Chapter 23: Sixth Ledge — Gluttony (Forese Donati) (Purgatory)
Dante looked up at the tree, trying to see from where the voice was coming.
Virgil called to him, “Dante, we need to make better use of our time. Let’s go.”
Dante quickly turned and followed Virgil and Statius and listened — with profit — to their conversation. Suddenly, the three poets heard chanting: “You shall open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall show Your praise.”
Dante asked Virgil, “What am I hearing?”
Virgil replied, “Most likely, the voices are coming from saved souls who are purging their sin and therefore paying off their debt to God.”
A group of souls, now silent, came up behind them. These penitents had been gluttons. While alive, they should have used their mouths to praise God instead of eating and drinking too much. Like monks, they now sometimes sang and sometimes were silent. The souls noticed Dante’s shadow, looked at him doubtfully, and then — their eyes still on the prize — walked past him and the other two poets.
These saved souls were emaciated. Their eyes were sunken and surrounded by dark shadows. Their bones could be seen clearly.
Dante thought, These souls remind me of Erysichthon, who cut down trees that were sacred to the goddess Ceres. He himself cut down a tree that was hung with wreaths: one wreath for each prayer that Ceres had granted. By cutting down the sacred tree, he killed a dryad nymph: the deity of the tree. In revenge, the nymph cursed him. Ceres heard the curse and punished Erysichthon by making him endlessly hungry. The more he ate, the hungrier he became. He sold all of his possessions to buy food to consume. He even sold his own daughter for money to buy food and eventually cannibalized his own flesh.
These souls also remind me of Miriam. During the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Miriam, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, was so hungry that she cooked and ate her own baby boy. She acted like a bird of prey cannibalizing its own young.
Dante the Poet remembered, The eye sockets of the penitents were clearly visible. Anyone looking at the penitents’ faces would have clearly seen the letters O and M and O in their faces: The two O’s are the eye sockets, and the M is the middle of the face (eyebrows and nose). The word ‘omo’ — or ‘homo’ — is Latin for man, and believers say that when God made Humankind, He put his mark on each human being.
Who would think — without knowing the nature of souls and how Purgatory works — that these souls who smell the fruit of the tree and who smell the stream of water that falls on the tree could be so emaciated?
Suddenly, one of the shades turned toward Dante and said, “This is a blessing that I have received from God!”
Dante recognized this soul from his voice; the soul was so emaciated that Dante could not recognize him from his face and body. This soul was his friend Forese Donati.
Dante thought, We used to write comic insult poems about each other and send them to each other. I criticized Forese for his gluttony and his huge belly. He wrote that I was once so afraid that I filled my pants with a substance that polite people don’t mention except when talking to their physician.
Forese said to him, “Ignore the way I look: the sickly skin and shriveled flesh. Tell me about yourself and the two souls with you. Who are they? Please tell me your story!”
Dante replied, “When you died, I wept. And now I feel like weeping again seeing you as emaciated as you are. What has stripped the flesh from your body? Don’t ask me to speak. I am in shock at how you look, and I cannot talk well in such a state.”
Forese replied, “The tree with its fruit and with a stream falling onto it makes me lean. God has given the tree that power. All of us here fill our mouths with words to repent our sin of gluttony rather than fill our mouths with food and drink to make our bellies bigger. The tree makes us hungry and emaciated, and each time we go around this ledge our hunger and emaciation are increased. People may call this pain, but it is also solace. On the cross, Christ called out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Christ did not want to be on the cross, but He did what had to be done to redeem Humankind. He was eager to help Humankind. We are eager to do what has to be done to purge our sin of gluttony.”
Dante said, “Forese, you died not even five years ago. You repented late in life, so how were you able to climb so high up this mountain so quickly? I thought that I would see you in Prepurgatory with the late repentant.”
Forese said, “I had a good wife who has been a good widow. Nella cried for me, and she has prayed for me. Only because of her prayers, which come from a virtuous person, have I been able to climb so high and so quickly up this mountain. Because of her, I have been able to skip the other ledges.
“Both God and I love Nella, and she stands out in contrast with other women who lack her virtue. In Sardinia are wild women who go about with bare breasts. These wild women have more virtue than the women who are my Nella’s neighbors in Florence. Those ‘ladies’ of Florence go about with too-low necklines. Muslims dress much more modestly by their own choice. Trouble is coming to Florence, and if the ‘ladies’ of Florence knew the trouble that awaits them, they would scream. They will experience much trouble before the infants they now are holding grow up and grow beards.
“But now, Dante, tell me your story. I and my fellow penitents are looking at your shadow and are wondering how a living man has come to climb this mountain.”
Dante replied, “When you think about some of the times we spent together in the Land of the Living, you must cringe from some of the sins we committed. Because of my sins, my guide came to me to be my leader a few days ago. We journeyed through the Inferno, and then my guide led me up this mountain. He will be my guide until I meet Beatrice, whom you knew, and then Beatrice will take over as my guide.
“The other soul with me is that soul for whom the mountain trembled recently, showing that he is ready to enter Paradise.”
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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