Books and Book Reviews: February 2008 Archives

Reflections on Purgatorio


I feel obliged to start this discussion with the customary disclaimers. I don't claim to be a deep reader, one filled with wisdom and overflowing with information about Dante. I am, like most of you who read this, a reader--one who enjoys reading things that challenge me and provoke me. I find most readings of critiques to be highly worked up and overwrought--often I find myself doubting that any author would have so contrived and twisted the work they were completing to meet the gyrations of the critics. A critic lays a layer atop a work even though the seeming effort is to explore the labyrinth laid before them.

On the other hand, a reader sees the work from within the labyrinth. There may not be a complete sense of its design, nor may we see clearly all the elements that make up the patterns; however, we see clearly what is clearly spoken and we appreciate the work for that.

That said, let me start these reflections by sharing one line that really struck me. Bear in mind that the translation I am using, for a great many reasons, is the one by John Ciardi:

". . . the blessed wormwood of my agony."

It is strictly out of context, but it started the other chain of thought I wanted to share. This line is spoken by one in purgatory. Speaking of his wife's ardent prayers on his behalf, he notes that her prayers have lifted him already so high in purgatory, setting aside years and years of suffering that would otherwise be required for purgation.

But notice the way he refers to this suffering--"the blessed wormwood of my agony." The suffering is real--it is as real as the suffering in Hell, and yet it is not torment. Over and over again Dante makes the point that this suffering is gladly engaged in, indeed embraced by the souls themselves as they know the end of it in time. The Lustful souls in conversation with Dante stay strictly within their sheets of flame, and so it is throughout the Purgatory. The souls know that this suffering cleanses, this suffering purifies, this suffering leads to heaven.

Extend that a bit--human suffering, properly viewed and with a heart set on God's will is purgative. And that suffering be it "Nella's tears" (the wife referred to above) for the loss of her husband and for the sympathy with his suffering, or our own physical pain borne with the expectation of seeing God, is purgative not only for ourselves but for others as well. In the Christian context, suffering has meaning. But so too does the beatific vision. Those in purgatory do not needless extend their stay, reveling in their suffering and purgation. Rather, they move on to the beatific vision and to the enjoyment of the presence of God. This is where I part company with many of the Saints. While suffering is purgative, life is filled with enough--we needn't add to it through our own contrived mortifications that have as their end release from attachment. Properly lived, life has quite enough that should provoke us to give up the things we are attached to--the celice and the discipline are neither required, nor, it seems to me, within God's ordained will for us. He hands out the suffering we require--we need not add to it. And indeed, adding to it is contradictory to His will, it is clinging to purgatory when He has decided we need bliss.

Purgation happens. Life carries with it enough of heaviness. Little things like denying ourselves too much food or food of a certain kind--that isn't really suffering, or if it is it is suffering borne of our own selfishness and self-centeredness. People in India live very well without a Hershey's bar a day. Real suffering--not having enough to eat, losing someone we love, living through a terrible wasting disease with Death hanging over us--is not something we choose. It is something that with the grace of God we live through and by living through it contribute both to our own purgation and to the purgation of those around us. We are not saved singly, although salvation is individual and singular for each person. Rather, we are saved within the community, the entire Body of Christ is resurrected, not merely a cell on the big toe. Our own bliss in salvation comes in part from the knowledge that salvation is for all and we have worked for it through our many small works of spiritual and corporeal mercy.

Thus purgation can begin here as we abide in God's will, accept what life brings us, and relish God's perfect plan expressed through it. That doesn't mean we do not mourn or hurt. But it does mean that our pain has meaning both for us and for those around us. When we live through a time of suffering, we are in sympathy with those in Purgatory and we are spending a little of our own time there as we head for heaven. Suffering isn't to be sought out--it will find us soon enough. But once we have been found, bearing with the suffering through the strength of the One who saves us strengthens both us and those around us even though we do not necessarily see this effect.

One last point on Purgatorio comes from a provocative note by the translator in the endnotes. I will let it stand without further comment:

from "How to Read Dante"
John Ciardi

The Seven Deadly Sin for which souls suffer in Purgatory are--in ascending order--Pride, Envy, Wrath, Adedia, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. Acedia is the central one, and it may well be the sin the twentieth centruy lost track of. Acedia is generally translated as Sloth. But that term in English tends to connote not much more than laziness and physical slovenliness. For Dante, Acedia was a central spiritual failure. It was the failure to be sufficiently active in the pursuit of the recognized Good. It was to acknowledge Good, but without fervor.

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We Count Because He Loves Us


One of the things we most need to remember as we wander the paths of Lenten mortifications is that while we may be dust, we are, in the eyes of God, gold, platinum, or diamond dust.

from Death on a Friday Afternoon
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

Again, St. Paul says God was in Christ "not counting their trespasses against them." Atonement is not an accountant's trick. It is not a kindly overlooking; it is not a not counting of what must count if anything in heaven or on earth is to matter. God could not simply decide not to count without declaring that we do not count.

But someone might say that, if God is God, he could do anything. Very well, then, God would not decide not to count because he would not declare that we do not count. And yet God's "would" implicates and limits his "could." The God of whom we speak is not, in the words of Pascal, the God of the philosophers but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God of unbounded freedom who wills to be bound by love. God is what he wills to be and wills to be what he is. St. John tells us, "God is Love," and love always binds. In the seminars of philosophical speculation, many gods are possible. In the arena of salvation's story, God is the God who is bound to love.

Because God is a Father, He looks upon us with love. What we are and what we want and what we do and how we go about it--all of these things and more matter to Him deeply. Because they matter, He cannot chose to make them less important by merely ignoring them--pretending they don't exist. And yet, while He wills that they matter out of His Love, He also wills that we all come home to Him--but only if we want to return. We stand in the place of choice in this matter--but His will is clear--love would not lose one. Not a sparrow can fall without it being known and counted and mattering. And if a sparrow matters, so much more so that creature who is in the very image of God.

So while we're wearing our sackcloth and ashes and bringing to mind how unworthy and terrible and what great failures we are as people, we would do well to remind ourselves that that is not God's vision at all. Those thoughts are not God's thoughts about us. Just as we would not think that a one-year old who stumbles and falls trying to walk is unworthy, terrible, or a failure, so too God does not regard us in such a way. Rather, His gaze is completely love--limitless, unconditional, eternal.

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Light on Obama


I make no claim to be a political pundit. I am not. I have no insider knowledge and, frankly, I don't have a horse running in this race. Seems to be the truth from the time I could vote. I also don't pretend to deep knowledge, deep reading, or a profound ability to identify the symbols and read the semiotics of ordinary life. All I will record here is a reaction--a reaction that came to me as I was reading Faulkner's superb novel Light in August. One of the many passages of interest is below.

from Light in August
William Faulkner

He now lived as man and wife with a woman who resembled an ebony carving. At night he would lie in bed beside her, sleepless, beginning to breathe deep and hard. He would do it deliberately, feeling, even watching, his white chest arch deeper and deeper within his ribcage, trying to breathe into himself the dark odor, the dark and inscrutable thinking and being of negroes, with each suspiration trying to expel from himself the white blood and the white thinking and being. And all the while his nostrils at the odor which he was trying to make his own would whiten and tauten, his whole being writhe and strain with physical outrage and spiritual denial.

Unfortunately, that's how I read Obama's entire campaign--a desire to become "black enough," whatever that might mean, while, in some ways, denying his actual heritage. He seeks to play the race card when he is in an absolutely perfect place NOT to do so. He need not make a big play for a small minority, but he would make a big play for the majority and drop the whole racial pretension thing.

I don't dogbird politics, but I've seen enough to know that I don't like the tones of the campaigns--any of them. Of all of them, this is the one I like the least because it depends heavily upon a polarization that is not healthy nor is it helpful. Obama is and can be and can claim legitimately black heritage. Heritage is not something either to be proud of or to be ashamed of--we have no control over where we came from or who we are at the start. But we do have some measure of control over what we do with the cards we have been dealt--what we make of our heritage. In Light in August Joe Christmas makes of his a trail of tragedy, unhappiness, and longing to understand himself. I don't think Obama will end up there, but sometimes his rhetoric and his positioning reminds me of Joe Christmas's struggle with identity and it saddens and appals me because that is not the way to move forward. Not at all.

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Let's dispense with the review--we would all do well if everyone would get this book, read it, and think about it. Even if some come to reject its propositions, it is worth facing them and thinking about them, particularly in Lenten time. The book is short, well-written, and a superb study and analysis of the Amish response to the Nickel Mine massacre that resulted in the death of 5 Amish schoolgirls and the wounding of an additional five. On the contents of the book, I have little more to say than that it moved me and really got me to thinking. It is the result of that thought, meager though it may be that I want to spend a little time and space sharing.

The book is primarily about the primacy of forgiveness in Amish theology (if the word theology can be used for something as diffuse as the traditions and practices of the Amish--from the book, I get the feeling that the Amish themselves would repudiate any such high-flown name for the thought behind the practice). One of the first points that occurred to me is that we all would do well to put a little more literalism into our reading of the Bible. The authors point out that THE central prayer of the Amish faith is the "Our Father" in its traditional protestant form (forgive us our debts. . ., for thine is the Kingdom and the Power. . . ). And they regard as a clause of chief importance in this prayer, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." As Catholics we pray this prayer everyday at Mass, and every morning and evening in the Liturgy of the Hours. And yet I don't know very many Catholics who realize that the prayer is also a contract of sorts. The contract is reinforced by the verses that come immediately after it in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Matthew 6:14-15

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The two verses that follow immediately upon the prayer emphasize one aspect of this all-encompassing prayer. When we pray, "Forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (those who trespass against us)," we are uttering the words of a contract, the essential word of which is "as." In the measure that we are willing to forgive, so we shall be forgiven. In some sense our forgiveness is contingent upon our willingness to forgive others.

For most people most of the time forgiveness doesn't seem to be much of a problem. Often it is easier to forgive trespasses against ourselves that it is to forgive trespasses against our loved ones. Put yourself in the place of the Amish parents in Nickel Mines. Would you have been able to forgive the perpetrator after only two days? Would you have been able to welcome his family into your house "forgive" them (read the book to understand this concept) and continue to do business with them? Would you have set aside part of the money flowing into the community to help rebuild your lives for the widow and children of the person who killed your child?

One of the points here is that no individual Amish person was called upon to do this. The forgiveness tendered was tendered from the entire community and as such was part of the mutual aid that the Amish offer each other and their neighbors in times of distress and disaster. The Amish community was able to forgive and thus the individual members of this community were able to express this forgiveness substantively. They were able to forgive because they understood that forgiveness is imperative and our own forgiveness is, in some mysterious way, contingent upon the forgiveness we are willing to offer.

The book also touched upon the difference between forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation. And these differences are critically important--because the Amish could neither pardon nor have reconciliation with the culprit. They opted instead for reconciliation with the family. If this does not seem remarkable, I point to the long history the human race has of blood feuds and other "blood debts."

I have nothing profound to say about this matter. It is all said, very clearly, in the Scriptures. There are those who argue that the only one who can forgive an offense is the one who has been offended--in this case the girls who were killed. And yet, there is a sense in which forgiveness is communal, particularly when the community self-identifies as community.

The Amish are not one of the "once saved always saved" group of Christians. Rather, they seem to see their own forgiveness as contingent upon the forgiveness they offer. This makes them willing to try. One of the points of the book is that forgiveness is not easy--in fact, at times, "it takes a village." The forgiveness in the Nickel Mines community came because the community was committed to forgiving the offense, but that did not mean that it was easy for any inidividual or family. Over and over again, they pointed out that they had to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive. This seems to be part of the meaning Jesus spoke when He said we must forgive our enemies seventy times seven times. In difficult situations, you forgive and still the bitterness and the desire for restitution arises. You forgive again, and still the human part of you hurts and desires some surcease from the pain--surcease we bring ourselves to believe that comes from revenge.

Forgiveness and community--community and forgiveness. There is so much depth here and so many parallels to our own faith and life. When you read about the Amish, you realize that their voluntary adult baptism and oath to the community very much parallels the entry into orders of our own religious. It is not for nothing that the Amish are the "Old Order." The promises made to renounce self and to serve God and others first are very reminiscent of the aspirations each of us would like to live.

So, these are some of the thoughts spawned by the book. It makes for good Lenten reading--thought-provoking, to some probably aggravating--but very much worthwhile and very much reinforcing what a real community is--both for good and for ill.

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The Greatest Gift is a journalist's ardent attempt to capture the life of a person she obviously admires greatly--one of the sisters of Notre de Namur, Sister Dorothy Stang. Sister Dorothy spent much of her life serving the most poor and oppressed of the Amazonia region of Brazil. She died in the course of that service. I don't know if this technically makes her a martyr, because she didn't die for the faith, but for her activism on the part of the people she served--but I suppose that's a very, very minor point, because it was evident that Sister Dorothy clearly understood that her actions could result in her death and she continued to perform them despite this knowledge.

The author produces a strange and sometimes even bizarre assemblage of facts about Sister Dorothy. In addition, as with many journalists, she fails to apprehend the true significance of Vatican II, saying at one point:

from The Greatest Gift
Binka Le Breton

Vatican II, as it was known, formalized a movement that had been slowly growing as some members of the church began to reevaluate their whole way of being and living as followers of Christ. Known as liberation theology, this new thinking held that the Kingdom of God was here and now that that God's people were to work for social and political freedom and justice. Parishes were divided up into groups of laypeople known as base communities, where the emphasis was placed on empowering the laity to study the Bible, reflect on their day-to-day lives, and act in accordance with the liberating truths of the Gospel. Priests and nuns were abandoning both the Latin mass and their traditional dress. Inside church buildings, priests turned to face the people during the mass, inviting them to celebrate God's feast together, instead of turning away from the people to face God. The church was slowly relinquishing its absolute hold on power and was placing itself on the side of the poor and powerless.

Wow! I didn't know that it took Vatican II to unseat Pope Alexander VI. Needless, to say, this sort of misconception is distracting, but I don't sense any malice here, merely misunderstanding (a misunderstanding, I might note shared by many within the Church) of what Vatican II really meant. The book is filled with this kind of misunderstanding of the Church; however, the book does not purport to be about the Church, but about the efforts of one courageous nun in defense of the people she served.

The author narrates the story in the voices of the people who knew Sister Dorothy. This is refreshing and lively, but does lead to a certain disjointedness of narrative. That disjointedness is not necessarily a bad thing because it gives the picaresque effect of much of medieval hagiography--and that is what this book attempts to be--hagiography.

One story that stood out in my mind as exemplary of Sister Dorothy and her service is that when the Sisters first arrived in the small town where they would serve they were greeted by the Bishop. They had not had time to put on their veils and the Bishop was delighted. The sisters never afterwards wore the veil. The story stops here, but then is resumed a few pages later. One might assume that we had some sort of liberal bishop ready to upset all the teacups. A little later the author tells us why the Bishop was so pleased. It was the custom of the time for women to come to church and receive communion with their heads covered. The poverty of this region was such that most women could not afford a separate veil and so they brought a table cloth under which many of them would huddle. However, the table cloth was never large enough and there was a tussle at the ends to make certain they had their heads covered. By presenting his nuns without veils, the Bishop could send a clear signal to his impoverished parishioners that it was permissible to attend Church and worship God without wearing a veil. In other words, the action wasn't so much a comment on veils and their appropriateness as a pastoral action of a compassionate Bishop with an impoverished congregation.

Sister Dorothy Stang served her community as teacher and as representative. She went toe to toe with oppressive landlords and even sought out government intervention to prevent the intimidation and the constant displacement of the people she worked with.

There is much for the orthodox Catholic to object to--creation spirituality, and other heterodoxies that the ardent activist can readily run into, particularly in the place and serving the people that Sister Dorothy served.

By the time I reached the end of the book, I had little patience with Sister Dorothy's odd combinations of heterodox movements, but a profound respect for her abiding love for the people she served. When asked for a reflection on her life in Brazil, the author quotes Sister Dorothy:

"I have learned that faith sustains you. And I have also learned that three things are difficult. 1) as a woman to be taken seriously in the struggle for land reform, 2) to stay faithful to believing that these small groups of poor framers will prevail in organizing and carrying their own agenda forward, and 3) to have the courage to live your life in the struggle for change."

I came away from the book with a great respect for the person and work of Sister Dorothy Stang, a dislike for her odd notions regarding spirituality and preserving the environment (one need not resort to creation spirituality to have very good, very orthodox, and very Catholic reasons for wishing to preserve God's incredible creation), and a sense that with Sister Dorothy's death, we lost a wonderful, committed, compassionate advocate for the poor and oppressed.

If not a saint, the book paints a portrait of a woman engaged and fiercely loyal and dedicated to helping the poor. A woman, who despite some mistaken ideas about theology and God, nevertheless attempted to the best of her ability to live out the commandment she understood so clearly from Him: "Whatsoever you do unto one of these, the least of my brethren, that you do unto me."

So, prepare to grit your teeth through the misrepresentations (not malicious, but agenda driven) and misconceptions and misconstructions of the Church, and read about a woman who did her utmost to help to relieve the oppression and poverty of the people she worked with. Recommended with the caveats described throughout.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from February 2008.

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