The story of Canto 33 is hard to summarize. There is so much detail that a summary threatens to be longer than the text. A simple summary would be that Beatrice and Dante converse, a one-sided conversation in which she tries to explain what is going on and Dante remains unenlightened and tongue-tied. She talks about Dante writing down his experiences—how self-referent can the text be!—and eventually she promises to speak in “the simplest words” to his “dull intellect.” Eventually Dante sees the source of the two rivers, the Lethe, in which Dante has already bathed, and the Eunoe which will accomplish his final cleansing.
Canto 33 is the closing of the door of Purgatory and the opening of the door to Paradise. This liminal experience is a time of danger and opportunity, a real crisis, a turning point, a moving from one state to another, and Dante shows all the effects of this moment. The effects are interior, like the movement of an adolescent into adulthood through a rite of passage, or the initiation of an early Christian through the waters of baptism. It is a moment of grace.
This canto is also full of references to the text. Beatrice describes what she is doing as a “narration”, in effect asking Dante to narrate her narration. There is also conspicuous and unusual uses of the word for “to make a note” and “to write.” In addition, the extended allegory of Canto 32 is rehearsed, a complicated literary device that, while appearing to deal with the future, is really more about the present.
It is good to remember that Dante is writing all of this. He is the mastermind behind all the characters and their dialogue. Dante hearing all these words is actually Dante writing all these words. We who are caught up in the text make the text a reality, as the metaphors and allegories and the constant references to real personages come alive for us. We hear a conversation between Dante and Beatrice and we forget that Dante is writing both sides of the conversation. But never mind that Dante is the author. Let’s jump in to the text without any reserve and regard it as real, the conversations as real, the characters as real persons having personality, psychology, motivation and all.
When that’s the case, this Canto 33 is a liminal experience, a time of strangeness, an entrance into the unfamiliar, the incomprehensible. Sure, Dante has needed explanation throughout his journey so far, and the guidance of Virgil. Usually he has understood the explanations; his faculty of reason has given him enough light. But now, at the door to Paradise, reason is not enough. From now on, the light of faith is the key to knowledge.
The door from Purgatory to Paradise is not opened by human reason, not even by the narrative itself that details for us how Dante passes through this door. Dante has been climbing, but not really climbing. Rather, he has been pulled up—by grace and light. He has come to understanding, but not by knowledge or reason. He has come to understanding through what he has experienced. He has drunk his knowledge from a stream of grace, a drinking that has turned forgetfulness to wisdom and rebirth.
If you think of it, this is our story, too. The text that is our life is a narrative about how God has found us, given us to drink of life, and brought us to rebirth. It is these events that bring us home. It is these divinely caused events that we “narrate” as we remember, often ignorantly and dimly, what grace has done for us.
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.