A pilgrimage to Paradiso

By Deryl Davis

It’s unfortunate that many of us, particularly in our student years, encounter Dante’s gripping Inferno without ever making it to the beatific heights of Purgatorio and Paradiso. Our literary journeys come to an abrupt end in Hell, where fires still burn around a multitude of heretics and Satan chews history’s most egregious traitors. The crisp language and vivid imagery are entertaining for sure, but one wonders if there’s anything more the poet would have us experience?

The answer is yes. Dante invites us to go on pilgrimage with him as an act of spiritual transformation. The concept is not foreign to our age, when interest in spiritual pilgrimage of one kind or another is dramatically increasing, perhaps in response to growing political and cultural instability. Last year, an estimated 70 million Hindus journeyed to the sacred Ganges River in India for spiritual cleansing; a record six million people visited Jerusalem’s Western, or Wailing, Wall; 150 million Christians are estimated to be “on the move” each year to one pilgrimage site or another. (Source: The Washington Post.) The Divine Comedy does not call us to a specific locale, but to an inner journey that, with proper preparation, can be begun at any time. It provides a familiar three-part template for such a journey, based in part on St. Bonaventure’s description of the pilgrimage to God as intra nos (going within ourselves), extra nos (going outside ourselves), and supra nos (going above or beyond ourselves). In terms of the Comedy’s structure, this is represented by the spiritual and moral isolation of sinners in Hell, who must endure their infernal circumstances and the actions that accompany them for eternity; the spiritual and moral community of Purgatory, where all are cleansed, redeemed, and welcomed back into right relationship with God; and the communion of Paradise, in which souls experience the fullness of God’s love and of each other, metaphorically sitting before the divine throne in Dante’s celestial rose.

It is a journey from the false self to the true self, from the toxicity of self-concern to the joy of living with and for others. Rightly, the journey begins and ends in prayer, with the Virgin Mary’s response to Dante’s cries in the dark wood of Inferno to St. Bernard’s entreaty to the Virgin to lift the veils of the pilgrim’s eyes in preparation for the ecstatic vision at the end of Paradiso. It is a difficult journey to begin, however, requiring descent into “an eternal place” of darkness before ascent up the mountain of joy. Like Shakespeare’s King Lear or the ivory trader Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, the pilgrim must strip away the layers of his or her developed persona in order to face the “soul truth” about him or herself. But, unlike the sinners in Hell, change is possible for the pilgrim, who avoids the “second death” of the soul by heeding its call. Descending into Hell with Dante as our guide, we grasp the general effects of misdirected love and see its particular, destructive manifestation through the allegory of sinners like Paolo and Francesca, whipped about by torrents of lust; Ulysses encased in divisive flames; or Ugolino gnawing at the scalp of fellow traitor Ruggieri.

This is a frightening experience, as it should be. Apparently, Dante put it off as long as he could, until waking one day to find himself alone in the dark wood, having lost “the straight path” without even knowing it. Although Virgil tells the pilgrim he must “journey down another road . . . if ever you hope to leave this wilderness,” Dante-pilgrim is hesitant, looking for excuses not to begin the fearful work of transformation. Why me? He asks. I’m not worthy. I don’t know how to do it. It might be an act of folly. Virgil rightly rebukes the pilgrim for “that cowardice/which often weighs so heavily on man/ . . . [turning] him from a noble enterprise.” Explaining the heavenly origins of this rescue operation, Virgil convinces the pilgrim that, if his faith is sufficient and he will allow himself to be guided by the noble Roman, Dante can overcome the demons below in order to rise to the stars.

Time is of the essence when one is journeying toward salvation. Not infrequently does Virgil have to hurry his charge along, when he is stopped in his tracks by an unusually hellish sight or lingers to talk shop with the soul of a fellow poet. Although time is eternal in both Heaven and Hell, the minutes keep ticking by in Purgatory as they do on earth, until the moment when the soul is judged by God. Twice hesitating on his journey, at the entry into Hell and again before the purifying fires of Purgatory, Dante-pilgrim may well deserve the stern rebuke he receives from Beatrice at their first meeting.

But Dante does reach Paradise at last. He beholds the host of the Elect in the celestial rose and receives the mystic vision of the Godhead, its three circles spinning as one. While language fails the poet, the joy and fulfillment of the moment are clear. Here, there is no more striving, no desire or longing; here, all is made one and eternal by “the Love that moves the sun and stars.”

It would be hard to appreciate the fullness of Dante’s vision of Paradise without the journey that precedes it. This is a truth both literal and figurative, as Dante might have it, for reading the Comedy is rightly only prelude to making the pilgrim journey oneself. That is a fearful task for many modern readers, who approach the Comedy with all the humility, real or imagined, of Dante responding to Virgil’s directive to follow him into Hell: “O poet come to guide me,/tell me if you think my worth sufficient. . . . “ Or with all the false pride (cowardice?) of the Tuscan poet’s second evasion, “I fear it might turn out an act of folly!” Certainly, reading the Comedy without the right preparation, or without a good expectation of what it can deliver, might be folly. Despite its majesty, the Comedy is full of medieval arcana that requires pages and pages of annotations under which to bury the contemporary reader. However, many good references and critical studies are available, and as the reader makes his or her way through the Comedy, he or she finds the symbolism and allegory becoming more familiar and more striking, taking on a personal and often very contemporary meaning. That does not belie the fact that the Comedy is a book that deserves – one may say, demands – to be read with others. It is the crystallization of a journey upon which we are all pilgrims, and if the Comedy teaches us anything, it is that, in matters literary as well as spiritual, one needs a companion to share the way. Ultimately, whether the journey begins within, reading the poem first on one’s own; without, reading it first in community with others; or beyond, teaching or sharing it with someone else, is of little consequence. The important thing is to begin with a trustworthy spiritual guide. Seven hundred years after he first set pen to paper on what would become the Comedy, Dante is still one of the best around.

Deryl Davis is producer of the Sunday Forum at Washington National Cathedral and an associate faculty member in religion and drama at Wesley Theological Seminary. His work on religion and culture has appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines and on public radio and television.

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