Get ready, get set, second guess!
We find immediately within the second canto of this massive work that Dante the Poet will not be making himself into any kind of premeditated saint. Here is a human being with doubts, failings and foibles. He bravely proclaims to Virgil in the final lines of canto I to lead on and his feet would follow:
133 'lead me to the realms you've just described
134 that I may see Saint Peter's gate
135 and those you tell me are so sorrowful.'
136 Then he set out and I came on behind him.
And yet we see in canto II Dante the Pilgrim suddenly second-guessing himself. He looks at the task he’s set himself to do and is suddenly daunted and doubting. There is the typical plea to the Muses which is part of the great poetic tradition, and Dante breathes that air as much as the medieval Christian milieu. And yet, one seems to sense that deep down, he knows that it will take more than just a token toss off mention of ancient ideas to get this thing done, either as the actual poet wanting to complete this massive work, or the pilgrim-figure having to walk behind Virgil through the depths of the fiercest and most wondrous landscapes imaginable. The notes of your edition will explain the ways that Aeneas and St. Paul visited the other world, either hell or heaven, but no notes are really needed to hear the fear and doubt in Dante the Pilgrim’s voice:
31 'But why should I go there? who allows it?
32 I am not Aeneas, nor am I Paul.
33 Neither I nor any think me fit for this.
34 'And so, if I commit myself to come,
35 I fear it may be madness…
Confession and Cowardice
There is something oddly comforting to find that over 800 years ago we have someone who can be so honest and wise in his admission of doubt and uncertainty. Dante knows he is a smart dude, and yet in just a couple more verses we read that this kind of intelligence can work against one:
41 With too much thinking I had undone
42 the enterprise so quick in its inception.
This hits home with me in deep ways, for I am one that will worry and overthink things, ultimately causing delays and even aborted actions. If, instead, I move directly into the field of battle, trusting in those around me or those whom I am to follow, then I find that much is accomplished. This is practical as well as profound truth.
Hidden Help and Hope
Virgil then relates how it is that he was sent to help Dante in his “dark wood of error.” Unbeknownst to Dante the Pilgrim, he is being watched in deep love and concern. We have a series of revelations that loving, holy women have not forgotten him: Mary the Holy Mother, Saint Lucia, Beatrice and even Rachel is included. Like a series of Russian Matryoshka dolls, each nested and hidden in the other, this series of holy women finally reveal the love and care that is shared each with the other for Dante. This is hidden love that is at the heart of the universe, and Dante the Pilgrim is stunned at the wonder of care for him even though he knew it not.
At the most basic level, as a pastor of over thirty-plus years in the parish, I know now that it was the hidden and unseen love of women that carried the ministry in each of my churches. Hidden, strong, praying women that did not forget to undergird and care for these wandering men, like myself, who assumed they were in charge. Little do they realize that even at the highest heaven, holy women hold this universe together!
It is also important for Dante, and us, to realize that this love is not based on Dante’s intelligence or efforts or work. This is Grace, unlooked for and unexpected. This is the work of God and the heart of love in Christ that is being incarnated and lived out by these wondrous women.
I love the reaction of Dante to this news. We will find little jewels of poetic beauty tucked away in this great work and here is just such a one. When the Pilgrim hears of the love that has rescued him and the love that will never let him go, he revives:
127 As little flowers, bent and closed
128 with chill of night, when the sun
129 lights them, stand all open on their stems,
130 such, in my failing strength, did I become.
131 And so much courage poured into my heart
132 that I began, as one made resolute…
140 You are my leader, you my lord and master,'
141 I said to him, and when he moved ahead
142 I entered on the deep and savage way.
If only we knew how deeply we are truly loved, what could we not attempt and accomplish?
-I will almost always be using the Hollander translation in these blogs unless noted otherwise.