Dante 2008: Purgatory

I’ve got just a few days left, but I think I’m going to make it through Dante before I go back to campus next week.  This morning I finished Purgatory.

I’ve not started Paradise yet, but unless that section just blows me away this year, Purgatory will likely remain my favorite as it has been the last couple summers, not necessarily because I plan on teaching Purgatory in churches (I’m not going to do that, by the way–I’m still a good Stone-Campbell Christian-only but not-the-only-Christian who doesn’t do denominations) but because Dante’s version of it presents such compelling syntheses of the analogy between creation and Creator, the place of prayer in the universe, and the mercy of God.

I’ve not cried at a movie since I was a teenager (the funeral scene from The Power of One, if you must know), and I seldom experience any emotion while reading books, but a moment in the ninth canto of Purgatory almost always makes me set the book down and take a deep breath, and it’s when Dante and Virgil reach the gates of Purgatory to meet the angel commissioned to hold and turn the keys given to it by Peter.  Relating to the Pilgrim his instructions, he says,

I hold these keys from Peter, who advised:
“Admit too many, rather than too few,
if they bust cast themselves before your feet.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m a reprobate, but that in my mind spells the overflowing graciousness of God.  I realize that outside of poetry, someone is going to remind me, there is no excess in the mind of God.  Well, you can take your economic flawlessness and shove it.  I’ll take Dante.

Now that the outburst is out of me, I have to say that the apocalyptic vision at the end of Purgatory still blows my mind, and I think that it’s a prime illustration of how bizarre the Tim LaHaye stuff is going to look seven hundred years from now.  The fact that I, who know a bit of medieval history, have to wade through the footnotes every time ought to say something about the seemingly airtight correspondences between apocalyptic elements and one’s own geopolitical players, and I’m not sorry at all that I taught Revelation the way I taught it a couple years ago, as a Roman-era book with Roman-era referents that paints a picture of heaven and earth and not of the Soviet Union and OPEC.  Well, that’s two outbursts down.

Of course, the process of moral instruction for the saved souls is still the best stuff in the poem.  And I think this summer I finally understand how the sentencing works.  I noticed for the first time that nobody knows how long anybody will be in Purgatory ahead of time; the only measurements of time are in hindsight.  When a soul feels ready to ascend to Heaven, it ascends.  I never liked that very much; after all, the least self-conscious people would probably ascend long before I would, and that irks me.  But now I realize that Dante is working inside the Aristotelian/Boethian tradition, that men who are animals aren’t really men in his book, and that precisely the people who live for their… bodily pleasures need to be educated most.

In other words, what I’ve realized this time around is that Purgatory, as Dante imagines it, isn’t for the sake of making people something they’re not but to clear out all the junk that keeps people from being what they really are.  God wants people in Heaven, not pigs.

And so I begin that ascent.

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1 Comment

Filed under Books

One response to “Dante 2008: Purgatory

  1. vaindeludingjoys

    Dude, you don’t still tear up at the end of Ol’ Yeller? Made of stone . . .

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