We all strive for Eden, whatever our age or our culture. But what we strive for is more than a place of peace and plenty. It is a state of soul that freely chooses the good, that is not clogged by lust and pride, that flows as purely and naturally as that mighty Ocean that circles the globe.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Dante: On Eden
I encountered many surprises as I made my way up the mountain of purgatory, but the greatest surprise came at the end. I suppose I should have expected it, but that did not take away from the sheer wonder of it, the hushed awe, the silent jubilation.
Poised in perfect balance on the top of purgatory rests the Garden of Eden. Not a garden, but the Garden, the one that God made for our original parents but which we so recklessly and disobediently lost. Eden had not ceased to exist when we were driven out of it, but had been moved from the earth to the crowning peak of purgatory.
I can barely find the words to speak of it. All my life, I have yearned for Eden, without really knowing what I was yearning for. The Garden has always been there, right at my elbow, but it vanished every time I turned to look at it. I have never really felt at home in the world, even when I was home in Florence. There were times when I fooled myself into believing that my beloved city was Eden, but it was, after all, only a reflection of it, a dim memory.
But then I was not the only person who felt this ache for the Garden. The pagans of old had felt it, though they called it by other names: the Elysian Fields, the Hesperides, the Land of the Hyperboreans, the Blessed Isles, Arcadia.
You’ve felt it too, my friends of the twenty-first century. Oh, I know that many of you will deny that, but it is nevertheless true. You dismiss Eden as a fable, a fairy tale, but then you are constantly saying to each other, “the world should be better than it is.” I can tell you from experience that the world has never been better than it is. War and famine and hatred and treachery have always been with us: in my age just as much as yours. And yet you persist in believing that the world should be better.
Have you considered the possibility that there may have been a time when it was better: that the Garden I visited at the top of purgatory may once have resided on the earth and hosted, if briefly, our primal parents?
Think about it, my friends. All the cultures of the world have yearned for Eden. In your day, you believe in growth, progress, and evolution. But that is not the story that is recorded in the collective myths of the world. Those myths tell a different tale, a tale that resonates perfectly with the early chapters of Genesis. In the beginning, there was a Golden Age when man lived in harmony, not only with God, but with nature and each other. But that Age of Gold was lost and gave way to successive ages of Silver, Bronze, and Iron.
And yet, though we all live far away from the Golden Age, our yearning for it persists and cannot be shaken off. When I made it to the top of purgatory and entered that Garden made to be man’s true home, I recognized it immediately. It was strange to me, and yet it was not strange. I knew it to be my home, though I had never visited it before nor met anyone else who had.
Virgil recognized it as well, and I’m sure that Homer and Plato and Horace and Ovid would have likewise known the place. They, me, you: we all hold the image of the Garden deep in our imagination. We may refuse to allow it to touch our reason or our will, but that refusal cannot totally efface the imprint.
The thinkers of your day argue that Eden is nothing more than a wish-fulfillment, a man-made projection of our desire for peace and rest. What I came to realize as I stood amidst trees and flowers once tended by Adam and Eve is that Eden is not the creation but the source of humanity’s deepest yearnings for beauty. The great poets did not make up Eden; rather, they caught a glimpse of it and then tried to embody that glimpse in words and images, myths and legends.
It was then that I realized that Eden was not only the true home of the Golden Age; it was the home of the muses as well. Not just theology and philosophy, but poetry, sculpture, music, dance, drama, and the visual arts were all inspired by the fertile breeze that blows from the top of purgatory to the valleys of our fallen world.
All those things I felt and knew as I entered into Eden, but they were surpassed in glory by the words Virgil spoke to me as I stood on the brink of paradise regained. They were the last words he spoke to me, and they will echo forever in my ears.
Throughout our journey, Virgil had cautioned me against giving in to my baser nature and had kept me accountable to pursuing the path of virtue. All that changed when we crossed the threshold into Eden. Now, for the first time, he counseled me to do whatever my desires prompted me to do. It was frightening, if not wicked advice, the kind of thing no sane priest would say to one of his parishioners.
But Virgil was justified in saying it. Having been cleansed both of sin and the desire for it, I was no longer a slave to the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. My will, as Virgil informed me with joy, was now upright, free, and whole. As such, I could no longer desire a wrong thing.
I say it again: we all strive for Eden, whatever our age or our culture. But what we strive for is more than a place of peace and plenty. It is a state of soul that freely chooses the good, that is not clogged by lust and pride, that flows as purely and naturally as that mighty Ocean that circles the globe.
We cannot, in our mortal, fallen state, live edenic lives free of sin and misplaced desire, but we can picture what that would be like. It is from Eden that those pictures come, and it is to Eden that they beckon us.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Plains of Heaven” by John Martin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.