In the first canto of Inferno, Dante got lost in a forest that was as dark as sin. He tried to climb a delightful hill, but a ravenous wolf drove him back to the forest. Here he met the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil, who persuaded him to escape from the forest by making an epic journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven.
As he approached the first dismal leg of his journey, Dante got cold feet. He wanted some assurance that he had permission to enter these supernatural realms. Aeneas had done so, and so did the apostle Paul. However, Aeneas was the ancestor of the Romans, and Paul was an apostle. What gave Dante the right to make this journey?
Before looking at Virgil’s answer, a word of explanation is necessary. Like most contemporary Christians, Dante believed that the saints in heaven concerned themselves with the affairs of men and made intercession on their behalf. In fact, Christians often asked the saints to help them or intercede for them instead of praying to God directly.
It is a mistake to trust in saints for help. It is Jesus who intercedes for us before the throne of God. Nevertheless, the intervention of saints in the affairs of men is a key element in The Divine Comedy, and this becomes apparent in Virgil’s answer to Dante’s question.
Virgil accused Dante of cowardice. To revive his courage, Virgil explained that an unnamed lady in heaven (undoubtedly Mary, the mother of Jesus) was concerned about Dante. She expressed her concern to St. Lucia, and St. Lucia expressed her concern to Beatrice, a sainted lady whom Dante deeply admired.
Deeply alarmed, Beatrice journeyed to hell and visited Virgil. She urged the ancient poet to help Dante, who seemed to be fighting hopelessly against the forces of evil, which were endeavoring to destroy him eternally.
Virgil told Beatrice that he would gladly do as she requested. However, he expressed surprise that Beatrice had left the celestial regions that she loved and ventured to come to his dismal abode.
In reply, Beatrice told Virgil that the infernal fires could not harm her. He also told Virgil that the concern of the two ladies mentioned above prompted her to act quickly. [Actually, Beatrice did not have to enter the fiery part of hell. The Divine Comedy places Virgil in the first circle of hell, where no torments are present.]
After explaining these things to Dante, Virgil gave him a pep talk designed to instill courage into his palpitating heart.
Virgil’s words had their desired effect. Dante was eager to embark on this perilous journey, and willingly followed Virgil as they approached the gates of hell.
“The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri”; “Inferno”; Italian text with verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum