Canto 15: Seeing Clearly

Jackie RobinsonBy Nicholas Dube

It is now 3 p.m. and as Dante and Virgil round the mountain the sun shines upon their faces.  But a different light suddenly blinds Dante, so dazzling in its intensity that when Dante attempts to shield his face from its brightness, it reflects off the ground with such brilliance that he must avert his eyes.  Virgil informs Dante that it is another angel, who points the way up the stairs to the next terrace.  As pilgrim and guide ascend, the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful” is sung.  Alone once more, Dante takes the opportunity to ask Virgil about Guido del Duca’s lament (from the previous canto) that men fix their hearts on that which cannot be shared.  Virgil explains that, as opposed to the tangible objects of earth, which diminish in value once divided, the goods of Heaven, being infinite, can be divided and shared in equal measure.

Satisfied for now, Dante is suddenly struck by a vision of Mary entering the Temple of Jerusalem, admonishing a young Jesus for having remained behind by telling Him how worried they have been. The Biblical scene vanishes, and is replaced by an Athenian setting.  Pisistratus, the autocrat of sixth-century Athens, is entreated by his furious wife to execute a youth who, inflamed by ardor, had kissed their daughter in the public square when she passed by.  Her appeal is gently rebuffed by her husband’s tempered reply: “What shall we do to those who wish us ill, if we so condemn those who love us?”  Finally, Dante sees a howling mob set upon St. Stephen, hurling stones and killing him.  As the youth falls, he looks to Heaven and prays for pardon for his persecutors despite his agony.  Dante returns to his senses and continues along the path until a thick black smoke removes his sight.

It is interesting that Canto Fifteen begins and ends with Dante’s loss of vision.  Initially, Dante is blinded by the brightness of an angel, but Virgil tells him that soon it will not be harmful but rather a joy to look upon the heavenly beings.  As Dante purifies his soul more and more, he will be able to view the angels without difficulty.  In contrast to this temporary blindness, the smoke hanging in the air of the Terrace of Wrath is more oppressive, clouding the vision of penitents just as wrath can blind a person to sense and goodwill.  The sudden darkness contrasts with the visions that Dante is provided of meekness after provocation.

When Mary encounters Jesus in the Temple, she and Joseph have spent days searching for Jesus.  When they realized He was not with their company, they had already traveled a day’s journey from Jerusalem, and they rushed quickly back to find Him.  After three days, of course, they found him in the Temple.  Mary’s questioning of Jesus “Why have you done this to us?” is not a cross scold but a milder query, which is coupled with the explanation of the sorrow she and Joseph have been put through.  But her slowness to anger is demonstrated wise, because her son explains that He was about His Father’s business.  A strong rebuke, though it may have seemed initially appropriate, would have been wrong, and in her patience Mary received an answer that gave justification for Jesus’ absence.

Pisistratus is an odd choice for an exemplar.  Though he was a tyrant in the classical sense of the word (one who seizes absolute power outside of established means), even the ancient text that introduces Pisistratus’ story noted that the “utterance [was] by no means fitting the . . . lips of a tyrant!”  Yet even tyrants can teach.  And when Pisistratus was petitioned by his angered wife to execute the young man who had kissed his daughter in the public square, he bore the insult by asking whether it were wise to kill those motivated by love.  In Plutarch’s telling of the story, the young man and Pisistratus’ daughter were later wed.

But the final exemplar of meekness demonstrates patience not toward those who love us, but toward those who hate us.  St. Stephen, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, looked to Heaven and saw God and Jesus and proclaimed this fact before the Sanhedrin.   But they rushed against him, stopped up their ears, and stoned him.  Dying from the assault, Stephen’s last words were a plea to Heaven, which he could view clearly, that the sin should not be counted against his persecutors.  In this way he followed Jesus’ prayer from the cross for forgiveness to those who crucified Him.  This act of rejecting one of the most basic of instincts, to avenge wrongs committed against us, is taken to its extreme: to pardon one’s very murderers.

In each case, the quick and perhaps natural reaction would lead to the wrong outcome.  Anger against Jesus for staying behind in the Temple would have been misplaced; He could have had no better excuse than carrying about His Father’s business.  The execution of the youth of Athens would have repaid the offense, but, finding the young man’s intentions to be pure, Pisistratus forgave the insult and gained a son-in-law.  Stephen, his eyes turned to Heaven, forwent earthly predisposition and followed the Lord’s example.  By maintaining the long view, though human instincts threatened to cloud judgment, each exemplar demonstrated what it means to live virtuously and conquer wrath.

Mr. Nicholas Dube is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard College, with a degree in History and the Classics and a secondary concentration in Italian Studies. His experience with Dante includes study at the Carla Rossi Academy in Monsummano Terme, Italy, and attendance at academic conferences on the Divine Comedy.

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