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Phy Ed & Purgatory

Phy Ed and Purgatory: Dante’s Visions of Vice & Virtue

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Kathryn Mogk, a graduate student in the English department here at the U and one of our incoming Colin MacLaurin Fellows. Kathryn will be leading a reading group on Dante this fall—one of 10 reading groups on offer—and we’re pleased to offer this introduction to the great Florentine poet, which I hope will help entice you to join Kathryn and the others reading Dante. Register for Kathryn’s group and see what else we’re offering.

At the corner of the basketball court I stepped out of my lunge, checked my shoelaces one more time, and got ready to run. “Pride,” I whispered as my feet struck the pavement, taking up the rhythm of a jog I thought I could maintain. “Lord, pride.”

It takes about twenty laps around a high school basketball court to make a mile. My meager goal was to just do fifteen without stopping to rest. But even for the reduced count, lap after lap of the same concrete and chain-link fence was mind-numbingly boring. That’s why I decided to pray while I ran—at the very least it would distract me from the inevitable stitch in my side. Fifteen laps: seven sins, seven virtues, one Gloria. I got the idea from Dante’s Purgatory.

“Pride.” Dante was so right to place it at the bottom of the mountain of purgatory, as the first of the seven terraces that the soul must pass through on its ascent to the heavens. He was so right to imagine pride as a slab of stone bending you down, almost breaking your back, so that you shuffle forward under the load rather than running to God. But in his vision, the same punishing weight forces proud souls into the posture of the humility they need to learn; it turns their eyes to the ground, where they find carved images of Trajan putting aside his imperial majesty to answer the plea of a widow and Mary murmuring, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord.” In hell, for those who have rejected God, punishment is just pain. But in purgatory, for those willing to repent, even the natural consequences of their sin can be turned into instruments of redemption—reminders of perfection.

One lap complete. “Please, humility.” I had to start here. It’s the gateway into all purgation, or cleansing, of sin. You cannot be forgiven without humility, because you can’t even repent, because you can’t even admit or realize that you need. That’s why Dante places the terrace of pride first: you can’t get to any of the others without going through this one. If you tried to train yourself in the virtues of temperance or fortitude without first receiving humility, you’d only be weighing yourself down further with your own self-righteousness.

I turned the corner and whispered, “Envy.” Yes, I envied. Bitterness rose in my throat and I choked it down. Dante pictured the envious with their eyelids sewn shut with wire, blinded by their own hatred, unable to see their neighbors as they really are. It’s an image branded in my brain since the first time I read Purgatory. All Dante’s grotesque inventions have that unforgettable quality. The external symbol shows me sin’s true ugliness and absurdity.

And what was the opposite of envy? “Make me grateful, Lord,” I prayed. I called each of my roommates to mind with a quick word of thanksgiving for their talents, the carefree fun they seemed to have, their easy confidence with people. Why should I envy their strengths? Those very qualities made my roommates better able to serve others, better able to help me in my awkwardness and shyness. Dante pictured the souls on the terrace of envy leaning on one another, leading one another, all reduced to a mutual dependence. Their need for each other teaches them gratitude and love.

“Wrath.” Here, I thought, I could get off easy; anger was my least besetting sin. After all, in Dante’s Purgatory, you only stay on the terraces where you need to be purified; if you’re free from a sin, you walk straight through. But I couldn’t spend two laps in self-congratulation. As Dante passes by those who suffer, he pities them and promises to pray for them once he returns to earth. Their intercessions for each other create an endless link between the dead and the living, binding all the church’s saints and sinners together in one eternal communion. So as I ran I prayed for those who do struggle with wrath, known and unknown, as I hope that others pray for me.

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” Wrathful or not, we all can strive harder to promote peace. I love how Dante incorporates into each terrace both the whip and the rein—negative examples to restrain us from sin and positive examples to speed us forward with greater love. Even though, as Dante arrives at each new terrace, he learns that it is named after one of the seven deadly sins, he leaves each level with one of the beatitudes ringing in his ears, offering blessing for a quality that pleases God.

My pace was lagging—the dreaded stitch in my side was burning—but as I rounded the corner I pushed myself faster. “Sloth!” This is the turning point of purgatory. The first three of the seven sins involve love twisted into hate, the desire for one’s own good perverted into desire for other people’s harm. The last three are forms of love for things that are good in themselves, but the love is carried too far, the desire swollen out of proportion. In the middle you find sloth, which doesn’t love much at all. I know it so very well. Weariness of doing good, indifference as my actions don’t seem to matter, lukewarmness as the love of God grows cold—faugh! I spit them out of my mouth!

“Zeal!” On this terrace Dante sets the slothful sprinting. They don’t stop for rest, for nightfall, for the wonder of a living man walking among the dead—even the spirit who tells Dante about the terrace shouts his words over his shoulder as he flies. Love is the whip that drives them. It’s the perfect response to the punishment at the gates of hell, where those who never committed themselves on earth are forced to chase a meaningless standard pointlessly back and forth, going nowhere for no particular reason. Those whom God purges of sloth fix their eyes on Jesus, to run, run, run the race and receive the eternal prize.

“Avarice.” I might have thought myself free of this vice if it wasn’t for what Dante had taught me in the fourth circle of hell. There, hoarders and spenders, misers and prodigals accuse each other in endless confrontation. Their opposite errors helped me understand that it’s not how much money you have or even what you do with it that determines greed. Perhaps the strictness of my budget—my hesitations in the grocery aisle to determine which cheese was a few cents cheaper by ounce—kept me lying on the ground, unable to see the stars of God’s boundless provision, like the souls Dante describes on this terrace.

“Generous, Lord,” I panted, thinking of the homeless men I’d walked straight by, “open up my hands.” I vowed to put some ones and fives in my wallet to be ready for the next time I saw them on the streetcorner. On this terrace of purgatory Dante and Virgil meet Statius, a late Roman poet who, according to Dante, came to Christianity by reading Virgil’s poetry as a prophecy of Christ. Although Virgil did not himself know about Jesus and cannot enter heaven, he nonetheless prepared the way for others’ salvation. I take this to mean, among other things, that our smallest and most apparently insignificant acts of generosity can have ramifications beyond our most daring dreams, consequences we will never suspect until we meet again beyond the veil of death. Who could pass up the smallest chance to give, even one meal or one friendly human smile, if he knew it could prepare the joyful recognition and mutual honor that Dante describes in the poets’ meeting?

I came to the corner again and pushed myself through. “Gluttony.” Not a sin usually in my examination of conscience. Halfway around my track, it hit me: in his division of sins, what Dante means by gluttony is the perversion of desire, not just for food, but for pleasure. Facebook. Buzzfeed. Netflix. How many times had I glutted myself with the mental equivalent of ice cream straight out of the container? How often, when I was lonely or anxious, had I turned to earthly distractions instead of heavenly consolation?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” In this terrace of purgatory, the blessed souls, though they require no physical food, spiritually fast by yearning for the fruit of the tree of life. Though they have no bodies, the force of their desire changes the appearance of the shades, hunger withering the flesh until you can read OMO—that is, “man”—in their sunken eyes and emaciated faces. The discussion of how the shade relates to the body is a reminder that all Dante’s vivid descriptions of punishments and purgations really matter as representations of spiritual states. Here on earth, eating normally, healthy in body, I can be ravenous with hunger for righteousness, consumed and transformed by insatiable desire for God.

“Lust.” In Dante’s purgatory this is the last and most terrifying trial—a wall of flame before which Dante stops short in terror. When he plunges in, he feels as though bathing in molten glass would be a relief from the pain. The same trial, Dante says, awaits everyone. Fornication, homosexuality, bestiality, all meet in the same fire, with no one sinner able to look down upon another. There are so many ways that love—not just sexual love, but friendship and affection too—can go wrong: possessiveness, the desire to control, dependence, idolatry, complacency. It is so easy to use one another. Here, at the top of the mountain, what is highest and noblest in human nature faces the most insidious and deadly of temptations, a vice so subtly intertwined with love itself that it can only be purged by fire.

*Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car* 1824-7 by William Blake (1757-1827)

*Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car* 1824-7 by William Blake (1757-1827)

I was almost done. “Chastity,” I panted, smiling at the old-fashioned, much-maligned word. Released from lust, we are free to love rightly. The blessed spirits of Dante’s purgatory dart and dance within the flames, and when they meet they greet one another with a swift kiss of peace. Dante’s reunion with his beloved Beatrice on the other side of the fire promises that earthly love can be purified, redeemed, and made an agent of salvific power. Once we can kiss and fly instead of trying to cling, once we can see the human beloved as an image of the divine without making him or her an idol, love becomes the way to God. And even in the very midst of the fire, even when our desires are still disordered and dangerous, we love; there is nowhere, indeed, without love, except the furthest pit of hell.

At the corner of the court I lengthened my stride, almost singing, “Glory.” Any examination of conscience or effort toward moral improvement can become an exercise in legalism. That’s why all Christian thought about virtue ought to begin and end in grace. Once I would have thought purgatory the antithesis of such grace—grim, oppressive, mechanistic, driven by fear, based upon the idea of earning salvation. It is so in many medieval texts; but not Dante. Despite the pain that they endure, the souls in Dante’s purgatory rejoice. The mountain resounds with singing. For the souls in purgatory, though located between hell and heaven, are not in a middle state of uncertainty or doubt. They already possess the salvation for which they suffer and strive. Even as they endure the process of sanctification, they are already justified by grace through faith, and that assurance gives them invincible joy in the midst of their suffering and longing for heaven.

I have no idea whether we will actually endure purgation after death. I am absolutely certain it won’t look like an enormous seven-tiered mountain in the antipodes. But as false as it is literally, Dante’s description is allegorically and spiritually true. My life, as a Christian in the process of sanctification, is a journey up the world’s tallest and steepest mountain, afflicted by suffering imposed by my own sins, encouraged by the examples of the saints, supported by brothers and sisters sharing the same journey. Despite the distance of time and place, the unfamiliar allusions, the elaborate allegorical method, this 700-year-old poem speaks directly to my condition.

Across the centuries Dante shows me to myself, with such intimacy and accuracy that I can use his images to pray about the shames and struggles of my own heart. Some might think such a devotional use of literature inappropriate, but if it can be justified with any literary work, it is this one. The Divine Comedy is great poetry; it is serious theology and philosophy; but let us never forget that Dante also meant it to prompt us to prayer. Since he includes in each purgatorial encounter the soul’s request and his promise to publish their names so that those on earth can pray for them, I have no doubt that he prayed as he wrote and expected his readers to pray as they read. Let us therefore, whether we believe it can do him any good or not, say a prayer now in honor of the man who saw and wrote so well the Christian journey that we share.

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