The Divine Comedy: Three Cycles of Self Discovery

I feel terribly low at the moment after my recent discovery that old wounds were not yet fully healed, that it is much harder to move forward when someone who mistreated and humiliated me is rewarded despite feeling no remorse. I have discovered, however, that this is not the first time I have felt this way because of him, on the contrary it appears as though I am in the third cycle. It is a feeling that has been present for quite sometime, present but dormant like an illness hidden until the conditions were right before emerging. A dream – or rather a nightmare – that I had this morning left me in a cold sweat that reminded me of the previous cycle. I had suffered the same heartache, searched for the same renewal to motivate me to move on from the pain and found myself back in the same place again.

While it may explain progressive stages of coping with grief and how weaving through these phases verifies our psychological resilience, being caught in this cycle of repetition is a process that slowly steps us through several phases that one completes once they are ready to move onto the next cycle. How do we navigate through the depths of the vestibule of this unknown and illustrate the raw authenticity of our mental states, to journey through the land of the dead until we find the right guidance back and into the peacefulness of heaven? Perhaps Dante can help explain.

Inferno

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O human race, born to fly upward,
Wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?

I wandered into the dark forest and there I encountered a three-headed beast; one of a leopard, one of a lion and the other a wolf, enormous and raging with the hunger of lust, pride and avarice. He was thirsty for chaos that never seemed to cease, his appetite to torment me unyielding as he ripped out my heart. He is unrepentant, without a soul and resides in the darkness of error. This terrifying experience left me lost and in a state of limbo, descending into the depths of a frozen hell in search of my heart while warding off his lustful attacks, his treachery and wrath, aggression and finally his cunning.

Men who think that they can play a game with love do not understand love. Some men fraudulently shower their partner with persuading compliments where a man loses himself as he manipulates and convinces his woman to believe that she is in love. He is rewarded for his efforts but remains perpetually unsatisfied, locked in a submissive state where he is controlled by her like Sisyphus is controlled by the boulder because he has to constantly feed her false affection in order to keep her. Other men force women to submit through fear, reminding through his wrath and the threat of violence that she must believe there are no other possibilities other than staying with him. It is a man creating the conditions that control women, removing any authenticity or affection where one is attracted to someone because they admire mutual qualities to instead have a deluded couple tied to one another through lies. Women who identify with such men, who feel comfortable and acknowledge terrible behaviour as though it were acceptable are vicariously liable for perpetuating bad behaviour and are just as liable to blame. While there is indeed a larger schema of social pressure that infects people with these toxic patterns of expected behaviour, both Adam and Eve had fallen from heaven.

In this first phase, I was coming to terms with each of the experiences I had with a bad man behaving badly. This is where it all began and there were so many things he did that left me terribly confused. He gossiped and slandered me, he lusted after me and lied about me and about himself, he intentionally manipulated people against me, but worst of all was the continuous indirect threats he made over my life making me afraid that he was going to physically hurt me or rape me.

In order to reach a state of mind that would enable me to filter through the repeated and continuous effects of his attacks toward me, where I was filled with fear and anxiety, all I needed to do was to make it stop. This meant escaping, leaving the toxicity and going into hiding until I was at capacity to be free of him in order to have the capacity to focus.

  • Phase One: The Cessation of the Torment
    • You are actually experiencing the terrible and you need to get through it and out for the experience to end. I did it both by being forcibly removed from the toxic environment following a car accident, but also making him think things about me that were untrue so he can willingly stop. This is the most challenging.

Purgatorio

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The man who lies asleep will never waken fame,
And his desire and all his life drift past him like a dream,
And the traces of his memory fade from time like smoke in air,
Or ripples on a stream.

The beast followed me down the nine circles of hell until I reached the feet of the devil, the very place Satan had landed when tossed out of heaven and there I stood at the base of a great mountain that I was required to climb. The terraces of my own sins towered above me and I saw my broken heart – now pieced together – protected in a glass cabinet beaming with golden light at the very peak, waiting for my arrival. The beast lingered behind me and whispered mischievous and bitter remarks deep into my own soul but despite the gaping emptiness and weakness I felt, I needed to climb that mountain. I needed to understand and articulate who I was, what I understood of myself, of love and of morality. The mountain was me.

While I was no longer in his presence and there was no direct danger anymore, he continued to inflict violence and did so online by messaging me while pretending to be other people, driving around my home, otherwise humiliating me with deceitful behaviour that caused me incredible stress. The worst part was that despite being vulnerable and conscious that I was alone and in need of a friend, he used that advantageously to frighten me even further. By pretending to be other people, he stole my identity and my voice because I was too frightened to be myself, struggling to cope with feelings of humiliation especially when at the same time people were telling me about his slanders at work. He took away the reality that I was funny, kind, fiercely intelligent and instead forced his own assumptions of me by trying to prove to himself that I was not a good person. He never allowed me the chance to be myself and to show and explain who I really was.

The question at this point was what did he want exactly? Did he think that I was going to like it? Does he believe it was even remotely acceptable behaviour?

This was a lengthy period of time that I needed to heal and the climb was indeed long and arduous, discovering along the way who I was, what I wanted and gradually finding inner empowerment. It was a period of travel, especially to Italy where I was reminded of who I was and I started to take care of my health, quit smoking and stopped following other people. It was a time of solitude and although I risked slipping and falling off the cliff many times, I learnt the importance of virtue and leading a virtuous life. I mirrored myself against his evil and thus was able to reflect moral goodness, to articulate what I wanted in myself and in others, which was everything that he was not. I stopped running away from my enemies and started to face them, for them to see me and remember that I was not overcome by their evil. It was a time of exposing my vulnerabilities, dealing with acceptance and failure, disclosing my secrets and gaining a sense of courage.

In this cycle, I had no choice but to form a defense mechanism where in order to cope with the avalanche of terrible things that I had experienced, I shifted most of his wrongdoing into a repressed and quite place. I told myself that I liked him and that maybe he liked me, that he was not bad and within me lingered the hope or possibility that he would apologise, that he would regret his behaviour and feel some repentance. I did not really understand or accept who he was just yet and created the delusion and the hope that he would be my friend. I was protecting myself from the tremendous hurt that he inflicted and so I remained confused about my feelings toward him during this period. I needed to take care of me first.

  • Phase Two: The Long and Arduous Climb
    • You have moved past the anxiety and the fear and so comes the great task of trying to articulate both your own pain, the reasons for the misconduct and abuse you experienced, and finally your own wrongdoing. It is a period of healing.

Paradiso

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Here to us, thou art the noon and scope
Of Love revealed; and among mortal men,
the living fountain of eternal hope.

I reached the summit of this mountain of self-discovery and the transparent cube in which my beating heart lay ascended up towards the moon as the mountain collapsed below me and I flew high above as the clouds, Earth, the planets all melted away. I watched as my heart exploded into a supernova and created the most illuminating star that showed just as how much I love. Despite all I had been through from my parents, to my siblings, to my friends, to him and to me, I loved with the greatest love and had a deep and unyielding passion. My suffering became clear. I had no one to love and so I love God and God is everything. I need to commit myself to divine justice, to commit myself to a life of contemplation and prayer while also making a difference to show just how much I love. I hold in my hand the rose of peace and I had that to the three-headed beast.

Having our vulnerabilities exposed is not easy, on the contrary doing so is courageous and a type of strength that enables resilience to deal effectively with heartache. As tears roll down my cheek, I have been confronted with a ferocious reality that I had repressed the real person that he was in order to climb that mountain and find that healing. I created an idealism that had hope he would apologise and be my friend, that he would find the courage to be honest to me and everyone else and I only did this as a defense mechanism to cope with the fact that he hated me so much and that I was undeserving of such hatred. I actually really wished from the bottom of my heart that he would find that courage to help us reconciliate and it has been a terrible feeling to realise that I was only imagining this.

He gives honour and respect to undeserving people and mistreated a kind and loving person without any sense of shame. He never acknowledged me or allowed me to be me. Anything that I ever said before about liking him, hating him, none of it was real, it was an illusion I created as I was working toward mending my broken heart and why I have been chipping away on the subject of authenticity over this period. I see a three-headed beast who has created a false facade in order to trick people around him to make him think that he is a good person and so make him trick himself that he was justified for his bad behaviour.

If he told himself that something is wrong with me – despite him harassing and antagonising me that put me into a very awful position – and made other people believe it, he did this under false pretenses and having people believe him does not make these beliefs in anyway true. It breaks my heart so deeply that he never gave me a chance to be myself and that he stole my voice, my real identity, and threw it away. I am tremendously sad that he failed me as a person, as a colleague, as a friend, that he could not have the courage to admit to me his errors and that I am unworthy of even being looked at. This really hurts right now.

I am not at Premum Mobil just yet, I have only just awoken to this the last few days and when I think of him a pain suddenly stabs me in the side of my rib-cage as though the emotion were physically real. I am new to this phase but I understand what is coming. What I do know is that I need to find the courage to commit myself entirely to what I should have a long time ago and that requires the courage to be completely honest with myself. To make a promise and I know even now that I am afraid of this promise, like getting married knowing it is for life, I need to make that decision about who I am and what I want to achieve for the rest of my life.

  • Phase Three: A Lifelong Promise
    • Reality as it is and not as you imagine it, making you present in a real world. It is time to make a life-long decision about what you really want to do, to be and to commit yourself to that. It is about ‘you’ and not others anymore.

Dante: Love That Moves The Sun And Other Stars

What is love when no one understands you, when no one can see you for who you are? Esse Est Percipi, ‘To be is to be perceived’ as said by G. Berkeley.

Is the sadness you feel real when no one is there to comfort you, when you are alone and lying in bed thinking about how those that have hurt you are completely oblivious to such an experience, perhaps on the contrary where they believe that no wrongdoing exists at all? What happens when you speak of the wrongdoing and they deny you, perhaps reverse this and claim that you are the one with the problem, competing with you to prove they were right and settle the anxiety they feel for their own falsehoods? Playing games to make themselves believe that they are somehow better than you. Is this why when faced with facts they are suddenly stirred with an emotive viciousness that increases as though the louder and more assertive they are, the more right they become and the more people they gather to agree with them, the more likely you will be silenced? And is it the reason why we appreciate the truth with greater clarity when it is uttered through lies, fictitious stories and parables that explain moral symbols that become the hermeneutic source for our subjective capacity to interpret facts without confronting the harsh and abrupt reality of our own failures?

I spent my childhood wishing for a friend that never arrived and my tenderness and love remained protected by the isolation I endured as I hid away from those contemptible enough to enjoy tricking and humiliating me, laughing at my vulnerability and frightening me. The pain even greater when I hoped for kindness that I never received, as though I were manoeuvring through a hellish purgatory, wandering and wondering if there is anyone out there that can genuinely love. For Dante, this is symbolic of what we experience when we become conscious of love and his Divine Comedy is a poetic allegory that divides such an existential reality into what becomes the three stages of our soul’s journey towards God. The Inferno is that moment of consciousness, where one awakens to a reality where our actions and failures or sins become transparent as well as our aloneness on this dark journey towards hell. As we uncover our own self-deception, we see the treachery in others and the lies and games of those within our environment who pretend to goodness when they only seek the indulgences of this false reality. It is only when one admits to this fraudulence and seeks repentance, to apologise for our own misconduct and become morally conscious that enables an escape from hell and ascend toward Purgatorio, the mountain on which we begin to climb toward heaven in order to see the difference between what is genuine or pure and what is false. The desire to reach the summit is the motivation that compels us to become honest with ourselves and though lengthy the process and arduous the climb, we purge the soul of sin by attempting to embody true love. Dante means to show that if one would ever find this heavenly peace, it is only possible through love. To put it succinctly, one begins this divine experience when they genuinely fall in love.

My will and my desire were both revolved,
As is a wheel in even motion driven
By Love,
Which moves the sun and other stars.

Dante’ lifelong love was Beatrice and highlighted in his publications including La Vita Nuova that attempts to exemplify the provincial methods of courtly love in medieval Italy. Her presence in the Divine Comedy indicate her position in the symbolic experience of Dante as he traverses through these realms, initially falling into limbo as she prayed for Dante to be saved by Virgil – who embodies a person that is wise with virtuous attributes – during his decent into the Inferno. It is almost like she desired genuine love that Dante was not yet capable of giving and prayed that he would one day come to her as one wise and authentic. His experience in Purgatorio is a necessary step that he needs to make as he reaches out to Paradiso where Beatrice is then able to guide him toward the attainment of virtuous attributes that could make a man wise and constant. Dante believes that this love is divine and one must love another through God where she becomes the symbol that enables him to reach Paradiso as she embodies the desire for him to become a better man. Thus his admiration is not aroused by the physical beauty that she possessed, where such considerations merely compel a man to turn away from God, but for who she is and that led to the awakening and the transparency of his own soul and improved the clarity of his purpose.

She – as the sun who first in love shone warm
Into my heart – had now, by proof and counter proof,
disclosed to me the lovely face of truth.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 during the late Middle Ages and wrote the epic masterpiece The Divine Comedy in 1321. Love that moves the sun and other stars is reference to a number of cantos (III – XXXIII) in Paradisio. Dante epitomises the work itself, his biography is found within the cantos as it provides us with the magnificence of his imaginative scope and allusions to his own thoughts and experiences. Highlighting the influence of Beatrice in particular, it also includes figures such as Jesus and St. John along with philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas that helped solidify his faith in God. His family was embroiled in the politics of the time; clashes between rival factions the Ghibellines who were defeated by the Guelphs for which he was a member, soon thereafter found those loyalties broken when Dante was exiled following a division between the Guelphs (Black and White) that led him to be banished for supposed corruption. The treachery he experienced became a part of the Inferno hell that left him disillusioned for the deception and violence he witnessed, his exile the many years that it took through Purgatorio to learn the wisdom to ascertain the difference between right and wrong, all the while Beatrice stood as a beacon or “holy lamp” that helped light his way to the good life. Her death in 1290 was met with pangs of anguish that it almost appears that her place in Paradiso is his lifelong yearning to be with her in what would become his own paradise. Beatrice Portinari is said to have been a woman of virtue and grace, though he briefly met her in advance of his marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, his later encounter with her clearly indicated that he fell in love and she became the muse for his love ballads, none of which mention his wife.

Dante finds himself travelling through a number of spheres in heaven, represented by astronomical or planetary symbols that allude to a series of virtues. Cantos III, for instance, embarks on a lunar journey to the moon when he confesses of his failures and is born again through the love for Beatrice. She became his saviour, a child that she could help gain steady ground about how to live in God’s love or be attuned to what correctly wills or motivates man to reflect with accuracy. A man can find salvation through a virtuous woman; when being pulled by men set on greater harm then good, she struck him with the splendours of the decency that she attached to her heart. Canto X or the Sphere of the Sun alludes to the light of God, to witness the universe and the power therewith in creation and the universe itself can eclipse the worldly attributes for a moment as Dante gives thanks to the monumental reality of the world above.

And there, entranced, begin to view the skill
The Master demonstrates. Within Himself,
He loves it so, His looking never leaves.
Look! Where those orbits meet, there branches off
The slanting circles that the planets ride
To feed and fill the world that calls on them.

A number of figures enter into the celebration of this epiphany, including King Solomon, St. Thomas Aquinas and Boethius that allude to their place in assisting one to reach this venerable awakening. They are rejoicing for Dante finally becoming aware of the fallaciousness of the world below him and where his soul deep within him begin to burn from the joy of abandoning all the lies that tied him to that false reality. It is followed in Cantos XI with, “Those idiotic strivings of the human mind!” The toil of worldly affairs including politics and law, where Dante finally finds peace in his should within the arms of Beatrice and being up high in the heavenly spheres where his soul rests in the light of truth. Here, Dante speaks of St. Francis who takes a wife and loves her despite the objections of his father and others, that his dedication to love a loyal and courageous woman though many feared her that represents the potential poverty of a life lived in the love for God and that one may be at risk of losing family and friends in the commitment to what is good. But Beatrice remains the defining guide, whereby in Cantos XIV she shows Dante that there is yet more truth that he is required to find within him, the eternal nature of this experience and whether one will remain committed in their love for God. Beatrice grows and becomes more beautiful to Dante when she chooses to join the light, perhaps representative of the longevity and growth of the beauty of love in a virtuous woman that renders the clarity of the experience eternal.

And so my eyes, regaining their strength,
Lifted once more. I saw myself alone,
Borne with my lady to a higher good.
Seeing the flares of laughter in that star,
Which seemed now far more fiery than before,
I knew full well that I’d been lifted higher.

We begin to see through the light of God all that is wonderful and so what we ‘see’ or understand continuously increases as we rise higher through the celestial planes. In Cantos XVII, Dante is still troubled and Beatrice continues to help him shed light on his feelings by prompting a discussion with Cacciaguida about the future and the difficulties he may face as was forewarned by Virgil. Contingency is met with the potential uncertainty for the future and that while one may experience hardships, in faith one will also experience events that are wonderful. It is to be courageous to face the contingency. When they reach Cantos XXIII or the Sphere of the Fixed Stars (Eighth Heaven), Beatrice is compared to a mother bird waiting for the sun, the light of Christ and enraptures all who experience this power to expand their thoughts beyond the horizon. The garden, for which Beatrice instructs Dante to look upon, contains a rose that is the Word of God and he can see Mary in the rose, the “Queen of Heaven” (Regina Coeli). By Cantos XXVII, Dante – despite being further from the earth – can now see the details within it with greater clarity, his mind now free from the false burdens that blinded him from seeing such details, the sins for which Beatrice speaks of when a man misuses his free will. He returns to earth in Cantos XXX, the light of dawn slowly drowning the light of the stars until he turns to see the beauty of Beatrice once more and both reached the Paradiso in one another, transcending the material world through love and wisdom.

As she then was – a guide in word and deed,
Her work all done – she spoke again: ‘We’ve left
The greatest of material spheres, rising
To light, pure light of intellect, all love,
The love of good in truth, all happiness,
A happiness transcending every rapture.

The final Cantos XXXIII, Bernard of Clairvaux praises the love of Mary as the foundation for the rose or the Word of God who helped illuminate Dante with the truth and the happiness that followed. Indeed, as Beatrice returns to her place in the rose, which is symbolic of the Queen and Virgin Mother, epitomises that she has satisfied her love for Dante as he gazes into the light of the Empyrean. He now understands God and what is right and good on earth.

As one who has now ascended to Paradiso, the bliss and happiness of finding the Divine love and waiting to meet someone genuine on this journey of mine, I believe as Dante does that love can only be real when two people experience this transcendence from the material realm, from the hellish Inferno where one becomes aware of the reality where there exists corruption, lies, and all things vicious. By seeking the divine love of God, one can redeem themselves and when guided by love, mirror our moral position to become virtuous and wise. Only then can one return to ‘earth’ and see the world for what it genuinely is. The Divine Comedy remains a powerful poetic bildungsroman, an epic of gigantic proportions that remains the heart of medieval Italy and the Italian language itself.