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Theodore J. Nottingham

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Across the Marshes of Styx: Dante's mystical jour
by Theodore J. Nottingham   

Last edited: Friday, March 01, 2002
Posted: Friday, September 08, 2000

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Medieval understanding of sin as perceived by a brilliant writer such as Dante, presents us with a potency of spiritual awareness which puts our age to shame. His efforts were aimed at revealing the magnitude of our blasphemy as we live out our indulgent, empty lives in the presence of the spiritual universe which silently watches our tragic self-idolatry.


by Theodore J. Nottingham

Medieval understanding of sin as perceived by a brilliant writer such as Dante, presents us with a potency of spiritual awareness which puts our age to shame. His efforts were aimed at revealing the magnitude of our blasphemy as we live out our indulgent, empty lives in the presence of the spiritual universe which silently watches our tragic self-idolatry. The brooding poet exhibited extraordinary insight into psychology, a fact which ought to cleanse
our modern minds from any sense of superiority over his use of imagery, however steeped it might have been in the gruesome dramatics of the "Dark Ages."
Dante stands in the company of the prophets of the Old Testament when he denounces the darkness of the human soul. His deserts and lakes of boiling pitch are the hell of the putrid inner life in
which much of humankind finds itself.

O you proud Christians, wretched souls and small, who by the dim lights of your twisted
minds believe you prosper even as you fall. (Purg. c.16, 91-93)

One does not crawl out of "Beelzebub's dim tomb"," where Dante dreaded death as never before, where the winds of Cocytus exhale evil and its punishment from the whirling wings of the Emperor of the Universe of Pain, without discovering that this fourteenth century manuscript has pierced its way into that private realm where the soul must face itself.

Dante meets us at a place many people have come to know. "How I came to it I cannot rightly say, so drugged and loose with sleep had I become, when I first wandered from the True
Way". Within the multi-dimensional meanings of The Divine Comedy lies Dante's own struggle with himself, with outer life, and with the awakening of spiritual perception. The poet leads us to the grim shore where "all must come who lose the fear of God." There he proclaims that sinners "yearn for what they fear." The heart of the sinner is deliberately hardened to the love of the creator, for divine grace would not be refused to the heart that
wished it.

Under the symbols of the leopard of malice, the lion of violence and ambition, and the she-wolf of incontinence, Dante is determined to have us recognize the sins which are so easily hidden beneath justified motives and weaknesses left uncontrolled. From hopeless limbo to the frozen lake of Cocytus, Dante drags us down mercilessly through our own inner
journey. He teaches us that there is violence in the heart that blasphemes and scorns the gifts of Nature, that there is no pity for those "who waste the good and substance of their lives
and weep in that sweet time when they should be gay". All are descriptions of distortions of being whose weight of guilt sink the ones who have forgotten their Creator into the pain of
their own misdeeds.

Dante's strength comes from his great faith in an afterlife immersed in the glow of holiness.
This very assurance of what lies at the essence of all matter and of every event makes Dante a man of little patience and no tolerance for corruption. To Nimrod, the symbolic expression of elemental forces untranscended by the light of Divine Love, the character of Virgil cries out: "Babbling fool, stick to your horn and vent yourself with it when rage or passion stir your stupid soul." In the vast architecture of his majestic allegory, Dante is careful to express straightforward truths which each attentive soul may clearly recognize for itself.

In order to awaken his readers to the true horror of spiritual darkness, Dante plunges us into such nauseating, obscene visions of bestial depravity that, as sickened observers, we must
retreat into the protective spaces of our own faith. The hope of a life in the spirit beyond death, so infinitely removed from the darkness of the grave and its shades of hell, becomes more vital than ever before. One may justifiably wonder how such monstrosities could have
oozed out of this noble Italian's soul without damaging his own hope for purification.

Such reasoning leads one to consider the epoch in which Dante lived and the surrounding images of those grisly times. There was no possibility of concealing oneself from the constant
reminders of one's own mortality. Temporal horror was forever present and often served as fuel for the spiritual fire of the men and women whose lives were driven by experiences of transforming truth. The reality of a higher world and its powers over the transient madness of humankind were so obvious to them that the wicked themselves could not believe they were living in a godless universe. From the mouth of the tortured we hear:

Inflexible Justice that has forked and spread my soul like hay, to search it the more closely, finds in the country where my guilt was bred this increase in my grief. (c.30, 70-73)

Even the damned know the necessity of their horrific condemnaton, for as Virgil voices:
"Who is more arrogant within his soul, who is more impious than one who dares to sorrow at God's judgement?"

Dante weeps and faints and cowers in terror, as anyone who follows his journey closely will do, before the repulsive depiction of the eternal atrocities inflicted
upon Mahomet, or glancing at the frozen eyes of the worst of sinners lost in the deepest caverns of Hell, who, in the black desolation, gnaw forever on the skulls of their enemies.

Virgil himself declares that "the wish to hear such baseness is degrading". But Dante knows that he must give expression to his passionate consciousness of human depravity and its
spiritual consequences. There is little doubt from these penetrating and troubling verses that the author must have shivered at his own fancy as he endured the voyage through symbolic
agonies of remorseful conscience and just punishment, for he does not attempt to depict
himself as innocent.

The awesome power of The Divine Comedy is found in the exceedingly rare fact that its begetter undergoes his own confrontation with the multiformed human spirit of which he is a particle. Dante witnesses to countless centuries of unborn generations that he felt a shame so intense that "I grow pale yet at the memory".

As one trapped in a nightmare that has caught his sleeping mind, wishes within the
dream that it were all a dream, as if it were not-- such I became . . .(c.30, 136-139)

The utterly humbling experience of inner shame allows him to forgive himself under the guise of his guide and master, Virgil. And it is right that he do so, for that depth of shame is the hope of the Christian, since it is upon its shores that the Divine Presence may be felt

Despite the barbaric elements of Medieval culture, the purpose of life seemed clearer and more immediate to certain Christians of that period than it does to many who profess belief in this age. Self-study and great effort applied to one's awakening beyond the limits of empirical existence led to a possible experience of spiritual reality of which The Divine Comedy is one of the giant witnesses of all time. Just as nature is a projection of the sun's
creative powers, so are Dante's images reflections of psychological conditions.

We inhabitants of the late twentieth century seem utterly sterilized from the awareness of the "numinous" dimension of Christianity and of our responsibility to that Whole of which we feel ourselves so strangely independent. We have become sophisticated to such a degree through the distortions of our culture, which glorifies the human being as somehow above
the forces which create and destroy it, that we seem to have a much greater
difficulty in coming within hearing distance of ourselves as we truly are. Sin and rebirth, or as Dante
called it, "trans-human change," no longer seem to have the critical importance they represented to those distant times. In fact, those words have virtually lost all meaning whatsoever in today's bland and artificial forms of religion.

Modern psychology has invented positive attributes to anger, vanity, lust, ambition. Our churches wallow in the ideas of the day, without compass or leadership. We have used our
reason to "disprove" God by reducing the Eternal Spirit to a concept. We build our castles on the sands of intellecutal arrogance, scientific achievement, and naive political principles.

Today, we do not concern ourselves with primitive fears of a "Hell" teeming with monsters and torments.

Lost in the meaninglessness of our soothing distractions, we can claim the progress of having created an environment in which all values are relative, holiness is superstition, and the
Universe is ours to plunder and rape. But death will not be conquered, and we will each be stripped bare of our fabricated identities and material crutches when our time is up. We may then find ourselves haunted by the terrors of the dark unknown from which we come, as it
demands the fruits of our earthly lives. There will be no more cheap religiosity or intellectual manipulation to muffle our consciences. Though we may not be sent across the Marshes of
Styx into the bowels of the earth, we will each be alone in the dark and terrifying wood of our errors and ignorance. What we will know then only a soul of Dante's stature can put to paper.

Thus you may understand that love alone is the true seed of every merit in you, and of all acts for which you must atone. (c.17, 103-105)

Web Site: Nottingham Publishing

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Reviewed by Darlene Zagata
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