To the heart of Heaven

After nearly one hundred cantos  my mystical journey with Dante is now complete: having made it through Hell and Purgatory, last month I (finally) finished Paradise as well. I’ve started writing this post about three or four times now, unsure of how to start or which direction to move in, because my reading of Paradise was extremely scattered; it is hard to gather a coherent impression of it in my mind. (What can I say? All that Olympic figure skating wasn’t going to watch itself.) And at this remove, I’m not sure why I flagged all the passages I did. For the moment, in consequence, I think I must give up on coherence — so in no particular order, here are a few notes which will have to do:

1. Very early on, Dante speaks with the soul of Piccarda dei Donati, and questions her as to how she can be satisfied with the little of God she has been given (relative to those who dwell closer / have a larger capacity to be filled): “But tell me, you whose happiness is here, / Have you no hankering to go up higher, / To win more insight or a love more dear?” (III.64-66). I was very much struck by her reply: “Brother, our love has laid our wills to rest, / Making us long only for what is ours, / And by no other thirst to be possessed. […] Nay, ’tis the essence of our blissful fate / To dwell in the divine will’s radius, / Wherein our wills themselves are integrate […] And please the King that here in-willeth us / To His own will; and His will is our peace…” (III. 70-72, 79-81, 84-5). I love that. And His will is our peace.

2. Dante’s passage in Canto VII on God’s means of redemption is both beautiful poetry and beautiful theology:

Either must God, of his sole courtesy, / Remit, or man must pay with all that’s his, / The debt of sin in its entirety.

Within the Eternal Counsel’s deep abyss / Rivent thine eye, and with a heed as good / As thou canst give me, do thou follow this.

Man from his finite assets never could / Make satisfaction; ne’er could he abase him / So low, obey thereafter all he would,

As he’d by disobedience sought to raise him; / And for this cause man might not pay his due / Himself, nor from the debtor’s roll erase him.

Needs then must God, by His own ways, renew / Man’s proper life, and reinstate him so; […]

For God’s self-giving, which made possible / That man should raise himself, showed more largesse / Than if by naked power He’s cancelled all; /

And every other means would have been less / Than justice, if it had not pleased God’s Son / To be humiliate into fleshliness. (VII. 91-104, 115-120)

3. Dorothy L. Sayers died quite suddenly while working on Paradise; she had translated the first twenty cantos, but had not begun any of her introductory or explicatory notes. The work was finished by Dr. Barbara Reynolds, who was both a gifted scholar of Italian and Sayers’s goddaughter. Reynolds’s notes lack that particular Sayersian sparkle that I love so well, but I was interested to see how seamlessly the translation itself progresses between Cantos 1-20 and 21-33. If I hadn’t know there were two translators, I probably would not have guessed.

4. I enjoyed the sarcastic bite of this snippet from Beatrice’s injunction against presumptuous preachers: “Christ His Apostles did not thus address: / Go forth, preach idle stories to all men / But taught them his true doctrine to profess.” (XXIX.109-111)

5. The metaphor department: one of the great puzzles of the Christian faith is how to image/explain the Trinity. I’ve heard some doozies over the years (the Godhead is like an egg! like a clover! like a water molecule!) but I like Dante’s vision here, of three spheres occupying the same space:

But as my sight by seeing learned to see, / The transformation which in me took place / Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless / Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare / Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were / Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame / Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame / My concept — which lags after what was shown / So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (XXXIII. 112-123)

And so ends the journey, with Dante’s sense-defying vision of the Trinity. It is interesting to see that Paradise (and indeed, the trilogy as a whole) ends not with a dénouement as we would typically expect, but at the moment of climax. There is no accounting for Dante’s return to earth, the end of his vision, or the like — no sense at all of what happens next. But how, one wonders, could there be? After ninety-nine Cantos, Dante has said all that he will say on the matter — and the poem ends with his will moving in perfect harmony with God’s. Once again we are reminded of Piccarda dei Donati’s statement that “His will is our peace” — and Dante has at last reached this state himself. It is a beautiful and fitting ending.

On Purgatory

I have to admit that the doctrine of purgatory is something I’ve never known much about, except as another item on the long list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t. So I was interested to begin Dante’s Purgatory not only to find out what happens in the story, but to get a glimpse of how the medieval mind imagined purgatory — and perhaps a few insights into what modern Catholics believe, as well. To the latter end, I again found Sayers’s notes quite helpful, as she laid out a few common misconceptions about purgatory and their doctrinal corrections:

We may add here a few words to clear up a number of widely current perplexities and misunderstandings about Purgatory.

(1) Purgatory is not a place of probation, from which the soul may go either to Heaven or to Hell. All souls admited to Purgatory are bound for Heaven sooner or later, and are for ever beyond the reach of sin.

(2) Purgatory is not a “second chance” for those who die obstinately unrepentant. The soul’s own choice between God and self, made in the moment of death, is final. (This moment of final choice is known as the “Particular Judgement”.)

(3) Repentance in the moment of death (in articulo mortis) is always accepted. If the movement of the soul is, however feebly, away from the self and towards God, its act of confession and contrition is complete, whether or not it is accompanied by formal confession and absolution; and the soul enters Purgatory.

(4) The Divine acceptance of a repentance in articulo mortis does not mean that the sinner “gets away with it” scot-free. What it does mean is that the soul is now obliged, with prolonged labour and pains, and without the assistance of the body, to accomplish in Purgatory the entire process of satisfaction and purification, the greater part of which should have been carried out on earth.

(5) The souls in Purgatory and the souls on earth are in touch with one another and can aid each other by their prayers. But it is wrong for the living to distract the dead from their task of purgation by egotistical and importune demands for attention. […]

(6) Souls which have so persevered in virtue till the moment of death as to accomplish their whole purgation in this life, are not detained in Purgatory, but pass immediately into the Presence of God. These are the Saints. N.B.: Canonization is not (as Bernard Shaw implies in the Epilogue to St Joan) the award of an earthy honour, but the recognition of a Divine fact. There may be, and undoubtedly are, innumerable saints unrecognized and uncanonized. (59-60)

We note also that the purgations experienced by the souls in Purgatory are meant to be palliative cures, not arbitrary punishments — and even when the method is the same (as the Simoniacs in Hell and the Lustful in Purgatory are both consumed by fire), the attitude of the penitent soul ensures a very different outcome and experience:

It has been well said by a great saint that the fire of Hell is simply the light of God as experienced by those who reject it; to those, that is, who hold fast to their darling illusion of sin, the burning reality of holiness is a thing unbearable. To the penitent, that reality is a torment so long and only so long as any vestige of illusion remains to hamper their assent to it: they welcome the torment, as a sick man welcomes the pains of surgery, in order that the last crippling illusion may be burned away. The whole operation of Purgatory is directed to the freeing of the judgement and the will. […] the resolute breaking-down, at whatever cost, of the prison walls, so that the soul may be able to emerge at last into liberty and endure unscathed the unveiled light to reality. […] There is no difference in the justice; the only difference is in the repudiation or acceptance of judgement. (16)

That is the doctrinal framework through which we are to understand what Dante sees and experiences as he travels through Purgatory, accompanied and guided first by Virgil (as in Hell) and then by Beatrice. The effect of moving from Hell to Purgatory is immediate; it is obvious from the opening lines that this will be a very different book than the first installment. Dante opens Canto I with a second invocation to the muses; the tone and description are a welcome change from the grim miseries of Hell:

For better waters heading with the wind / My ship of genius now shakes out her sail / And leaves that ocean of despair behind; / For to the second realm I tune my tale, / Where human spirits purge themselves, and train / To leap up into joy celestial. / Now from the grave wake poetry again, / O sacred Muses I have served so long! / Now let Calliope uplift her strain / And life my voice up on the mighty song / That smote the miserable Magpies nine / Out of all hope and pardon for their wrong! / Colour unclouded, orient-sapphire, / Softly suffusing from meridian height / Down the still sky to the horizon-line, / Brought to mine eyes renewal of delight / So soon as I came forth from that dead air / Which had oppressed my bosom and my sight. (I.1-18)

This comes as a breath of fresh air for the reader as well as for our stalwart narrator! And the lovely tone continues throughout Purgatory as Dante climbs higher and higher up the mountain to the earthly paradise where Beatrice appears to guide him to Heaven. The souls in Purgatory tell their stories just as others did in Hell — but their attitude is, to a one, one of humble acceptance of their purgation and eagerness to complete each necessary level quickly, so as to gain Heaven with least delay. When a soul finishes its purgation and makes that final leap, the entire mountain quakes as all upon it shout Gloria in Excelsis Deo! The whole thing is surprisingly lovely, really. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Purgatory (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write); where Hell had turned into a bit of a grim slog by the end, Purgatory constantly enticed me on.

Now, was this enough to entice me to the doctrine of purgatory itself? No — not quite — and I would have to take a hard look at its actual origins/support/etc. before deciding something like that. But it did convince me that there is a certain logic to it, much more than I would have previously supposed. (After all, the list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t seems to have a fairly large overlap with the list of Catholic Beliefs Protestants Misrepresent!) But in any case, Purgatory was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to finishing the journey in Paradise.

I’ve been going through Hell lately

… with Dante and the shade of Virgil, that is. (I’m fine, Mom.)

The summer that I was doing most of the research for my thesis, I ended up reading all four volumes of Dorothy L. Sayers’s collected letters. I was primarily reading for mentions of my own subject, of course, but Sayers is such an interesting correspondent that I quite enjoyed even the parts that were quite irrelevant to my project. Towards the last decade or so of her life, her letters were nearly all concerned with her massive undertaking for Penguin Books: an entirely new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I had read the first volume (Inferno, as Mark Musa’s translation titles it) as an undergraduate; the course was essentially an introduction to the Western Canon, and so we spent very little time on it, and I hadn’t found it particularly memorable. Sayers’s passion for Dante’s epic, however, made me keen to revisit it, and especially to read the translation to which she dedicated the last years of her life (she died midway through her translation of Paradise, which was completed by her god-daughter, the scholar Dr. Barbara Reynolds). And so I have lately finished Hell, and will shortly start working my way up the mountain of Purgatory towards the heavenly realms.

The experience of reading Hell was most definitely helped by Sayers’s extensive notes, particularly her introductory matter. As she writes herself, the ideal way to read Dante would be simply to pick it up and dive in — but our social and cultural remove from his time means that most of the references that would have been obvious to his contemporaries are opaque to us. The notes, therefore, are a very necessary evil:

Let us suppose that an Englishman were to write a contemporary Divine Comedy on Dante’s model, and that in it, mixed up with a number of scriptural and mythological characters, we were to find, assigned to various circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, according to the religious and political convictions of the author, the following assortment of people — some referred to by their full names, some by Christian name or surname alone, and some indicated only by a witty or allusive phrase: Chamberlain (“him of the orchid”), Chamberlain (“him of the umbrella”), [Steward Houston] Chamberlain, “Brides-in-the-bath Smith, “Galloper” Smith, Horatio Bottomley, Horatio [Lord Nelson], Fox [Charles or George to be inferred from the Context], the Man who picked up the Bomb in Jermyn Street, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Slater, Oscar Browning, Spencer, Spenser, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Castlerose, Lawrence [of Arabia], [D. H.] Lawrence, […] Dick Sheppard, Jack Sheppard, and “the widow at Windsor”. Let us further suppose that the writer holds strong views on Trade Unionism, the construction of UNO, the “theology of crisis”, Freudian psychology, Einsteinian astronomy, and the art of Mr Jacob Epstein. Let us then suppose that the book is to be read, six hundred years hence, by an intelligent Portuguese with no particular knowledge of English social history. Would he not require a few notes, in order to savour the full pungency of the poet’s pronouncements and thoroughly understand his attitude to the cosmic set-up? (17-18)

Quite so. I need notes myself just to get through Sayers’s paragraph, not living in Britain in the early 1950s; no small wonder that in reading Dante we need not only the language to be translated, but the culture and (perhaps) theology as well.

One of Sayers’s most helpful explanations is to do with the allegorical nature of Dante’s epic. Dante is not expecting us to take it as a literal picture of Hell. We do not need to believe that Satan is imprisoned at the centre of the earth; we do not suppose that suicides really turn into bleeding trees or that there are giants guarding the circle of traitors. But Dante paints a powerful picture of the soul when it sunders itself from God through sin. It is, Sayers writes, “the drama of the soul’s choice … not a fairy story” (11). In approaching the poem, we must “accept the Christian and Catholic view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any ideas that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other all come right on the night. We must try to believe that man’s will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity” (10-11). What Dante’s Divine Comedy emphasizes for us is that everyone must make a choice to either accept God or reject Him; there is no option beyond those two, and our eternal fate depends on the choice. Dante is unequivocal on this point: “Neither in the story nor in the allegory is Hell a place of punishment to which anybody is arbitrarily sent: it is the condition to which the soul reduces itself by a stubborn determination to evil, and in which is suffers the torment of its own perversion” (68).

That being understood — what of Hell itself? Dante’s imagery is precise and vivid as he depicts the progressive punishments of Hell, from the ever-whirling souls of the lustful (The blast of hell that never rests from whirling / Harries the spirits along in the sweep of its swath, / And vexes them, for ever beating and hurling.” V:31f), to the river of boiling blood in which the Violent against their Neighbours are immersed (“So with this trusty escort, off we set / Along the bank of the bubbling crimson flood, / Whence the shrieks of the boiled rose shrill and desperate. / There I saw some — plunged eyebrow-deep they stood / And the great centaur said to me: ‘Behold / Tyrants, who gave themselves to ravin and blood.’ XII:100f) to the bodily mutilations suffered by the Sowers of Discord (“No cask stove in by cant or middle ever / So gaped as one I saw there, from the chin / Down to the fart-hold split as by a cleaver” XXVII:22f), to the final centre of the earth where Satan perpetually devours Judas Iscariot and other traitors. The images become progressively more and more disturbing as Dante and Virgil travel deeper into the pits of hell (and allegorically, further into sin and away from salvation).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Hell for before-bedtime reading! But I would recommend it. Dante takes us on a journey that should disturb us — but all is not grim; he reminds us also that while we are yet living, there is every chance to turn away from this fate. Hell has not been given the final world! I am very much looking forward to continuing this journey with Dante and Sayers, from the mountains of Purgatory to the blessed heights of Paradise itself.