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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Purg. 29-33)

Today is the 200th birthday of the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is famous for many things: being a forerunner of existentialism, his concept of the "leap of faith" (a term he never actually uses), and his attacks on what he saw as the lazy Christianity of his day, which was all too attached to Christendom, to name but a few. What always interests me about Kierkegaard, though, is his deep attachment to Jesus Christ. For Kierkegaard, human life does not make sense without Christ as its center and guide. Every self, to be a self, must see itself in relation to Christ, who in himself combines the eternal and the temporal, God and man, Creator and creation.

In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Kierkegaard writes,

Each man himself, as an individual, should render his account to God. No third person dares venture to intrude upon this accounting between God and the individual. Yet the talk, by putting its question, dares and ought to dare, to remind man, in a way never to be forgotten, that the most ruinous evasion of all is to be hidden in the crowd in an attempt to escape God's supervision of him as an individual, in an attempt to get away from hearing God's voice as an individual. Long ago, Adam attempted this same thing when his evil conscience led him to imagine that he could hide himself among the trees. It may even be easier and more convenient, and more cowardly to hide oneself among the crowd in the hope that God should not be able to recognize one from the other. But in eternity each shall render account as an individual. That is, eternity will demand of him that he shall have lived as an individual. Eternity will draw out before his consciousness, all that he has done as an individual, he who had forgotten himself in noisy self-conceit. In eternity, he shall be brought to account strictly as an individual, he who intended to be in the crowd where there should be no such strict reckoning. Each one shall render account to God as an individual. The King shall render account as an individual; and the most wretched beggar, as an individual. No one may pride himself at being more than an individual, and no one despondently think that he is not an individual, perhaps because here in earth's busyness he had not as much as a name, but was named after a number.

Because it is Kierkegaard's birthday I thought of these lines along with Dante's confession in Canto 31. Unlike Kierkegaards picture of the solitary individual, Dante renders an account of himself with Beatrice's help. After Beatrice tells Dante to confess, he notes, "Confusion and fear, mixed together, / drove from my mouth a yes / but one had need of eyes to hear it. / As a crossbow breaks with too much tension / From the pulling taut of cord and bow / So that the arrow strikes the target with less force, / Thus I collapsed beneath that heavy load / And, with a flood of tears and sighs, / My voice came strangled from my throat" (Purg 31:13-21).

Finally, Beatrice was able to coax the following confession out of Dante. "In tears, I said: 'Things set in front of me, / With their false delights, turned back my steps / The moment that Your countenance was hidden'" (Purg 31. 34-36). While she was alive, Dante's love for Beatrice lead him on the right path. After her death, false delights turned him from himself. The question is not whether someone loves. Everyone loves something. The question is what someone loves and how that love is directed.

Dante's confession in Canto 31 might well be the turning point of the poem. Thus far Dante has encountered people whose loves in their earthly lives were disordered. And their loves were disordered, ultimately, because they were not in a right relationship with Christ, either because they didn't know him (like the pagans) or because they knew him and did not keep his word (cf. Jn 14:24). Each person we have met in the Inferno and the Purgatorio has, in Kierkegaard's words, "render[ed] account to God as an individual". In justice, God accepts that account, and each person accordingly finds himself or herself placed in a level of Hell or Purgatory.

After Dante's confession, he becomes himself. His description is significant. In Canto 32, he writes, "As when brought to see the blossoms on the apple-tree / That makes the angels hungry for its fruit / And celebrates perpetual marriage-feasts in Heaven, / Peter and John and James were overcome, / Called back into themselves at the word / By which still deeper sleep was broken, / And saw their company diminished / Both by Moses and Elijah / And their teacher's raiment changed, / Such did I become" (Purg. 32:73-81). Dante has been called back into himself by Christ's word, just as Peter and John and James were at Christ's transfiguration (cf. Mt. 17:1-8). This journey through the afterlife has transfigured Dante.

Although they vastly differ in understanding what role the community plays in an individual Christians life, Kierkegaard and Dante both agree that we must become ourselves, that truly being yourself is an achievement because it's so hard. And it's so hard because truly being yourself means recognizing your own sinfulness and distance from God. It also means accepting God's grace to bridge that distance and reorder your loves. In the Paradiso, we will meet the saints whose loves are perfectly ordered to God's will. In other words, we'll meet people who are truly themselves.

[For part three of our discussion of the Purgatorio, see here. For part one of our discussion see here, with links to discussion of the Inferno.]  

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The last part of Purgatory is so highly symbolic that I had to read it very slowly to get the mental pictures. I just cannot get my head around representing Christ as the monster, a griffin part eagle and part lion, even though I understand it was a common way to symbolize Christs divinity and humanity in the Middle Ages.In Canto XXX Virgil leaves Dante. Virgil, Dantes beloved guide through the horrors of Hell and the poignant pains of Purgatory, his kindly and patient teacher, his father figure, vanishes - no good-bye, no thank you. He just leaves What a downer! But wait, aha, Beatrice appears. (I can hear the strains of the old song from the 1930s My Old Flame in the background.) She leads him through the final purification.I can understand better why Thomas Mertons autobiography is named Seven Storey Mountain. I bet he thought that he committed each one of the seven sins at one time in his life. I wonder if he chose the name for the book.

This is a really nice meditation on the similarities between Dante and Kierkegaard, Scott--it makes me reflect on the impoverished way that we generally talk about personal growth and "becoming oneself."I'll admit that I didn't find the last several cantos of the Purgatorio as engaging as the rest of it (though that's a high bar, since I found it a rather stronger and more affecting work than the Inferno); apocalypse has never been my preferred genre. But the things you highlight interest me, too. It's easy to make fun of neoplatonic love, whether on feminist or any other terms (the woman is just a blank slate or empty vessel, an excuse for the male poet to philosophize, create art, and probe the exquisite range of his own emotions), and I remember finding the Vita Nuova hilarious when I read it in college. But as an attempt to understand the divine and especially divine love, it has real power. Now, I'm not convinced that Dante remotely understands the human Beatrice or cares about her in any way she'd value--but his exchanges with the apotheosized Beatrice in this poem are enormously moving.

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.