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Tools of Character

The Will's Means of Grace

As difficult as it is to learn to trust a mentor, it is even more arduous to break down our self suspicion. Do we have what it takes to break free of the entanglements of the Dark Wood - to melt with feeling-intellect the icy encrustations of Hell that keep us paralyzed in our self defeating patterns? We stare eyeball to eyeball at the antagonist within, sizing up our character and our chances of restoration.

Dante's Divine Comedy poem recommends four quintessential tools of character that will increase our chances of progressing toward liberation and union with each other and our Source. Essentially, these traits have to do with the courage to hope. It is easier to believe that we can not change, that our circumstances or fate determine our destiny. We have a self-protective propensity toward giving up before we start. It hurts so much to give our best effort only to fail. Seductively we whisper in our own ear, "I am doomed to fail. Optimism is naive. Isn't it more realistic to make peace with my condition than try to change it?" Surprisingly, Dante's poem renders such "realism" a mere example of being punch drunk with despair and out of touch with the deepest reality.

Hope's Hilarity

Life is a Comedy, not, as many would have it, a Tragedy. Our cynical side insists life is a game, or as Bob Dylan once said, "nothing but a joke." These are bitter declarations rooted in our abysmal disappointment that while life is supposed to be joyful and essentially meaningful, we have not discovered it so. Yet a comedic vision is integral to weave our way through the fog of disappointment.

To our minds comedy has to do with slap-stick, stand-up comics who evoke hilarity in worry worn audiences. Modern comedians do reflect the deeper meaning of comedy insofar as they enable us to laugh at ourselves and our narrow vision of things. The act of laughter is healing even if there are tears of regretful recognition behind the smile. To laugh, especially to laugh in Hell, is an act of joyful rebellion coming from the deep conviction that life often proceeds from death.

It may do us a world of good to make our first stop the lowly video store or the comedy club. When we are obsessed with home repairs and the money we are pouring into them, the movie Money Pit could become a call to consciousness. When we are love struck, Roxanne or Father of the Bride may do the trick. Often when we feel pompous, old fools like Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, or the Marx Brothers reveal the stupidity of taking our self-perceptions too seriously.

In contrast to modern comedy, the dignity of The Comedy is that the journey is meaningful and celebrative, grounded in ecstatic pleasure that can hardly be contained. Comedy is contemplation, a way of seeing. Unlike spiritual thrill seekers, we who desire renewal need to refine our senses so that we can glimpse life's nuances of beauty. Stars and sunsets bring this joy in brilliant form, but as the wise nature lover Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful.. even the corpse has its own beauty... almost all the individual forms are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless imitations of them, as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the wheat ear, the egg the wings and forms of birds, the lion's claw, the serpent, the butterfly, sea-shells, and clouds... - Emerson, Nature)

With this in mind, I am reminded of the ancient encouragement not to forsake the "day of the small thing."

Before plummeting the depths with Dante, it might do us well to merely spend merely a few minutes contemplating the beauty around us: the sights, smells and sounds that ready us for joy. Some of us may want to develop this discipline through photography or art, others through hiking or fishing. The main thing is to get nearer to ourselves through contacting our environment. We can in very practical ways participate in Nature's self embrace.

Dante shares with Emerson the belief that nature is symbolic of Spirit and is a vehicle through which we can participate in the Divine. If we doubt this, all we have to do is to understand his use of natural images. When Mount Purgatory is scaled and the joy of entering Paradise is to be anticipated by the taking of communion, Dante places Beatrice in the place of the traditional sacrament. A human lover represents Divine Love itself.

Life is a Comedy because it is fundamentally a Unity. In each of the three realms Dante assumes there is a unifying Source that stands behind the love that moves the sun and other stars. Fragmentation, inspite of all appearances to the contrary, is an illusion. In The Comedy, Unity is expressed by the idea of moral gravitation or morphic resonance where we are drawn toward that which is like us and are repelled from objects and people who are contrary to our natures. Falling in love is then an occasion of personal unification, a movement toward the wholeness of finding yourself in another. Desire takes us to what we truly are. He even extended his theory to natural objects such as the sun and stars being moved by love.

Whether the science or philosophy in this perspective is accurate or not can be debated. Barely questionable is the effect that the unity metaphor has on ways we approach the journey to Self recovery. With Unity as our focus, we move beyond personalism and discover a deep connection with Creation. By contemplating the unity of Creation and our place within it, we are guided home to our unique place of peace. Here we are most naturally ourselves.

Shadowland's Instruction

Arriving home to find our nature is hardly a straight forward endeavour. It requires a serpentine movement through the unnatural realm of our avoidances, in short, a journey through Hell. Thwarting nature is the flaw that leads to the consciousness of Hell, yet even there the reward we harvest is a hideous parody of what we were meant to be. The sad thing about Hell's consequences is that they remind us of what we were called toward and through choice refused.

Dante scholar Charles Williams interprets the fate of the lovers Paolo and Francesca in the first level of Hell not to be the result of adultery but of not taking their love seriously enough. These lovers, adulterers though they were, did not move toward a mature relationship but allowed themselves to drift dreamily in an adolescent love of the senses instead of developing a mature love which could have led to commitment. Their punishment was to be swept by the winds, never able to touch each other.Their choice not to tether love with the power of the intellect led them into that whirlwind of unrequited lust.

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