By Maria Teresa Morgan*
The title of this brief reflection refers to the three wild creatures that block Dante’s access at the start of The Divine Comedy. The imagery is taken from Jeremiah 5:3-6, that forlorn prophet who hovers around the consciousness of Dante throughout the great epic of the Christian journey. Summoned by the Virgin Mary, Beatrice and St Lucy, the poet Virgil comes to Dante to show him the way out of “the dark forest” and serve as guide in his ascent to the Mount Delectable, in a compelling passage which points to the transforming power of poetry and to the often overlooked solace of the Communion of Saints (Inferno I - II).
Dante Alighieri, the great poet and founder of the Italian language, who wrote “The Poem Sacred/To which both heaven and earth have set their hand” (Paradiso XXV, 1-2); the one who through his failures came to see poetry as his life’s mission, for only through “the art of the word” could he point a way for humanity out of “the dark forest” of despair (Letter to Cangrande della Scala, XIII, 39); the one to whom Pope Francis pays homage in his Apostolic Letter, Candor Lucis Aesternae, commemorating the seventh centenary of his death (March 25, 2021) exhorting us to explore the “resonance” of the life and work of Dante “with our own experience” (CLA #2).
I first “met” Dante when I was about nine years old. I would pass by a bookcase on the way to my bedroom and zero in on an old, musty book some of whose pages still had to be pried open. The title intrigued me: The Divine Comedy. I expected to find in there the laughter of God but it wasn’t long before I decided I couldn’t understand anything in this book. I figured I would give it another try some day. Through my adult years, I acquired a rudimentary knowledge of Dante thus, when visiting Florence in 2007, I imagined the poet walking through the same cobblestones and catching a glimpse of Beatrice at the very spot where I stood. The fantasy made my trip all the more delightful. As pilgrims visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce, we passed by the ornate tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and other greats unknown to me and sat during Mass a few feet from the sepulcher of Machiavelli in a grandiose experience of the Communion of Saints.
Who would have thought? Sitting so close to the remains of Machiavelli while participating in the Liturgy of the Eucharist! But a few steps away, Dante’s tomb lay empty: his sepulcher is guarded jealously by the Franciscans in Ravenna, for the gracious city where he died will not yield his remains to the Florence that exiled him in life.
The great opportunity came this year, when my dean, Doctor Paola Bernardini, asked if I could teach a course on The Divine Comedy as Theology. I was elated! At last, I was given another chance, this one garbed in academic duty, to continue the journey I intended to take so long ago.
Pope Francis’ love for Dante is well known. Candor Lucis Aeternae, though brief, is inspiring, informative and contains numerous citations from Dante. Among the highlights of Francis’ letter is his affirmation that the Comedia contains a lyrical treatise on Mariology (CLA 7). Mary is present from the beginning of the journey to the end. At the start of Dante’s odyssey, she is “the Morning Star” who leads the pilgrim out of “the dark forest” towards the bright mountain of God. In the final canto, Mary is the one who prepares Dante for the encounter with Christ and the vision of the Trinity (CLA 7). Francis points to the prominence of women in The Divine Comedy: Mary, the Mother of God, representing love; Beatrice, representing hope and St Lucy, representing faith (CLA 7). Pope Francis draws our attention to the mystical rose, the gathering of the blessed, at whose luminous center is Mary: “Look now unto the face that most resembles Christ/for its brightness only/can purify your eyes to look on Him” (Paradiso XXXII, 85-87). Of particular interest for our time is Francis observation that Dante is “a forerunner of our multimedia culture, in which word and image, symbol and sound, poetry and dance converge to convey a single message” (CLA, 9).
As I did when I was nine, I am trying to pry open the pages of The Divine Comedy; it is a difficult poem to read. Part of my summer has been spent doing research in order to garner the insights of scholars. As an apprentice I am particularly indebted to A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy by Jason M. Baxter (Baker Academic, 2018).
I love and to a certain extent understand Purgatorio. For instance, it makes sense that Mary embodies the virtues lacking in the penitents. It also makes sense that the souls are being cleansed by the virtue that is opposite to their predominant sin. I enjoy the cross section of humanity that processes through Purgatorio and the way Dante is interested in them and in their narrative, engaging them in conversation, and, as Francis states, identifying with them. (CLA, 4) But most of all, I am amazed at the abundant mercy that has been granted them, giving hope to the rest of us. Both Francis and Baxter point to the passage where a single small tear from the bloody Buonconte da Montefeltro (Purgatorio V, 107) has been enough for Buonconte to be saved: “una lagrimetta!” exclaims the disappointed demon with surprise and contempt. At times, the situation is amusing, as when Omberto Aldobrandesco, upon meeting the visitor Dante, asks the pilgrim if he is aware of his illustrious lineage (thanks to Jason Baxter for highlighting the nuances of this incident). Omberto has been sent to Purgatory to learn humility but obviously, he doesn’t quite get it yet! (Purgatorio XI, 50-75) And what of Paradiso? We meet a whole host of saints there, Peter, Francis, Peter Damian, Aquinas, Bonaventure … we witness Franciscans praising Dominicans and Dominicans reciprocating the compliments. We wonder whether Dante is being playfully sarcastic implying that in heaven, unlike on earth, there is neither competition nor rivalry between religious orders. We witness how God’s loving care is ministered through human mediation: Virgil entrusts Dante to Beatrice, who in turn introduces him to St Bernard who leads the poet to Mary, who takes Dante to Christ, who is the Gate to the eschatological vision of a Love that gathers into “one volume” the “scattered leaves of the universe.” And there, with the poet, we soar towards the vision of “the depthless deep and clear existence/of that abyss of light”, “The Love that moves the Sun and the stars.” (Paradiso, XXXIII, 85, 115, 145).
But, the three beasts continue to bar my access to understanding the Inferno. And no commentary on the theology of the Comedia suffices to provide a reconciling insight. Surprisingly, Dante had the same problem, as we shall see. Lest I be suspected of Origenism (otherwise known by the fascinating word “Apocatastasis”) allow me to state that the Catholic Church teaches there is a hell (CCC 1033-1037), but it has never stated anyone is there.
While I am fascinated by the genius that mounted such a staging of terrifying sights, sounds, smells and tactile experiences in the Inferno and I can brush the whole thing away by saying “it’s an allegory,” it is difficult to explain the phrase “Abandon Hope, all You Who Enter Here” (Inferno III, 1-9) from a 21st Century theological sensitivity as it was also difficult for Dante in the 14th Century. Hope and mercy go hand in hand and where there is no hope there is obviously no mercy and yet Dante is called “the prophet of hope.” I think of the Inferno as one long, imprecatory Psalm – a scandalous way of prayer, but a prayer, nonetheless. I have taken some solace in considering the Inferno as a way for the poet to slay the wild beasts that devoured what he held dear, to deal with the anger arising from the terrible punishments heaped unto him by his political adversaries and “the iniquitous Florentines”(Ep. VI, 1), many of whom appear among the 220 people identified in the Inferno. The punitive measures imposed upon Dante were intended to debase and destroy him: banishment from his beloved city, from his family (he never saw his wife again, and only saw some of his children at the end of his life), the confiscation of his goods resulting in a poverty that reduced him to wandering from city to city begging from the affluent, the second death sentence imposed on him and his adolescent children. Perhaps the Inferno was a way for Dante to exorcise his own demons and be freed to continue his journey. This insight seems to be supported by the statement of Francis saying that the experience of hell enabled Dante to ascend to the vision of God, leaving behind bitterness and resentment and emerging as “a herald of a new existence” (CLA #3). The Inferno elicits horror and fear reflecting a Jeremiah-like denunciation of and warning about the calamities coming to those who persist in sin, driven by lust and greed, sloth, pride, anger, gluttony and envy, and mired in lies, murder and treason, along with opportunists and those guilty of ecclesiastical sins. I have found the best response to my difficulty with the Inferno in Dante himself, who, upon hearing Virgil read the lines inscribed over the gates of hell: “Abandon Hope…” responds: “Master, for me their sense is hard.” (Inferno III, 12) He, also, cannot reconcile this place of horror with a merciful God. Dante never answers the question for us and leaves it “to rub us, like a rock in the shoe.” (Baxter, 21)
I conclude this brief reflection by referring to three (out of many) prayers in the Divine Comedy. They are chosen because of their simplicity and accessibility. The first is Dante’s vernacular rendition of the Our Father, some of whose lines read: ”Give to us today the daily manna/without which he who grows weary in going forward/goes backward through this dry desert” (Purgatorio XI, 15). There is also the invocation to Mary, one that invites us to keep her name and memory in our hearts: “The name of that fair flower to which I pray/ morning and night…” (Paradiso XXIII 88-89) and, lastly, the striking lines reflecting the indwelling of God: “… the spark/which gnaws and widens into living flame/and, like a star in heaven, shines in me” (Paradiso XXIV, 145-147).
It is said that Dante never forgets his reader. He certainly remembered me since the time when, as a child, I picked up The Divine Comedy. I didn’t forget him either. And after a long interlude, he again invites me along with other pilgrims to become his earnest companions on the journey. (See CLA 9).
“E ’n la sua volontade è nostra pace:
ell’ è quel mare al qual tuto si move”
(Paradiso III, 85,86)
- Maria Teresa Morgan, Assistant Professor of Theology St. John Vianney College Seminary; D. Min Barry university; M.A. and B.A St. John’s University.
- Professor Morgan is resident columnist of El Ignaciano.