By Fr. David Tedesche
In this second canto of the Inferno, Dante gets ready to begin his descent into hell under the guidance of Virgil. In a way, this second canto is really the first canto of the Inferno. This can be seen from the fact that Dante—in his capacity as poet and narrator—calls upon the “muses” and “high genius” to aid him in the lyrical retelling of his infernal experience [line 7]. And it will be in the first canto of the Purgatorio and the first of the Paradiso that Dante will again call upon the muses. Precedence being set by classics like Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, epic poetry traditionally began with an invocation of the poetic muses—quasi-divine spirits who inspire the poets in their supernal art. And thus we must conclude that the first canto of the Inferno is really an introductory canto. Final confirmation of this can be found in the fact that the Inferno has 34 cantos in contrast to the 33 cantos of the Purgatorio and the 33 cantos of the Paradiso.
In this second canto, Dante has his doubts about whether or not it is really prudent for him, while still in his mortal flesh, to undertake a journey through the infernal regions. It is true that, as Virgil himself relates in the Aeneid, the great and ancient figure of Aeneas made such a descent into the underworld while still mortal [lines 13-15]. And so did St. Paul, the “Vessel of Election” (Vas d’elezïone) [lines 28-30; cf. Acts 9:15]. This could be a reference to a popular medieval tradition that part of St. Paul’s otherworldly vision mentioned in 2Cor 12:1-5 involved a descent into hell—a tradition based on the Visio sancti Pauli, a third century apocryphal work whose graphic description of the sufferings of the damned likely provided inspiration for Dante’s Inferno (see Appendix B in the Esolen translation). But it’s no surprise that Aeneas and St. Paul were privileged to make such a perilous journey. They were special. Aeneas was to be the father of Rome which would in turn become the seat of the Papacy [lines 16-27]. And St. Paul’s journey would prove to be confirmation of the Christian faith [lines 28-30]. But Dante is neither Aeneas nor St. Paul. He is a ‘nobody’ [lines 31-33]. Is it wise for such a ‘nobody’ to undertake such a dangerous mission?
This is not true humility, though, on Dante’s part. He is lacking the resolution every great undertaking requires [lines 37-42]. In contrast to Dante’s pusillanimity (“smallness of soul”), Virgil is explicitly called “magnanimous” (i.e. “great souled”) [line 44]. And so it is Virgil who is qualified to speak the truth to Dante and tell him that his humility is really cowardice [line 45]. Dante is running away from shadows like a dumb animal [line 48]. I am reminded here of the line from the Old Testament book of Wisdom, “Fear is nothing but a giving up of the helps that come from reason” (Wis 17:12). Dante’s lack of fortitude and magnanimity are rooted in a deeper problem. He flies in fright from unreal shadows. His reason is not in touch with reality. Ironically enough, it will be the shadow of Virgil who will bring Dante into contact with reality, and Virgil will do this by recounting to Dante the unseen background story of just how he was sent to Dante.
The story begins in heaven with the Virgin Mary taking pity on Dante’s spiritual crisis [lines 94-96]. Mary’s pity is so powerful, it breaks “stern judgement” (duro giudicio). But, as we know from the bible, it is mercy that, in this way, triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Thus we see mercy as the first cause in the chain of causes that eventuates in Virgil being sent to Dante. But let’s pay attention to each link in this causal chain. The Virgin Mary summons another compassionate lady—St. Lucy, the “foe of every cruelty” (nimica di ciascun crudele) [line 100], and sends her to find Beatrice who is seated with Rachel, the Old Testament matriarch who is famous for weeping for her children (Mt 2:18). Lucy then sends Beatrice to Virgil. Beatrice is not afraid to leave heaven and descend to hell to retrieve Virgil because it is ‘love’ that ‘moves’ her (amor mi mosse) [line 72]. Spending time with mother Rachel has taught Beatrice how to weep, for it is with tears in her eyes that Beatrice gives her commands to Virgil [lines 115-117]. Thus is revealed to Dante the unseen heavenly matrix of womanly compassion and mercy that has given birth to Virgil’s mission. The truth of the matter is that divine mercy surrounds Dante, and it is this truth that gives him courage to undertake the perilous journey into hell, a journey he must take if he is to find his way to heaven [lines 127-140].
Thus in this second canto of the Inferno, we learn a number of things relevant to our spiritual lives. We learn that each of us is an Aeneas or a St. Paul. Each of us is chosen and called to great and glorious undertakings. The Christian vocation to eternal life is an arduous adventure that requires the courage of a hero. The Christian path is not the path for cowards. The Christian must desire great things and be “great-souled” if he or she is to attain salvation.
But also we learn that it is God’s mercy that makes us heroes, that gives us the courage to take on the challenge of the spiritual life. As St. Paul writes, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? […] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35-39)
And finally, we learn that God’s mercy reaches us in this world and enables us to attain unto the world to come through secondary created causes—through historical events and through other human beings. Notice that it is the pagan Aeneas who is used by God’s merciful Providence to establish the Roman civilization which proves to be of such great importance in the unfolding of Roman Catholic Christianity. Even secular realities are taken up into God’s merciful providential plan to call all men to supernatural beatitude. And then we have God’s mercy reaching us through the agency of other human beings. Dante, who on earth is no friend of Lady Fortune [line 61], has plenty of ‘lady friends’ and advocates in heaven. These heavenly intercessors are real human beings who love Dante with a pure and spiritual love. The saints in heaven—and those true friends we have on earth—are the vessels of mercy that God uses to guide us back to the right path and to save us.
Fr. David Tedesche is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He is currently serving as Parochial Vicar of St. Mary’s Parish and Sts. Mary and Martha Parish in Auburn, NY, and also as Theological Consultant for Faith Development Ministry for the Diocese of Rochester. Before entering seminary, he was a high school English teacher.