Listen To Article
Teaching Dante always puts me in an awkward position. I wind up admitting to a class of Calvin College students that I find the idea of purgatory quite compelling. “I know, I know. It’s not in the Bible,” I say, “but … it makes sense.”
Not that Dante’s vision of hell doesn’t also have its own luridly compelling qualities. No one has depicted more vividly than Dante the idea of an eternal place of punishment, what with the murderers standing in rivers of boiling blood, the blasphemers lying on fields of burning sand, the traitors encased in ice, and so on ad infinitum. That’s the idea for Dante: unto eternity, physical and spiritual suffering, fitting to each besetting sin, forever.
And Dante’s not afraid to name names. The poem is especially difficult for modern readers because of its many references to fourteenth-century Italian politics and the most heinous real-life nasties of the day. How shockingly audacious of Dante to place people he knew—not to mention recently deceased Popes—in his own carefully constructed rendition of hell!
I imagine he enjoyed a kind of ultimate schadenfreude. But the poem is at least ostensibly the journey of the pilgrim (Dante’s poetic avatar) through the spiritual stages of illumination, regeneration, and beatification. Dante, I’m quite sure, did not think he really knew, ontologically, what hell looks like. The Inferno is not a report from the great beyond, a medieval 90 Minutes in Heaven—except from the other place. In fact, in the end, I find that the detail and grotesquerie collapses believability. We have to be careful to read the Divine Comedy not as an authoritative treatise on the afterlife; it’s an allegorical poem meant to alter our course in this life.
Even so, Dante’s got me almost convinced about purgatory. What if, after we die, anyone with even a slight glimmer of a bent toward God winds up in a kind of sin-purging boot camp? Granted, Dante had medieval Catholic views about the entry requirements, but let’s overlook that for now. What I like about purgatory is that it seems a sensible way to deal with the unfinished business of sanctification. We need to be fully purified before we can tolerate, let alone revel in the presence of God, right? So how does that happen? Some of us have a lot of work to do still at the end of this life. We could use more time.
I’m no advocate of easy grace here. I believe in judgment for sure. The justice of God demands it, and it sounds like a good plan to me. I want everyone to understand the afflictions their sin has caused, and the worse the sin the more I want the perpetrator to face that horrible truth. In fact, it seems to me that for the worst offenders, reaching a full and comprehensive understanding of what they have done is hell.
Yes, I’m willing to face my own sin, too. I know that will be painful, but I’m not afraid. I face it with the Advocate as my defender. I know I will be redeemed. And I’ve had a little experience with repentance in this life, so I’ve been practicing my lines.
Anyway, it seems to me that purgatory solves a lot of problems. It allows us to avoid the Jesus-prayer-or-eternal-flames dilemma on the one hand and, on the other, the avuncular God who chuckles, “Oh never mind all that!” and ushers everyone straight into paradise. With purgatory, we can have divine justice and divine mercy, too. Meanwhile, we are still motivated to avoid sin, because who wants to spend a long time in the purgatorial wringer? Repent now—get a head start!
I know, there’s the whole indulgence thing. Admittedly, purgatory raises further … uh, issues.
Maybe what appeals to me is Dante’s moving depiction of the pilgrim’s experience at the top of Mount Purgatory. Duly illuminated after his terrifying trek through the Inferno, the pilgrim begins the long climb up a mountain where saints-in-progress are organized according to which of the seven deadly sins they had the most trouble with. After chatting with folks in various stages of regeneration along the way, the pilgrim finds himself in an edenic garden, where he is instructed to wait for the appearance of Beatrice.
Then comes what, in my view, is the climax of the whole poem: the moment of the pilgrim’s true, full repentance. Beatrice is a woman Dante actually knew and admired, but in the poem she is his personal representative in heaven, the one who arranged the pilgrim’s journey in order to get him unstuck from his spiritual darkness. She symbolizes a Divine Love that is altogether personal. At last, she appears in all her heavenly glory, but no happy hugs quite yet. Instead, she runs the pilgrim through a stern little liturgy, in which she lectures him on precisely what his fundamental sin is (still is, since his life is not over—he’s here just on an instructional visit). Beatrice concludes her account:
he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path;
he followed counterfeits of goodness, which
will never pay in full what they have promised. (30.130-133)
But the pilgrim is not off the hook yet. He has to say it himself. The pilgrim has to confess. So he chokes out the words:
My breath dragged from me in a bitter sigh;
I barely found a voice to answer with;
my lips had trouble forming a reply.
In tears I said: “The things of this world’s day,
false pleasures and enticements, turned my steps
as soon as you had ceased to light my way.” (31.31-36)
Relief! Freedom! After this, Beatrice removes her veil and smiles upon the pilgrim. He is bathed in the river Eunoe to refresh him on his way, and he is now ready for a tour of paradise, culminating in a mystic vision of God.
Dante allows us to feel with the pilgrim as that great burden lifts. He is illuminated, regenerated, ready simply to revel in blessing. Dante gives us a ravishing image of sanctification’s endpoint: beauty, joy, abundant life.
So I hope that John Calvin doesn’t cringe in his grave when I discuss purgatory favorably with students at a college named after him. And if any members of the Board of Trustees are reading this, don’t worry. I’m not rolling back the Reformation. I remind students: it’s not a treatise on the actual afterlife. The pilgrim’s journey is for our instruction now. And the Purgatorio teaches us that sanctification takes time and it hurts, because it requires us to face the deepest truth about ourselves. But we undertake the journey at the behest of Divine Love, longing leads us on, and our gracious reward is the ravishing beauty of a love beyond even Dante’s imagination.
Quotations from The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, The Longman Anthology of World Literature, 2nd ed., ed. David Damrosch et al. (New York: Pearson-Longman, 2009), pp. 903-1060. Curiously, the editors of this anthology leave out the second half of the “liturgy”: they include Beatrice’s speech but not the pilgrim’s repentance. Don’t they get it??