“I cannot rightly tell how I entered there, I was so full of sleep at the moment when I left the true way…”
–Inferno, Canto I, Dante Alighieri
“…and thence we came forth again to see the stars.”
Ancient hermit caves at Hua Mountain, Shensi Province, 1989.
Building new dough starters at the bakery tonight, I remembered while passing the bin of organic spelt flour how this grain was mentioned in one of the more curious parts of the Inferno– that a soul would drift slowly and lightly into the Forest of the Suicides, like a spelt seed. I think it conveys a certain sense of abandonment and weightlessness, a casting of the oars to let the elements do what they will. The torture he describes later seems malicious and mean-spirited…haven’t these folks been through enough already? But such was the judgment in his day.
I remembered this analogy because I try to remain mindful of just how ancient the practice of bread-baking is, how rich its lineage down through the centuries. Dante’s ancestors munched on loaves of spelt sourdough, a recipe that’s now my brother’s favorite. The builders of the Great Pyramid at Giza drank beer and ate loaves made from the yeast the brewing produced. The act of digging hands through light, chalky spelt flour may actually be older than the concept of hell itself; but probably not torture.
I also like that at the end of the Inferno, Dante exits a place of confinement out into the open, with the stars above him. Often when I walk home from the bakery I pay close attention to the sky and treeline, almost reassuring myself that they didn’t leave while I was gone. And although it seems awful convenient of dear Dante to blame his wandering on sleep deprivation, I can identify with his confusion. Do I know where I’m going, or am I just delirious from lack of sleep? How can this be fixed when the journey itself holds me there, in the dark? And what in the world is a true way anyway, D?
The pronoun shift is another consideration; he started alone and emerged with a guide. Looking at these little old caves etched into the side of a mountain, I wonder if those Chinese hermits had guides, or if their journey into that level of isolation was made and maintained alone. And what really drove them to their extreme monasticism? Maybe an inner hell that they needed to face, or an external one they may have been hiding from. Such withdrawal strikes me as reactive, not proactive, however beautiful their struggles and practices were. It could’ve been a manifestation of feeling deeply detached from the world, or perhaps a perceived antidote to being entirely too attached.
Modern America doesn’t view such lifestyles in a very positive light. Hermits are thought of as unlovable Unabomber types, paranoid survivalists, primitive extremists, Bin Laden boogie-men planning new attacks, or just simply cowards. I remember asking the Abbess of an American monastery why go, and smiled when she said that “monasteries are for people who need ALL the help they can GET.” Maybe the same holds true for those such as myself, who can’t seem to fit in or belong anywhere, whose social isolation paints itself into a self-fulfilling corner. But I wonder- if I had spent the past year in my familiar isolation, my little cave, would I be in any sense better off? I would be safer, but that’s not the same thing.