Painful Truth seen in Dante’s Paradiso

“Nevertheless, with every falsehood scrapped,

let everything you’ve seen be manifest,

and where they’ve got the mange, let them go scratch.”

— Dante, Paradiso, xvii.127

My hand was screaming with pain. The blood flowed more freely than I wished to witness as my good hand grasped the wounded limb with pressure to stop the flow. I had been laying hardwood floor in my new home and was nearing the end of a long project. One more row of tongue and groove boards and the entire first floor was finished. We could move in by Christmas. Exhausted, yet excited, I had a unique piece to cut that would go down around an A/C floor vent. As I ran the board over the table saw blade, a kickback caused the wood to fly up and backward. My hand came with the board and scraped the circular saw leaving a deep gash in my left palm just below my thumb. The shock started with numbness.

Painful experiences follow false assumptions of safety. But the value of truth is often not appreciated until after what was assumed to be easy becomes obvious as a falsehood. The value of painful memories brings greater appreciation and clarity to what was true all along. Rushing to judgment inevitably leads to pain after the fact. Ironically, truth is sweetest as truth is never in a rush to be discovered. Truth is always present, even amidst the hurry and assumed ease of the false.

Paradise is appealing. No pain. No suffering. All is beautiful. All is perfect. But in order to understand paradise, we must deal with pain and suffering. Otherwise, paradise is not valued as it should be. Paradise contrasted with suffering is more sweet than sour. Dante’s journey to Paradise is recognized as a journey of discovery. Although irritants cause one to scratch and bleed, it is only through the misery that recovery occurs and truth is understood.

“Nevertheless, with every falsehood scrapped,

let everything you’ve seen be manifest,

and where they’ve got the mange, let them go scratch.

For if your words are sharp at the first taste,

they’ll leave behind a living nourishment

when they have been digested at the last.” [1]

The lesson emphasized in Dante’s prose is that to appreciate and revel in the beauty of Paradise, the truth about falsehoods and pain must also be understood. There is truth in defining the false. The truth of falsehoods is deception. To not learn this truth is to believe a lie and that is not truth. Paradise is then only realized in discovering the truth about false wisdom.

The celestial city on the hill is an image desired by Christians throughout the history of the church and the appeal to such a distant objective is the future hope of deliverance from suffering and pain where we are now. The truth of human existence is that pain and sorrow are prevalent. Yet the hope of the faithful is that someday the suffering and pain will cease. The truth of the gospel is that without the pain we endure, the passion and desire for Paradise would not be present, or at least not as strong as it could be. Desire for life without lies, deceit, and suffering is what drive the Christian on to seek Paradise. David Lyle Jeffrey in discussing the struggles of interpretation of Scripture writes about the journey to the celestial city;

“By contrast, the celestial Jerusalem toward which the faithful travel through history cannot be reached or conquered by human effort. One must set out in faith, joining the vulnerable company of the blessed en route, but in the end the New Jerusalem is not so much to be attained (by works) as granted (by grace), as it descends.” [2]

Along the journey of knowledge and wisdom, experience teaches humility. Pain and suffering shape the journey in ways that I wish they would not. But it is in the mistakes learned through the deceit of lies and false truths that I see more clearly, and appreciate more honestly, the glory of Paradise. My Lord suffered much more than I suffer.

Although never deceived by the promise of lies, Jesus did gain stronger authority by standing against false truth. In his conviction after an illegal trial, Jesus willingly suffered so that I would not be enslaved to the lies of sin and death. Slave trader and converted pastor John Newton knew the power of grace after living a life of tragic mistakes and penned the simple but profound hymn Amazing Grace. In one of his sermons he preached,

“We call ourselves the followers and servant of him who was despised of men, and encompassed with sorrows. And shall we then ‘seek great things for ourselves,’ as if we belonged to the present world, and expected no portion beyond it? or shall we be tremblingly [sensitive] to the opinion of our fellow-creatures and think it a great hardship if it be our lot to suffer shame for his sake, who endured the cross, and despised the same for us?” [3]

Although I do not applaud misunderstood ideas as an academic method of discovering the truth, I do recognize the value of failure in appreciating the truth. When mistaken ideas are a way of knowing, the only result is destruction. Yet, when mistaken ideas are understood in light of what is true, then strength in wisdom leads the sojourner further up the path to Paradise.

I look forward to the day when table saws no longer inflict pain as the result of my mistaken sense of safety. But I do not regret the lesson learned and the respect I now have for the process of building. The journey to completion contains many lessons along the way that will not be pleasant. The journey to Paradise is not an easy one, but nonetheless, the journey is a valuable one.

___________

[1] Alighieri Dante, Paradise, trans. Anthony M. Esolen (New York: Modern Library, 2007), [Canto xvii, 127-132, p. 187].

[2] David L. Jeffrey, Houses of the Interpreter: Reading Scripture, Reading Culture (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009), p. 34.

[3] Ibid, p. 84

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