The three poets now stand at the final obstacle to the top of Mt. Purgatory: the wall of flame. While other levels of Purgatory had specific ordeals for the cleansing of the souls, apparently ALL souls must pass through this final obstacle, regardless of their prior cleansing and thundering acceptance by God such as we experienced with Statius. There is an angel on their side of the wall, telling them they must pass through, and to listen for the next angel on the other side, singing “a distant song” that will guide them through.
10 'There is no going on, you blessèd souls,
Poscia "Più non si va, se pria non morde,
11 without the fire's stinging bite. Enter,
anime sante, il foco: intrate in esso,
12 and do not stop your ears against the distant song,'
e al cantar di là non siate sorde,"
Regardless of the specific sin that needed cleansing, there still comes a kind of “leap of faith” that is required to move into the realm of the blessed, into Paradise. At least for Dante the Poet, the step into total commitment in loving and embracing God can, in fact, be the hardest step of all. In my own faith life, my work in quantum field theory in the ‘70’s opened the door to the transcendence I found embedded in all reality. However to make a final acceptance of God, to personally surrender and love and accept was like walking through that wall of flame: hard, frightening, demanding. Dante the Pilgrim has been walking, observing, questioning, and learning all through the Inferno and Purgatorio. Now, however, he must go through this final requirement too, he must take that hard step. There is no going around. He is terrified.
14 so that, hearing him, I felt
per ch'io divenni tal, quando lo 'ntesi,
15 like a man who has been put into his grave.
qual è colui che ne la fossa è messo.
16 I bent forward over my outstretched hands
In su le man commesse mi protesi,
17 and stared into the fire, my mind fixed on the image
guardando il foco e imaginando forte
18 of human bodies I once saw being burned.
umani corpi già veduti accesi.
This is a literal baptism by fire. John the Baptist mentions it in Matthew 3:11 when he tells us that the Messiah will come and baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. Dante the Poet surely knows this, but this hurdle is authentic for Dante the Pilgrim in that he has seen in Florence, executions of people he knew who were burned alive. Indeed, his sentence from the city fathers is just that: if he is ever caught within the city limits of Florence he will be burned alive. Yet, comes a time when we all must walk through the wall of flame if we are to continue on our journey of wholeness, holiness and integrity. One cannot be an observer only through life. Well, let me restate that, many DO go through life merely observing, not committing, but that is not life as it should be lived. Henry James wrote of this in his classic novella “The Beast in the Jungle” where the main character John Marcher, lives his entire life looking for the “grand event” of his life. Yet, he misses the greatest opportunity, love, as she walks beside him in his friend ‘May.’ Because he was unwilling to commit, to walk through that wall of flame, he realizes at the end that he has wasted his life as well as May’s. It is love which ultimately drives Dante the Pilgrim forward into the flame, that same love which set his feet on this journey in the dark wood of the beginning of the Commedia, that same love which has matured as he has climbed to this point. Now, as with faith, just so with love, one must sacrifice. Virgil in front and Statius behind, at the hope of seeing Beatrice, Dante the Pilgrim plunges into the fire.
We come now to the third and final dream for Dante the Pilgrim. The final ‘P’ has apparently been erased from his forehead in the fire, and they now try to climb the stairs before the sun sets.
61 'The sun departs and evening comes,'
"Lo sol sen va," soggiunse, "e vien la sera;
62 it continued, 'do not stop, but hurry on
non v'arrestate, ma studiate il passo,
63 before the west grows dark.'
mentre che l'occidente non si annera."
Yet they are only partially successful, and are forced to stop halfway up and sleep on the steps themselves. It is here that Dante the Poet uses a fascinating simile that at first glance did not seem to fit at all. He compares his two guides, Virgil and Statius, to shepherds, which makes sense. However, even after plunging through the wall of flame, Dante the Poet believes that he is not one of the sheep, but rather, a goat.
85 such were the three of us,
tali eravamo tutti e tre allotta,
86 I like a goat and they like shepherds,
io come capra, ed ei come pastori,
87 shut in on all sides by walls of rock.
fasciati quinci e quindi d'alta grotta.
This is odd. In Matthew 25:31 ff. we have the Jesus saying: “31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” How is it that Dante the Pilgrim is still a goat? Is this a form of false humility? Can it be that in fact, we are all goats until the final opening of Paradise? Will Dante the Pilgrim always be a goat until the existential reality of his own death occurs and he is there on the terrace as a true pilgrim and participant?
The dream is that of Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, which are types of the active and contemplative life during Dante’s time. St. Bernard of Clairvaux and others expand on this typology and usually choose the contemplative life [Rachel] as the superior choice to the active life [Leah]. Dante the Poet seems to embrace both, not choosing one over the other. Indeed, it is Leah who speaks in the dream:
100 'Let anyone who asks my name know I am Leah,
"Sappia qualunque il mio nome dimanda
101 and here I move about, using my fair hands
ch'i' mi son Lia, e vo movendo intorno
102 to weave myself a garland.
le belle mani a farmi una ghirlanda.
103 'To be pleased at my reflection I adorn myself,
Per piacermi a lo specchio, qui m'addorno;
Dante the Poet gives both types, active and contemplative, equal measure, as if they both are needful. What seems to matter most here is intentionality, that Leah uses her fair hands and Rachel her beautiful eyes, all in order to do one’s work in a mindful way that is filled with joy and beauty. There is no narcissism in staring at one’s self in the mirror, but rather an acceptance that what one does and how one chooses to live must be done with presence and love and integrity. That is where they find their satisfaction.
104 but my sister Rachel never leaves her mirror,
ma mia suora Rachel mai non si smaga
105 sitting before it all day long.
dal suo miraglio, e siede tutto giorno.
106 'She is as eager to gaze into her own fair eyes
Ell' è d'i suoi belli occhi veder vaga
107 as I to adorn myself with my own hands.
com' io de l'addornarmi con le mani;
108 She in seeing, I in doing, find our satisfaction.'
lei lo vedere, e me l'ovrare appaga."
This seems to be a lovely way of being present in this world, regardless of which type one seems to be. It is an acceptance that to see one’s self and one’s world clearly and honestly, is to find satisfaction. This of course includes all that which we are called to do to bring justice to this world, but to truly SEE and appreciate seems to be a holy act for Dante the Poet. Helen Luke writes that there is a gravestone in Cumberland, England that has this inscription on it: “The wonder of the world, the beauty, and the power, the shape of things, their colors, lights and shades, these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.” This is the dream of Dante the Pilgrim.
Dante the Pilgrim is now, unknowingly, moving beyond his mentor Virgil. Virgil is going to tell him that he is beyond needing the guidance of reason and classical wisdom any longer. This is a beautiful section and even if he doesn’t realize it, this is the last time Dante the Pilgrim will hear his mentor speak to him.
126 Virgil fixed his eyes on me
in me ficcò Virgilio li occhi suoi,
127 and said: 'The temporal fire and the eternal
e disse: "Il temporal foco e l'etterno
128 you have seen, my son, and now have come to a place
veduto hai, figlio; e se' venuto in parte
129 in which, unaided, I can see no farther.
dov' io per me più oltre non discerno.
In this final passage, Virgil gives us a fuller explanation of what we saw in the dream of Leah and Rachel, that one should LOOK, one should BE, one should realize that the wholeness and integrity within leads to a celebration and appreciation of that which is all around.
130 'I have brought you here with intellect and skill.
Tratto t'ho qui con ingegno e con arte;
131 From now on take your pleasure as your guide.
lo tuo piacere omai prendi per duce;
132 You are free of the steep way, free of the narrow.
fuor se' de l'erte vie, fuor se' de l'arte.
133 'Look at the sun shining before you,
Vedi lo sol che 'n fronte ti riluce;
134 look at the fresh grasses, flowers, and trees
vedi l'erbette, i fiori e li arbuscelli
135 which here the earth produces of itself.
che qui la terra sol da sé produce.
The beauty of this Garden, the original Garden of Eden, is to be enjoyed and celebrated only because of the interiority of the observer, of the pilgrim who is now able to set foot on this green and pleasant land with a true knowledge of the Creator and the source of Love that is all around. Truth to tell, I have found that when I am most miserable with the world around me it is due to the sourness and stunted reality within me.
Finally, a brief note on Virgil’s wisdom in helping Dante the Pilgrim move beyond Virgil as guide and mentor. Dante the Poet shows Virgil trying to let Dante the Pilgrim know that he is, perhaps, far more wise than he knows. There is a wholeness in the Pilgrim now that is to be trusted.
140 Your will is free, upright, and sound.
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,
141 Not to act as it chooses is unworthy:
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:
142 over yourself I crown and miter you.'
per ch'io te sovra te corono e mitrio."
Comes a time when a mentor of wisdom should know that he or she is no longer needed. I have experienced this myself, both being guided by wise mentors, and also being encouraged to move beyond and to trust my own wisdom. I have also seen mentors who are reticent to lose students and mentoree. There are those “mentors” who continue to feed the need in their charges in order for themselves to feel needed and appreciated. In that case, mentoring becomes dysfunctional and the mentor can, in fact, become a parasite. I’ve seen it. Dante the Poet, however, shows us that Virgil does a magnificent job of letting go and casting his protégé out on his own. Good Form!