By Noëlle Hiester
The Divine Comedy opens with Dante—both author and principle character—finding himself lost in a “dark wilderness.” It is Good Friday of the year 1300 (a Jubilee Year, like the current Year of Mercy). Dante notes that he is “Midway upon the journey of our life”, and indeed in the year 1300 he would have been 35 years old, or halfway through the biblical span of 70 years (see Psalm 90). It is interesting that Dante uses the word “nostra” or “our” in this opening line. Clearly he wants the reader to understand that all of us are to identify with the nameless pilgrim.
Dante tells us that he was full of sleep and so does not know how he came to be lost in the wilderness. But now he’s awake and aware that he’s lost, and he wants to find the correct path again. But, there’s a problem. Dante starts trying to climb up the hill, toward the true path, but he finds his way blocked by three beasts. First comes the leopard, then the lion, and then, the she-wolf who drives him back into the darkness. Critics agree that these three beasts represent different sins, but there are different interpretations as to which sins they represent. Perhaps this is best. This way, we can all read our own sins there. At any rate, one very plausible explanation is that they represent the three basic divisions of hell that Dante will soon visit: sins of licentiousness, violence, and fraud.
How many times have we become aware that we have drifted into sin by not being careful? And when we try to climb out of the wild valley into which our sin has led us, the beast of our sin comes to roar at us, making us afraid to even attempt the climb out. At one and the same time we want to grow in virtue, but we don’t want to give up our vice.
It’s just at this point, as he is stumbling in the dark, wanting to climb toward the light but unable to discover how to go around the beasts, that Dante sees a figure of “one who seemed hoarse, having held his words so long.” And here Dante speaks his first word, “Miserere” or “Mercy.” He speaks in Latin bringing to mind both the Penitential Psalm 51 and the Penitential Rite of the Mass. He is looking for mercy which will lead him out of this dark wilderness, and he is soon to find out that he’s been granted mercy through the prayers of “a gentle lady in Heaven”—the Virgin Mary (stay tuned for Canto II). This strange figure turns out to be the Roman poet Virgil, a fitting guide toward the Heavenly city since his fourth Eclogue was viewed as prophecy of Christ’s birth.
Virgil tells Dante that he cannot get to the realm of the blessed by going past the beasts. Indeed the beasts will not be vanquished until the greyhound comes. (There is a lot of speculation about who the greyhound is supposed to represent, but like most prophecies, there are probably layers of meaning, including Christ.) This line immediately puts me in mind of Francis Thompson’s beautiful poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” Both Dante and Thompson vividly illustrate the lengths Christ will go, in His mercy, to bring a soul home to His Kingdom.
Dante has found himself lost and is only able get to the place of God’s illuminating light with help. He can’t “pick himself up by his own bootstraps” but must rely on the aid of another. Dante (the author) here understands that it is only by grace, by the merciful help of God through the intercession of Mary and the saints that he can make progress toward the heavenly city. And so, he prepares to follow his guide wherever he may lead, even though his guide may lead him through hell.
As I finish reflecting on this opening Canto, I’m left with a question: how many times have I turned away from a guide sent to me by Heaven? I’m reminded of all the times when all around me seemed dark and unpleasant and I resisted, sure that this difficult path, this terrible suffering, could not be the true path. I ask God for the grace to trust him more firmly, confident that in His wisdom, even the suffering is bound up in His Mercy.
O Christ Jesus, when all is darkness and we feel our weakness and helplessness, give us the sense of Your presence, Your love, and Your strength. Help us to have perfect trust in Your protecting love and strengthening power, so that nothing may frighten or worry us, for, living close to You, we shall see Your hand, Your purpose, Your will through all things.
(By St. Ignatius of Loyola, 1491-1556)
Miss Noëlle Hiester is the Director of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester. She first encountered Dante’s Divine Comedy as a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville and has been a fan ever since.