The Refining Fire by Dante

Over my suppliant hands entwined, I leaned
just staring at the fire, imagining
bodies of human beings and seen burn.
And both my trusted guides now turned to me.
And the Virgil spoke, to say: ‘My dearest son,
here may be agony but never death.
Remember this! Remember! And if I
led you to safety on Geryon’s back,
what will I do when now so close to God?
Believe this. And be sure. Where you to stay
a thousand years or more wombed in this fire,
you’d not been made the balder by one hair.
And if, perhaps, you think I’m tricking you,
approach the fire and reassure yourself,
trying with your own hands your garments hem.
Have done, I say, have done with fearfulness.
Turn this way. Come and enter safely in!’
But I, against all conscience, stood stock still.
And when he saw me stiff and obstinate,
he said, I little troubled: ‘Look my son,
between Beatrice and you there is just this wall….’
Ahead of me, he went to meet the fire,
and begged that Statius, who had walked the road
so long between us, now take up the rear.
And, once within, I could have flung myself ‒
The heat that fire produced was measureless ‒
or coolness, in a vat of boiling glass.
To strengthen me, my sweetest father spoke,
as on he went, of Beatrice always,
saying, it seems I see her eyes already.’
and, guiding us, a voice sang from beyond.
So we, attending only to that voice,
came out and saw where now we could ascend.
‘Venite, benedicti Patris mei!’
sounded with in what little light there was.
This overcame me and I could not look.

(The Devine Comedy, II Purgatorio, lines 16−32 and 46−60)

Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem


The essence of sin as described by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans is man’s suppression of Truth, which he goes on to say results in the exchange of Truth for a lie.  Here we see the imago Dei, or the image of God with which we are created, dwelling as St Paul says ‘in darkness.’ The capital sins through which Dante progresses in Purgatory are inversions of virtue, and they crush our souls.

In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite describes the progression:

They started at the bottom of the mountain, crushed, as we all are, by the heavy weight of Pride. For the very thing we think is exalting us up, is really weighing us down, all that effort to keep up the image! Best to let it go and rest in humility, accepting that grace we all need. They have been through Envy, and learned to shut their eyes to the useless things we covet, they have stumbled through the black and blinding smoke of Anger, and so with the other sins, each thankfully left behind. But there is always something that stays with us, some besetting sin that, as Paul says, ‘clings so close’. And so at last they come to the smallest circle, the least of the seven, but it still needs addressing, and that, as you will already have guessed, is Lust!

Why do we cling to that which destroys us?

Romans 1:18–25

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.

 
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 453.

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page

Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith

 

51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.

 

Art: William Blake – The Angel Inviting Dante to Enter the Fire – National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne – 1824-7