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The Need of Bacchus

I haven't touched my Divine Comedy since school ended in May.  My Dante exam was my last final exam, and as soon as it ended I packed up my books, moved them to Fort Drum, and spent the fall reading easier things (such as, ahem, Inferno by Dan Brown....don't judge it was amazing).

I shipped my entire library to Texas when I moved here, and just opened the last boxes yesterday morning as I started to prepare to lead a section of Ralph Wood's Great Texts class.  To my delight, they are nearing the end of Purgatorio and I get to guest teach his class tomorrow.  

It felt wonderful to return to these books.  I loved seeing all my old notes in there - it made the pages feel living again, like they were inhaling when I opened the cover.  

I wanted to teach on the Earthly Paradise (I can't get enough Matelda!), but at the last minute my assignment was switched to the terraces of Sloth, Avarice, and Gluttony.  Not the most memorable moments of my journey through Purgatorio, I admit, but I began to prepare with hope and cheer, as there are no wasted words in the Commedia.  Within the first 100 lines of the first Canto (18) I read, I was weeping over this text that never lets me be.  Dante!  How do you know me?  

I confess: I've been pretty down and out for the past few weeks.  My job is so stimulating and Baylor is a treasure trove of incredible people and endless resources, and the whole university has been handed to me on a platter.  And yet - Greer's absence, the fact that this is a new place, my distance from home, uncertainty about the future, my loneliness on weekends and evenings: it has been weighing heavily upon me, and, most regrettably, harming my productivity at work.  

Canto 18 takes place on the Terrace of Sloth.  The souls there did not love completely or actively on earth.  They kept their spiritual impulses confined to their thoughts or speech, and they put none of it to action.  They are depressed.  They are slow moving.  They are tired.  They are sad.  

What do they do in Purgatory to pay for and be healed from their slothly sins?  They RUN!  The opposite of sloth is zeal, and they learn to overflow with zealous love for God and man.  Dante compares them to the Thebans who "felt the need of Bacchus."  They reflect Mary's sprint from the Annunciation to tell her friend Elizabeth what had just transpired.  They are like Caesar at the turning point of the civil war against Pompey.  They are like riders sitting atop galloping horses, and then they are compared to the galloping horses themselves.  "We are so full of the desire to move that we cannot stop!" they exclaim.

I love Dante's reference to Bacchus.  He is one of those figures from antiquity that a lot of people know about since his whole scene was throwing wild parties.  His followers liked to revel.  There was a lot of wine.  His festivals were connected to the seasons.  It's all extremely earthly, sexy, wild, involves a ton of eating and imbibing and dancing around and appreciating everything about the appetites of the human body.  It's exactly what a lot of Christians try not to be because they think following Jesus is about being serious and pious and good.  Not here.  Run!  Dance!  Shout super loud!  Be filled to overflowing with desires!  Get the adrenaline pumping!  Even if it involves wine or horses!

The Canto closes with the Beatitude, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  Ah!  This is the part that killed me.  Such deep compassion for those who bring about their own sorrows through their action or their failure to act.  Dante knows that God knows how sorrowful and difficult it can be to be human, and he treats our weakness with such dignity and tenderness.  And at the same time, shows the ability we have in our souls and bodies to rally, to become racers, sprinters, galloping horses, exuberant, joyful, and too full of the desire to move that we cannot stop. 

The past few months have been a story of my learning how to run, and I've stopped lately out of lack of desire.  But I will resume it.  And after a long hiatus, tomorrow I am scheduled to go ride horses with a fabulous rancher in Waco who breeds Arabians.  Teaching Dante, running, galloping through the Texas plains - tomorrow will be a good day.  I shall restore my zeal.  

In the spirit of equine imagery, I will share one of my favorite poems:

“Who The Meek Are Not”

by Mary Karr

Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent

under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep

in the rice-paddy muck,

nor the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles

make the wheat fall in waves

they don't get to eat. My friend the Franciscan

nun says we misread

that word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.

To understand the meek

(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop

in a meadow, who—

at his master's voice— seizes up to a stunned

but instant halt.

So with the strain of holding that great power

in check, the muscles

along the arched neck keep eddying,

and only the velvet ears

prick forward, awaiting the next order.


  1. I cannot begin to tell you how much this essay means to me. It so perfectly captures my personal struggles to make a life, to have it be aligned with God's will, to understand the ennui.
    I have read several of your entries, and you have a mighty gift for bridging the esoteric with life as we humans live it. (I just read your essay on missing your husband. It was so very touching, and I'm sure would resonate with many others in your circumstance; however, most of us don't have the gift of words that you do.) I'm writing to just encourage you to continue writing!! I can't overstate how much your words have meant. (P.S. I am not on Facebook - only gmail ( Please email me if you have other writings to which I might have access. Thank you!

    1. What a lovely comment - I am grateful! Thank you for your kindness.


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