Before time itself got so compressed that life became fleeting, the New Year meant a list of life-changing resolutions. Whether our promises to ourselves were big or small, what was significant was the effort we made to take stock of our lives in the resolute belief that we could do better. For life was not conceived as a series of random happenings. Rather, the imaginary was of a journey, marked by significant signposts, where I chose my turning points to reach meaningful destinations.
We no longer seem to believe much in life-long journeys or, indeed, in definite destinations. So it might seem a tad quaint that, every New Year, and at every “crossroads” in between, I still catch myself reciting the prologue of that most epic of “journeys”:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita.
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.
The very first verse of Dante’s Inferno reminds me that life is short; that the straight path is narrow. The mantra comes to mind when I have gone astray and the “selva oscura” invites me to repentance. It takes me to a special space of in-betweenness—between my life that was and my life that could be. It invites me to enter a more intimate, and yet profoundly universal, journey that cuts through every moment of every life: to ponder Hell, to climb through Purgatory, but also to re-emerge in the joy of Paradise.
Such dramatic language might seem better suited for Lent than the Christmas period culminating with Epiphany. But January and February—those long months of grey, humid weather—are when reality hits us hardest. December, the “Holiday Season,” might be the month when we not only indulge in excess, but put on a brave face to project mindless cheer. But in January, when we’re not only exhausted from exuberant rejoicing, but even more, from pretending that we’re rejoicing, then we are invited to come to terms with ourselves.
As the last “holiday lights” stop gleaming, hidden in the enclave that is my heart, like Dante I am faced with a dilemma: I can allow myself to be devoured by the beasts to fall deeper into the collective stupor of our cultural somnambulism. Or, I can open myself to the promise of divine grace, accept the summoning of Beatrice, and humbly follow the Virgils that are providentially sent on my path. But to reach that promised joy, I must submit to that most tortuous of journeys of inner purification.
Dante does enter Hell and he travels down its circles to confront the horrors of self-indulgence, violence, and maliciousness. With him, I must acknowledge that the damned that populate every circle of Hell are not just those “others” suffering in torment, but that inside me, I too harbour deep-seated perversions that threaten to possess me.
Dante heroically climbs out of Lucifer’s frozen prison. But even then, he must struggle uphill the steep mountain of Purgatory. With him, I need to come to terms with how even my best intentions of “love” are tainted and distorted by wrath, envy and pride. Or how I ignore the prodding of love through sloth. Or even push my desires too much as lust, gluttony and greed threaten to possess, not love, the other. Good intentions, Dante teaches, are not enough to drink of true happiness. One must become truly “good”—and not just fake “goodness”—to taste of ultimate joy.
Dante reaches Heaven and is guided by Beatrice to learn the final lesson: for true and everlasting happiness, a more extraordinary miracle than purification must transform the self. God is the pinnacle of joy, but before I am made worthy to climb the heights of Paradise, it is the virtues that make us strong enough to drink of its delights. For heavenly bliss is not for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for the mindless. It is for those willing to sacrifice their wants for a higher good, to seek truth in all situations, to selflessly live that truth for others. And just like the vices that one must meticulously shed and burn, so must virtues be painstakingly nurtured before we are worthy to wear them as our new garb.
Ultimately, in his long allegory, Dante teaches that “heaven,” the perfect symbol of bliss, does not fall from above, for joy is never forced upon us. True happiness must be willingly embraced… which puts the onus on us to prepare our hearts to receive it. As our hearts are patiently tended, so little by little we discover extraordinary joy emanating from within; from that deep sanctuary where, from the beginning, we are loved by the Creator.
The death of self in purification is not drudgery, but a process of the unveiling of beatitude that is always offered but never forced. As we revel in divine love, as we embody a new self who is loved, we can reveal and share true Joy with others.
Happiness along the journey of this New Year!