Series Index

John Ciardi’s Translation of the Commedia

The Speech of the Saved

I’ve taught Dante’s Purgatorio to three cohorts of upper-division literature students, and each time, the students do alright among the prideful.  Carrying a grand rock seems unpleasant, to be sure, but it stoops them down, and students get that basic body motion.  They might still find Dante’s vision of the afterlife distasteful, mainly because they don’t think there should be anything between one’s last breath and one’s eternal state, but they can ride along.

All that ends, though, when the circle of Envy comes along.  When students read about sinners whose eyes are sewn shut, Dante’s way with grotesque detail gets to them, and as a teacher, I have to bring them along again.  (This, I think, is another one of those places where Dante is showing us the limits of our own theological flexibility–can we reason theologically in moments that repel us viscerally?)  As for me, I’ve read it enough times to know what’s coming, but again the poem has enough going on that something new occurred to me this time around: the formality with which the saved speak to each other.

It’s a matter of contrast, really.  Dante shows a contrast that just doesn’t hold in my own everyday life.  After all, the ancients and their successors have a far greater sense of occasion than we moderns do.  Whether we’re greeting a coworker who’s showed up to the office three hundred days running or whether we’re meeting a state Senator, the words that we employ to initiate contact–“How are you doing,” “Hello,” “Hey there,” and a relatively narrow range of phrases comes to mind–remains relatively constant.

Not so in Dante’s afterworld.  Back in Inferno the shades and their demonic tormentors scarcely acknowledged each other as having names, getting right down to business and speaking to each other with disdain, resentment, irritation, and dismissal but never stopping to thank the other for listening.  In Purgatory–and I’m only really noticing this on this read-through–and in Paradise, no speech begins without a formal address, an acknowledgement that the hearer is a being of dignity (in that old Roman sense) and thus deserves some gratitude for hearing the utterance.  Angels greet the saved souls of mortals formally, the saved greet one another formally, and of course any prayers to Jesus or to the saints begin with elaborate recognitions of the hearer’s worth.

Now I should pause here and note that I don’t have any taste for such things.  Because of my background and my own democratic streak, I don’t want anyone addressing me formally, and I rarely take the time to address other people by their titles or positions.  Dante hasn’t changed me in that respect, but reading the Purgatorio does remind me that mine is not by any means a “natural” way to be so much as it’s one way to exist in the world that’s very different from other ways.  Such awareness does not settle the conversation about which way is better, but it might just open up enough room for such a conversation to start.

Can See and Want to See

When angels come to remove another mark of sin from Dante, allowing him to ascend from the terrace of the envious to that of the wrathful, Dante experiences their arrival as a blinding light, making Dante close his eyes in the face of the brilliance.  Then Dante loses the mark of Envy, and he can ascend.

For a couple centuries before Dante, western Europe had been struggling to reconcile the radical theology of grace that one finds in late Augustine with the new-and-ancient learning that returned with the crusading knights.  Aristotle’s vision of excellence as the product of habit is undeniable: anyone who has really been educated as a writer or a programmer or a second baseman knows that disciplined habits make the practitioner, and folks who have done martial arts or teaching or marriage with any success know that what one desires changes along with the capacity to achieve one’s desires as time goes along. To put it in Aristotle’s own terms, to be just means to do just things, and being just as a matter of sustained character means that one’s capacity to be just increases as one’s disposition to be just becomes more solid.

But of course Augustine’s vision (borrowed, of course, from Saint Paul) remains compelling: what happens when we take on Christ, when the Church buries us in the waters of baptism and raises us from the same, is nothing short of a radical transvaluation of values (yes, I did just borrow from Nietzsche to explain Augustine) that might just render other conceptions of excellence as so much skybalonWhat makes one an excellent centurion or the best heroin dealer or the most deadly hedge fund manager might actually count as sin for the Christian, and Christian discipleship might actually involve just as much undoing of one’s former “virtues” as it does increasing what goods one exhibited before.

And here’s where Dante, as a thinker and a poet, both inherits some really sophisticated philosophical work and turns them into poetry that not only exhibits philosophy but does philosophy.  The Paris theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas (I always have to remind myself that he was not yet canonized when Dante was writing), had developed a schema in which some modes of human excellence, known in common to believer and to unbeliever, were genuinely commendable on earth and in heaven; while others, especially those rooted in warrior cultures and moments of special decadence, were only deepening sins; and others still really only developed in the soil of the Church.  The taxonomies were already in place when Dante learned his philosophy and theology; his contribution is to situate them in a narrative, a story where one begins cultivating the magnitude of one’s sins, travels through a Purgatory which cleans up our disordered loves (Pride, Envy, Wrath, and so on), cultivates the genuine goods of human existence (meekness, prudence, zeal, and such) as the reins choke off the vices, and eventually ascends, sheerly by grace, to a realm which truly owes nothing to the efforts of mortals.

I’ll admit that such a schema appeals to me because, like Aquinas and Dante, I want to take the best from Plato and Aristotle without surrendering the best of Paul and Augustine.  And for my money, Dante does that as well as any: who we are in the world, including in Purgatory, really does matter, yet the ascent to a truly divinized existence does not rely on such things.  Even when our efforts develop a genuine love for God, God might not yet have given us the capacity to see the angelic.  But we don’t have a wait around for visionary moments to do good; the whips that spur us to mortal virtue and the reins that check the vices are always there, and we have the free will to submit to them at any given moment.

Pray for Me

It’s amazing what a bit of logic mixed in with some theo-logic will do to students.  Most of those I teach, like me, learned as young evangelical Christians not to pray for the souls of the dead.  My hunch is that our allergy to such has more to do with our fears of Catholicism than with any real exegetical reasoning, but those students who do have a working knowledge of the New Testament will usually marshal something like the Hebrews passage that says that it is for mortals to die once, then the judgement.

Of course, that’s not the only verse in the New Testament about death.  There’s also Saint Paul’s soaring paean to the love of Christ, a love for which thrones and dominions, height and depth, even death itself is no obstacle.  Of course, it’s that last one that I use to complicate things for my young charges.  If the faithful can manifest God’s love by prayer-for-each-other, and if death does not stand as an obstacle to that love, then wouldn’t a prayer for the dead, or a prayer for the living offered by the dead, be more true to St. Paul than the neglect of the same?

(Yes, I realize, O Reformed readers, that there are other, more complex theological arguments against prayers for the dead, and if my students ever land in your Presbyterian churches, you can teach them to think that way.  Just be patient.)

In Dante’s Purgatorio, of course, people testify to the power of the prayer at every turn, and one thing that troubles even my evangelicals (who by Canto 23 are starting to entertain that Purgatory might have a valid internal logic at least) is that Forese says without any hesitation that those who prayed for him on earth sped his way through Purgatory.  For those students with any historical background, that conjures pictures of John Tetzel and the sale of indulgences and Chaucer’s Pardoner and all sorts of nasty things.

Of course, Dante predates those texts, but even Dante knows that selling the divine blessings of the Church for cash is a deadly crime.  (Remember all those Popes in Inferno?)  What Dante brings across in the story of Forese and in others’ tales is that Heaven is by definition love-for-other, both the Father’s love for the Son and the Spirit’s love for the Father and the love for this saint for that saint.  So in praying for each other, no economic transaction, phrases for years of incarceration, happens.  Instead, by praying for others, the living for the living and the dead for the living and the living for the dead, we actually participate in divine love, connecting to each other as the Father eternally connects to the Spirit and the Spirit to the Son, and by thus connecting, we actually work as the body of Christ, bringing to completion the good work that was begun in us.  (I think that last bit is in the Bible somewhere too.)

So once again, as I continue to climb Mount Purgatory this year, Dante once again reminds me that, even when my own conscious attention is diverted, what I do when I pray for others, and what others do when they pray for me, has nothing short of divine importance.  When I sing praises to God, even as terrible as I sound when I sing, I provide the world a small echo of a destiny that will bring the whole world to joy.  And when I restrain myself when the lure of another plate of all-you-can-eat pizza tempts me, I discipline myself so that perhaps I might some day truly love God.

Don’t laugh.  I do sometimes restrain myself, even when cheap pizza is on the line.  Just not often enough.

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