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

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