Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 16

Dante and Virgil are now within a cloud of dark, acrid smoke. Dante is blinded by the smoke and can only proceed by holding onto Virgil’s shoulder. They hear souls singing Agnus Dei, the hymn of peace, as they are purged of their sin of anger. Dante wonders who the singers are and is interrupted by Marco the Lombard, with whom he has a long conversation about why the world is in such a bad state.

            The terrible smoke that now surrounded us completely was worse than the gloom of Hell, and darker than a night sky empty of all its stars and planets and covered over with heavy clouds. Not only that, it was thick and harsh, and it stung my eyes so that I had to keep them closed as I hung on to Virgil’s shoulder for support. I was a blind man, helpless, walking close to my guide so I wouldn’t wander off or crash into something that might injure or even kill me. Moving through that foul, stinging air, Virgil guided me gently. “Watch out there!” he would say, or “Be careful to hold on to me now.”

            And all the while, I could hear voices. They were praying for peace and mercy from the Lamb of God who cleanses us from sin. Each verse began with the words Agnus Dei, and all those voices in unison gave one a sense of complete and perfect harmony.

            “Master,” I asked, still blind, “whose voices are these? The souls here?”

            “Yes,” he replied. “And as they sing, they loosen the knot of anger which held them so tightly bound in life.”

            “You there, with a body that moves the smoke as you walk. You speak as though you were still alive. Who are you?”

            This question came from somewhere in that awful smoke. Virgil whispered: “Tell him who you are, and then ask him if we’re going in the right direction.”

            So I began: “O creature, purifying your soul here so that you may return to God more beautiful, come along with me and I will tell you amazing things.”

            “Well, I’ll join you as far as I am permitted to go,” he said, “and if we can’t see each other at least we can hear.”

            “As you thought, I am still alive, and I come here having traveled all the way through Hell. You see, God has filled me with the grace of desire to see His Kingdom, and permits me to do this by means unknown to others. So, if you please, tell me who you were. And, if you would be so kind, tell me also if this path will lead us to the stairs upward. Your words will be the guide we need.”

            “I was a Lombard,” he replied, “and my name was Marco. I was well-versed in the ways of the world, but I also pursued the ways of virtue, which few seem to do nowadays. The path you’re on now is, in fact, the one that will lead you upward.” Then he added this request: “When you reach that Kingdom above, may I ask that you pray for me?”

            “You have my word,” I said. “I will do as you ask. But, now, let me ask you a question. I have been bothered by a problem that was raised down below, and what you just said makes me feel that you may be able to solve it for me. You noted that the world is lacking in virtue and filled with more and more wickedness. What do you think is the cause of this, so that I might understand it and then enlighten others with the truth. Some see the cause in our stars, and for others the cause is found on earth.”

            He sighed heavily, as though in grief. “Unfortunately, my brother, the world is blind. You know this because that is where you come from. How many there are who attribute causes and outcomes to the stars, as if they controlled everything. But think: if this were the case, then we would have no free will. And where would be the justice in simply rewarding good and punishing evil?

            “It is true that the heavens do have some influence on your inclinations, though not all of them. But even so, you have the wisdom to know right from wrong. And you also have free will. You might not always choose the right thing, but your will grows stronger the more you use it to choose what is good.

            “Always remember that your freedom comes from God who created you to be free. The stars and heavens have no control over this. So you can see that the cause of evil in the world comes from yourselves, nothing else. However, let me explain this in even greater detail.

            “The innocent soul is fashioned by the loving hands of God, who looks upon it with joy before giving it being. She is like a little child, simple and pure. As she plays, she is drawn to whatever attracts her, however frivolous; and she will want that thing unless she be guided to something better. Men are not much different. They need laws and they need leaders who can at least see the ramparts of the Heavenly City. You will say, ‘Yes, but there are laws.’ That is true, but no one enforces them. The Pope may know the laws, but he doesn’t understand how to apply them. Unfortunately, the flock who see that the Pope is greedy for the same things they are, will be happy to eat the same things he does! So you can begin to see that the poor state of affairs in the world at present is caused by bad leadership – not by your inner nature, though that is becoming corrupt.

            “In older times, Rome, which was a seed for good in the world, had two suns. One lighted the road of this world, and the other showed the path to God. But now, the church has usurped the prerogatives of the empire. The sword and shepherd’s crook have become one, and nothing good can come of this because neither one fears or obeys the other.

            “In times past, the regions watered by the Po and the Adige were filled with virtue and honesty – until Frederick’s continual conflicts. Now none but disreputable people walk the streets – and with pride! Three old men still live there, whose noble lives stand in stark contrast to the present state of things. This being the case, how they must long for God to bring them quickly into his Kingdom. I speak of Currado da Palazzo, Gherardo da Camino, and Guido da Castel – noted for his simple way of life. Let this be your message, then: the Church, trying to usurp the role of the Empire, has mired herself in filth, fouling herself and perverting her true mission!”

            “My dear Marco,” I said, “how clearly you have presented your answers to my question. I understand, as well, why it was that the Levites who served God in His Temple, were forbidden to own land. But tell me, please, who is this man Gherardo you speak of, whose life is an example of virtue in our wicked age?”

            “Surely, you jest!” he replied. “You, a Tuscan, do not know of Gherardo? I know him only by that name, though he might be called ‘Gaia’s father.’ Nevertheless, may God be with you! I have walked with you as far as it is permitted, and now I must return. But open your eyes and look ahead now – you can see how the light gets brighter with every step we take. The great angel is near, I must not be seen by him.” And he disappeared back into the thick darkness of that smoke.