As our journey with Dante the Pilgrim up the seven storied Mt. Purgatory draws to an end, Dante the Poet gives us his longest and most convoluted Canto of the entire Commedia. There are more gaffes committed by Dante the Pilgrim, there is another incident of falling asleep and allegories galore representing the history of the earthly church. Indeed, there have been extended articles written about this Canto alone, and depending on your translation and commentary, different emphases and insights will be lifted up and others neglected. All I can do is share yet again a few thoughts that have come to me from my study and reflection without trying to cover all angles or give a final answer to this odd offering by Dante.
It is always humbling for me to be reminded by Dante how truly difficult it is to find those signposts of physical beauty and grace that point to the true Love and Beauty that comes from God. Even in the first few verses as Dante gazes on the face of Beatrice, he wants to revert back to the physical beauty of her in the flesh and misses completely the holy beauty of his holy guide.
1 My eyes were fixed and so intent
Tant' eran li occhi miei fissi e attenti
2 to satisfy ten years of thirst
a disbramarsi la decenne sete,
3 that all my other senses were undone,
che li altri sensi m'eran tutti spenti.
4 walled off from anything around them, enclosed
Ed essi quinci e quindi avien parete
5 in their indifference, so did the holy smile
di non caler--così lo santo riso
6 ensnare them in its old, familiar net.
a sé traéli con l'antica rete!
Within the Medieval worldview God wrote two books, the book of Nature and the book of Holy Scripture, and both revealed truths about God. Hence, the lessons discovered in the study of the stars or in the creation of beautiful art or the wonder of mathematics were, in fact, insights into the Godhead and ultimate reality. The “holy smile” of verse five did not lead Dante the Pilgrim to the higher truths of God’s divinity, but instead trapped him yet again “in its old familiar net” of earthly desires that lead nowhere but away from holiness. So, yet again, he is chastised by the virtues who claim that his vision is “too fixed” on the wrong thing, or perhaps that his vision is superficial and does not go far enough, deep enough, to the ultimate source of beauty and love. Yes, this is at one level Neoplatonism, but for me it is the very nature of reality itself. Hence, my work as a physics and mathematics major in college with quantum field theory and entanglement led me ultimately to theology and philosophy in my graduate work at Princeton. I found it to be a natural progression, and continue to be grateful that I still study science, poetry, art and scripture in order to learn more about God and ultimate reality. And yet, and yet, how easy it still is to be caught in that “old familiar net,” stopping short of deeper truth and blinding beauty that is all around us.
10 And then I shared the temporary blindness
e la disposizion ch'a veder èe
11 of those whose eyes have just been smitten by the sun,
ne li occhi pur testé dal sol percossi,
12 leaving me sightless for a time.
sanza la vista alquanto esser mi fée.
Does anybody remember the Arthur Murray Dance Studios and the footprint designs on the floor? Personally, I found quantum entanglement to be easier for me to understand than those designs! Dante the Poet and theologian is a stickler when it comes to bodily movement and music. In almost every Canto we are told who stood where, how the hymns affected the pilgrims and when to climb and when to wait. He describes how an army wheels around on its right flank, how he and Statius need to follow and by which wheel, and with what music; “We measured our steps to an angelic song” [vs. 33]. Let’s be clear that all this movement and music is crucial in the healing process, in the redemptive transformation that is needed and provided on Mt. Purgatory as he nears the entrance to Paradise. This is all part of the holy dance that is worship for Dante. There are hymns, there need to be times when one bows, when one kneels, when one remains silent and where one stands. The fact is that Dante the Pilgrim sings and stands and climbs and worships his way into holiness. Dante the Poet knows the proper hymns and psalms to be sung at the proper times in the day and in worship. There is holy muscle memory going on here. We stand. We kneel. It is a full body experience and incarnational redemption. Indeed, redemption does not happen between the ears or in the heart only. Here at the apex of Mt. Purgatory it behooves us to reflect on the journey here, and how all of one’s spiritual / bodily being was used in this transformational redemption. If I am going to become more holy, have full integrity in my belief system and grow more and more into the fullness of Christian maturity, then it matters WHAT I do, HOW I do it, whether in worship or in my daily walk.
I am currently enrolled in an online course at Princeton Seminary with Dr. Nicole Riebe called “The Medieval Pursuit of God. Dr. Riebe writes the following which can surely be applied to Dante’s journey up Mt. Purgatory:
For the vast majority of medieval people learning about God was a holistic activity. They pursued God with their minds, bodies, and spirits. Stained glass windows taught biblical stories, prayer positions connected the mind to the heart, and new objects and everyday activities became vessels of theological wisdom. Even for the literate, reading wasn't just passive reception of information. Usually, texts were read aloud in a community and the audience was invited to make connections between words and concepts, creating endless chains of meaning from a single verse. As our culture becomes more visual, interconnected, and, in many ways, “hyperlinked,” what wisdom might we find in medieval modes of education? How might we, too, utilize new technologies to convey the richness of the Christian tradition and to pursue God more deeply?
Hence, Matilda’s call to Dante the Pilgrim is appropriate for each of us as well. We all need to AWAKE to God’s revelation and presence that can lead higher up and further in. We all, like Dante, fall asleep all too easily, missing the messages and meaning that are hidden in plain view on this brief journey through life. Arise! Wake up!
Symbolism and allegory combine in this Canto in such a way that the reader is overwhelmed by it all: there are walking books of the Bible in the progression, the griffin symbolizes Christ, the virtues-both secular and sacred-are the seven women, the tree is the barren tree of good and evil that is renewed by the shaft of the chariot which is the Cross of Christ, and on it goes. Ultimately it all ends with an allegorical masque or performance which symbolize different ages of the church up to the time of Dante. Beatrice wants all this to be recorded by Dante the Pilgrim once he returns from this journey through all levels of God’s creation. The Church needs to know the lessons of wrong choices and sinful behavior.
103 'Therefore, to serve the world that lives so ill,
Però, in pro del mondo che mal vive,
104 keep your eyes upon the chariot and write down
al carro tieni or li occhi, e quel che vedi,
105 what now you see here once you have gone back.'
ritornato di là, fa che tu scrive."
106 Thus Beatrice. And I, overwhelmed,
Così Beatrice; e io, che tutto ai piedi
107 prostrate at the feet of her commands,
d'i suoi comandamenti era divoto,
108 gave my mind and eyes to what she wished.
la mente e li occhi ov' ella volle diedi.
What follows in verses 109 to 160 are a series of allegories that come from the Book of Revelation and symbolize that history of the church. I will briefly summarize what most commentators call the Seven Ages of the Church.
The Eagle: [112-117] This is from Jove, which represents the persecution of the early Church by Roman Emperors such as Nero and Diocletian.
The Fox: [118-123] Here is symbolized the early heresies such as Gnosticism and Arianism which the Church had to confront.
Riches I: [124-129] Constantine’s bequest and support ended up corrupting the Church. This is represented by the eagle feathers covering the floor of the chariot.
The Dragon: [130-135] An obvious reference to Rev. 12:3, this has been seen variously to symbolize Islam, the Antichrist, the Devil, etc. Dante the Poet leaves the interpretation open to the reader.
Riches II: [136-141] Further riches and power are embraced by the Church, moving it into the secular realm and away from God’s intent.
The Beast: [142-147] We now have the seven deadly sins and the seven headed monster from the Book of Revelation disfiguring and transforming the Church.
The Poisoned Papacy: [148-160] Here we have the final tableau, where the harlot [the Church] is kidnapped and taken away by the giant [the French holding the Pope captive in Avignon].
Our next Canto completes the Purgatorio.