Every person needs to know where they come from in order to know where they are going. Memory—particularly the memory of our story and the story of our family, community, and people group—shapes our own identity, and identity, in turn, helps us to plot our course on into the future.
With slow steps that suggest the slow deliberation of meditation, Dante’s ascent up Mount Purgatory in Canto 28 brings him to an ancient wood. This wood is a place of great beauty, and the waters of its stream makes the waters of earth look impure by contrast. Yet already we have a taste that this wood does not completely satisfy. Despite the fact that the waters of its stream are purer by far than any in Dante’s earthy experience, the stream in lines 31-33 as being covered over by a gloomy shadow lends a sense of tragedy to this ancient place and also intimates that a purer beauty lies ahead. We may visit, but we cannot stay. What our hearts desire lies further on.
In this natural garden, Dante encounters a lady gathering flowers [lines 40-42]. Struck by the rays of love that shine through her beauty, he is drawn to her and to the beauty of her song. But he can only come so close—the turbulent and shadowy stream blocks his progress. So he calls for her to stand directly across from him so he can be as near to her as possible [line 48]. Three paces remain between them [line 70].
As it is with this garden, so it is with memory. It is a very beautiful place to visit. We are drawn to go there. We learn from memory for a little while, but we cannot cross over into it in any absolute sense, much less stay with its inhabitants for good. Memory unlocks the sights and smells of family dinners at Grandma’s house and warms the heart with the sounds of laughter and wise words learned long ago. Beneath the clear waters of memory is an undercurrent of sadness. We would like to stay, but we cannot. Yet the waters of memory also contain an undercurrent of hope. Memory is a guide, pointing us to a fulfillment that lies not in the past but in the future.
In Dante’s first address to the lady, remarking on her singing, he says “thou makest me remember” [line 49]. What he remembers is original beauty before original loss, invoking the tale of Proserpina, lost to her mother Ceres due to the rape of Pluto, lord of the Underworld. In the myth, all earth suffered with Ceres’ grief at the violent loss of her joyful child.
Memory might prove to Dante—as well as ourselves—a source of grief, if it did not also contain hope. The memory of our grandparents’ house is a shadow that might grieve us, but hope lightens that shadow and points us to the joyful reunion that lies ahead. The Lady likewise turns Dante’s memory from one of loss to one of expectation. In line 80, she alludes to Psalm 92, with its verse, “Thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy works.” That psalm goes on to sing how the works and workers of evil “shall be destroyed forever,” but the “righteous shall flourish like a palm-tree…in the courts of the house of our God.”
The Lady illuminates the tragedy of a lost earthly paradise and points us forward towards hope. This is Eden, the earthy paradise, that God “the First Good, whose joy / Is only in Himself” gave man whom he also created “for happiness” [lines 91-92]. But even so, the Lady reminds Dante that even God did not intend Eden as Man’s final destination, but as “his pledge and earnest of eternal peace.” [line 93] What she means is that God planted man in Eden, but Eden was just a promise of the delights of Heaven that lie above, and which Dante has yet to discover.
Why do we Christians remember Eden? Because we remember, just as Psalm 92 reminds Dante, that God does not let the tragedy of man’s fall have the final word. We must remember Eden because it gives us hope, reminding us of the Lord’s loving-kindness and faithfulness to his promises. God did not abandon “his pledge” of Heaven that he made in the Garden before man’s fall. Instead, the Lord stooped down to take on human nature in order to restore our hope for happiness. In the Easter vigil liturgy of the Roman Rite, we recall this with joy when we hear the chant, “O truly necessary sin of Adam, / destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! / O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”
The Lady then goes on to describe the waters Dante must drink to be worthy to enter paradise. For us, they provide a metaphor for the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation. First, she tells Dante that he must drink the waters of Lethe, to forget all his sins and sinful ways; second, he must drink the waters of Eunoe, to recall his good deeds done [cf. lines 127-134]. Our Christian life seems to involve a renewed drinking of both these waters through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This sacrament is an opportunity for us to search our hearts and memories. As we leave our sins behind, forgiven by the grace of God, so also we retain the memory of what good we have done and are strengthened to increase our good works in the future.
The Lady gives Dante—and us—one more reminder that our hearts must not rest in Eden. Perhaps the ancients on Mount Parnassus only had Eden, man’s lost paradise, as an elusive dream to recall. They could hope for no more until, as the Byzantine liturgy’s Pascal Troparian reminds us, Jesus Christ was “risen from the dead, trampling Death by death and, to those in the grave, bestowing Life.” For Dante and the Christian, Eden is not a lost destination, but just a remembered signpost on this journey, a memory that points our gaze higher toward the gates of Heaven that now, through the death of Christ, lie open to us.
Mr. Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He has covered Pope Francis’s historic visits to Holy Land and the United States, and also the Syrian-Iraqi refugee crisis in Jordan and Lebanon through Catholic Relief Services’s Egan Fellowship. He lives in Webster, NY, with his wife Alexis, and their daughter Cora.