This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent. In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the first of them In Medias Res, today I am posting the second, ‘Through the Gate.’ Here is the commentary with which I introduced it in The Word in the wilderness and then the poem itself:
So Dante begins again, accompanied by Virgil and they come to the very gate of Hell, with its famous inscription ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’! But they don’t abandon hope, and that is the whole point. It is hope that leads and draws them on, hope inspired by love. For Virgil has revealed to Dante that it is Beatrice, the woman with whom he had fallen so completely in love as a young man, now in the bliss of Heaven, who has herself ‘ventured down the dark descent’ (to borrow Milton’s phrase) to find Virgil and ask for his help in rescuing Dante, so that she and Dante can meet again and rise together through the spheres of Heaven. Like Jesus, who went to the cross, not for pain in itself, but ‘for the joys that were set before him’, so we are to make this journey through the memories of pain and darkness, not to stay with these things but to redeem them and move beyond them. And the journey is itself made possible because Christ himself has gone before. ‘He descended into Hell.’ Throughout the journey into the Inferno we are shown signs that Christ has been this way before and broken down the strongholds. Dante is here alluding to one of the great lost Christian stories, which we need to recover today; ‘The Harrowing of Hell’. We, who build so many Hells on earth, need to know that there is no place so dark, no situation so seemingly hopeless, that cannot be opened to the light of Christ for rescue and redemption.
This is the theme I have born in mind in the following poem, which is my own ‘reader response’ to Dante’s journey. Throughout I have been mindful that the Inferno is really ‘in here and right now’ not ‘out there and back then’, and emphatically not, if we trust in Christ, some inevitable end awaiting us. In that knowledge we must have the courage to expose our own personal Hell’s to Christ and let him harrow them with us, and that is precisely what Dante’s great poem allows us to do. The great statesman and Dante enthusiast, W. E. Gladstone said: ‘The reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole man’.
For all of us, somewhere within, there is a threshold or a gate beyond which we feel we dare not go, but it is sometimes just past that threshold that our real healing and restoration needs to take place. Sometimes the best way to get through that gate, and let Christ in, is in a companioned inner journey, with a trusted ‘soul friend’, a spiritual director, or a priest to whom we can make confession in complete confidence. I have deliberately echoed the phrase, from the form of confession ‘All I cannot call to mind’ as a way of suggesting that this journey with Dante down the dark spirals; one sin leading to another, one wound inflicting the next, can itself be an invitation to confession, and so to absolution and release.
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As before, you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Through the Gate
Begin the song exactly where you are
For where you are contains where you have been
And holds the vision of your final sphere
And do not fear the memory of sin;
There is a light that heals, and, where it falls,
Transfigures and redeems the darkest stain
Into translucent colour. Loose the veils
And draw the curtains back, unbar the doors,
Of that dread threshold where your spirit fails,
The hopeless gate that holds in all the fears
That haunt your shadowed city, fling it wide
And open to the light that finds and fares
Through the dark pathways where you run and hide,
through all the alleys of your riddled heart,
As pierced and open as His wounded side.
Open the map to Him and make a start,
And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark
His light will go before you, let Him chart
And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache
To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind
Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk
And muted gloom in which you cannot find
The love that you once thought worth dying for.
Call Him to all you cannot call to mind
He comes to harrow Hell and now to your
Well guarded fortress let His love descend.
The icy ego at your frozen core
Can hear His call at last. Will you respond?