Chapter 2: Dante Hesitates
The night began to fall, and although most men were preparing for bed and sleep, Dante was preparing for a rough journey in which he would battle the pity that he could so easily feel for other people. To tell this journey later, he would require the help of the Muses.
Dante was troubled. He said to Virgil, “Tell me if you think that I am able to undertake this journey. You wrote about Aeneas, who visited the Land of the Dead while he was still living. He deserved such special consideration because of who he is: the founder of the Roman people. And Rome became not just the center of an empire, but also the residence of the Popes. Aeneas learned much in the Land of the Dead — much that would help him as he fought to establish himself in Italy and to create the people who would found Rome and the papal seat.
“Another person who visited the Land of the Dead is Saint Paul, as we read in the Visio Sancti Pauli. He brought back from the Land of the Dead confirmation of the Christian faith.
“But who am I to make such a journey? I am not Aeneas. I am not Saint Paul. I do not think that I am worthy to undertake such a journey, and I cannot believe that any other man would think that I am worthy of undertaking it.
“But what do you think? You are wise.”
Dante was having second thoughts, and no wonder. This journey was not through pleasant country. This was not a journey of a tourist. Instead, this was a journey through a land of screams.
“A great journey is ahead of you,” Virgil replied, “yet you are shying away from it like a coward or an animal that is afraid of its own shadow. To put courage in your heart, let me explain why I am here. Let me explain the pity I felt when I learned that you had strayed from the path of truth and had found yourself in the dark wood of error.
“I was in Limbo with the other souls who deserve neither torture nor bliss. A beautiful and blessed lady came to me, and I knew immediately that I would do whatever she asked me to do.
“She addressed me, ‘Noble poet, who has been, is, and will be famous as long as human beings read poetry, a man has strayed from the path of truth and needs your help, if help is not too late to reach him and guide him. I want you to go and be his guide, and take him through the dark places. My name is Beatrice, and this man loved me while I was alive.’
“‘Lady, I will do all that you ask,’ I replied, ‘but please tell me how you come to be here. Obviously, you come from a much different place, so why are you here in Limbo, the first Circle of Hell?’
“‘I have no fear of Limbo, no fear of Hell,’ Beatrice told me. ‘Once souls are in the place from which I come, souls are incapable of being separated from God and they are incapable of ever feeling the other torments of Hell. The Queen of Heaven helps people in need, and she knows that this man needs help. She called Saint Lucia, to whom this man is devoted, and asked her to find a way to help him. Knowing that this man loved me while I was alive, Saint Lucia came to me and requested, “Beatrice, a man needs help. Can you help the man who loved you so much while you were alive?” I then came to you, and I have asked that you be a guide for this man.’
“And so, Dante, I came quickly to you,” Virgil said. “Why are you afraid? Three heavenly ladies — Beatrice, Saint Lucia, and the Queen of Heaven herself — are all looking out for you. With three such champions on your side, what have you to be afraid of?”
The courage rose in Dante just as flowers rise toward sunshine.
“My courage has revived,” Dante said. “Beatrice and you are helping me, and I am eager to begin my journey. Let us start at once, as each of us is eager to do. You are my guide, and you are my teacher.”
Virgil led the way along a rugged path; Dante followed him.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:
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