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Why do the slothful not have a prayer?

IN CANTO 18 of Dante's Purgatorio, Dante the pilgrim is startled out of his slumber in the middle of the night by a group of frenzied penitents, "who were approaching, / having already rounded the terrace from behind us" (89-90) (1); they are said to resemble a group of Theban bacchanalians (91-93). The crowd arrives quickly, "for the whole frenzied mob was running" (98). Two at the front shout examples of zeal, another answers Virgil's plea for directions, and two more cry out examples of sloth. Nowhere, whether here or in another canto, is there any indication that the slothful pray a particular prayer.

The fact that the slothful do not recite a prayer specific to their group is a sufficiently dramatic departure from the pattern Dante establishes in Purgatorio that one would expect numerous and extensive commentaries on this lacuna. Instead, we find only brief and sporadic attempts to explain this choice. In this article I will attempt to account for Dante's decision not to give the slothful a prayer, considering and responding to various other possible explanations along the way.

The most basic, but to my mind most unsatisfactory explanation of the absence of a prayer for the slothful, would be that the omission was accidental on Dante's part. (2) I grant that even Homer nods, but to suggest that Dante simply neglected to include this detail is akin to submitting that the poet somehow failed to remember to rhyme three lines within a poem consisting entirely of terza rima. The pattern not only exists but is worked out in such fine detail that it is impossible to believe that Dante merely forgot to sustain it. For the proud, for example, who pray the Pater Noster as part of their penance, Dante has chosen a supremely fitting prayer. The Our Father is the prayer that Jesus himself instructed us to pray, and so praying it is a supreme form of obedience--the very virtue the proud shunned in their self-important and self-sufficient condition while on earth. (3) To use just another example, the avaricious pray the fourth section of Psalm 118 (119), which in Dante begins with "Adhaesit pavimento anima mea" (Purg. 19.73) ("My soul hath cleaved to the pavement" [verse 25]), (4) precisely mirroring the penance they perform on this cornice. (5) A further, slightly hidden way in which the prayer of the avaricious is fitting is that a few lines later in the Psalm we find a direct reference to the sin of avarice: "Incline my heart into thy testimonies and not to covetousness" (verse 36). In short, as John Sinclair puts it, the cornice of sloth "is the only one of the seven terraces of Purgatory in which there is no prayer or office of the Church, and no reader of Dante will suppose the omission to be accidental." (6) Another possibility that we may briefly consider is that Dante could not find an appropriate prayer for the slothful. But two obvious contenders come readily to mind for anyone who has studied the sin of sloth, or acedia (Dante himself uses the Italian word accidia [Purg. 18.132]), as it was understood in the Middle Ages. (7) The first is Psalm 90 (91), with its reference to the "noonday devil" (6), which the desert fathers understood to mean acedia. (8) The second is Psalm 118 (119): 28, "My soul has slumbered through heaviness: strengthen thou me in thy words." (9) With both options available to Dante, one finds it difficult to believe that this poet of abounding creativity and resourcefulness would omit the prayer of the slothful due to a failure of the imagination.

Equally unsatisfying is the suggestion proffered by Mark Musa that "For some artistic reason, it has seemed appropriate to Dante that no prayer be uttered (or heard) on the Terrace of the Slothful." (10) The fact that Musa raises the question at all is refreshing, but his short and rather vague explanation leaves much to be desired. The reference to "some" artistic reason begs the question of what that reason could possibly be, especially since Dante's artistic choices are almost invariably linked to theological principles. For example, his choice to present Purgatory as a mountain rather than a purifying fire, as St. Thomas Aquinas would have it, is artistic in the sense that Dante would have found the need to restrict himself to the image of a fire throughout too constraining. At the same time, this choice is theologically pleasing, as it indicates our ascent toward God as we shed the layers of our sinful tendencies. Accordingly, the explanation for Dante's omission of a prayer for the slothful may have an artistic aspect, but not along the lines of Dante simply needing more space or wanting to emphasize other details. We must try to understand how this choice makes sense theologically, as Dante's choices consistently do.

Dorothy Sayers, in her notes to her translation of Purgatorio, puts forward an interesting suggestion that does contain a theological explanation for Dante's choice. She argues that the penance assigned on this cornice "takes the form of the practice of the opposite virtue: an active Zeal" and that "on this Cornice alone no verbal Prayer is provided for the penitents: for them, 'to labour is to pray.'" (11) The chart she provides that summarizes the content of Dante's Purgatorio also states, under the prayer of the slothful, that "[Their labour is their prayer.]" (12) Sayers presents the same argument in her chapter on "The Cornice of Sloth" in Further Papers on Dante, where she says that "on this cornice the neglect of the Active Life is purged; the souls remind themselves that to labour is to pray." (13) One wonders, though, whether this suggestion that action can be a form of prayer is one that Dante would endorse in relation to souls in Purgatory. Elsewhere in the Purgatorio--in fact, at the top, in the Earthly Paradise--Dante takes pains to emphasize the distinction between action and contemplation (though, granted, contemplation is only one form of prayer) through the pilgrim's dream of Rachel and Leah in the Earthly Paradise, with Rachel's immobile gaze representing contemplation, and Leah's busy movement representing action. (14) It is true that by the time we get to the Celestial Rose at the summit of Paradise itself action and contemplation are fused: the only action that the blessed have is to adore God. But whether Dante would present the souls in Purgatory as having already achieved this integrated state is at least questionable, since these souls have not yet reached perfection. The best we can say about Sayers's answer to the question of why the slothful have no prayer, then, is that it is possible but problematic. (15)

Robert Hollander offers what is probably the best solution to the problem of the absence of prayer among the slothful to date. He comments that, "On every other terrace the penitents have a prayer that they speak in common when they are not interrupted by other forms of observance or by conversation with Dante and Virgil (see Purg. XI. 1-24; XIII.50-51, XVI. 19; XIX. 73 ; XXIII. 11; XXV121). The terrace of Sloth offers the only exception, as though the previous acedia of these penitents took from them the privilege of Christian prayer." (16) For Hollander, the omission of the prayer can be understood theologically, as a part of the penance that the sinners on this cornice perform. He continues:
   The gloss of Carroll (1904) is interesting: "The idea seems ...
   to be the danger of contemplation of good deeds, without an eager
   and immediate effort to imitate them. Mere 'study' of them may end
   in the 'little love' which produces sloth. It is only when 'study'
   is accompanied by action that it 'makes grace bud again.'" For
   Dante, a man devoted to the pursuit of the morally engaged active
   life, certain occasions for prayer perhaps appeared to offer a
   potential escape from one's civil and religious duty in the world.
   Men and women of such disposition are thus, here in their
   penitence, denied the comfort of prayer until such a time as prayer
   will be totally zealous, not the occasion for a moment of repose
   from worldly responsibility or, for that matter, from proper
   monastic exertion. Acedia was frequently associated with improper
   monastic otium, a withdrawal from the world but from one's duty to
   God as well, surely a great temptation in the relative ease allowed
   by monastic life. (17)

According to this view, the denial of a prayer to the slothful is thus an appropriate penance in the sense of punishment because the slothful used prayer as an escape from their responsibilities, whether secular or monastic. This interpretation has a certain appeal in that it provides a theological rationale for Dante's choice, and it is internally consistent. I believe it is not the best possible answer, however, because the nature of acedia as it was understood in Dante's time suggests a better, more historically accurate explanation. I will review the history of acedia from its beginnings to Dante's time, and then offer a way of understanding Dante's denial of a prayer to the slothful that I believe makes the most sense within that context.

The best historical study of the sin of sloth is Siegfried Wenzel's The Sin of Sloth. (18) He traces the evolution of the original Greek word acedia, literally meaning "lack of care," to its roots among the desert monks in Egypt in the fourth century A.D. (19) He shows that the vice of acedia was originally a monastic sin, referred to among monks as the "noonday demon" because it would strike hermits in their cells most severely in the long dreary hours of the middle of the day. According to Wenzel, this early understanding of the vice was characterized by "psychic exhaustion and listlessness caused by the monotony of life and the immediate surroundings or by the protracted struggle with other temptations." (20) One early commentator described the noonday demon as "employing] all his wiles so that the monk may leave his cell and flee from the race-course." (21) The remedies for acedia at this time included practicing endurance and patience, thinking of death and heaven, and, preeminently, working with one's hands until the temptation had worn off. (22)

Acedia is included among the eight chief vices as outlined by Evagrius in the fourth century, but by the time of St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, acedia has been dropped in favor of tristitia, which has many of the same characteristics. (23) By the twelfth century, figures such as Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard were using the terms acedia and tristitia interchangeably. (24) Aelred of Rivaux of the same period complained of a spirit of acedia that "totally overturned my state of tranquility, and by inflicting in me horror of solitude and hatred of quietness forced me to yield to inordinate roaming, a sign of fruitlessness and danger." (25)

Because of Aquinas's influence on Dante, the former's particular understanding of acedia, which Wenzel discusses in "Chapter 3: The Scholastic Analysis," is worth noting. Aquinas uses Cassian's word acedia to identify sloth as one of the seven chief sins, but he absorbs some of Gregory's use of the term tristitia when he defines acedia as "tristitia de bono divino" or "sorrow for spiritual good." (26) In fact, Wenzel argues that in presenting this definition, "St. Thomas has reconciled Cassian's acedia and Gregory's tristitia." (27) In Aquinas's thought, acedia involves not so much a shirking of duty but the inner disposition of "aversion from, or disgust at, what ought to be the object of men's greatest love." (28)

Wenzel argues that because of the extensive treatment of acedia in confession manuals and catechisms intended for general use by both laymen and clergy, acedia lost its primarily monastic focus in the high middle ages, and came, in the popular understanding, to describe that weakness that "makes a man grow weary in God's service, unwilling to get up in the morning, fall asleep in church, and so on." (29) Acedia could best be described in this period as "slackness and negligence in performing spiritual deeds" (not just "boredom with the cell"). (30) Prayer, of course, would be eminent among these deeds. (31) As we shall see, both the popular view and the more narrow Scholastic view are operative in Dante's presentation of acedia. (32)

Given the popular view in Dante's time that the slothful were primarily to be faulted in life for having neglected spiritual duties, Dante and his readers would very likely have considered these penitents to have been cast on this cornice of Purgatory precisely for failing to pray, among other things. The fact that the only slothful character to be identified on this cornice was a religious, the Abbot of San Zeno, lends support to this reading. (33) The fact that they do not pray on this cornice, then, can be interpreted, in my view, as a reenactment of their condition on earth, or, to put it another way, as the logical extension of the choice they made in this life. We know from Dante's Inferno that the afterlife is, in one sense, an intensified version of the world that individuals chose for themselves while they were alive: in circle 7, ring 3, the violent against God, nature, and art, Capaneus the blasphemer utters the memorable saying, "'What I was alive, I am in death'"(14. 51). (34) Though there is a crucial difference between the damned and those in Purgatory, in that those in Purgatory were willing to repent, nevertheless Dante takes the opportunity even here to show the true nature of the sin that characterized the slothful--stripped, as it were, of any false glamour. The real condition of the slothful in life--epitomized by their not praying--is extended and intensified in the afterlife. This spiritual deficiency is in keeping with Virgil's general explanation of the sin as a falling short in the love we owe to God; referring to the cornice of sloth, he says:

...A love of good that falls short Of its duty is here restored, here in this place. Here the slackened oar is pulled with greater force.

(Purg. 17.85-87)

By way of clarification, let us look at the example of the avaricious, the next group of penitents that Dante will encounter. Their penance is to lie prostrate with their faces to the ground. In one sense, their condition shows that they are embracing a newfound sense of their own real poverty: ashes to ashes, dust to dust (Purg. 19-20). (35) At the same time, however, their condition is a literal reenactment of their state in life: they embraced earthly things as though they were the highest ends. In other words, the true nature of their choices in life has been laid bare. We see the same pattern elsewhere in Purgatorio: The proud carry the burden of rocks that represent, on one level, the monstrous egos they developed while they were living. The envious are blind because their eyes are sewn closed--just as on earth they deliberately shut their eyes to the merits of their neighbors and to the fact that others can enjoy goods without taking away from the enjoyment of the envious themselves. The wrathful dwell in dark smoke reminiscent of the ire that enveloped them in life. The gluttonous are grasping at fruit. Finally, the lustful move through a fire that represents their lustful desires on earth (even as it also, in Dante's economic use of imagery, now purifies); and they are engaged in physical contact now just as they were in life (though now that contact is chaste). So, too, the condition of the slothful paradoxically represents both their penitent condition and the true nature of their earthly sin. Thus, their lack of prayer signifies what most characterized them in life: the shirking of their spiritual duties.

We cannot fail to return here to the image with which we opened: that of the slothful running instead of praying. Clearly, their action now in Purgatory cannot be sinful; rather, running is part of the penance they are performing, and it is purgative. They are described as being driven on by love and good will:

such a throng cut their way, as does a sickle, around that circle, and I could tell that virtuous will and just love drove them on.

(Purg. 18.94-96)

Their running is redemptive because it is driven by a desire to do God's will, and perhaps recalls scriptural references to running, such as St. Paul's "I have fought a good fight: I have finished my course: I have kept the faith." (36) Both examples in the "whip of sloth" are instances of running: Mary to Elizabeth at the Visitation, and

Caesar to Spain to conquer Ilerda (Purg. 18.100-02).The penitents' own attitude towards their running shows that they undertake it in a spirit of zeal and charity:

"Quickly, quickly, lest time be lost for lack of love," the others cried behind them. "Let our zeal for doing good make grace grow green again."

(Purg. 18. 103-05)

Undoubtedly, the running of the slothful can and should be understood on one level to be an acting out of commitment to doing God's service, the opposite of their failure to do their duty to God while on earth.

Nevertheless, their running may, and I think does, simultaneously represent this same shirking of duty of which they were guilty and of which they now repent. If we recall that the metaphor of running was used to indicate the fleeing of one's spiritual duty (see endnotes 21 and 25), Dante's use of this same metaphor should not surprise us. Indeed, Cassian warns that "'the attack of acedia must not be eschewed by flight, but fought by resistance.'" (37) Aquinas himself names "restlessness of the body" and "instability" as daughters of sloth, as Marilyn Migiel has recently noted in her discussion of the running of the slothful. She writes, "Only an awareness of the penitents' good intentions and their intense commitment to the Divine Good assures that their penance will be accepted as productive rather than as the movement of powers whose energy was not harnessed and employed toward a definite goal." (38) To see this underside of the running metaphor at work we need only remember the comparison of the runners to bacchanalians (Purg. 18.91-93). Further, we might consider their similarity to the hasty runners in the burning sand in the zone of the sodomites in ring three, circle seven of the Inferno. The slothful are more admirable than these last, but they have not yet achieved the grace and poise of the dancing souls in the various spheres of heaven, such as the contemplatives in Saturn. What is more, the fact that the slothful are running in the middle of the night is problematic, in that the "rule of the mountain" states that people may only move during daylight, with the help of God's grace, symbolized by the sun. In essence, the running of the slothful does recall their sinful state on earth, and the absence of a prayer among these penitents similarly recalls precisely what most characterized them in life: their failure to pray. In Dante's beautiful poetic economy, running is both what the slothful did in life (instead of praying), and what they must now do out of zeal to make reparation for that sin.

Another detail worth considering in terms of Dante's depiction of the slothful in relation to their lack of prayer is the beatitude that the angel sings on this cornice. Surprisingly to some, he chooses the beatitude "Blessed are they qui lugent" (that mourn) (Purg. 19.50). The relationship between mourning and the slothful is not obvious at first, until one recalls Aquinas's definition of acedia as "sorrow for spiritual good," or, as Wenzel puts it, "the sorrow or aversion against God himself and the things that are directly related to him." (39) Whereas the slothful in life were sad at the thought of God and doing service to God, now they are sad for precisely the opposite reason: their past failure to love God and to serve him. The object of their mourning is the reverse of what it was in life--which is a sign of their unfolding transformation. (40) This detail shows that Dante must have had Aquinas's definition of acedia in mind, which reinforces the sense that Dante understood acedia primarily in spiritual terms, even if he also admitted secular applications.

The two negative examples of the "bridle of sloth" also sustain this hierarchy (Purg. 18.130-38). The first, from the Bible, of the Israelites who are too weary and disgruntled to continue with Moses toward the Promised Land, is clearly spiritual in nature, as it has to do directly with fulfilling God's plan for his chosen people. Allegorically, the Israelites have traditionally represented the soul in relation to God, as Dante himself interprets them in his explanation of his use of allegory. (41) The second, according to the general pattern of examples used in the whip and the bridle, is from classical literature, and involves the Trojans who preferred to settle on Sicily rather than continue with Aeneas to fulfill the Trojans' destiny of founding Rome. The second is obviously secular, though given the importance that Dante accords to the Roman Empire, it is not trivially so. As Wenzel notes, "In this respect Dante has widened the concept to include, in the neglect of religious duties, care for the temporal order. In harmony with the religious-political ideal set forth throughout the Commedia, Dante's acedia includes lento amore of the Eagle as well as of the Cross." (42) We could say that in this detail Dante is anticipating the more secular understanding of acedia that Petrarch and those who follow him espouse. Nevertheless, the primacy of the spiritual sense of acedia is maintained, both through the order in which these two examples are presented, and through the surrounding details, such as the beatitude.

To conclude, then, the lack of prayer among the slothful can best be explained as a reenactment of their failure to pray while on earth. To be sure, we may with Hollander, Carroll, and Sinclair, understand this lack of prayer as a form of punishment in a sense. But it is not just the severity of the sin of the slothful that earns them this punishment. After all, there are worse sins than sloth, namely pride, envy, and wrath, and the sinners on these cornices were able to pray. Rather, the very nature of the sin of acedia--the failure to do one's spiritual duty, of which prayer is the quintessential form-earns them this particular penance, which is at the same time a reminder, for Dante and for his readers, of what the sin of acedia essentially involves.


(1.) All quotations from the Purgatorio are from the translation by Jean Hollander and Robert Hollander (NewYork: Random House, 2003).

(2.) This position has not, to my knowledge, been put forward seriously in a published article or book, but I have encountered it in conversation.

(3.) See Canto ii of Purgatorio.

(4.) All references to the Bible in English are from the Douay-Rheims translation.

(5.) See Canto 19.

(6.) John Sinclair, The Divine Comedy: Volume 2; Purgatorio (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 242.

(7.) The classic study of this topic is Siegfried Wenzel, The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967).

(8.) See ibid., 5 and 9.

(9.) As Siegfried Wenzel notes, the word acedia is used in this verse in the Greek of the Septuagint (6), but not in the Latin of the Vulgate, which translates the word as taedio (34).

(10.) Mark Musa, Dante's Purgatory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 200.

(11.) Dorothy Sayers, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory (London: Penguin Books, 1955), 209.

(12.) Ibid., 202-03.

(13.) (London: Methuen, 1957), 133.

(14.) Canto 27, 94-108.

(15.) I am grateful to Marguerite Bourbeau for her insightful comments on Dante's treatment of the relationship between action and contemplation in the Divine Comedy.

(16.) Robert Hollander, notes to Purgatorio, trans. Jean Hollander and Robert Hollander (NewYork: Random House, 2003), 405-06, note 103.

(17.) Ibid., referring to John S. Carroll, Prisoners of Hope (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904). John Sinclair presents a similar idea in his commentary to Purgatorio, 242 .

(18.) For a comprehensive study of the seven deadly sins in general, see Wenzel's precursor Morton W. Bloomfield's The Seven Deadly Sins: An Introduction to the History of a Religious Concept, With Special Reference to Medieval English Literature (Lansing: Michigan State University, 1952).

(19.) Wenzel, Sin of Sloth, 3.

(20.) Ibid., 5.

(21.) De octo vitiosis cogitationibus 7, cited in Wenzel, Sin of Sloth, 5. Note the use of the metaphor of running both to describe the sin of deserting one's duty in the cell and to describe the duty itself ("the race-course").

(22.) Wenzel, Sin of Sloth, 5-6.

(23.) Ibid., 23 .

(24.) Ibid., 29.

(25.) Sermonibus de oneribus xvi (PL 195: 424), quoted in Wenzel, Sin of Sloth, 31. We note here once again the metaphor of physical movement, this time to signify the effects that sloth produces on the one possessed by it.

(26.) St.Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, II-II. q. 35, a. 2. Aquinas's discussion of acedia takes up the whole of question 35 of the secunda secundae.

(27.) Wenzel, Sin of Sloth, 63.

(28.) Ibid., 60.

(29.) Ibid., 84.

(30.) Ibid., 37.

(31.) More recently Pamela Williams has summarized the popular understanding of acedia in Dante's time by saying that "More often than not in the moral life of lay men and women, acedia tended to mean neglect of religious duties" ("Chapter 2: Acedia as Dante's Sin in the Commedia" in Through Human Love to God: Essays on Dante and Petrarch [Leicester: Troubador Publishing, 2007], 19).

(32.) Wenzel finds that in the late middle ages, acedia degenerated to the point where it "came to include failure in the performance of worldly duties and activities, or in other words, plain laziness" (91). This view would not become prevalent until at least a generation after Dante.

(33.) He identifies himself at lines 118-19 of Canto 18. Nothing is known of this abbot, though Marilyn Migiel identifies him as Gherardo II ("Canto XVIII: Love, Freewill, and Sloth" in Lectura Dantis: Purgatorio; A Canto by Canto Commentary, ed. Allen Mandelbaum, Anthony Oldcorn, and Charles Ross [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008]), 196).

(34.) Trans. Jean Hollander and Robert Hollander (NewYork: Random House, 2002).

(35.) Anthony Esolen, in his commentary to his translation of Purgatorio, draws attention to the echo of this scriptural phrase in the depiction of the avaricious (New York: Random House, 2004), 457.

(36.) 2 Tim 4: 7.

(37.) Cassian, Institutes, x. 25, quoted in Wenzel, Sin of Sloth, 110.

(38.) Marilyn Migiel, "Canto XVIII: Love, Freewill, and Sloth," 196-97. The citation from Aquinas is from the Summa, II-II, q. 35, a. 4.

(39.) Wenzel, Sin of Sloth, 49.

(40.) Wenzel himself considers this interpretation but rejects it in favor of an understanding of the reference to mourning as a personal reference to Dante's mourning of Beatrice and his slothful behavior subsequent to her death (132-34). The Thomistic explanation of this detail seems not only satisfactory but highly pleasing to me. Wenzel does not attempt to explain, nor even mention, the absence of a prayer among the slothful.

(41.) See Dante's Letter to Can Grande della Scala, e.g., in Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. and ed. Robert S. Haller (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973) 99.

(42.) Wenzel, Sin of Sloth, 135.
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Author:Schintgen, Christine
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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