Star Gazing

Ernest,

Your letter reminded me of a beautiful moment in Dante’s Divine Comedy, when just before entering the dooming gates of hell, Dante, the literary character, addresses Vergil, his guide, who tells him that Beatrice  has advised their journey.  What’s particularly moving about this passage, which I have quoted below, is the hope that Dante displays even in the face of what lies before him.  Just a few short paces off lie the gates of hell itself, with that infamous inscription carved into stone above the top: LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA VOI CH’INTRATE, “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!”

But Dante doesn’t do this, instead he finds all the more hope in what Vergil has told him:

 

“Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!

e te cortese ch’ubidisti tosto

a le vere parole che ti porse!

Tu m’hai con disiderio il cor disposto

sì al venir con le parole tue,

ch’i’ son tornato nel primo proposto.

Or va, ch’un sol volere è d’ambedue:

tu duca, tu sengore, e tu maestro.”

Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue,

intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.

 

“O compassionate, she who thus availeth me!

And courteous, thou who hast obeyed so prompt

The truthful words that she hath put to thee!

Thou hast inclined desire in my heart

For venture, with thine words, that I renew

To mee the primal purpose as before.

Now go, for to us both a single will:

Be thou the leader, thou the lord and master!”

And even so I said to him.

When he had moved,

I entered by the journey deep and cruel.

 

Seeing through all the brutal devastation that lies directly in front of him, Dante is able to hope in something glorious that comes long after it.  By God’s grace and love, symbolised in the figure of Beatrice, ‘who availeth’ him, this woeful journey though the land of tears serves, even by its very ugliness, to but highlight the profound beauty and eternal splendour of a salvation yet to come.

Dante says he is moved with disiderio, ‘desire’, which comes from the Latin, desiderare, a word composed of two parts: de, meaning ‘concerning’, and sidera, meaning ‘the stars’ or ‘the heavens’.  So Dante is foreshadowing the last moment of the Inferno, when he and Vergil come forth out of hell—a place of unbearable darkness, where even the stars neglect to shine—to see once more, in the very last line of the book, something truly awe-inspiring:

 

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

We thence went forth to rebehold the stars.

 

This line inspired a moment in my twelfth symphony (2012):

 

 

I think life is a lot like this.  Gratitude for God’s small gifts in the present is a way of desiring; that is, a way of regarding the stars, our ultimate destiny in Christ.  By giving thanks for something like a familiar cup of tea, a good grade on a blog post, or a book consisting of something other than meaningless numbers and names, we are able, by an ironically short sighted act of thanks, to transcend all of our present despairs and adversities, liberated, by God’s grace, to live with an ever present hope in our eternal beatitude, to endure, even through the fiery pains of hell itself, with a perpetual and imminent longing for that ineffable vista of the stars.

 

Your servant,

TWM