by John Stamps
“I understand from your words and the look in your eyes,”
That shadow of magnificence answered me,
“your soul is sunken in that cowardice
That bears down many men, turning their course
And resolution by imagined perils,
As his own shadows turns the frightened horse.”
The Cowardly Lion, Dante, and I all have one thing in common. We lack courage. Fear makes great cowards of us all. Dante the pilgrim had an especially good reason to be terrified. His exile from Florence is bad enough. But what sane human being wants to sojourn into Hell? Dante quickly complains to Virgil, his guide. I’m not Aeneas, I’m not St Paul. I’m just a poet.
As Dante had to face down those three horrific beasts—the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf—now the prospect of journeying into the Inferno terrifies him. But Virgil disagrees. You have a pilgrimage to make and you must make it. Don’t shirk your God-given task in this life. You cannot be a coward and a Christian. Just ask St Peter. Our faith is constantly put to the test. We are constantly tried and tested.
Without any say so on our part, we are thrown into this life “in media res“—right smack dab in the middle of things—and God wants us to face the present task with courage. Our choices are not naked decisions, with no rhyme or reason. We have friends along the way, friends we don’t see. But they are there nonetheless.
We do not live in a secularized universe, disenchanted and emptied out of hope and purpose. The universe depicted by Dante is a genuine cosmos, ordered and filled with God’s grace. Intercessors abound and they pray for us. Step into any Catholic Church—or in my case, step into any Orthodox Church—and you quickly realize we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They pray for us and they cheer us on, to finish our race with courage and endurance, all the way to the finish line.
In Dante’s case, three strong intercessors prayed for his soul. His beloved Beatrice—she launched his quest for beauty—interceded for him from heaven. Beatrice was followed by no less than the Mother of God, the Theotokos herself. “She broke the rigid sentence from above.” Yes, the Mother of God has that kind of power. The Queen of Heaven then enlisted the help of St Lucy to assist Dante in his terrifying journey.
With these spiritual powers on his side, Dante is emboldened now to follow Virgil down into Hell. Like Dante, we humans are on a pilgrimage. Life is not just one damn thing after another. Every step, every decision really does make a difference. We must make life-altering existential choices without all the evidence at hand.
What is it, then? Why stand here, why delay?
Why let such cowardice come take your heart?
Why are you not afire and bold and free?
Why indeed? The Christian faith is not for the faint of heart. Faith doesn’t respond well to a cost-benefits analysis. Each one of us has a God-appointed destiny. The Cowardly Lion and Dante each found unexpected courage. So can you and I. Don’t let fear shackle our hearts. God’s Holy Spirit can set our souls on fire. Let us step out boldly in faith.
* * *
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” in Canto 3.
Or rather: “Not so fast, Dante and Virgil!”