Canto 3 opens with a discussion concerning God’s mysteries. Virgil says, “…mad is he who hopes to plumb the endless ways of those three Persons in substantial Unity.” [lines 34-36] We are reminded of the passage from Isaiah, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways…” (Is 55:9). God’s mysteries are beyond the intellect of man. We see this in the fate of the great pre-Christian philosophers who, because of their natural limitations, will be forever frustrated in their desire to know supreme wisdom. Dante witnessed this when he traveled through Limbo (Inferno 4.130-144). “And you’ve seen men desire in vain before, whose intellects might well have calmed the yearning that now is made their sorrow evermore…” [lines 40-42].
Herein we find the double edged sword of reason. On one hand, as Aristotle points out, mankind naturally seeks to understand, but on the other hand, this pursuit of knowledge can only go so far. There is a ceiling on man’s reason. We need to appreciate this. Canto 3 of the Purgatorio serves as a reminder that a pursuit of knowledge must be tempered with humility. Without humility, we are going to get ourselves in trouble. This is the temptation of our age.
I recall one evening after work, my former roommate confessed to me over a few beers that his faith was shaken. Many aspects of the Catholic faith troubled his heart. He said these doubts were first planted in him at college by professors. He went on to graduate from college with a head full of doubts about God, the Bible, and the teachings of the Church. He was especially troubled by the story of Noah’s Flood. How could God allow all those people to perish in such a terrible catastrophe?
My roommate’s experience made me recall the temptation of Our First Parents: “Did God say not to eat the fruit of all the trees?” In wetting their intellectual appetite, the Devil drew them into a dialogue and introduced them to the idea that they could have more, that they could be more. “You will be like God, knowing good from evil!” (cf. Gen 3) Rational inquiry is good and is proper to man. Yet let’s not forget that we are not God! There are limits to how much we can understand. Especially after original sin, we are all born not only with a will weakened in regards to the good but also with a mind darkened as regards to the truth.
It seems to me that he who tempted Our First Parents has not gone into retirement and that he has been working extra hard as of late. In this “information age”, how often is it the case that along with all our data, we never arrive at the peace of knowing the truth but instead become more and more estranged from it? Is this not due to our fallen nature that often times does not know how to use all this information rightly? Pride goes before the fall. When we make the acquisition of bare knowledge an idol, we set ourselves up as gods. And we must never forget the limits of human reason even at its best.
The change that takes place in the relationship between Virgil and Dante in Canto 3 is instructive in this regard. Up until line 52, Virgil has been Dante’s intrepid guide with all the answers. But now both Virgil and Dante are at the foot of the Mountain of Purgatory and are faced with a sheer cliff-face. How to ascend? For the first time, Virgil is at a loss as to how to proceed, and for the first time it is Dante who advises Virgil. ““Teacher”, said I, “look there, lift up your eyes! If you can’t find the way up on your own, here are some people who might well advise.”” [lines 61-63]
Dante’s experience in Hell has provided him with a new humility, which now serves to inform his reason. He suggests asking for directions from the locals! For the first time we see Dante advise Virgil. The holy souls in Purgatory, like Dante but unlike Virgil, have been saved through grace. Because of this grace, they are able to find their way to heaven. Virgil, who represents human reason at its best, has brought us through the Inferno, but he can’t even begin to bring us to Heaven. This points out the limits of natural human reason. Virgil must turn to these holy souls who represent supernatural grace. Grace must be the guide of the human intellect. But humility is required in all of this!
Let’s go back to my conversation with my old roommate. What about his concern with Noah’s Flood? By the grace of God, I was able to help him understand the nature of God’s mercy. Mercy? What does Noah’s Flood have to do with God’s mercy? The bible says that in the days of Noah’s Flood, humankind was especially sinful. What chance did the average person born into such a world have of being free from vice and sin? The Flood was both the death of a sinful world and the genesis of whole new world free from sin. It was a rebirth for mankind. This is why Noah’s Flood has always been seen as a fitting symbol for baptism, the sacrament of God’s grace and mercy.
Also, we can’t forget that the bible says that Noah was many years in preparing the ark. During that time he preached repentance and men had ample time to respond (1Pet 3:20). God does not wish any of us to die in our sins. He wants us to be saved. This is his main motive in threatening us with chastisements. We see this in the case of Jonah. Through Jonah, God threatened the Ninevites with destruction. When they repented and were saved from the impending doom, God’s will was accomplished. “The Lord is…forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Pet 3:9) But if God never carried out his threats, his warnings would be empty and would not achieve their aim—our repentance and salvation. So when his threats lead to our repentance, they accomplish their purpose, but for them to do this, they can’t be mere bluffs. So whether they lead to our salvation or chastisement, they have mercy as their motive.
Finally, we can’t forget that the Flood itself was not too sudden for men outside the ark to repent. Many people must have seen the rains and floods, and if they were not saved from death, they could have repented before they died and so be saved from eternal damnation. This reminds us of Manfred whom we read about in our canto who, mortally wounded, was able to repent and be saved. “For when my body had been twice torn through by mortal wounds, with weeping I surrendered, yielding to Him who pardons willingly. My sins were horrible, but endless grace has arms of generous goodness thrown so wide they take in all who turn to them.” [lines 118-123] Indeed, even until our last breath, God’s ways are not our ways, but they are full of mercy.
Mr. Louis Massett and his wife Amber are college sweethearts and graduates of Christendom College. They reside in Auburn N.Y. with their four beautiful children, Lucy, Charles, Emma and Agnes. Louis serves as the Principal of Tyburn Academy of Mary Immaculate, a Classical Catholic School grades 7-12 in the Diocese of Rochester.