By Fr. Paul Tomasso
It might be natural to try to forget that one is in Purgatory but this is impossible in Canto 19 because the very opening verses are gray and mysterious with references to the heatless light of the moon and the chill of distant Saturn, the forbidden art of divination by the “geomancers,” and the haunting dream of the Siren singing her destructive song.
The Discreet Lady who beckons Virgil to awaken Dante from the dream is not a person but perhaps symbolizes that instinct we all have that tries to alert us to danger or temptation. She manages to do her work and then is gone until another time or circumstance when we need to be stirred. Perhaps this image of the Discreet Lady might be akin to conscience or a Guardian Angel or the Holy Spirit. We know this helping whisper is real in our own experience. Here its importance is moving Dante along into his journey while also shaking him from his troubling dream which, as we shall see, will continue to occupy and disturb him.
Dante and Virgil are now guided by the Angel of Zeal whose fast fluttering wings are in symbolic contrast with the vice of sloth. Dante notes that the Angel’s travel guidance is spoken to him “in accents fraught with so benign a tenderness of tone as never ear in mortal precinct caught” [lines 43-46]. This is another lesson about zeal, that it can be practiced in gentle ways, compassionate ways, but most of all that it is for the sake of another, not self. The Angel of Zeal then expresses the Benediction which puts into scriptural context the purgation of those suffering for their embrace of Sloth.
Virgil, the teacher, seems to act as a mentor-friend as he asks Dante “what aileth thee?” [line 54] and learns that it is his recollection of his dream of “that ancient witch,” the Siren. “Spurn earth beneath thy heels; look only to the lure the Eternal King whirls yonder,” declares Virgil [lines 61-63]. This life-giving advice would have been a gift at any point in their journey together as it possesses the grace of bringing light into darkness, cheer into dreariness, new energy at the edge of exhaustion. Its effect is swift as we hear in Dante’s reply: “Once more did I my cheerful flight uplift” [line 69]. Virgil’s advice is not merely “Look forward” but “Look towards the King!” To Dante, this advice inspires in him the hope of being drawn by the King Himself into His Kingdom, into Paradise. Prayers and Psalms of lamentation in the Old Testament usually contain a refreshing line of hope right in the center of the prayer or psalm. It is interesting that it appears to happen here in what is close to the center of the The Divine Comedy.
A calm spirit is valuable as Dante proceeds, coming next upon the spirits of the Covetous. Dante meets Pope Adrian V who explains that the Covetous must lie face down on the earth until purgation is achieved since their sin was proudly looking to earthly life, not to heaven for comfort. Avarice, ambition, “being bent on earthly matters” [line 118] to the detriment of all else now is detrimental to them. When Dante attempts to show respect to Pope Adrian, Adrian stops him saying that after death worldly titles, honors, ranks do not exist. The very things the Covetous prized count for nothing in the afterlife, a lesson learned painfully late.
This canto concludes with Pope Adrian making reference to a surviving “virtuous” niece. His comment reveals some solicitude for her living in a corrupt house, a concern not necessarily strong in the Covetous. Perhaps he hopes she will pray for him. Regardless, hearing of his care is witnessing a glimmer of repentance for his life. Purgatory works.
Fr. Paul Tomasso is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He was ordained in 1981 and, since then, has served in a variety of pastorates and assignments. Currently he is Director of Seminarians and Parochial Vicars and is also Vicar General for the Diocese of Rochester.