In this Canto Dante follows Virgil down to the ledge of thieves. He needs to climb down because the bridge has been broken. Virgil encourages him to be sure the rocks are secure so that he does not fall downward and end in peril, in death.
Virgil lightly and easily climbs down, but Dante struggles. He is weighed down with sin. His own sin. Remember this is Dante’s journey of recognizing his own sin that has weighed him down in his life and which he contemplates in his exile. Dante is exhausted after the climb down.
Virgil encourages him: “‘You must shake off your sluggishness’ the Teacher said, ‘for no one comes to fame who sits in soft pillows of down, or lies at ease in bed, And when his life is wasted utterly he leaves such traces of himself behind as smoke in air or foam upon the sea. Get up, then! Conquer your distress with that brave soul that wins through every fight, unless it should turn weak beneath the flesh’s weight. …” Virgil reminds Dante of the mountain he must climb after Hell. These words and reminder give Dante strength and he moves on.
Reader, remember, Dante has been through Hell, literally. A long weary, weighted exhausting, fearful, despairing journey. A look upon the wreckage sin causes. A realization of his own wreckage. Dante is almost at the end of the journey through Hell. The closer he journeys to the bottom, the more tired Dante becomes. Isn’t this true of our own sin? The longer we stay in sin that is not repented, the more it weighs us down. After a while one hits the bottom. But the hope afterward, the hope is repentance. A journey upwards. Virgil’s reminder that the journey is almost over and that the Mount of Purgatory is next is a reminder that there is a journey upwards toward hope, toward redemption, toward forgiveness, toward God. First he must go downward, the realization of all his garbage, wreckage, sin, then he can journey upwards. Don’t we need our friends, teachers, mentors, pastors, family, father figures, mother figures, etc to encourage us to keep on going. To own our shit, to turn away from it, to go on the journey toward wholeness and healing. It is painful, but it is filled with grace and God’s love. He is our redeemer. We cannot do this journey on our own. God puts each person in our life as a reminder of Himself, as a guide, as one leading. Why? Because each is made in the image of God. Yet, we must be wise and discern which are leading us toward goodness and which are leading us to destruction. Yet, the mystery is grace within both. The grace in toxicity is knowing your limits and remembering who you are: a child of God, who cannot serve two masters.
A quick word on the punishment of the thieves (probably more will be said in Canto 25 entry): The thieves are tied up with snakes and dwell in a pit of serpents. Anthony Esolen reminds us of the Scripture of Jesus calling the Pharisees “brood of vipers” and “the serpent being the most cunning creature.” A thief is a liar and uses cunning to steal. Their punishment is just because their bodies are stolen from them. They are cursed with metamorphosed bodies — some are turned into serpent-like humanoid creatures. One is burned and turns to ash and then reforms like the Phoenix. But to no purpose. It is a cyclical meaningless death and “resurrection” that never ends and leads toward nothing transformative.
Taking what is not your own is grievous to your neighbor. This is not love toward your neighbor. Adultery has an element of thievery within it. Obviously stealing money, goods, property, etc. Gaining by cunning takes much mental acumen and trickery and deceit. Deceit is treacherous and hurtful toward all involved. It is a grievance upon emotions and psyche, upon the inner person. The struggle is real and happens every day. The journey through our own Hell is wearying. But with God’s help and with those sent by God, we are encouraged and exhorted through our own wreckage and after a lot of work and grace and repentance (for it is work) we are made whole again by God’s forgiveness, our turning away from our sin and turn toward God’s grace and mercy.