By Fr. Joe McCaffrey
Dante begins this canto on gluttony searching for the voice which has told him of those who have been satisfied by fasting, such as John the Baptist with his sparse diet of locusts and honey. But Virgil calls him away from the tree and the voice that he might follow after his “more-than-father” and Statius, who are conversing. We do not follow their conversation for Dante hears the phrase, Labia me, Domine (“O Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise”), a famous line from the even more famous penitential Psalm 51. The line is coming from a group of emaciated souls, the flesh of whose faces assume the contours of their skulls. And yet they look devout, like “pilgrims wrapped in holy meditation.”
In his attention to these souls, Dante is recognized by one of the pilgrims, who praises the grace of that moment laying eyes on Dante. It is Dante’s friend Forese, whom Dante does not recognize due to his emaciated state, but Forese is overjoyed at the privilege of seeing Dante again.
Their conversation ranges in many directions. Dante wonders how Forese and his companions have become so drawn, and learns that hunger has become their companion in Purgatory as gluttony their occupation in life. They are wasting away, a grace that will save them. Dante marvels that Forese has advanced so far in Purgatory so soon after death, in less than five years. Forese credits “my Nella’s flood of tears,” the prayers of his wife, which have lifted him over many rungs and punishments, which he deserved, to so close to the goal of his purgation. After some of Forese’s condemnation of Florentine women and their fashions, Dante points out Virgil who will accompany Dante until he meets up with Beatrice.
Mercy is so very powerful. When I stand in God’s mercy, and really understand the gift, it changes who I am. Accepting God’s mercy as a gift, and all that means, transforms me from within and affects all I see and do. Forese and his companions are suffering, hungry, and forced to return again and again to the tree that torments them with the sweet smell of fruit. This torment is grace, a gift that draws them upward, as Christ’s torment on the tree of Calvary “set us free.” The ability to see their situation as grace is due to their transformation by God’s mercy. They are on the upward way, so torment means freedom.
Dante marvels that his friend has advanced so far, so soon, and this, too, is a mercy, but one with a human touch. The love and tears of Nella, his wife, have advanced Forese. There is a human measure to mercy, too. In Purgatory it is measured in the human way, in time. Time, after all, is all we really have, all we can really spend. Statius, Virgil’s friend, has been travelling some thirteen hundred years awaiting freedom from torment: Dante’s friend is nearly there after not even five. As if mercy can be measured! But purgatory is a timed experience, as is every experience in this life, as is the love that has moved Forese along so quickly. Mercy is a human experience, shared and given by one to another, even if it is powerful enough to move another closer to God. The love of a friend, the love of a spouse, a parent or a child, can be so powerful. It can set us free. We often experience this through forgiveness, the human gift that so closely resembles God’s mercy.
In some ways, mercy is a blind transaction. It is always a gift, but we are often unsure of its acceptance. God, of course, knowing everything, knows if mercy is accepted, but we ain’t God. Our transaction always has the potential to be blind, but we are called to be merciful anyway. The mystery should draw us in, imitating the divine.
We never know how much our mercy, our cooperation in God’s mercy, can accomplish. A priest, in the sacrament of Penance, has a window into this precious transformation. When someone lets go of a secret, and can accept forgiveness, life shines through. We move up a circle, all of us; certainly in the confessional, both priest and penitent are graced by the same gift. The same can be true when we pray for each other, both here and hereafter. Mercy would be such a paltry thing if it is limited to time and space; it is so much broader and deeper than that. Nella’s prayers for her dear Forese can show us what God can do with our mercy.
Fr. Joe McCaffrey is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester and pastor of Nativity BVM parish in Brockport, NY. His graduate work was done at St. Bernard’s Seminary, Colgate Rochester, and Syracuse University. He taught Philosophy and Religious Studies at Elmira College and Syracuse University. His main interests at present are Ignatian Spirituality, guiding the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life (19th Annotation), and baseball.