything or anyone outside themselves.

The tepid are bored with the world.

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

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

(Purg. XVIII: 26),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest assured this troubadour is acting on His part.

The union of your spirits here has caused Him to remain

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

there is love. Oh, there is love.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

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

– Erich Fromm

– Erich Fromm

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

Therein lies both the road to damnation and salvation.

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

“Free Will would be

destroyed, and there would be no justice

in giving bliss for virtue, pain for evil”

– (Purg XVI: 70-72)

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

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

Virtue becomes a matter of self-control.

Love takes hostages

And gives them pain

Gives someone the power

To hurt you again and again

Oh, but they don’t care

“Love is Hard,”

– James Morrison



Canto XVII: A Notebook

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

Georg Gudni, Landskap (oil on canvas, 1994)

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

THREAD SUNS

above the grey-black wilderness.

A tree-

high thought

tunes in to light’s pitch: there are

still songs to be sung on the other side

of mankind.

(trans. Michael Hamburger)

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

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

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

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

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

THIS SMOKE THAT CARRIED US

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

 (trans. Susanne Dubroff)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pier Kooistra


Canto 15 – Visions of Gentleness

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

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

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

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

 

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary

 


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.