Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lenten Meditations on Purgatorio: Avarice & Prodigality

[Things have been very busy at work lately, and we've both been involved in various parish activities leading up to Holy Week, so my progress through Purgatorio has been sadly slowed. I'll probably be finishing well into Easter Season at this point, but I do plan to push through and finish blogging the second volume of the Commedia this year. I'll save Paradiso for next year.]

When I stepped out into the fifth circle,
I witnessed people on it who were weeping,
Lying on the ground with faces downward.

"My soul cleaves to the dust," this psalm I heard
Them murmuring with sighs so deep and gasping
That scarcely could the words be understood.
(Purg. XIX, 70-75)

As soon as the poets reach the fifth terrace, they find the ground covered with penitents laying face down in the dust. Dante asks if any of them are Italian and if someone can explain to him the nature of the sin they are seeking to expiate, and he is answered by Pope Adrian V, who reigned for one month only in 1276.

Pope Adrian tells Dante of how his ascension to the papal throne showed him at last that earthly honors and possessions do not bring true happiness, and brought about in him a conversion to true love of God -- and just in time as he lived but one month more. On this terrace, those who placed their love in earthly things and turned their backs to God lay face down, facing the earth which they so loved, with their backs to heaven. They water the earth with the tears of their repentance until they are judged ready to move upwards.

Dante is moved to be addressed by one of the successors of Peter, and is about to kneel down before him, but Pope Adrian orders him to remain standing:

"Straighten your legs, my brother, on your feet!"
He answered, "Make no mistake: with you and others
I am a fellow-servant of one Power.

"If ever you have understood the word
The Holy Gospel sounds in ‘They neither marry,’
You can see clearly why I speak this way.

"Now move along: I would not have you stay
Since your remaining here keeps me from weeping
The tears to ripen penance which you spoke of.
(Purg. XIX, 133-141)

Obedient to the pope, the poets move on down the terrace, which is so covered with the prostrate penitents that they have to pick their way carefully in order to avoid stepping on anyone.Greed is the most heavily populated terrace we have reached since pride -- humanity hasn't changed much in the 700 years since Dante's time.

After proceeding a little way, they hear called out three examples of holy poverty and generosity: Mary's giving birth to our Savior in a stable; the early Roman consul Fabius, who died in poverty rather than accept bribes; and St. Nicholas, lauded for helping the three dowerless maidens, among many others.

Dante is eager to find the speaker, and when he identifies the penitent who has been crying out these examples asks him who he is. The soul identifies himself as Hugh Capet, the founder of the French royal dynasty, who ruled from 987 to 996 AD. Hugh bewails the depths to which greed for wealth, land and power has driven his descendants, culminating in a prophecy of the kidnapping of the pope and Avignon Papacy -- which would begin five years after the internal date of the Divine Comedy, 1300, but before Dante's writing of it in 1308-1321.

Between these two characters to whom Dante speaks, we see examples of the two sources of power in medieval Europe, church and royalty, condemned for greed. The symmetry is surely not coincidental.

Hugh then goes on to list a number of examples of greed -- far more than the normal three we have heard on other terraces. Perhaps the pervasive and consuming nature of avarice deserves more exemplars. Among them are King Midas, Achan who tried to keep for himself spoils from Jericho in the book of Joshua, Sapphira and Ananias from Acts, and Marcus Licinius Crassus -- the Roman triumvir so known for greed that when the Parthians defeated and killed him in 53 B.C., their king had molten gold poured down the throat of his severed head, which was then left out as a warning to others.

After talking with Hugh, the poets move on around the terrace.

We were already gone away from him
And struggling to go forward on the road,
So far as our own powers would permit us,

When I felt — like something that is falling —
The mountain tremble, and at that a chill
Gripped me, as grips one going to his death.

Surely Delos did not shake so sharply
Before Latona built her nest in it
To give birth to the two eyes of the sky.

Then such a cry on all sides started up
That my master drew close to me and said,
"Don’t be afraid while I am guiding you."

"Glory to God in the highest" they all cried,
By what I understood from those close by,
Where the crying could be comprehended.

Motionless and in suspense we stood,
Just like the shepherds who first heard that song,
Until the trembling stopped and the song ended.

Then we took up again our holy road,
Looking at shades that lay along the ground
Already turned to their accustomed weeping.
(Purg. XX, 124-144)

Dante is so amazed by the tremor and the cry that he is afraid to ask any of the souls they pass the meaning of the event. After a few minutes the hear a greeting of, "My brothers, may God give you peace!" And turning, they see a soul approaching them from behind, walking upright among the see of prostrate penitents.

Virgil tells this new arrival the nature of their journey and asks him what the meaning of the recent tremor and cry of rejoicing was. The soul explains that when, after many years of penance, a penitent's will suddenly find itself able to conform perfectly with the virtue proper to the terrace, the soul rises from his penance and proceeds to the angel who guards the pass to the next terrace. As the soul rises, all the other penitents on the mountain cry out in rejoicing, and the mountain itself is shaken with God's joy.

The soul now speaking to them is the penitent who has just risen from over a hundred years spent on this terrace. Dante asks him who he was in life, and he says that he was Statius, a Roman poet of the first century A.D.

Statius waxes eloquent about poetry, and the inspiration he drew from reading the poetry of Virgil, who lived just a hundred years before. Dante cannot help smiling at this, and when Statius questions him reveals to him that it is the shade of Virgil who is standing with them at that very moment. Statius is overjoyed, but Virgil refuses the homage that Statius tries to pay him, saying that they are all brothers now in death.

Still immersed in conversation about poetry, the poets reach the angel who guards the pass to the next terrace. Another "p" is erased from Dante's forehead.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by AllenMandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

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