Dante and the Eagle

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“At the hour near morning when the swallow begins her plaintive songs, in remembrance, perhaps, of her ancient woes, and when our mind, more a pilgrim from the flesh and less held by thoughts, is in its visions almost prophetic, I seemed to see in a dream an eagle poised in the sky, with feathers of gold, with open wings, and prepared to swoop. And I seemed to be in the place where his own people were left behind by Ganymede when he was caught up to the supreme conclave; and I thought within myself,–perhaps it is used to strike here and disdains, perhaps, to carry off any in its claws from elsewhere. Then it seemed to me that, after wheeling a while, it descended, terrible as lightning, and caught me up as far as the fire; there it seemed that it and I burned together, and the imagined fire so scorched that perforce my sleep was broken.

Even as Achilles started up, turning his awakened eyes about him and not knowing where he was, when his mother carried him off sleeping in her arms from Chiron to Scyros, whence later the Greeks took him away, so I started, as soon as sleep left my eyes and turned pale, like one that is chilled with fear. Beside me was my comfort alone, and the sun was already more than two hours high, and my face was turned to the sea.

‘Have no fear,’ said my Lord ‘take confidence, for it is well with us, do not relax but put out all they strength. Now thou art come to Purgatory'” (Dante, Purgatory, Canto IX, trans. J D Sinclair).

“When the Eagle snatches him up to the fire, he is so scorched that the agony awakes him, and instead of the highest heaven, he finds himself outside the Gate of Purgatory, with the whole long journey and purifying discipline before him. It is the idea worked out in Newman’s Dream of Gerontius: the soul which, ‘with intemperate energy of love,’ begs to see Christ before it is purified, is seized and scorched and shrivelled by His ‘keen sanctity,’ and thereby made willing to undergo the Purgatorial pains. Just so does the burning agony of the fire of the highest Heaven reveal to Dante his great need of purification and lay him in humble self-abasement at the Gate of Purgatory,

‘Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.’

The whole incident is intended to show also that the Divine grace can penetrate far deeper than our own conscious life and efforts. When the active powers are laid asleep, and the guidance of Reason is in abeyance, and all the ordinary means of grace fall away from the soul, even then God keeps the pathway open for the feet of His messengers. ‘So He giveth His beloved in sleep.’ One momentary flash of ‘the fire’ in a vision of the night may sometimes accomplish more for the soul than struggling hours of its own climbing, and outrun Reason’s slower pace…

Yet these visionary moments are not unconnected with the waking life. They never come until the soul has climbed some height in the struggle against sin. Dante indicates this by confining the swoop of the Eagle of his dream to the place where he fell asleep, the Valley of the Princes” (J S Carroll, Prisoners of Hope, p 133-134).

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