I am beginning to get a feel for using Dante to help arouse wonder about Moral Theology. This is my second time leading discussions on it with groups of 30 or so juniors and seniors to complement the Didache series textbook, along with Mere Christianity and an excellent work on prayer for the laity, This Tremendous Lover.
This week we followed Dante as he enters the earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain of Purgatory. As he is about to enter, Virgil tells Dante, “You are now morally free! Do whatever you want to do.” I asked the students, “What does Dante do with his freedom? Would you do that?” We saw that he “lingered”, slowly wandering as he absorbed the beauty of tree and grass, birds and breeze. He sees a woman across a stream picking flowers, listens to her song, then slowly wanders with her along opposite sides of the stream. Is this what the process of moral purification should lead to?
The woman tells Dante that the stream is called Lethe, the stream of forgetfulness according to Greek mythology. He is told that by drinking of it he will lose all memory of his sins, after which he can drink of Eunoe, which will cause him to remember all his good deeds more strongly. Several students thought it would be wrong to forget one’s sins. Why? Because we need them to remind us of our guilt, to remind us how weak we are. Does Dante think that when you become spiritually free, you no longer need to remember your guilt? I told them it made me think of Matthew’s account of the Last Judgement, where Our Lord points out to those on his right all the times they are served Him without realizing it, but made no mention at all of the times they had failed. “Blessed are those who sins are covered” Dante hears Matilda sing.
But before Dante can drink of the stream, Beatrice arrives (in rock star style, by the way!). She sternly reproaches him with his greatest sin, one he has yet to repent for. Her reprimand leads him to weep for his sins for the first and only time in the Comedy. “Have you ever wept for your sins?” I asked them. Next discussion, we will look more deeply into Dante’s sin — what does she say that causes the ice in his heart to melt and pour out in tears? I think they answer will surprise and challenge them.
These are examples of the many questions raised by encountering Dante’s literary creation go to the heart of students’ assumptions about their moral journey and the teaching of the Church, questions that will rarely come out of reading textbooks, no matter how faithful.