One thing Dante knew, almost from the beginning, is that he was in the midst of a battle for his life. Having once gained a glimpse of the hill beyond, he only just begins to climb when he is confronted and his path utterly blocked by three fierce beasts. I think it's true that at midlife, if we are not too sleepy, as he says he was before he landed in exile, we begin to see that a battle rages within us for freedom.
After the death of my father, more than ten years ago now, and the beginning of a pretty spectacular tumbling in my life, an Anglican priest friend wrote to me to ask if he could be of any assistance. I blithely responded that I had no need of any spiritual direction: after all, I read the same books and had a similar background as he. Those beasts were breathing down my neck, and my response was proof positive of it! But I was heroically, spectacularly, distracted. And I meant to keep it that way. (Fortunately, my friend did not back down and bow out, but that's another story).
The Franciscan priest and prolific author Richard Rohr, in his book "Falling Upward," writes about this dilemma: "None of us go into our spiritual maturity completely of our own accord, or by a totally free choice. (Dante surely did not). We are led there by Mystery, or what religious people rightly call grace...Most of us are never told that we can set out from the known and the familiar to take on a further journey. Our institutions and expectations, including our churches, are almost entirely configured to encourage, support, reward and validate the tasks of the first half of life." And to begin to live out a different truth and walk a different path is damned uncomfortable for those steeped in the validation of the first. Thomas Merton, the American monk, and one of my armchair mentors, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find that when we get to the top, our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
Dante was exiled. And that was a very great grace, a Mystery he stepped into, seemingly unawares (asleep). And that Mystery was leading him in the battle for his life.
Ok, I've had a lot of Mystery.
As Mark Musa (the translation of the Divine Comedy I am using) writes in his notes to Canto I, "When he (Dante) starts to climb the hill his path is blocked, by three fierce beasts: first a Leopard, then a Lion, and finally a She-Wolf (more on these beasts of burden in a later post). They fill him with fear and drive him back down to the sunless wood. At that moment the figure of a man appears before him; it is the shade of Virgil, and the Pilgrim begs for help. Virgil (the Guide sent to him) tells him that he cannot overcome the beasts which obstruct his path; they must remain until a “Greyhound” comes who will drive them back to Hell. Rather by another path will the Pilgrim reach the sunlight..."
There is no freedom, or yet peace, without facing down the beasts within. Yikes. A battle rages.
Dante awoke to a dark wood, and he was so heavy and full of sleep when first he stumbled from the narrow way. He recognized that the path to this freedom was the narrow Way, and he knows he had stumbled off of it. The dark wood is the threshold of the whole journey, writes Helen Luke, in her wonderful book "Dark Wood to White Rose," but it is also an immediate threshold to an immediate gateway, through which we must pass in a direction that leads away from our goal.
Moreover, as Dante discovered, we are incapable of finding it alone. We need friends on pilgrimages. We were never meant to walk alone. Helen Luke argues that no man or woman can safely cross the dark gate of the shadow world without knowing that some deeply loved and trusted person has faith in his courage to come through.
Finding oneself in such a place, on the threshold of this pilgrimage can surely be terrifying. But there is only one saving path: to admit that one is completely lost (blessed are the poor in spirit), and to force oneself to look up and away for a moment from our self-pity (from being turned in our ourselves) and absorption in the ego and to affirm hope. (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven). Remember, Dante looked up. We learn, struggling in our dark wood, says Helen Luke, "that we cannot hope to find wholeness by repressing the shadow side of ourselves, or by the most heroic efforts of the ego to climb up, to achieve goodness. The leopard, the lion and the wolf will not allow it, Thank God." It is when we admit our powerlessness, that the guide appears, as it did for Dante.
The soul has many secrets, Rohr argues, and most are revealed only to those who really want them. (Seek, and you shall find). And one of the best kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up. Dante asks: "Tell me how you dared to make this journey all the way down to this point of spacelessness?" And his answer? "Because your question searches for deep meaning."
To be spiritually free, we have first to go all the way down.
For a start, it's clear that Dante was going to have to travel through his own hell in order to reach the point where he might start climbing. He had been full of an interior slumber. But before he could even begin to walk, Dante forced himself to open his eyes, to awaken from his 'sleep' and look with eyes wide open at his fear. He also begins to appreciate that "while I was rushing down to that low place, my eyes made out a figure coming toward me of one grown faint, perhaps from too much silence." This is a recognition that his conscience, or his voice of reason, had been long silenced.
The message is pretty clear, I'd say.
But he was not without Hope. Dante not only forced himself to look back with wide open eyes at his fear, he rested awhile. So, dear Readers, do not despair. Take Heart. (Did you know the word courage means to take heart?) There is rest for the weary. Since journeying on this path, many years back now, I have wondered about the Psalmist's claim that The Lord is closest to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Ps. 34:18). More recently, I have begun to see that there is Rest in the midst of the battle with the enemies within us. And that rest is a great big banqueting table. When Dante looks up, his fear begins to subside. And then he rests in the company of his guide.
When we walked, my father and I often recited Psalm 23, and the great line of that poem "He sets a table for me in the presence of my enemies" has long fascinated me. Of course it would. One thing we did on those long walks was to feast. We brought canned crab and cocktail sauce (guilty pleasure with packs already heavy). Sometimes we packed in wine. We dined each evening, even when our feet hurt from walking and our bodies ached for sleep. At the Table is the connection, and the restoration, and the Rest that gives us sustenance for the journey.
The theologian Samuel Wells in his book "God's Companions" argues that one of the most important symbols (for icons help us to peer into Reality, like a window) of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the Rublev icon, known as the "Hospitality of Abraham," which depicts three divine persons gathered around a table for a meal together. Remember Abraham went on a journey, in search of God. He left all he knew and made a pilgrimage.
If the enduring image of the Kingdom is a banquet, this hardly suggests that the pilgrimage is without its food and daily bread and wine. And I, for one, believe that in the fullest sense, to dine together in this way is sacramental living. It is to participate in the great mystery of the heavenly reality while still on earth.
So come and dine with me as we journey. Pilgrimages require friends and tables. Don't walk alone. Those glimpses of Heaven did a lot for Dante and gave him Hope for the walk ahead. What are you serving at your table tonight? Leave a comment, Dear Reader, and tell me what you think of the journey thus far.