By: Julia Somerset
I have been rereading some great Christian works lately, and I recently came across a section of Dante’s Divine Comedy that grabbed me.
The Comedy is divided into three sections: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Purgatory is my favorite part. It is divided into several “terraces” that are associated with different sins that must be overcome before the soul can enter paradise. One of these is the Terrace of Sloth. The souls there did not love actively enough on earth. They kept their spiritual impulses confined to their thoughts or speech, and they put none of it to action.
They are depressed. They are slow-moving. They are tired. They are sad.
What do they do in Purgatory to pay for and be healed from their slothly sins? They RUN! The opposite of sloth is zeal, and they learn to overflow with zealous love for God and man. Dante compares them to the Thebans who “felt the need of Bacchus,” who is the Greek god of wine and celebration. They also remind Dante of the story in the Gospels when Mary sprints from the Annunciation to tell her friend Elizabeth what had just transpired. They are like Caesar at the turning point of the civil war against Pompey. They are like riders sitting atop galloping horses, and then they are compared to the galloping horses themselves. “We are so full of the desire to move that we cannot stop!” they exclaim.
I love Dante’s reference to Bacchus. He is one of those figures from antiquity that a lot of people know about since his whole scene was throwing wild parties. His followers liked to revel. There was a lot of wine. His festivals were connected to the seasons. It’s all extremely earthly, sexy, wild, and involves a ton of eating and imbibing and dancing around and appreciating everything about the appetites of the human body. It’s exactly what a lot of Christians try not to be because they think following Jesus is about being serious and pious and good. Not here. Run! Dance! Shout super loud! Be filled to overflowing with desires! Get the adrenaline pumping! Even if it involves wine or horses!
The Canto closes with the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Ah! This is the part that killed me. It contains such deep compassion for those who bring about their own sorrows through their action or their failure to act. Dante understands that God knows how sorrowful and difficult it can be to be human, and he treats our weakness with such dignity and tenderness. And at the same time, shows the ability we have in our souls and bodies to rally, to become racers, sprinters, galloping horses, exuberant, joyful, and too full of the desire to move that we cannot stop.
We all encounter moments of depression, and sometimes that melancholy can linger for months or years. This beautiful chapter tells us that God has compassion for our depression, and He knows how to heal it. It’s through running, being active, breathing fresh air, celebrating, and shouting! Melancholy can be overcome if we allow God to work in us.