The Mysteries of Mercy in the Divine Comedy

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The following was a college essay written by Jonathan Stodola. It has been edited and approved by Zachary Maher. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Jonathan Stodola, Saint Louis University

In a work filled with famous words, among them are the first words spoken by the pilgrim Dante: “Have mercy on me.” Throughout the following ninety-nine cantos of the Divine Comedy, Dante the poet demonstrates – by way of his pilgrimage from the dark wood into the depths of Hell, to climbing through purgatory, and finally ascending to the kingdom of Heaven – the premier ruling force over creation is God’s mercy. Divine mercy works in mysterious ways, incomprehensible to human reason. Dante demonstrates such as both poet and pilgrim. Dante the poet writes the lines of the poem and Dante the pilgrim travels a holy commissioned journey to but get a glimpse of the face of God.

God’s mercy starts working immediately in the Comedy. It begins with the pilgrim Dante lost, surrounded by the beasts of lust, pride, and avarice in the dark wood. These beasts are the three major flaws in Dante’s life, with pride being most prevalent.  He will work to overcome these sins during his journey towards God. Virgil is sent as an instrument of God’s mercy to guide Dante through the depths of Hell and up the mountain of Purgatory before reaching the climax of Paradise, Heaven. He then explains to a confused Dante it was Beatrice who prompted his visit to the pilgrim, saying “Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak” (Inf. 2.72).

The word ‘love’ here is capitalized by Dante the poet, implying a proper noun, implying God. This implication is intentional. God is Love. God is Mercy. God is Grace. These common Christian beliefs were ushered into the secular world of literature with the poet Dante’s seemingly simple depiction of Virgil as a guide. God is the source of Heaven’s gentle Lady going to Saint Lucia who went to Beatrice, who in turn called upon Virgil, who will lead Dante on the majority of his journey. These four people – the Blessed Mother, Lucia, Beatrice, and Virgil – are the instruments that God chooses to save Dante. God could have left Dante to fend off his internal beasts alone and find his own way back on the path. Instead, God takes a mortal man, a simple poet from Florence, and leads him on a self-reflective learning experience through all stages of the Afterlife.

Though the souls condemned to Hell suffer different punishments for different sins, a common thread holds true throughout each Circle: the souls in Hell are unaware of the sins they committed. They will spend eternity with a misguided perception of their lives and the cause of why they are suffering. Dante interacts with a handful of sinners while in Inferno and learns they all have twisted stories and cannot see the truth of the wrongs they committed. In the Second Circle of Hell, Dante stops to talk to Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. Francesca and Paolo were brother and sister-in-law who committed adultery together. Dante invites them to tell him their story, in which Francesca easily gains the pilgrim’s sympathy. She tells Dante of the strongest love. Francesca states it was the love quickly binding her with Paolo that led her to cheat on her husband, and the same powerful love which led them to their deaths (Inf. 5.100-106). Overwhelmed by pity for the lovers, Dante faints (Inf. 5.141).

This is a significant interaction for a couple reasons. First, Dante the pilgrim is on the same level as those suffering eternal damnation at this stage of his journey. He is unaware of the severity of the sins these people committed, just as they are telling hazy truths in order to make themselves look good. It is not until midway through his journey through the Inferno where Dante stops feeling pity for those he is witnessing and starts applying what he witnesses to his own life. Upon entering through Hell’s Gate, Virgil tries explaining it is better to keep walking, only glancing at those in pain before moving on. Virgil says all who are present in Inferno fully deserve the punishment they are receiving, as they lived their lives without disgrace, without praise, and were blind to the goodness of the Lord (Inf. 3.36-48). Dante is a compassionate person and for him it is near impossible to accept there is so much evil in the world. The transformation from a pilgrim full of pity to a student learning how to right his own sins through the lives of those he observes, is at the heart of Dante’s journey.

The second important theme brought to the reader’s attention during the Francesca interaction is the structure of Hell and subsequently, Purgatory. They are divided into perfectly organized levels, with Purgatory being an upside-down mirror of Hell. In both places, the least serious sins are that of loving something or someone too much and in the wrong way. This is why Francesca and Paolo are found in the first levels of Inferno, as lust and adultery are both cases of disordered, misguided love. The worst of the sins are those in which there is no love at all. Hell is structured such that the severity of the sins increases the farther one travels into its depths. Purgatory is a mirror of Hell as the most serious sins are at the start of ones’ cleansing journey through Purgatory, to enable their purified soul to cross over into Paradiso, Heaven. Even though Hell is governed by punishment, God’s ever-present mercy is not hidden from its structure. The Inferno was built through God’s love (Inf. 3.5-6) and split into separate levels, methodically organizing the various sins in proportion not only to the punishment itself, but the length of the punishment.

Throughout Inferno, the poet Dante gives the reader a set of guidelines they expect to see for the remainder of the Comedy. He sets up his reader’s minds to categorize the severity of the sins and place those sinners in their respective place, with justice being more prevalent than mercy. Thus, Dante the poet also plants the seeds of wonder, awe, and confusion which explode when God’s mercy shows up, granting passage to those who would otherwise be condemned to Hell as witnessed by Dante the pilgrim in Inferno. It is impossible to wrap one’s mind around God’s motives no matter how hard one tries.

These acts of incomprehensible mercy by God are continuously found in Dante the pilgrim’s journey through Purgatory and further accentuated in Paradise. Within the first two cantos of Purgatorio, Dante meets a pagan given the chance to gaze upon the face of the same God he denied in his earthly life. Not only was Cato of Utica a pagan but he committed suicide, a serious sin of violence against oneself. Going by the ordered structure laid out by Dante, Cato should be in Inferno, turned into one of the trees being viciously attacked by harpies. At best, being a pagan, Cato would be in Limbo.

Some souls managed to transcend Limbo, so it is possible Cato was one of those lucky few. However, many of those were faithful Old Testament Jews who lived prior to the life of Christ. Following His death on the Cross, Jesus descended into Hell and carried great figures. such as Moses, Noah, Abraham, King David, and Rachel, into Heaven. (Inf. 4. 52-62). Cato, nor any other pagan, were part of this exodus.

This could be considered a mistake on Dante’s part, he slipped and accidentally placed Cato in Purgatory. However, the Divine Comedy is a flawless work the poet Dante spent twelve years of his life perfecting. The poet Dante uses harsh, dark, pain-filled language in Inferno and gradually moves into beautifully written Italian words echoing the divine beauty of Paradise. Every word, scene, and example is carefully placed, from his structure of the rhyming scheme to the perfect number of one-hundred cantos – an introductory canto and thirty-three for each canticle. Everything Dante illustrates is intentional. Throughout Purgatorio and Paradiso, Dante places unlikely souls in closer proximity to God than their nature seems to warrant. These cannot be mistaken as blunders on the poet Dante’s part but must be recognized as the workings of God’s mercy supported by His unconditional love.

God’s forgiveness and mercy are rooted in His infinite love for us, making them supernatural, perfected versions of their human counterparts. It is impossible for the human mind to understand the fullness of these supernatural virtues precisely because those same virtues have a ceiling for humans. Thus, God’s mercy, which makes perfect sense upon spiritual analysis, seems illogical and sporadic upon earthly analysis. Along similar lines, it is easy for the mind to accept the engineered layout of Hell, yet more difficult to accept the judgement system laid out in Matthew’s Gospel. Living one’s life according to acts of mercy for the least among society is a more detailed outline of the way to Heaven and a juxtaposition of the path to Hell (Mt. 25:31-46). Simply put, the way to Heaven is Love, and to live without love is to live for Hell. Nonetheless, while there is a formula, per se, to practice the Love of God, there is no formula, flowchart, or set of rules which limit or expand God’s will, His grace, His forgiveness, His love, or His mercy. God cannot love any more or less, because God is Love.

In the third canto of Purgatorio, Dante the poet further highlights the scope of God’s mercy. The pilgrim Dante meets Manfred, a twice excommunicated heretic who managed to wind up in antepurgatory. Manfred is the son of Emperor Fredrick II, a heretic found in the Inferno burning in his tomb. Manfred followed in his father’s footsteps, leading armies and spreading heresy. The reader, along with the pilgrim Dante, learns that as Manfred lay dying on the battlefield with his last breath, he gave himself to “Him who willingly forgives” (Purg. 3.120). Manfred states it exquisitely: “the Infinite Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts who ever would return” (Purg. 3. 121-123). God, being the Infinite Goodness, outstretched His hand and saved this sinner at the last moment of his life, showcasing the boundlessness of God’s mercy; there is no set time or limit to when forgiveness will be given. Mercy trumps all judgements (James 2:13). While humans are quick to judge and condemn, God, who is Mercy and Love, is slow to judge and enforce the condemnations humans form for themselves. Salvation and eternal life await those who sincerely pursue it. Manfred admits to the pilgrim Dante his sins were “ghastly.” Though a seemingly small act, the sincerity of Manfred is all God, in His infinite mercy, needed to forgive and welcome a lifelong sinner into his fold.

A similar, if not more profound, last-minute saving of Buonconte da Montefeltro is stumbled upon by the pilgrim Dante before entering Purgatory proper. Buonconte, similar to Manfred, followed in his father’s footsteps. In his situation, Buonconte’s father was a false councilor and war general. Buonconte’s greatest sin was never admitting his wrongs. Following a life on the warpath, Buonconte falls on the battlefield wounded in the throat and utters but one word, one name: “Mary” (Purg. 5. 101). With nothing more than a last-minute plea to the Mother of Jesus, an angel is sent to save Buonconte from the devil and carry him towards Heaven. Once again, the “bounds” of mercy are shattered, as God saves the sinner over nothing more than Mary’s name. The thing from Hell cried out in angry confusion, “for just one tear you deny him from me” (Purg. 5. 106-107).

These two men, Manfred and Buonconte da Montefeltro, are placed in Purgatory by the poet Dante to illustrate the outpouring of mercy God freely gives to any who ask. Regardless of the acts and sins committed during their time on Earth, it is never too late for God to extend His hand, wrap a person His arms, fully forgiving their sins. As previously touched on, the key similarity between these two recipients of divine mercy was the sincerity of their death-bed conversions. Manfred admitted to the severity of his sins and Buonconte called out for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both men, though sinners the entirety of their lives, will get to work through Purgatory and join God in Paradise, all because of God’s free-flowing and infinite outpouring of mercy.

During his journey through Purgatorio, the pilgrim Dante is not only a witness of God’s mercy but also a recipient. Upon reaching the gates of Purgatory, the pilgrim Dante climbs three significant steps: one polished such that it shone as a mirror, one rough and crumbling, and one flaming red as that of spurting blood. The first of these steps symbolizes self-understanding. The pilgrim Dante has now traveled through Hell and antepurgatory, observing sinners being punished for the same sins and flaws he himself possesses. Dante the pilgrim is slowly coming to an understanding of his own sins, something those in Hell never accomplished. The second step is the recognition of the toll one’s sins have on the soul. The third step is for the sacrifice Jesus made for the world and a message to those who are about to enter Purgatory: one must be devout in their desire to purge their sins and join Christ in Heaven. The pilgrim Dante falls to the feet of the angel guarding the gates, beats thrice upon his chest, and asks the angel to open the gate out of mercy (Purg. 9. 110-111). He could have been arrogant, claiming the gate must open as he has Heaven on his side. He could have stated his knowledge of his flaws or his good deeds. Instead, the pilgrim Dante humbles himself and shows remorse while asking for mercy. God’s mercy works through the angel, who grants the pilgrim Dante passage into Paradise. The pilgrim Dante did nothing to deserve the mercy of God, yet he receives it. Once again, the poet Dante portrays a testimony to Mercy being governed by nothing the human mind can comprehend.

The pilgrim Dante’s first encounter in Paradise is with the younger sister of an old friend of his, Piccarda Donati, in the lowest circle of Heaven. She took the vows of a nun yet had to break her vows when she was forced into marriage. Piccarda in her heart was a saintly nun even though her actions pointed away from this. Even though the breaking of her vows should have landed Piccarda – likely – in Purgatory, her intentions were good and thus God opened up His mercy and let her into Paradise. The pilgrim Dante was confused as to why Piccarda did not receive a higher place of honor in Heaven. He argues that those who are violated by another should not have to pay the price for their sinful choices. He asks Beatrice about Piccarda’s place in Heaven, who responds by saying that Piccarda is lucky to even be present in Heaven. The men may have forced her to break her religious vows but she could have ran away or rebelled in order to preserve her holy vows, yet she did not (Par. 4. 106-110). Dante’s lack of understanding here is so much that he is even bold enough to ask Piccarda if she is happy being in the lowest sphere of Paradise. This question, rooted in selfish longing to be close to God, leads to a baffling truth about the structure of Heaven.

While Inferno and Purgatory both had engineered structures, the souls in the outermost circles are just as close to God as those in the innermost circles. This concept baffles the pilgrim and Dante and the readers alike. The structure of the nine spheres Dante writes about so eloquently are only there so that Dante can understand Heaven. God is not able to be understood. His creation and works are a mystery. Theologian Nicholas of Cusa says, “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” This is a fantastic description of the mystery of God, meaning God is present everywhere and in everything, yet is bound by nothing, just like His Mercy.

Any pursuit of the rationale behind God’s choices in who his mercy is bestowed upon comes up short. By earthly standards, there simply is no rationale behind the way God works. However, the previous examples of mercy from Dante’s Divine Comedy lead to a few different conclusions. First, we know God’s mercy stems from His love. Both are infinite sources and are freely given. Throughout Inferno and Purgatorio, the poet Dante infers the souls in Hell are damned because they would not accept God’s mercy and forgiveness. They were, and remain, so focused on themselves they are completely closed off from God. One’s ultimate focus must be on God. The pilgrim Dante, who is a part of the poet Dante, was lost in the dark wood because he had lost sight of God. Instead of leaving Dante to die and be tormented in Hell, God petitioned Mary to help Dante. Mary called upon Lucia who called Beatrice, the one whom Dante saw God through. Beatrice, knowing Dante was not prepared for her presence, enlisted the help of Virgil, Dante’s hero, who was able to prepare him to see Beatrice. Then, through Beatrice’s beauty, by her own constantly looking towards God, Dante was able to focus upon God as well.

Further, the instance of God’s mercy being present in Paradiso through the failed nun, Piccarda Donati and Cato in Purgatorio, shows mercy is given to those whom we least expect. Logically following the guidelines of sin and each respective punishment in the Inferno, neither of these people should have been outside of Hell. Not only does God’s mercy upon Piccarda and Cato show its unpredictability, but it reinforces the idea mercy is not a mechanized thing. There is no set way of deciding who gets mercy and who doesn’t. While it is God who organized the levels of Hell and Purgatory, He does not organize His mercy for it is boundless.

Perhaps the most confusing act of mercy, or rather lack of mercy, is that towards the unborn and the unbaptized infants. It is highly illogical to allow half of the unbaptized innocents into Heaven while the other half suffers eternity in Hell for not coming to know Christ, despite having no opportunity. If logic is attempted at the definition of a set of rules regulating how God’s mercy works, it becomes impossible to try and combine every case of mercy into one, as they only end up in contradiction. Cato had seemingly two tickets straight to Hell, yet he dwells in Purgatory. Manfred and Buonconte lived terrible lives yet upon asking for God’s mercy at their deathbeds, He welcomed them with open arms. Piccarda had good intentions yet did not follow through, and Dante was an ordinary man struggling with his pride. Every single one of these characters nonetheless received God’s mercy.

There is no discernable pattern or code that unlocks the mystery of Divine Mercy. Through the poet Dante’s placement of characters in the Afterlife and Dante the pilgrim’s reception of God’s help, the only conclusion is mercy comes from God according only to His will. It is His infinite mercy and love alone which govern the whole of creation and it is through Love and Mercy the sun and moon continue to move.

Edited By: Zachary Maher

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