The interruption of movement and forward progress remains central for our two travelers. They are on a timeline, they have to be at a certain place at the just the right moment and yet, it seems as though everything is conspiring against them. At least it seems so here, outside the walls of the City of Dis. Virgil, the secular, rational poet is rebuffed. I would not DIS-miss the seriousness of this moment, but I wonder if Monty Python, Oxford and Cambridge educated such as they were, based their French guards at the castle wall in The Search for the Holy Grail on just this episode in the Inferno. One certainly has exactly that feel of dismissiveness and complete lack of respect by the three weird sisters looking down at the two, cowering below them. They may not stick out their tongues and waggle their heads, but the snakes weave around them, they beat their breasts and they call for Medusa to come turn Dante to stone.
49 Each rent her breast with her own nails.
50 And with their palms they struck themselves, shrieking.
51 In fear I pressed close to the poet.
52 'Let Medusa come and we'll turn him to stone,'
53 they cried, looking down…
We are reminded yet again, that Reason only will go so far in the move toward holiness, wisdom and salvation. The gates of Hell are wide open for anyone and everyone to enter. The gates of Dis are closed tightly with a self-referent and willful disregard for God’s Holy Will. One has the sense that those who willingly turned against the Divine Will would gain entrance to Dis, but those who have surrendered their will to God’s Will are left out. Hence, we once again find that the best way to move forward is to stay still, the truest hope is to wait, seemingly without hope. This forces both Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil the Guide to stop depending solely on their own wisdom and courage. Courage leaves them both and Virgil mutters in his beard concerning help from above and why is it taking so long.
Dante the Poet, who has been exiled from his beloved Florence, that city’s gates shut to him [and never again opened to him in his lifetime], knows that indeed, comes a time when one must stop, wait, pray and simply trust. This is a lesson hard-learned for many of us, at least it has been for me. Dante and Virgil come to a place of realization that their power is meaningless and the three weird sisters remain without understanding that their own apparent power appears absolute. And yet, and yet, just the opposite is true. Humility, trust and faith will open the doors and willful spite and power ultimately is defeated. These are lessons little learned still at so many levels of our shared journey even now, in the 21st century.
The Opening of the Gates
One can find many, many reflections on this canto and the parallels it seems to show to Christ harrowing Hell, coming and opening the gates to bring out the chosen. Here we have the heavenly messenger opening the gates to let in the chosen. Mark Musa in his commentary has a mini-essay on the different ways this canto can be understood. Sayers unpacks the theological reality of intentional surrender to Divine Grace. We find that in fact, sin is not really about giving in to perversions, but standing in the wrong place and on the wrong side. I keep coming back to this truth: intentionality matters. Dante and Virgil may be standing, cowering even, embracing each other, but they are on the side of intentional surrender, obedience and trust.
Dante does remarkable things with his images, for he truly is one of the greatest poets in the Western Tradition. I found the brief description of the opening of the gates to also be deeply Biblical as well as poetic. It parallels the surprise I experience when reading Revelation 5 when the question was asked as to who was worthy to open the Scroll. It was stated that the Lion of Judah was worthy. Yet, when John turns to look, expecting a mighty lion [I expected Aslan…], instead he sees this:
“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain... (Revelation 5:6 ESV)”
It’s a bit like cognitive dissonance. I am told that one thing is to be expected, but I see something completely different that still achieves what is needed. Similarly, when I first read Canto IX in the Inferno, I expected to see a mighty Archangel, such as Michael, striding across the landscape with a holy vengeance wielding a mighty sword that would destroy the gates to the City of Dis and punish those who have refused to cooperate! Instead, what do we get: an almost disinterested presence, a little wand and the gates merely swing open immediately.
88 Ahi quanto mi parea pien di disdegno!
88 Ah, how full of high disdain he seemed to me!
89 Venne a la porta e con una verghetta [lit. petite wand]
89 He came up to the gate and with a wand
90 l'aperse, che non v'ebbe alcun ritegno.
90 he opened it, and there was no resistance.
This is almost anticlimactic and yet also perfectly understandable. The fear and importance we give to certain “crises” in our lives, when our will has been suppressed or our plan subverted are very often of secondary concern in the broader scheme. What, I wonder, is of the most importance in God’s Economy and for the good of all? Surely it isn’t simply getting my own way and having everybody act the way I want them to.