Yet again, I find that Dante’s themes mirror those of the current culture. While there are many issues in this subtle Canto (salvation, epistemology, faith, trust, hubris of organized religion), I will focus on merely two with the hopes that any of you who are following this blog or come across it down the road will find your own new and wonderful discoveries.
One issue that continues to reoccur throughout the Commedia is the Medieval Christian view of the body, both in this life and afterwards. Within the Inferno, sins of gluttony were reflected by bodies that were swollen to unimaginable proportions, or those who disrespected their bodies by doing violence to themselves through suicide found their own bodies taken from them, being made into the form of shrubs that bleed. Bodies matter and bodies do not matter: both statements, paradoxically, seem true. All is framed within the proper context and appreciation in light of the gift of life and the reason for our bodies. We are made to give glory to God and to the work of God.
Yet, now, our bodies and the maintenance of them have taken precedence over any form of surrender of them to the divine. What matters is forging an iron body through fierce discipline and sacrifice. Indeed, a sacrificial life is built around self. Dante will have none of it. The body is that which is to be cared for, but also that which is to be surrendered and given up. For instance, we see that Dante attempts to embrace his dear friend Casella in Purgatorio Canto II.
76 I saw one of them come forward
77 with such affection to embrace me
78 that I was moved to do the same.
79 Oh empty shades, except in seeming!
80 Three times I clasped my hands behind him
81 only to find them clasped to my own chest.
82 Surprise must have been painted on my face,
83 at which the shade smiled and drew back
84 and I, pursuing him, moved forward.
85 Gently he requested that I stop.
25 'Evening has fallen there, where the body
26 that cast my shadow while I lived is buried.
27 Taken from Brindisi, Naples holds it now.
28 'Do not wonder if I cast no shadow,
29 no more than that the heavenly spheres
30 do not cut off their rays from one another.
31 'The Power that fits bodies like ours
32 to suffer torments, heat, and cold
33 does not reveal the secret of its working.
Even Manfred, that handsome, pampered lad who in fact was an excommunicated, power hungry murderer realized, at the end, that his body and his position of power did not matter. Only his relationship with his Lord mattered. He offers himself at the last second to God and is, of course, accepted. And when he shows Dante the Poet his wounds, it is an echo of Jesus showing Thomas the Apostle the wound in His side.
103 And one of them began: 'Whoever you are,
104 as you continue walking, turn to look at me,
105 and think if ever you have seen me in the world.'
106 I turned and fixed my gaze on him.
107 He was blond, handsome, and of noble aspect,
108 but a blow had cleft one of his eyebrows.
109 When I had courteously disclaimed
110 ever to have seen him, 'Look here!' he said,
111 and showed me a wound high on his breast,
112 then, smiling: 'I am Manfred,
113 grandson of the Empress Constance.
And remarkably, with a gentle smile, he tells of his acceptance by God after these two horrendous wounds have disfigured that beautiful body. And he goes on to say that even though his bones have been scattered, all that matters is this gradual, slow progress in surrender toward the Divine Love that fully accepted his last minute surrender.
118 'After my body was riven
119 by two mortal blows, I turned
120 in tears to Him who freely pardons.
121 'Horrible were my sins,
122 but Infinite Goodness with wide-open arms
123 receives whoever turns to it.
124 'If the pastor of Cosenza, sent by Clement
125 on the hunt to take me down,
126 had read that page in God with greater care,
127 'my body's bones would still be sheltered
128 at the head of the bridge near Benevento
129 under the cairn of heavy stones.
130 'Now the rain washes and the wind stirs them,
131 beyond the Kingdom, near the Verde's banks, there
132 where he brought them with his torches quenched.
With Google billionaires funding scientific research to prevent death to Irontribe and CrossFit attendance soaring it is good to be brought back to earth, so to speak, and be reminded that what matters is not this specific, corporeal body, but the heart and soul which it temporarily houses.
Another allegorical lesson that becomes more and more apparent is the limitation of Virgil’s reason in guiding one to God. He was the perfect guide through the Inferno, but here, even on the way up to the first steps of Mount Purgatory, he seems cast adrift and we find that slowly, he begins to listen to Dante the Pilgrim more and more, since Dante is the one who knows Christ as Savior through faith. Virgil is not. Indeed, Virgil himself recognizes this when he speaks of not being able to discover the ultimate meaning of life and present reality [quia] through reason alone.
37 'Be content, then, all you mortals, with the quia,
38 for could you, on your own, have understood,
39 there was no need for Mary to give birth,
40 'and you have seen the fruitless hope of some,
41 whose very longing, unfulfilled,
42 now serves them with eternal grief--
43 'I speak of Aristotle and of Plato
44 and of many others.' And here he lowered his brow,
45 said nothing more, and seemed perturbed.
“Many Others” includes himself, of course, hence the lowered brow and disturbed countenance. He has no way of knowing how to climb the mountain before them, and once again, he stops, disturbed, head down in thought.
52 'Who would know where the hill slopes gently,'
53 mused my master, coming to a halt,
54 'where someone without wings might climb?'
55 And while, his eyes cast down,
56 he was searching in his mind to find the way,
57 and I was looking up among the rocks,
58 there to the left I saw a company of souls
59 moving their steps in our direction,
60 not seeming to approach, they came so slow.
61 'Raise your eyes, master,' I said, 'look…’
The direction of the gaze matters to Dante the Poet. Within this Canto III alone, we see that Virgil time and again ‘lowers his brow’ has his ‘eyes cast down.’ Within Medieval Christian allegory, this is an obvious clue to not looking to heaven for guidance and is a clear lack of faith in Grace. One is attempting to discover one’s own way through one’s own fallible knowledge. In fact, Dante the Pilgrim is the one has to encourage Virgil to “raise your eyes… LOOK…”
Indeed, Virgil presents himself as a true 21st century seeker when questioning the group, he wants quick, easy solutions so he and Dante can be on their way.
73 'O you who have come to a happy end,
74 spirits already chosen,' Virgil began,
75 'by that peace which, I think, awaits you all,
76 'tell us where the mountain rises gently
77 so that we may begin the long ascent.
78 The more we know, the more we hate time's waste.'
Virgil will soon learn that there are times and places where one must go at a calm penitential pace, where one must stop, rest and pray. One must ascend not by the force and speed of the will or pure reason, but by faith, hope and love. The pair will discover that they are unable to take even one step forward up the mountain at night. They are forced to pause and simply BE. Of course, Dante the Poet will remind us all of this time and again, sometimes through Virgil, sometimes through Beatrice, sometimes through Dante the Pilgrim, and often through the penitents themselves.
In fact it is good not to be in a hurry to get through the Commedia either. To pace oneself; to soak up the contents of each Canto and to live with it for several weeks seems to be, at least for me right now, the perfect way to live myself through this great classic.