Tag Archives: Purgatory

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!