Chapter 31: Forest of Eden — Lethe (Purgatory)
Beatrice spoke to Dante, “You there on the other side of the stream Lethe, speak. Isn’t what I have said true? You must confess that you have sinned.” Beatrice’s words had been like the edge of a sword before — they cut. But now her words were like the point of a sword — they pierced.
Dante stood before her. He felt paralyzed. He felt confused. He moved his lips, but no sound came forth.
Beatrice continued, “What are you thinking? Answer me. The bitterness of your sins has not yet ceased because you have not yet drunk from this stream. Do you confess that you have sinned?”
I still have the bitter memories of the sins I have done and of the good things that I have not done. Many people — those who are not pathological — remember with bitterness things that they have done in the past but should not have done. They also remember things that they have not done but should have done. Sometimes, these bitter memories keep us awake at night.
Finally, Dante was able to force a word from between his lips. He confessed, miserably and with full knowledge of his guilt, “Yes.”
An arrow launched by a crossbow that breaks has little force, and so Dante, racked by guilt and with tears and sighs, launched his “Yes” with so little force that only a lip reader could know what he had said.
Beatrice said to him, “You loved me, and I tried to lead you to the Eternal Good, but you did not follow. What obstacles lay in your way that interfered with your pursuit of the Eternal Good? What did you find so desirable that you pursued them instead of the Eternal Good?”
Dante sighed, and weeping, he confessed, “After I lost sight of you, I pursued things that offer false joys, things that were offered to me by the world, things that led away from the Eternal Good.”
Beatrice said, “Your confession is heard. But if you had not spoken, or if you had denied your sins, your sins would still be known by God, the Judge who knows everything.”
The angels thought, Dante has learned from the trip that he has taken through the Afterlife: Dante has learned to take responsibility for his sins. This is something that the sinners in the Inferno did not do. Dante has also learned to repent his sins. This is also something that the sinners in the Inferno did not do. Many people become defensive when they are charged with something serious. Instead of admitting their guilt, they blame someone or something else: Love made them do it, or a book made them do it, or the Devil made them do it. Instead of blaming someone or something else, Dante simply admits that he is guilty — he made himself do it.
Beatrice continued, “But when a sinner confesses his sins, the punishment in this court is lessened.
“But you still need to feel the shame of the sins you committed. That way, when you return to the Land of the Living, and the Siren sings for you, you will be strong enough to resist the Siren’s song.
“Listen to me. Learn how my flesh, which is buried, was intended to teach you to take a better path than the one you freely chose to take.
“You never saw anything more beautiful — not in nature, not in art — than the living flesh that made up my body. That flesh is now dead and turned to dust.
“Once you knew that my living flesh could die and turn to dust, how could you pursue anything else that had only temporary value and temporary beauty? You should have learned from my death to turn your attention to the things that last. Instead of physical beauty, you should have pursued spiritual beauty.”
The angels thought, What are the eternal things — what are the good and beautiful things that last? What are some possible answers? They are such things as virtuous love, truth, and beauty. These things appear in the virtuous love we experience on Earth, and these things are part of great works of art. These things are important in Paradise.
Beatrice continued, “When I died, you should have rushed to pursue spiritual beauty. You had suffered one blow. Why love another pretty woman or other temporary beauty and set yourself up for another blow?
“A fledging waits and suffers a blow from a second arrow, but the mature bird sets itself in flight and does not let itself by used by a second arrow as a target.”
Dante stood before Beatrice like a child silently standing before a mother who has scolded the child. The child knows that he or she is guilty, and the child feels sorry. So did Dante.
Beatrice said to Dante, “If simply hearing my words causes you grief, raise your beard and look at me and see what will cause you greater grief.”
And when Dante, an adult man who had pursued glittery trivialities the way that a child would, raised his eyes and looked at Beatrice, he saw that she was facing the Griffin — the being that has two natures.
Beatrice was still wearing a veil, and she was still on the shore across the stream, and she looked more beautiful than she ever had while she was still alive on Earth, when she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Dante felt guilty. After Beatrice had died, he had loved some things, but now he hated them. His guilt overwhelmed him, and he fainted.
When he regained consciousness, the lady whom he had first seen in the Earthly Paradise was over him and telling him, “Hold on tight to me.”
Dante was in the stream, the lady was walking on the water, and she pulled him across the stream with ease.
As he was being drawn across the stream, he heard the sweet singing of some words from Psalm 51: “Cleanse me of sin.”
The lady dipped Dante into the stream, and he drank, and then she drew him out of the stream, cleansed of his sins.
The four ladies who are symbolic of four virtues from classical antiquity — Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude — came dancing to Dante and raised and joined their hands over him.
They said to him, “When you first arrived on the Mountain of Purgatory, you saw us as four stars. Now we are here before you and appearing to you as ladies. Even from the time before Beatrice was born, we were meant to be her handmaids. Now we will lead you to her eyes. The other three ladies, who were at the sides of the wheels of the chariot and who are symbolic of three Christian virtues — Faith, Hope, and Charity — see more deeply than we do and will help you to see more deeply than we can.”
The four ladies led Dante to Beatrice and the Griffin, and Beatrice looked at the Griffin.
The four ladies told Dante, “Look deeply into Beatrice’s eyes. These are the eyes that made you love Beatrice.”
Dante looked at Beatrice’s eyes. Reflected in her eyes was the Griffin, who has two natures that are symbolic of Jesus, who has a divine nature and a human nature, and who has both natures at the same time.
Dante looked, and he saw first one nature and then the other, but he was incapable of seeing both natures at the same time, although they were there and Beatrice saw them at the same time.
Dante was delighted and amazed by what he saw, and he wanted to continue to be delighted and amazed.
The three ladies who are symbolic of the theological virtues came to Dante and said to Beatrice, “Turn and look at Dante. He has come very far to look at you. Please remove the veil that covers your mouth. Smile, and allow him to see more of your beauty.”
Beatrice removed her veil, and she smiled, and Dante saw beauty that he was unable to describe even with his poetic gifts that are destined to last through millennia.
Beatrice had the beauty of Revelation, and she had the beauty of Salvation.
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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