Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 23

After moving on from the tree that warned them away, the three travelers meet a group of gluttonous souls who appear starved almost beyond recognition. One of them recognizes Dante. It is his old friend, Forese. When asked by Forese to talk about himself, Dante is unable to do so because he’s so overcome by his friend’s present condition. Instead, he asks Forese to explain his situation. He explains that when the souls here pass by the great tree in the road as they move around the terrace, their hunger for the fruit and water is increased, but they are not allowed to eat. Forese also explains how he arrived at this terrace, and Dante, too, explains his journey with Virgil thus far.

            I was standing there searching through the branches of that tree like one who wastes time looking for birds, when my more-than-father said, “Let us move on now, my son. We need to use the little time we have left wisely.”

            And so I quickly moved back to follow the two poets, whose conversation made the walking easy. But then we heard Labia mea Domine chanted sadly, filling us with feelings of both joy and regret. “O sweet father,” I said, “what is this chanting?”

            He replied, “I think they are souls who are paying their debts to God.”

            You know how pilgrims who are lost in their thoughts will pass a stranger on the road, turn and stare, and then move on. Well, soon enough, a group of souls, silent and prayerful,  came up from behind and passed us quickly. They were pale, emaciated, and so thin that you could plainly see all their bones! And from eyes that were sunk deep into their heads they stared at us suspiciously. I don’t even think the starving Erysichthon looked like that when he began to feed on himself!

            Looking back at them, I said to myself,” They could be those held captive within Jerusalem, when the starving woman Miriam ate her own child!” The sockets of their eyes were so pronounced that they looked like rings missing their stones. Seeing that, one might make out the “m” of the word omo in their faces. Without knowing otherwise, who would guess that the mere scent of fruit or a spring of water could wither those souls like this?

            So, as I stood there wondering about what caused such shriveling disfigurement, one of those starving souls turned and looked at me with those eyes set deep within his skull and cried out: “O what wonderful grace is this?”

            To tell you the truth, looking at him then, I would never have recognized the face his voice now revealed to me so clearly. Like a spark, his cry brought back to me the image of my close friend, Forese, who stood there before me.

            “Don’t pay attention to my withered appearance,” he said. “Rather, tell me about yourself, and those two there with you. Who are they? Please, tell me everything.”

            “Ah, Forese,” I said, “when you died I wept bitterly. And now my grief returns seeing you so terribly disfigured. Please don’t ask me to speak because I’m horrified to see you like this and now my thoughts are scattered. But for God’s sake, please tell me what has happened to you?”

            “I will tell you, my friend,” he replied. “From the mind of God there is a power that comes into the water and the tree you passed. This is what makes me look this way. You see, all of us here, singing and lamenting, are cleansing ourselves through hunger and thirst for having filled ourselves to excess when we were alive. The smell of the fruit and the water that splashes down into that tree rouse up within us a powerful craving for food and drink – and not just once. As we run along this path, the pain we experience is rekindled again and again. I speak of pain, but what I really mean is solace. Believe me, the desire that continually brings us back to this tree is the same desire that led Christ to cry out, ‘Eli,’ when he died for us.”

            “My dear Forese,” I said, “it’s been less than five years since you departed from our world for a better one. If you knew you were close to death and no longer able to sin, tell me how it is that you have come so far up this mountain? I would have expected to see you near the bottom with those who wasted time in turning to God.”

            “It was my wife, Nella, who, with her tears and her prayers, enabled me to come to this terrace so quickly and begin my penitence. The more good she does the more she is precious to God, and the more I dearly love her. Unfortunately, the scandalous Barbagia of Sardinia have women more chaste than those where she lives now.

            “O dear brother, let me tell you this: I foresee a time – not far from now – when decrees from the pulpit shall warn the women of Florence against their lascivious dress. Even Saracen women know how to clothe themselves modestly. And if these wanton women knew what Heaven has in store for them soon, they would be screaming already. For if our foresight here is correct, these things will come to pass before their baby boys start growing beards.

            “But enough from me, my brother. Please tell me about yourself because, as you can see, everyone here – including me – is looking at you with amazement as you block the sun.”

            “If you recall how the two of us used to behave,” I replied, “ those memories must be a source of chagrin for you. But it was this one here who, just a few days ago, called me away from that way of life. Guided by him, and still alive, I traveled down to the very bottom of Hell. Then, still under his guidance, I have come this far up, circling the mountain which makes straight in you what the world deformed. He tells me that he will continue to guide me until we meet Beatrice; then I will proceed without him. It is Virgil there who leads me. That other soul has just been freed for Heaven. It was for him that the mountain shook.”