This journey for me will not involve repeating information that can be found in any creditable commentary on the Commedia. Hence, the structure of this universe, the nine rings of Hell, Purgatorio and Paradiso will not be a topic for me. However, those who inhabit these places and what they have meant to me over the years will of course form my thoughts and reflections… and hopefully yours as well.
After the puzzle of the wide open gate into Hell, the throngs of dead chasing after every windblown cause and the paradox of clamoring crowds fearing, yet yearning to cross the river into Hell itself, Dante faints at the sight of fiery eyed Charon. Fainting will be an often used literary tool for Dante, but it is also interesting in that it is used at times of transitions across thresholds. We often “wake up” to find ourselves at a new place in our journey, having advanced, or even become a “backslider” without even realizing it. Indeed, Dante began this journey due to just such an awakening and realization that he had gone far, far astray from the road of hope, wholeness and wisdom. This is a constant, periodic practice for Dante the Pilgrim that seems to be forced upon him and yet profoundly helpful: to stop in the journey, to “wake up” to one’s true standing on this journey of life, to see if one is still being guided wisely and well and ask oneself which voices are, truly, one’s real guides at this very moment…
Light and Dark
There is a wonderful play of light and dark by Dante the Poet in this Canto IV. He awakens from the darkness of a deep sleep:
1 A heavy thunderclap broke my deep sleep
2 so that I started up like one
3 shaken awake by force.
And he looks around in a startled manner, as one does when shocked awake in a strange place… “Where am I?” he seems to ask himself.
4 With rested eyes, I stood
5 and looked about me, then fixed my gaze
6 to make out where I was.
And he discovers that sleep does not remove oneself from the necessary journey one is on. The great escape for some who do not want to face this reality or that test or these family members is to go back to bed. And yet, and yet, one must at some point still wake up and face reality and deal with the journey.
7 I found myself upon the brink
8 of an abyss of suffering
9 filled with the roar of endless woe.
He then proceeds to look down into another form of deep darkness: from darkness of sleep into the darkness of his surroundings and where he must go.
10 It was full of vapor, dark and deep.
11 Straining my eyes toward the bottom,
12 I could see nothing.
But here is the great paradox and the great joy: it is only through the darkness that one can find the light, it is only in the night of fear is one brought to the Light of the World. We are reminded again that it is only through letting go in the diminishment of one’s ego and forceful demands that one begins to grow toward the light of wisdom and love.
22 'Let us go, for the long road calls us.'
And in the very last line of this Canto he steps into the night in order to come to the light…
151 And I come to a place where nothing shines.
Doing the Limbo
Here we find ourselves in the Medieval Christian world that is foreign to many of us. Dante accepts the structure in that those who were not baptized into the Christian Church are not allowed into Paradise, despite their goodness or brilliance. But Dante also reminds us that we all are indebted to one another and he lists many, including Muslims, who are important to him and his own growth. We cannot safely assume that Dante the Poet is a ‘company man’ for we will find popes in Hell and pagans in Purgatory. Dorothy Sayers and others do not spend much time trying to explain exactly who each of these great ones were, but there is a recognition that this list is an acknowledgement that we do not stand in the present without the guidance and help of those from the past.
Dante however does acknowledge that reason will only take us so far. Without faith in the Light of the World, we will never get to where we need to go. Hence, Virgil will be his guide only to the top of Mount Purgatory: then Divine Guidance is required.
I am ever hopeful that those few of you who are reading this will remain steadfast through the entire journey. I am also fiercely, yet fearfully desirous that each of you actually read the primary material, that you read the great poem itself as we go, rather than simply my reflections only. I would much rather see Kurosawa’s great movie Red Beard after talking with a friend about its greatness, rather than simply taking his word for it. Please, dear ones, read the primary material.