(This is Neil) I would like to wish a blessed Christmas to our readers. Let me post one more thing in 2009. I would like to direct your attention to three lectures just delivered by the Anglican priest Nicholas Sagovsky, a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, who is also Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey. They are on Dante, and can serve as a good brief theological introduction to the Divine Comedy. I’ll mention only a few of the points in them.
Canon Sagovsky begins his first lecture [PDF] by noting that Dante believes that our human life is a journey, or, better, a pilgrimage. There certainly is a “right way” and Dante has lost this right, or straight, way (“la diritta via era smarrita”). The psalmist had prayed, “Teach me thy way, O Lord; and lead me on a level path (“in semitam rectam” [LXX Ps 27:11]). Dante had gone astray, “pursuing the false images of good” in preference to a spiritual relationship with Beatrice. There are many false images that lure all of us: before a nearby hill, Dante’s path is blocked by no less than a leopard, representing worldly pleasure, the lion of violence, and a wolf that represents avarice. We must all follow God’s will, because:
Free and upright (dritto) and sound is Thy will
And error were it not to do its bidding.
There is hope yet for us. Isaiah had prophesied that “the crooked shall be made straight” (40:3).
And Dante has a guide – Vergil, who he will call “maestro” and “duce.” It is Vergil, Sagovsky says, “who leads Dante through the darkness towards the light, though he is not himself permitted to experience the fullness of that light.” The first step is the “shock therapy” of hell – not to satiate Dante’s voyeurism about the world to come, but to help him see “this life re-imagined in the light of eternity.” What is Dante supposed to learn from his trip through hell, which Sagovsky likens to a trip to parts of Madame Tussauds or the London Dungeon? Dante is meant to see that it is a very terrible thing not to have hope. Christ had harrowed hell – Vergil speaks of a “Mighty One” who came “With sign of victory incoronate,” drawing forth Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Rachel, and “others many, and he made them blessed.” Those who are now left behind lack the human quality of hope.
In the second lecture [PDF], Sagovsky discusses the climbing of Mount Purgatory. Hell has shocked Dante but left him unchanged; this mountain is the place of his reformation. Dante has begun his ascent. This theme of “ascent” is venerable in Christianity. Moses ascended Mount Sinai. He had to first purify himself and the climb was difficult. Then, he encountered God directly, and, only then, he could bring revelation back to his wayward people. But first there had to be purification. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, in his Life of Moses:
The person who would approach the contemplation of Being must be pure in all things so as to be pure in soul and body, washed stainless of every spot … in order that he might appear pure to the One who sees what is hidden, and that visible respectability might correspond to the inward condition of the soul.
Initially, this person who wishes to ascend is weighed down by earthly things, but “Once it is released from its earthly attachment, [the soul] becomes light and swift for its movement upward, soaring from below up to the heights.” Or, as Vergil tells Dante, “And, aye, the more one climbs, the less it hurts.”
Dante also learned from Augustine that a “flame of love” draws us forward on our journey to purify ourselves before we can see God. We read, in an early canto, in the voice of those violently killed (“sinners even to the latest hour”):
Then did a light from heaven admonish us,
So that, both penitent and pardoning, forth
From life we issued reconciled to God,
Who with desire to see Him stirs our hearts.
Purgatory is a place of prayer and song, because it is the place where human beings, including Dante himself, are being purified for glory. Thus, when Dante encounters the proud, they are carrying huge burdens to humble themselves. They are not cursing under the weight, but reciting a version of the Lord’s Prayer. They pray not for themselves, but for others on earth:
“This last petition verily, dear Lord,
Nor for ourselves is made, who need it not,
But for their sake who have remained behind us.”
As Sagovsky reminds us, this is because the petitioners are already being delivered from evil. The weeping in purgatory is not the tearful despair of hell. There is sorrow for sin, but also wonder in its sure disappearance:
And lo! A sound of weeping and a song:
“Labia mea, Domine,” – in fashion
Such that delight and sorrow it brought forth.
In his third lecture [PDF], Canon Sagovsky notes that Dante’s heavens – there are heavens – come from Ptolemaic cosmology, in which there is a series of spheres above the earth. Thus, Dante must journey through these spheres to the motionless Empyrean, the dwelling place of God. But Dante also has read St Paul, who wrote about being “caught up into Paradise” where he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor 12:4), and so he does not describe heaven in detail, only suggests what it might be.
Dante, Sagovsky says, once more recalls for us the the description of mystical ascent in Gregory of Nyssa – now, that we pass “from glory into glory.” In his Life of Moses, Gregory “describes how Moses was ‘lifted up’ to share in the glory of God, but this sharing only created the desire for greater transformation.” This is epektasis: Gregory tells us that Moses, in his ascent, “still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken …” As Rowan Williams has written:
If the Christian life is a journey into God, it is a journey into infinity – not an abstract ‘absoluteness’ but an infinity of what Gregory simply calls ‘goodness’, an infinite resource of mercy, help and delight. And because of its limitless nature, this journey is always marked by desire, by hope and longing, never coming to possess or control its object.
This well describes the heavenly part of Dante’s journey. Canon Sagovsky also reminds us of Augustine’s claim that we are attracted by God’s love for us, and the more we respond to this love, “the more we feel its attraction.” In our ascent, our love is redirected towards what endlessly satisfies. We are liberated from the bondage of sin – those “false images” – to love more and more, endlessly. Augustine’s “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee” become’s Dante’s “Our hearts are wayward till they find the way to thee.” And so Dante goes on.
The end of the Paradiso has Dante speechless, but ultimately transformed into the love that has led him onwards, that has finally made his crooked path straight:
Here vigor failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
And, so, may it be for us …
Vatican II pages
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