Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 30 Retelling — Forest of Eden — Exit of Virgil; Entrance of Beatrice

Chapter 30: Forest of Eden — Exit of Virgil; Entrance of Beatrice (Purgatory)

When the seven candlesticks and the rest of the procession had stopped, the 24 elders who followed them all turned to the chariot, which was a symbol of the Church, and one of the 24 elders sang, “Come, soul wedded to Christ, from Lebanon.” The other elders then joined their voices to his, as he sang the words three times.

When the Day of Judgment arrives, all the dead, newly rejoined with their bodies, will sing, “Hallelujah.” With sound and feeling just like that, a hundred angels above the chariot sang, “Blessed are You Who is Coming.” They followed this by singing, “Give Lilies with Both Hands,” as they tossed flowers into the air.

Dante thought, This is a major compliment to Virgil. The first words the angels sang are, in Latin, “Benedictus Qui Venis,” which is very close to Matthew 21:9: “Benedictus Qui Venit”: “Blessed is He Who is Coming.” The next words the angels sang are, in Latin, “Manibus, O Date Lilia Plenis,” which is a direct quotation from Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid. For the angels to sing both a variant of sacred scripture and in almost the same breath sing some words from Virgil’s masterpiece has to make Virgil happy.

Sometimes, at the beginning of dawn, a rose color appears in the East, and the starry air is remarkably clear, and then the Sun appears in a mist that allows the eye to look at it without harm.

Like the appearance of such a Sun, a lady appeared as angels tossed flowers that covered the chariot. The lady wore a white veil, a green cloak, and a red gown. She also wore an olive crown. Dante recognized the lady: Beatrice.

Dante thought, The purpose of the procession I just saw was to prepare for the entrance of Beatrice, who is wearing three colors that have religious significance. The three colors represent the theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. In addition, the olive crown symbolizes wisdom.

As soon as Dante saw Beatrice, his long-time love for her — love he had felt for her since he first saw her when she was eight years old and he was nine — returned to him. He had felt that love from the time he first saw her until she had died at the age of 24.

Dante the Pilgrim turned to his left to talk to Virgil just like a child who is frightened or who needs comforting runs to his or her mother. He wanted to say to Virgil, “Every drop of my blood is filled with love for Beatrice. I recognize signs of the ancient flame.”

Dante the Poet thought, What I wanted to say to Virgil is a direct quote from Virgil’s Aeneid — “Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae.” Dido, the Queen of Carthage, says these words when she falls in love with Aeneas, the Trojan warrior who had survived the fall of Troy and was destined to become an important ancestor of the Roman people.

But Virgil was not present. His job was done, and he had started the journey back to Limbo. Now that he had delivered Dante to Beatrice, he did not stay around, and he did not say goodbye.

Even though Dante was in the Earthly Paradise, aka the Garden of Eden, and even though delights surrounded him, still he cried. He had delivered the safekeeping of his body and soul to Virgil, and he had not had the opportunity to thank or even say goodbye to him. Virgil had washed the stains of Dante’s tears away at the bottom of the Mountain of Purgatory, but now Dante cried.

Beatrice told him, “Dante, do not cry. Or, rather, do not cry yet. You are crying because Virgil has left you. Soon, you will have a better reason to cry. Do not cry now.”

Beatrice was standing on the chariot the way an admiral stands on a ship. An admiral calls the men to work, and Beatrice was calling on Dante to do the work of repenting his sins.

Dante turned and looked at Beatrice. She was wearing a veil, but Dante could still see the expression on her face. She was stern as she looked at him. The words she had to say to Dante were not intended to be pleasant to hear, although they were necessary for Dante’s salvation.

Beatrice said to him, “Yes! Look at me! I am Beatrice. Finally, you have climbed the mountain! Have you learned yet that this is the way to eternal happiness?”

Dante was ashamed and looked down. He saw his reflection in the stream, and he looked away from his reflection.

Dante was like a guilty child being judged by his or her mother. He was miserable, and she was stern. Even a loving mother can be stern when sternness is needed.

When Beatrice had finished speaking, all of the angels sang the first eight lines of Psalm 31:

“In You, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: deliver me in Your righteousness.

“Bow down Your ear to me; deliver me speedily: be You my strong rock, for a house of defence to save me.

“For You are my rock and my fortress; therefore for Your name’s sake lead me, and guide me.

“Pull me out of the net that they have laid privily for me: for You are my strength.

“Into Your hand I commit my spirit: You have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.

“I have hated them who regard lying vanities: but I trust in the Lord.

“I will be glad and rejoice in Your mercy: for You have considered my trouble; You have known my soul in adversities;

“And have not shut me up into the hand of the enemy: You have put my feet in a large room.”

Figuratively, Dante the Pilgrim was standing in a large room.

Just like the snow of the Apennines, a mountain range in Italy, will melt when air from equatorial Africa makes its way over it, so Dante’s heart was chilled when he heard Beatrice criticize him, but it melted when he heard the angels plead for him as they said to Beatrice, “Lady, why are you so hard on him?” The ice that had been within Dante melted and turned into tears.

The angels were compassionate, but Beatrice was not yet compassionate. She told the angels, “Your eyes see Paradise, yet no act on Earth is hidden from you. Even though I am now talking to you, the purpose of my words is to make this man who is now weeping realize just how guilty of sin he is.

“This man was gifted. Not only was he gifted through heredity, but also he was gifted through the workings of God. From an early age, he had great gifts. If he had used his gifts the way they ought to have been used, he would have seen enormous benefit.

“A rich soil when cultivated will bring forth much fruit, but a rich soil when uncultivated will bring forth many weeds. This man did not cultivate his gifts. He let bad seeds flourish.

“At one time, he loved me, and I loved the revelation of God, but when my physical body died, and I lost life but acquired Life, this man abandoned all thought of me and chased after others. He was unfaithful and did not do those things he ought to have done.

“I had left behind my body and had become all spirit, and yet he stopped loving me and he found no pleasure in thinking about me. He wandered from the path that leads to good and followed the path that leads to evil. He pursued things that pretended to be good and that promised much more than they were capable of delivering.

“I did not abandon him. I knew that his soul was in danger. Through prayer, I won for him truthful dreams and visions so that he could be inspired to pursue the path that leads to good. He refused to be inspired. Eventually, he became so evil that the only way to get him back on the correct path was to show him the Damned in the Inferno.

“To make this happen, I, a saved soul, visited Hell, and in Limbo I pleaded, in tears, to Virgil to be his guide and to lead him here. This man here cannot be allowed to drink of Lethe yet. To allow him to do that would be a violation of the laws of God. First, he must cry tears of true repentance.”

The angels thought, Beatrice knows what Dante must do. Christians believe that anyone can be saved — God offers salvation to all, not just to a few. However, the way that people can be saved can vary, although it will always involve confessing and repenting their sins. God reaches people in many ways. In Dante’s case, God reaches him through Beatrice. Beatrice is able to show Dante the way to Paradise. Beatrice is a harsh judge for Dante at this point. To be ready for his journey to and through Paradise, Dante must confess and repent his sins. Beatrice is stern as she talks about the bad things that Dante has done and about the good things that he has failed to do. Beatrice is taking her job as guide seriously, as she should. Beatrice wants Dante to end up in Paradise rather than in the Inferno. Beatrice is working hard to help Dante be saved.

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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