This Canto opens with a wonderfully inappropriate image of the result of a game of dice with the winner being mobbed by those who want a handout while the loser looks on, mournfully replaying all the missteps and bad rolls. This is a bit tongue-in-cheek since it is describing those who desire the intercessory prayers of Dante the Pilgrim so their time in Purgatory is lessened.
10 Such was I among that pressing throng,
Tal era io in quella turba spessa,
11 turning my face this way and that,
volgendo a loro, e qua e là, la faccia,
12 and through my promises I freed myself of them.
e promettendo mi sciogliea da essa.
Dante the Poet knows, however, that this is hardly a ‘roll of the dice’ concerning intercessory prayer. Scholastic Medieval Christianity firmly declared that loving prayers of a believer were effective as well as affective within God’s Economy: they worked and changed reality. The very term ‘to intercede’ expands on that belief. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us it means to come between a person and the opposing or current reality which they face.
intercede, v. [ad. L. intercēd-ĕre to come between, intervene, interfere, become surety for, in med.L. also to interpose on some one's behalf, to intercede; f. inter between + cēdĕre to go. Cf. F. intercéder (late 16th c.).] To come between, in time, space, or action; to intervene. Obs. 1578 Banister Hist. Man i. 13 Betwixt ye hollow, and the same Process, intercedeth [printed -cideth] a certaine soft and mouable Gristle. 1612 Selden Illustr. Drayton's Poly-olb. i. 21 From this time till the Norman conquest; 'twixt which intercedes cc.lxx.ix. yeares.
28 I began: 'O my light, it seems to me
io cominciai: "El par che tu mi nieghi,
29 that in one passage you explicitly deny
o luce mia, espresso in alcun testo
30 that prayer can bend decrees of Heaven,
che decreto del cielo orazion pieghi;
31 'and yet these people pray for that alone.
e questa gente prega pur di questo:
Virgil responds at several levels, stating that in fact, he wrote his great work without the benefit of the true God. And yet, regardless, what is most important is the level of love with which each prayer is to be made when one is interceding for another. That love aligns and is filled with the Divine Love that God has for all people, therefore completing the Divine Will.
34 He answered: 'Plain is my writing
Ed elli a me: "La mia scrittura è piana;
35 and their hopes not false
e la speranza di costor non falla,
36 if with a sound mind you examine it,
se ben si guarda con la mente sana;
37 'for not demeaned or lessened is high justice
ché cima di giudicio non s'avvalla
38 if in one instant love's bright fire achieve
perché foco d'amor compia in un punto
39 what they who sojourn here must undergo.
ciò che de' sodisfar chi qui s'astalla;
If “love’s bright fire” is not present, then the prayers fall short, for they are, in reality, manipulative and contrived. Indeed, Vigil tells us, the prayers were not even received by the Divine Lover, for they were not lifted in love but rather, by design and demand.
40 'And there where I affirmed that point
e là dov' io fermai cotesto punto,
41 defect was not made good by prayer
non s'ammendava, per pregar, difetto,
42 because that prayer did not ascend to God.
perché 'l priego da Dio era disgiunto.
I am reminded of the intercessory prayers of St. Therese of Lisieux where she would, out of fiery love, open her own being to the pain and presence of the one in need, and then bring that pain of the other to the Throne of Love, and simply leave it there. It required total sacrificial love on her part which trusted that it would be received within the Sacred Heart of sacrificial love on high. This is intercession of the highest order.
One can study this epic poem in many ways, one of which is to read the same Canto in each of the three sections. For instance, Inferno, Canto VI speaks of Florence while Purgatorio Canto VI reviles Italy and Paradiso Canto VI expands on the Holy Roman Empire. One can watch or listen to lectures out of Cambridge as they look at each of the Cantos in each of the sections and discover the myriad ways in which Dante the Poet built this amazing poem. [https://sms.cam.ac.uk/collection/1366579]
After the expression of loving intercession in the first part of this Canto, we come to an excursis on the part of Dante the Poet which reviles the fact that the list of all who desire the intercession of Dante the Pilgrim in fact died violently at the hands of their fellow country men and women. After the horrific list of deaths by neighbor and friends, he gives us a lovely example of shared respect and love between two Italians from Mantua, Virgil and Sordello. Dante the Poet lets us know in clear terms what is wrong:
79 How eager was that noble soul,
Quell' anima gentil fu così presta,
80 only at the sweet name of his city,
sol per lo dolce suon de la sua terra,
81 to welcome there his fellow citizen!
di fare al cittadin suo quivi festa;
82 Now your inhabitants are never free from war,
e ora in te non stanno sanza guerra
83 and those enclosed within a single wall and moat
li vivi tuoi, e l'un l'altro si rode
84 are gnawing on each other.
di quei ch'un muro e una fossa serra.
I find this to be profoundly relevant to today’s culture wars and the sad state of racial divisions that still resonate within America today. We choose sides all too easily, attacking those who are not like us, afraid of discourse and dialogue we would rather belittle and attack the other than listen and learn from each other. This seems to be true not only in the public and political sphere but even within shared households and family units. Hence, Dante the Poet saves his fiercest and most sarcastic attack for that family and community he loved the greatest: Florence. That place which should have protected and supported him the most indeed is the place where intercessory love and encouragement cannot be found at all. Indeed, there is no sense of shared support even within the changing of the guard, for when a new party comes into power, all the laws, coins and customs change to suit those newly ensconced in power. Yet, none of this brings joy or fulfillment, like a rich, entitled woman unable to rest easy in her feather bed.
145 How many times within your memory
Quante volte, del tempo che rimembre,
146 have you changed laws, coinage, offices,
legge, moneta, officio e costume
147 as well as customs, and renewed your members!
hai tu mutato, e rinovate membre!
148 If you recall your past and think upon it clearly,
E se ben ti ricordi e vedi lume,
149 you will see that you are like a woman, ill in bed,
vedrai te somigliante a quella inferma
150 who on the softest down cannot find rest
che non può trovar posa in su le piume,
151 but twisting, turning, seeks to ease her pain.
ma con dar volta suo dolore scherma.
Each change, each political party, each demand would fall in line with that most self-referent reality found in “old blue eyes: Frank Sinatra” and his song, “I Did It My Way.” When that is the theme song for every political party, for every family member for every person, then chaos ensues.