by Arthur Paul Patterson
AS DIFFICULT AS it is to learn to trust a mentor, it is even more arduous to break down our self suspicion. Do we have what it takes to break free of the entanglements of the Dark Wood - to melt with feeling-intellect the icy encrustations of Hell that keep us paralyzed in our self defeating patterns? We stare eyeball to eyeball at the antagonist within, sizing up our character and our chances of restoration.
image by Adelaide McElhinney
Dante's Divine Comedy poem recommends four quintessential tools of character that will increase our chances of progressing toward liberation and union with each other and our Source. Essentially, these traits have to do with the courage to hope. It is easier to believe that we can not change, that our circumstances or fate determine our destiny. We have a self-protective propensity toward giving up before we start. It hurts so much to give our best effort only to fail. Seductively we whisper in our own ear, "I am doomed to fail. Optimism is naïve. Isn't it more realistic to make peace with my condition than try to change it?” Surprisingly, Dante's poem renders such “realism” a mere example of being punch drunk with despair and out of touch with the deepest reality.
Life is a Comedy, not, as many would have it, a Tragedy. Our cynical side insists life is a game, or as Bob Dylan once said, “nothing but a joke.” These are bitter declarations rooted in our abysmal disappointment that while life is supposed to be joyful and essentially meaningful, we have not discovered it so. Yet a comedic vision is integral to weave our way through the fog of disappointment.
To our minds, comedy has to do with slap-stick, stand-up comics who evoke hilarity in worry worn audiences. Modern comedians do reflect the deeper meaning of comedy insofar as they enable us to laugh at ourselves and our narrow vision of things. The act of laughter is healing even if there are tears of regretful recognition behind the smile. To laugh, especially to laugh in Hell, is an act of joyful rebellion coming from the deep conviction that life often proceeds from death.
It may do us a world of good to make our first stop at Netflix or the comedy club. When we are obsessed with home repairs and the money we are pouring into them, the movie Money Pit could become a call to consciousness. When we are love struck, Roxanne or Father of the Bride may do the trick. Often when we feel pompous, old fools like Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, or the Marx Brothers reveal the stupidity of taking our self-perceptions too seriously.
In contrast to modern comedy, the dignity of The Divine Comedy is that the journey is meaningful and celebrative, grounded in ecstatic pleasure that can hardly be contained. Comedy is contemplation, a way of seeing. Unlike spiritual thrill seekers, we who desire renewal need to refine our senses so that we can glimpse life’s nuances of beauty. Stars and sunsets bring this joy in brilliant form, but as the wise nature lover Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
“There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful.. even the corpse has its own beauty... almost all the individual forms are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless imitations of them, as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the wheat ear, the egg the wings and forms of birds, the lion's claw, the serpent, the butterfly, sea-shells, and clouds…” - Emerson, Nature
With this in mind, I am reminded of the ancient encouragement not to forsake the “day of the small thing.”
Before plummeting the depths with Dante, it might do us well to merely spend merely a few minutes contemplating the beauty around us: the sights, smells and sounds that ready us for joy. Some of us may want to develop this discipline through photography or art, others through hiking or fishing. The main thing is to get nearer to ourselves through contacting our environment. We can in very practical ways participate in Nature's self embrace.
Dante shares with Emerson the belief that nature is symbolic of Spirit and is a vehicle through which we can participate in the Divine. If we doubt this, all we have to do is to understand his use of natural images. When Mount Purgatory is scaled and the joy of entering Paradise is to be anticipated by the taking of communion, Dante places Beatrice in the place of the traditional sacrament. A human lover represents Divine Love itself.
Life is a Comedy because it is fundamentally a Unity. In each of the three realms, Dante assumes there is a unifying Source that stands behind the love that moves the sun and other stars. Fragmentation, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, is an illusion. In The Divine Comedy, Unity is expressed by the idea of moral gravitation or morphic resonance where we are drawn toward that which is like us and are repelled from objects and people who are contrary to our natures. Falling in love is then an occasion of personal unification, a movement toward the wholeness of finding yourself in another. Desire takes us to what we truly are. He even extended his theory to natural objects such as the sun and stars being moved by love.
Whether the science or philosophy in this perspective is accurate or not can be debated. Barely questionable is the effect that the unity metaphor has on ways we approach the journey to Self recovery. With Unity as our focus, we move beyond personalism and discover a deep connection with Creation. By contemplating the unity of Creation and our place within it, we are guided home to our unique place of peace. Here we are most naturally ourselves.
Image used by permission from Ruth Duckworth
Arriving home to find our nature is hardly a straight forward endeavor. It requires a serpentine movement through the unnatural realm of our avoidances, in short, a journey through Hell. Thwarting nature is the flaw that leads to the consciousness of Hell, yet even there, the reward we harvest is a hideous parody of what we were meant to be. The sad thing about Hell’s consequences is that they remind us of what we were called toward and through choice refused.
Dante scholar Charles Williams interprets the fate of the lovers Paolo and Francesca in the first level of Hell not to be the result of adultery but of not taking their love seriously enough. These lovers, adulterers though they were, did not move toward a mature relationship but allowed themselves to drift dreamily in an adolescent love of the senses instead of developing a mature love which could have led to commitment. Their punishment was to be swept by the winds, never able to touch each other. Their choice not to tether love with the power of the intellect led them into that whirlwind of unrequited lust.
The same principle is discoverable in the eighth level of Hell. Nimrod, a giant responsible for the construction of the tower of Babel, an enterprise intent on bringing the nations together, is punished for his pride and arrogance and speaks nothing but gibberish. He did not take communication seriously but used it for self-aggrandizement. Here is a frightening prospect: to suffer consequences when we misuse words. If our smooth flowing words are merely used to show our clever sophistication, the result is slogan breath. Jargon can easily turn to unintelligible gibberish.
As Virgil quipped, “The way out is the way down.” Translated, this could mean facing our dark side, our shadow, is the way to wholeness. Sleepiness, lethargy, lack of courage, rage, untruthfulness, and indulgence are some of the qualities that keep us from ourselves. Paradoxically, a fearless inspection of exactly those traits returns us home again. The purpose of moving through these nether regions is not to shame or entangle us but to instruct, correct and, most of all, to remind us of our choices and our nature.
Dante was nearly entangled in the talk of the dissemblers, those who were gossips and who argued for personal gain. When we feel guilt instead of true remorse for our choices we are beguiled by internal dissemblers whose prime purpose is to hypnotize and paralyze us through guilt, effectively ending our journey. Instead of moving through Hell we are frozen there along with the rest of its residents who no longer have the power of choice but are doomed to repeat their patterns.
When visiting the shadowland, we learn what we can while we are on the move. If Dante were to advise us he might say, never stay longer than you need to and when the lesson is learned, move on without undue guilt. In Hell you must learn quickly and leave; never allow yourself to feel at home in Hell. Feeling at home in Hell is advocated in our age. We indulge Hell's consciousness when we over-analyze, delight in our tales of woe or when we refuse to hope. Hell is shadow not substance. Moving out of its house of mirrors and into the clear air of Purgatory and Paradise is a move toward substantial realities that can be contemplated endlessly to no harmful effect.
Image permission pending from Michael Bosnar
The Dignity of Being Loved
Individual restoration is a community event in Dante's scheme. Personal recovery is dependent on the love of others. The patron of Dante's self-remembrance was Beatrice, of whom Dante said upon first meeting her, “Behold a god stronger than I that is come to bear rule over me.” La Vita Nouva. The encouragement, love and passion of another has a restorative effect on a person. To become isolated from others is to be submerged in the ice of Hell, frozen in our self perceptions and unable to move or respond to love.
Learning to love, trust and rely on others is often denigrated in our world of expressive individualism. Could it be that we fail because we have become too independent and too self-reliant? We rarely give up on those we love, or at least not without a great struggle. Giving up on our own liberation seems in many instances quite natural. Being found worthy in the eyes of another surely allows us a new perspective on ourselves, especially if their admiration and compassion is coupled with actions of self-sacrifice. If I have such worth in your eyes to cause you to care for me then I am drawn by love's obligation to value myself.
Another way of putting it is if you want to discover yourself go out and find someone who loves you. It might not be a demonstrative love but merely an act of human kindness that points to a greater love standing behind it. Like Dante, we may have to move backward in time to remember when we were loved and valued. Our personalities may have become so gnarled in the Dark Wood that only a past hope can supply the needed impetus to change. When we do recognize in those who love us the grief our lost nature has caused them, we are compelled to awaken from our sleep.
Falling in love, for all its ambiguity and mirage, can potentially wake us up to ourself. Mature lovers occasionally back away from their mutual gaze and self reflect. Who am I when I am loving another? What strengths are awakened? Am I more courageous? Am I more artistic, more creative than I formerly thought of myself? Am I kinder, even wiser than my “normal” self? Has love wrought in me the courage to hope and dream again? Love, in contrast to lust, brings out the best in ourselves.
Beatrice's love for Dante reminded him of who he was when he was in love. Years of political intrigue, affairs, and wandering in the Dark Wood obscured the contours of his character - until he was reminded that he was loved by a royal lady. Only then could he pluck up the courage to take the steps of self recovery. In his own eyes, he was not worth saving. In the eyes of the Other he found himself to be of incalculable worth.
This re-membering of ourselves is not infantile dependence on an Other but the acknowledgement that by being loved we are brought, and perhaps even bought, back to ourselves. Our friend, lover or mentor allows us a view from the outside. They see strengths we never could acknowledge while our weak ego is clamouring for mere attention in any way it can. The insights of a lover are fresh because they are unpredictable, even shocking. For instance, I had forgotten I could sing, dance, or write poetry until evoked to do so by the admiration of my partner, Bev. I had even forgotten for many years that I could enjoy nature and life in the body. Due to their surprising nature, I felt as if these insights were revealed instead of conjured by my need for attention. Self admiration is a sorry second to the effect of being genuinely admired by someone else. Realizing this, we can say with Dante, “Behold a god stronger than I that is come to bear rule over me”... and I am being brought home to myself.
The Drama of Choice
In addition to hope, the courage of facing our shadow and the life evoking experience of being loved, we must become acquainted with the place that personal choice has in our journey. In Hell, our choices are frozen, never to be made again. In Purgatory, our vigilant choices are a prerequisite of progress. In Heaven, choices are celebrated. There is however another realm where choices, or the lack of them, weigh heavily, a region where the vast majority of people find themselves. In my estimate, the doom of those in hell’s foyer, between perverted and redemptive choice, is equal to or worse than any of the other dwellers of doom.
Here is Dante's description of their plight:
And I, who felt my head surrounded by horrors,
Said: “Master, what then is that which I am hearing?”
And what people are these so crushed by pain?”
He answered, That the manner of existence
Endured by the sad souls of those who lived
Without occasion for infamy or praise.
They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels
Who did not think it worth their while to rebel
Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves...
They are without even; hope of death
Their blind existence is of such abjection
That they are envious of every other fate.
Dante describes these fence-sitters who lived an erratic life as following one voice, and then another - never their own. They impulsively go one way and then another, fearful of the consequences of their choices. They run after this banner and then that, clapping their hands in nervous applause and then shrieking in fear. Dante says that they neither lived nor died, they merely reacted, having lost the benefit of intellect. They are utterly self-interested having never given themselves to any higher obligation than immediate comfort. For their indecision and lack of courage they are disdained in both Heaven and Hell.
Innocuous looking fence-sitters represent the repulsive collective of mass culture. Fence sitting consciousness is the root of the crucifying mind. These are the talk show audiences who can be moved by violence and voyeurism one moment and extol the virtues of conventional morality the next. They are test groups of the ad campaigns and pollsters who express themselves with no political conviction other than the bottom line.
Image used by permission from Chen
We become fence-sitters when we don't have the courage of our convictions. Our choicelessness betrays ourselves and our values because we are so self-absorbed that we need to keep all our comfort options perpetually open. We aimlessly drift away from ourselves because we don't ground our behaviour and opinions on well wrought conviction and deep self knowledge. Choice, even perverted choice, is humanizing; compromise and aimlessness strip us of our dignity. Dante's cautionary tale implores us to make conscious use of this exquisite gift of choice. We can use it or abuse it but it is utter torment to refuse to make choices.
That calamitous crowd, who were never alive;
Were naked, and their skins blown with the bites
Of swarms of wasps and hornets following them.
Their faces ran with blood from these attacks
And, mixed with tears, it streamed down to their feet,
Where filthy creeping creatures swallowed it.
I have lethargic times when I refuse to be motivated by hope, by the gold of self knowledge that the shadow brings, or even by the love of another. Even when numb to hope, the painful consequences of moral sluggishness enrage me - frightening me to action. Carl Jung said it well: “When you know you are about to fall, then jump.” I prefer jumping to being pushed or as Paul Simon's song says, “I'd rather be a hammer than a nail.” In addition, I would rather be a choice maker than a consumer, a voter, or a mimic of collective values.
Making choices is difficult because accompanying every choice is a subtle, or not so subtle, limitation of freedom, a road not travelled. Many refuse to make a choice because they think that they have to find the perfect verdict, a divinely revealed blueprint of what life should be like. This sentiment sounds humble but amounts to tyranny of both mind and emotion.
Our minds bind us to ideologies and dogmatisms, formal and informal, that impinge upon the decisions we make. A while ago, CNN performed a survey on what the public considers the highest moral principle. It turned out that honesty stood “heads and tails” above other virtues in the American consciousness. Honesty, however, in certain contexts of political or personal oppression is immoral. To tell the immoral authority the truth may lead to the death or suffering of the oppressed and innocent. Nonetheless, there are literal minded people who either pervert their choice or refuse to make a choice due to a misplaced loyalty to a principle. Such a literalistic mind blunts our moral capacities to make decisions from a deeper part of the Self. Legalistically made choices inevitably fail because no principle, however lofty, can account for the diversity of contexts into which life thrusts us in. The ethics of legality have a paralyzing effect when the ethics of spirit and creativity are needed.
Choice can be decimated by emotional immaturity. It is the “I want only the best” attitude that refuses to choose between the good and the best. The underlying principle is that no personal pain will be tolerated. There is nothing intrinsically harmful about wanting to have pleasure but when our pleasure is bought at the inconvenience of others, our choicelessness is diabolical. Always waiting for the most advantageous situation for ourselves leaves others in the lurch. “Yes-No-ness” can be found among fence-sitters of all ages and classes who, as Dante says, were faithful only to themselves. This analysis gives us a clue to the solution to fence-sitting. A devotion and loyalty to a transcendent value provides us with a principle of self-critique that ameliorates the passion for comfort that can dominate our choices.
There is a joy in making a clear decision despite the consequences. Making a choice honours the particularity of the situation in which we find ourselves. The moment of decision is precious and unrepeatable. When we choose we put our body on the line expressing our loyalty and our commitments to what, and who, we love. Nothing does the personality better than conviction.
Through whatever Hell, Heaven or Purgatory we find ourselves in, the next step is always ours. It is often encouraged by others but it is definitely our own. In Hell our choices express our own unique lostness. In Purgatory the individual road to recovery is walked while standing alone with others who have made the same choice to recover. In Heaven our choice is celebrated through recognizing that we have cooperated with the Love that moves the sun and the stars. Our chances of restoring our character hinge on choices made in the context of Love's empowerment.