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THE TWO RIVERS/ An Old Poet, a New Pope, a Timeless Thirst

April Thu 18, 2013

Infophoto  Infophoto

This past Lent, I decided to do something different. I resolved to read Dante’s “Purgatorio.” While acquainted with the basics of the Divine Comedy thanks to a college survey course and some “Teaching Company” lectures, it seems I never could really get beyond the bizarrely compelling Inferno. And so, armed with my Cliff’s Notes and a freshly loaded Longfellow translation on my iPad, I ventured forth with Virgil to tackle the Seven Story Mountain, catch a glimpse of Beatrice, and maybe even get my own small taste of redemption.

The journey indeed proved fruitful. I was most moved at the end. After the arduous ascent and steady removal of the seven “P’s” from his forehead, and then passing through the curtain of fire, endured only at Virgil’s reminder that Beatrice awaited on the other side, the poet is led into the Earthly Paradise, that blessed land of innocence lost through Adam’s sin. Dante sees the beautiful Matilda walking along the banks of a pure stream whose source is no less than the will of God. The stream “opens on two sides:” one, Lethe, takes away “all memory of sin;” the other, Eunoe, restores the memory of “every good deed done.” Of the sweetness of these streams, Dante rather understatedly says, “This every other savour doth transcend.

Dante must humbly submit to the painful yet just excoriations of the veiled Beatrice. You used to love me, and all the good I signified, says Beatrice... what happened? After I died, you forgot it. You lost your way and chased shadows, betraying your vast potential and your great destiny. A weeping and forlorn Dante can only respond, “The things that present were with their false pleasure turned aside my steps, soon as your countenance concealed itself.” Absent Beatrice, he was too weak to resist the siren song of illicit earthly allurements.

And so, “pricked with the thorn of penitence,” Dante is utterly overpowered by the weight of his misery. He faints; but awakens to find himself up to his neck in the Lethe, Matilda gently ministering to him, tenderly adjuring him to hold onto her as she lowers him into the river, plunges him under, and makes him drink. He rises, his memory purged of all bitter sadness. The unveiled face of Beatrice is at last beheld. Dante gazes at her so fixedly that her maidens must cry, “too intently!” Dante is momentarily blinded by the intensity of the vision of Beatrice. I remember reading in von Balthasar once that Dante was the first Christian writer to theologize eros. I think I at last begin to understand.

Dante then sees the mystical procession of the Griffin and the chariot, representing Christ and the Church, and is given an apocalyptic glimpse into the struggles to unfold in salvation history. Finally, he drinks from the Eunoe, has the memory of his good deeds restored, and is ready at last to follow Beatrice into Paradise.



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