By Sebastian Mahfood
Beatrice, having completed her explanation to the angel choir, turns back to Dante and forces him to confess his sin of abandoning her (that is, divine revelation) for the pursuit of philosophy unaided by divine light. Dante cannot speak, his voice dying in his throat as he breaks down into tears, speechless and ashamed. She continues, “What yawning moats or what stretched chain-lengths lay across your path?” [lines 25-26] In essence, nothing prevented Dante from continuing his pursuit of her even beyond the death of her corporeal form. Finally, Dante’s able to cry out an explanation, and Beatrice accepts the confession. She then proceeds to tell him about his problem, which lay in the very death of her body. If her living form which had so inspired Dante could fall dead and corrupt, then so could any created thing. His witnessing that should have spurred him on to his pursuit of the uncreated source of all created things [lines 47-57]. Dante, whose head is hanging, is told to raise his beard—a sign that he is a fully grown man who should stop acting like a child—and look at her [line 69].
Ending her reprimand, Beatrice turns her face to the Griffin, who represents Christ. Dante realizes that in turning her face to Christ, even veiled, Beatrice outshines her “first-self by as much as she outshone all mortals formerly.” [lines 83-84] Dante’s recognition that every created thing he ever held onto in the world below now appears to have been a stumbling block is too much for him. He faints, only to come to in Matilda’s arms as she pulls him across the river and tells him to drink from it. Dante does so and the water has an immediate effect on him [lines 85-102].
Now that Dante’s been washed of any memory of sin, Matilda leads him out of the river to the dance of the four maidens who symbolize the cardinal virtues [lines 103-105]. They claim that they were Beatrice’s handmaidens before she went to earth [lines 106-108], which Ciardi explains as meaning that “the four cardinal virtues were ordained to be the handmaidens of the Church even before it was founded.” These maidens lead Dante to the Griffin, behind whom Beatrice is waiting, and both tell him in unison to look deep into Beatrice’s eyes. If the eyes are the window to the soul, Dante is now looking into them and seeing the Griffin [lines 109-120]. Thus Beatrice sees Christ directly, whereas Dante can only see Him reflected in Beatrice, as in a mirror. Beatrice here represents divine revelation, in which, in this life, as St. Paul says, “We see dimly, as in a mirror” (1Cor 13:1).
Dante’s not yet ready, Ciardi notes, to see the two natures of Christ as one, and he will not be able to do so until he makes it to the final sphere of heaven to gaze directly upon the mystery of the Trinity and the Second Person of the Trinity—who is God made man [Paradiso 33.130-145]. At this moment, the three maidens who are the theological virtues approach, and they implore Beatrice to remove her second veil and show Dante her smile [lines 130-138]. This second vision makes us understand that Beatrice represents not only revelation but also divine love.
Dante’s come a long way from his first meeting with Beatrice when he was nine years old, and here he is making the confession that he meant to make to her all his life. She completes him—allegorically, that is. Confession is hard, for it means packing up all the unnecessary but perceived-to-be-important baggage and placing it at the foot of the cross with the expectation that now we will live without it. It’s very easy, though, to stand back from the cross after we’ve laid our baggage down and pick a few pieces back up that we think we’ll need again in the future.
Dante’s got an advantage in swimming across Lethe, though, in that he’ll actually be able to leave all that baggage behind and walk on unencumbered. He’s completely washed away any memory of sin, meaning that his confession and his penance were one and the same, and he’ll never have to revisit his personal sins in his memory. He can, in the words of Christ, really “go and sin no more.” (Jn 8:11) Standing before the revelation of Christ, we can see with St. Thomas that all of our other doings amount to little more than straw, a revelation that is transformative and life-changing.
Dr. Sebastian Mahfood is a Lay Dominican of the Province of Saint Albert the Great, and serves as Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Through the Catholic Distance Learning Network, he sponsors the Digital Dante contest (www.digitaldante.org), which each year awards a Dante medallion to the person who submits the best digital interpretation of some aspect of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He lives in St. Louis, MO, with his wife, Dr. Stephanie Mahfood, and children, Alexander and Eva Ruth.