Virgil’s Farewell

July 26, 2020


July 26, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Virgil’s Farewell”
Matthew 6:22-23

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!


The Italian poet, Dante, was led through hell and purgatory by the Roman poet, Virgil.  Virgil was his guide and teacher and companion.  At the end of purgatory, the Roman poet could go no further.  Earthly paradise and heaven were not open to him.  He could not take Dante to the end of his journey.  Beatrice would lead Dante to the celestial realm and complete the comedy.

Before Beatrice arrived to assume the role of guide, Virgil bid Dante farewell.  This is what he said, “I’ve brought you here through intellect and art; from now on let your pleasure be your guide; you’re past the steep and past the narrow paths.  Await no further word or sign from me: your will is free, erect, and whole—to act against that will would be to err: therefore, I crown and miter you over yourself.”

In other words, Virgil tells Dante that your heart can now be trusted; your heart is your guide and it will be a good one.  This farewell confounded me.  I was excited and confused and perplexed.  How can the heart be a trustworthy guide?  We are filled with darkness and impulses of destruction.  To trust the heart is to bring yourself to ruin.  This is our theology.

Was this a medieval perspective I had not encountered yet?  Was this simply Dante’s overreaching trust of poetry and antiquity?  How could this be true?  I really wanted to know and believe that the heart could be trusted.  But how?

So, like Dante, I set off on a journey.  A path of illumination in order see, can the heart be trusted?  A hard journey it was.  Kathy and I flew to Spain and then Italy and took a train to Florence and stayed there for a month in an apartment with a terrace overlooking the San Ambrogia market.  We went to Dante’s hometown.  I figured there I could find the answer.

And it was so difficult, you know.  We were immersed in Renaissance art and churches and gardens.  The suffering was intense.  To understand this line, we needed to visit Rome and Lucca and Siena and Cinqa Terre so to be illumined by Tuscany.  And to fortify ourselves in this quest we needed to endure the restaurants and open-air markets and cafes and boulangeries and fromageries, even the local wine shop.  What misery.

Despite the hardships, illumination came.  Spending each morning eating day old bread and drinking espresso, I worked my way backwards.  I walked with Dante and Virgil once again through the levels of the inferno and of purgatory.  I went slowly and found the key of starlight and mirroring cantos.  At the end of the month nursing the sores and pain of walking amidst Michelangelo and Donatello and Raphael and Botticelli and Giotto, at the end of the month Virgil’s farewell came clear.

Dante could trust his heart because he had seen the darkness, the torment of the inferno, and he had seen the ruin of purgatory facing the hard challenge of redemption.  The inferno and purgatory are based upon the seven deadly sins.  In the inferno Dante saw the punishment of each of the seven; in purgatory he saw the terrible struggle to overcome their consequence and be healed.  He could trust himself because, by intellect and art, he had found the darkness, the evil within his heart.

Some may take issue with this epiphany, my interpretation.  And that is fine.  I hold no ill will.  Indeed, I am more than prepared to admit a faulty understanding and return to Florence and find correction, or more illumination.  Someone must suffer such a great challenge for this poem; I am willing.  Ready.  I’ll even study more Italian.

In some ways it is hard to compare the teaching of Jesus, so brief, so cryptic, with the long, truly hard journey of Dante.  What Jesus says in a few lines, Dante offers in more than 10,000.  Yet, they are so very close.  Each of the deadly sins are a challenge, a steep and narrow path, just as the seven teachings of Jesus are a great challenge.  And, also so close is the reality of ruin.  If we fail the test of the eye and the darkness, we are ruined.

The translation we are using today is a bit cautious.  We read, if the eye is unhealthy; but the word Jesus uses to describe the challenge of the eye, which he uses in the Lord’s Prayer, is “poneros” or evil.  Deliver us from poneros, evil.  If the eye is evil, corrupt, then there is darkness.  And then, if your light is darkness, how terrible is the darkness.  Unhealthy doesn’t really convey the danger here.  It is as if you were to say, cancer is unhealthy.  Falling down a cliff is unhealthy.  No.  They are terrible acts of destruction.

If you were tuned in or present last week you know we are moving through the seven challenges of the Sermon on the Mount.  Each challenge is different; each has the promise of eternal life and each has the potential for ruin.  Healthy and unhealthy could be used to express this difference, but they don’t really capture the danger.

The danger here is desire.  And the challenge is to find right desire and avoid wrong desire.  The key to this is the eye.  The eye is longing, desirous, gazing with intent.  The eye can be different things in ancient times.  One thing it can be, which it is here, is desire.  We would call this lust in its ruin and steadfast love as a form of eternal life.

This is what makes Virgil’s farewell to Dante so intriguing.  He is telling Dante that he has passed this test.  His heart is now a trustworthy guide.  His pleasure will now serve him.  Again, this is not our theological tradition.  We tend to be in the less than trusting of the heart camp.  The heart is filled with wickedness and evil and destruction and should never be your guide.

And here we are, like last week, at cross purposes with our tradition.  For our tradition is very Pauline. We would talk about the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  We would talk about grace as a gift, bought with the sacrifice and atonement of Jesus.  Again, all good and true.  Just not what Jesus is telling his disciples.  They are to navigate the heart themselves.  They need to make the journey, walk the path.  Jesus walked his for us.  And now we must walk ours for him. But we don’t get out of it.

In our tradition, Jesus passed the test for us.  And this is true and great.  But, according to the Sermon on the Mount, this is not a free pass.  We too must face the challenge of the heart and the eye, the ruin of wrong desire and the freedom of steadfast love.

When I think of harrowing challenges where there is risk of life and death, I think of Indiana Jones.  I know he is not as sublime or esoteric as a fourteenth century poet who has Virgil as a guide through the underworld.  But I have to say, I was quite shocked by how much theology there was in the third Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade.  More to the point, how spot on were the challenges of faith and what happens to those who do not navigate them.

Before I get to the challenges.  A subtle part of the ending of the movie is that Indiana Jones is forced to solve riddles for others.  And because the others do not face the challenges themselves, they suffer the consequence.  Even that is a part of the story.  Exciting.

Maybe you remember this if you have seen the movie.

At the end of the third Indiana Jones movie, the main character, Indiana, faces three daunting challenges in order to find the Holy Grail, the cup that caught the blood of Christ and is known to heal and to keep the body from aging.  The challenges are found inside the caves and canyons of the ancient Nebutian city of Petra, which was also a crusader stronghold.

Each challenge is a riddle; each challenge leads to extreme bodily harm (read death) if the riddle is not solved correctly.  Clues to each riddle were found by Indiana’s father who is aptly described as the medieval history professor you hope you don’t get.  If Indiana is successful navigating the three challenges, he will face a fourth challenge of which there are no clues as no one has ever reached that far.

The first challenge has the clue “only the penitent will pass”; the second is “you walk in the way of God”; and the third, “only a leap from the lion’s mouth” will lead you forward. With the first clue Indiana is not sliced in half by a sharp metal disc; in the second, knowing the Latin letters of God’s name allows Indiana to not fall to his death; and the third clue allows him to pass easily over a chasm as it reveals a hidden bridge.

In the final scenes of the movie the swashbuckling archeologist chooses wisely and selects a humble cup, a cup a carpenter would have been likely to use.  With this selection good triumphs over evil, the broken are healed; and a relationship is restored.  Fade to black.

What is so spot on for this teaching of Jesus and the other six is that Jesus is giving us help, a clue, a direction, an idea that will help us navigate the challenge of life.  But he doesn’t do it for us.  And he is also warning us, that if we fail here, there is ruin.

Let’s dabble for just a moment with ruin.  When Dante walked through the inferno and purgatory, ruin was all too clear.  Virgil could have given Dante a list of the deadly sins and told him to avoid these.  But instead, he shows Dante the terrible darkness, the ruin that comes from evil.  Not evil outside, but the destructiveness we have within us.

And this is why it is so strange for a Protestant to imagine trusting your heart.  We are firm believers in our ruin.  What we don’t talk about though is healing, saving, making right.  Jesus makes clear the destruction, calling it terrible darkness.  But he also talks about the light.  We have this good light as well.  Virgil tells Dante, now that you have seen the darkness, the good light can lead you.

We will need this light if we are to move forward.  For next we must navigate greed, and then gluttony, after this vengeance and pride.  Jesus gives a series of challenges.  We need the strength of each one to face the next.  We need the power that comes from good work and we need the strength of good desire before we can proceed to greed.

I was serious when I said, I would be willing to return to Florence.  The food, Donatello, even the trains, so wonderful.  Yet, I don’t need to return to be convinced about the heart.  If we are honest about the darkness, if we look to our ruin with real concern, the heart can become a place of light and delight and this can lead us.  Imagine Virgil’s words, if they were to us.  Your heart now illumined can guide you.  That is a place of freedom and joy and strength.

We know this challenge.  We know the dangers of desire.  Do we yet know the possibilities of light and delight of the heart?  I wonder can we reimagine our theology to trust the heart. Can we live so free?  Amen.

Bible References

  • Romans 3:21 - 26
  • Matthew 6:22 - 23