Quotations: 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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The Real World

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from Death on a Friday Afternoon
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

Really? The real world? What then is that other world of worship, prayer and contemplative exploration into the mystery of Christ's presence, a presence ever elusive and disturbingly near? On the part of the bishop it was perhaps a slip of the tongue, but behind slips of the tongue are slips of the mind and sometimes slips of the soul. It happens among all Christians today, of whatever denomination or persuasion, that there is a great slippage of the soul. It is by this world, this world at the cross, that reality is measured and judged. That other world, the world we call real, is a distant country until we with Christ bring it home to the waiting Father.

We are bringing it home, dragging it all behind us: the deadlines and the duties, the fears of failure and hopes for advancement, the loves unreturned, the plans disappointed, the children we lose, the marriage we cannot mend. And so we come loping along with reality's baggage, returning to the real--the real that we left behind when we left for what we mistook as the real world.

I do not read this book for its magnificent prose--indeed sometimes I get the tug of the motivational speaker as I read some of the passages. This book is important because it offers in language more suitable to someone of my llimited capacity than that of Fr. von Balthasar an explication of why we may indeed hope that all might be saved. Why indeed that this very hope is a foundational Christian hope and why we pray this all the time in our liturgy. That is the hope that most speaks now in a world where seemingly none are saved--where in one way or another every one around us wonders about that ultimate end and what it might mean for them. Or if they do not, then probably they should invest a bit more time thinking about it.

Forgiveness--we receive it as we give it, in the same measure, in the same way. And yet this is not the action of a tit-for-tat score-keeping God (note St. Paul's observation--"God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entursting to us the message of reconciliation"), but rather the effect of a spiritual law that makes us disposed to receive forgiveness as we give it. That is, the offering of forgiveness opens us to the reception of forgiveness. For most of us in our individualistic American consciousness, it is far more difficult to receive a gift freely given than it is to give one. So it is true of the great spiritual gifts. As we give, we are disposed to receive the grace that strengthens the gift. As we give forgiveness, we come to understand what it is, what its nature is and how exactly we are to receive it. Through grace we loose the bonds that hold us apart, isolated, and alone. For in forgiveness there is the recognition of our interrelatedness and the necessity of family with one Father at the head of the table. While we may not pardon nor be reconciled, in forgiveness we do not judge nor hold bound the person who offended us to start. When we forgive we are freed from the harsh judgment that would otherwise bind us. We become free to love again, even if at a cautious distance.

What has that to do with the passage quoted above? Probably nothing at all. But the two thoughts converge and intertwine and support one another and make life both miserable (as I realize how horrendously I fail at what I must be about) and glorious (as I realize that I will always fail when I do not rely upon God's strength to bring me home).

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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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This page is a archive of entries in the Quotations category from February 2008.

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