Continuing on through the Terrace of Lust, in this Canto, Dante and his traveling companions encounter an angel, the angel of chaste living, who sings to them beautifully, “blessed are the pure of heart.” Then, flames shoot up with such ferocity that Dante extends his hands to shield himself from the fire. Virgil reminds Dante that while there may be suffering, there will be no death here—to urge Dante to extend himself into the flames. Still, Dante’s human nature holds him back—until Virgil tries another tactic: tempting Dante with the reward of his Beatrice on the other side of the flames. Dante then follows Virgil and Statius into the flames. Dante was no doubt in torment from these flames for as he tells us, molten glass would have provided some relief from their intensity. Dante follows his teachers through the fire towards Beatrice, encouraged by the angelic song once more: “Come ye, blessed of my father.” Dante and his herdsmen come to rest on the stone steps carrying them upward. As he sleeps, Dante dreams of Leah and Rachel—two women of the Hebrew Scriptures. Leah delights in her laboring with flowers and garland while Rachel rejoices in gazing upon herself in a mirror. Dante awakes to find that his companions are already active. Upon his awaking Virgil instructs Dante that today he will fulfill his hungering and desires. Dante is invigorated. He climbs and climbs and upon the highest step Virgil applauds Dante with praise and the recognition that while he had guided Dante with intellect and the arts, Dante now is the captain of his own ship, has come through a great test, and now is closer to God and can see the sun that shines on his brow.
This terrace is a lesson in the virtue of temperance. The sin of lust—of which Dante has just experienced and overcome—is a vice that stands in conflict with the virtue of temperance. Temperance, the Church teaches us, “is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion.” (CCC 1809) Temperance moderates our human attraction and sexual desires, moderates our consumption or overindulgence in food and drink and moderates our appetites toward things that are good rather than destructive, like sexual immorality and lustful behaviors.
Like the virtue of temperance which “directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good”, Virgil persuades Dante to plunge himself into the final purification by directing his desires towards Beatrice, a symbol of pure love. On the other side of this final purification, in a dream vision, Dante encounters two women who exemplify the temperate life. Leah tempers her appetites through her practical labors and active virtues. Rachel, on the other hand, tempers her appetites by gazing and reflecting upon herself, a symbol of prayer and contemplation another essential means to virtue and holiness.
Herein lies the point to my whole commentary on this canto. In today’s hypersexualized and consumeristic society, our love needs to be purified so that it is transformed from lust to true love. As Dante was drawn into the purifying flames of pure love, symbolized by his desire to behold the pure Beatrice, so also we today, more than ever, must direct our desires towards that which is good and wholesome. The point is to act temperately, moderate those appetites and exercise them appropriately. We have great tools to help us. The wonderful healing opportunity we have in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, prayer, contemplation and support from others. Then, perhaps we can live more chastely and express our beautiful human sexuality appropriately or live a life of sobriety and service. That’s our goal—to be lifted up by temperance, not pulled down by lust and addiction.
Dante reaches that top step. He’s on his way to paradise. We can be too, through virtuous living as a disciple of Jesus. Like Dante we too should “grow through education, deliberate acts, and perseverance in struggle.” (CCC 1839) Divine grace will purify and elevate us too.
Jonathan Schott is the Director of Recruitment, Admissions, Financial Aid and Alumni for St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, New York. Jonathan has served in lay ecclesial ministry for nearly 12 years and is often found giving catechetical and ministerial presentations in parishes, dioceses and at regional and national conferences. He resides in Rochester with his growing family, and in his spare time, he enjoys baseball and the yearly seasonal bounty of New York’s apple harvest.