Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Impressions of Purgatorio

I just finished Dante's Purgatorio today.

Good heavens, where to start? It is a thing of magnificence, to be read over and pondered multiple times. Below are some things that stand out for me.

1. The delight and joy of those who have recently died and are deposited by the boat at the base of the mountain, singing "When Israel came forth from Egypt" (Psalm 114). The heart exults vicariously with them after the self-absorption of the souls in Hell and the general claustrophobia there. The sight and sound of people who will taste bliss and who long for it- whose choice has been made and made for the good- is a tremendous source of refreshment in the narrative. Particularly delightful are those individuals who are genuinely surprised to find themselves there, who perhaps had had deathbed conversions or the like. They are, first of all, a reminder to those hung up on certainty and eternal security (like the gung-ho Anglicans at WYD) that our certainty rests in Christ, and not in ourselves or in our own sense of assurance. It doesn't matter what I answer to the question, "Where will you spend eternity?" What matters is what Christ answers to the question, "Where will Glenn spend eternity?" The parable of the sheep and the goats leads us to believe that there will be plenty of people who had assurance but who will not be saved on the Last Day. The delight of this episode in Purgatorio is that there will probably be others who fully expected to be damned and who- to their supreme shock- will find that that barely vocalised prayer of humility, that minute turning of the will in the final moments of life, was enough- that, contrary to all expectations, they are standing on the shores of blessedness. A kind of divine serendipity.

2. The contrepassos. There are some great ones which bear meditating upon. The impatient, for example, who must now wait at the foot of Mt Purgatory before scaling it. The dialogue that Dante has with one of these (whose name I have forgotten) who has clearly begun to learn patience but still shows signs of impatience here and there- and yet his willingness to submit to this penance knowing when he finally does begin to scale, the life of Christ in him will have grown to full flower. The worldly, who must lie with their faces in the dust, since in their lives they refused to turn their eyes or minds to heavenly and ultimate things. The nature of so many of these penances to teach the souls of the true nature of their sin so they would see it for what it is.

3. Pope Hadrian. A case study in conversion and one of only two contemporary popes in the Divine Comedy who are not in Hell.

4. There is an unnerving and arresting moment when Dante reaches the final stage of Purgatory, where the lustful are cleansed. Up until this point, Dante has moved through Purgatory much as he did in Hell, observing the punishments and penances and conversing with those who receive them. After having conversed with some of the lustful, however, there is a turn. The angel on the other side of the flames informs Dante that he too must pass through the cleansing fire. His sins too must be purged. The point where he can be a passive observer has ended. Dante's turn has come- he too must die to self utterly just as the other penitents are. There is a jarring here, a shock and mental rebellion, like a wartime journalist who suddenly finds himself captured by the enemy and threatened at gunpoint. "I became, when seeing what he meant, as though, still living, placed within a tomb. Over my suppliant hands entwined, I leaned just staring at the fire, imagining bodies of human beings I'd seen burn." Virgil is honest with Dante but at the same time reassuring. "My dearest son, here may be agony but never death...Have done, I say, have done with fearfulness. Turn this way. Come, and enter safely in!" The fire is no mere pious abstraction but a true penance, and Dante, when he has entered into it, describes both the sheer, mind-numbing pain of it and yet the hope that springs from it at the same time. "Once within, I could have flung myself for coolness in a vat of boiling glass....And guiding us, a voice sang from beyond." Here is the heart of Purgatory- the pain of every vice rejected and burned away, every bad habit, every sin that we would like to hang onto submitted to the divine cleansing and purged away forever. The divine scrubbing that leaves the skin raw but finally cleans away every last skerrick of mud. I too fear it and long for it.

5. The scene where Dante finally comes face-to-face with Beatrice is some of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful poetry I have ever read. I don't say that lightly. There are so many layers to it also. I think I will have to read it many more times before I have properly internalised all that is in those verses. Some of my thoughts, having read it only once.

A reminder of grace. Virgil congratulates Dante immediately prior to the peak of Mt Purgatory on his long-fought-for maturity. From his first steps in Hell, where Dante wrongly sympathised with the damned, he has come a long way. Dante has reached a peak of understanding of the nature of virtue and vice, of what leads men to salvation and of what robs them of it. The reader feels a sense of achievement with him. Yet, in the moment he meets Beatrice at long last, all sense of achievement, every atom of pride, is gone. "There is not one gram of blood in me that does not tremble now." Beatrice shows Dante himself, tells him matter-of-factly the story of his life to the point where he had gone astray in the wood in which we found him at the beginning of the Divine Comedy, every moment of grace ignored or rejected, all his lost opportunities when God was seeking to draw him to Himself, when Beatrice was praying for him, and he refused. And Dante is reduced to a blubbering schoolboy, sobbing uncontrollably and barely able to form two words because he is too ashamed to speak. Summoning all his will, finally he speaks, acknowledging the truth of her words, whereupon she paints for him a different picture, a picture of his life as it should have been. With this in mind, Dante is drawn through the Rive Lethe, the river of forgetting, where the memory of all his sins is washed away as if they had never been (the baptismal symbolism is palpable) and, having reached the other sde, he looks into Beatrice's eyes and there sees Christ reflected. At this he is overcome with love, and the end of that canto bursts into florid praise. "Splendour of living and eternal light!"

Purgatorio has been a wondrous read, and I know there are parts I will return to many times to meditate on them more fully. But now, further up and further in. Paradiso awaits.

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