Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 17

It is dusk on the second day, and as Dante and Virgil emerge from the cloud of smoke, Dante experiences three visions of rage and wrath. Soon the angel of peace appears and shows them the stairs to the next level. At the top of the stairs, and since they cannot travel when it is night, Virgil spends the time explaining to Dante the nature of love.

            If you’ve ever been caught in a dense mountain fog that left you virtually blind as a mole; and if you recall how that fog gradually fades and the sun begins to shine dimly, you will have a sense of what it was like when I emerged from that terrible smoke. So, walking alongside my Virgil, we came forth from that darkness as the sun began to set, and the day was already turning into night on the shore far below us.

            O power of imagination that causes us sometimes to lose awareness of what goes on around us, though there be a thousand trumpets blaring! If the senses are silent, what sets you into motion? Perhaps a light from Heaven sent down by God.

            Nevertheless, a scene of wanton atrocity came alive in my imagination as I witnessed Procne commit the outrage that transformed her into a nightingale. So powerfully was I drawn into this scene that nothing outside could have drawn me back from it!

            Wide open now, my mind was ablaze in high fantasy as I beheld the crucified Haman, whose sneering face was filled with rage as he died. There looking on were King Ahasuerus, his queen, Esther, and the good Mordecai.

            Then, like a bubble bursting, this tableau disappeared, only to be replaced by a scene of utter grief. The young Lavinia wept bitterly over the body of her dead mother: “O queen,” she cried, “how could you let your rage destroy you? You may have thought to kill yourself rather than lose me. But now you have lost me, my mother, and it is I who mourn your death.”

            As closed eyes struck by light will open quickly – our sleep disturbed now, though it may linger before we are fully awake, so this state of fantasy left me as a light, more brilliant than anything on earth, appeared in front of me. As I struggled to gather all my senses, a voice spoke, saying: “This is the place to climb.”

            Thinking clearly now, I had a powerful desire to see the one to whom that beautiful voice belonged, and I will hold on to that hope till my desire is fulfilled. But before that Heavenly light, I was overwhelmed, like one looking into the sun.

            It was Virgil who spoke now: “This divine spirit, hidden within his heavenly brilliance, directs us toward the stairs without our even asking,” he said. “He reminds us that we would be guilty, seeing someone in need, but waiting for them to ask us to help them. But, recalling that we cannot climb upward after dark, let our feet listen to his call and climb as far as we can while there is still some light.”

            Having said this, we went to the stairs and began to climb. No sooner had I reached the first step than I felt the air move before my face, as though I had been fanned by that angel’s wing. Again, such wonderful words were heard: “Beati pacifici, who are free from the sin of wrath.”

            As the last rays of the sun were overcome by the fast-approaching night, stars appeared here and there in the heavens high above us. “Why is it that I have become so weak?” I said to myself as the strength in my legs gave way to fatigue. And no sooner had we reached the top of those stairs than we lost all power to continue on our way. Our boat had run ashore!

            I stood there in that silent darkness, listening to hear what might be heard on this fourth terrace of the mountain. Hearing nothing, I turned to Virgil and asked: “My sweet father, though we have stopped now, don’t stop talking to me, but tell me what sin is cleansed away on this level?”

            He replied, “The love for what is good, but falls short of it, is strengthened in this place. The idle oar is now pulled with force. Pay attention, now, and this delay will be profitable for you.

            “Neither God nor his creatures are without love. And as you know, there are two kinds of love: the one natural, and the other rational. Natural love – the love of God – is always without fault. But rational love can go astray either by choosing the wrong thing or by choosing the good either with insufficient intention or choosing it with too much zeal. As long as this good focuses on God and on the things of this world with temperance, it will not go astray. But when it turns away from God or pursues the good with too little or too much strength, then creatures work against their Creator.

            “Thus, love is the seed within you from which every virtue grows, but directed toward the wrong ends it can also be the seed of deeds deserving of punishment. Now, love will never wish evil on the one loving; and since no creature can think of himself as completely separate and apart from God, no creature can hate God either.

            “So, it would seem, from these arguments, that a man’s misdirected love is focused on his neighbor. And this misguided love can be seen in three ways. First is the one who, exalting himself, scorns his neighbor and takes pleasure in his downfall. Second, there is the man who fears he will lose honor or power or fame if his neighbor should succeed, so he wishes for his fall. Third is the man who is offended in some way and angrily seeks to injure his neighbor in revenge. These three forms of misdirected love are punished on the terraces below us.

            “The other kind of love pursues its goal with great excess. In one way or another, everyone desires the good, hoping to be at peace within themselves by possessing that good. But if one’s desire is weak or lukewarm, then they are punished and cleansed on this terrace.

            “Finally, there is another good that does not bring one true happiness, because its source is not from God, from whom all good things come. You will soon understand, without further explanation from me, how the excessive pursuit of this good follows three paths, and is purged on the next three terraces.”