Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ can be our Lenten guide.
“My highest spiritual aspiration is to get the last seat on the last bus leaving for Purgatory.”
How would you respond to that? Yes, it’s a statement made (mostly) in jest. Perhaps it’s a lighthearted yet darker version of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi’s observation, “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”
Some folks, I fear, assume either that they have already attained excellence or have attained something, that even if not quite excellent, is somehow “good enough.”
Regarding the former: the common practice of turning a funeral Mass into a canonization, wherein participants rejoice in a “Celebration of Life” rather than commit to praying and making sacrifices on behalf of the departed.
Regarding the latter: I recall as a new priest preaching a mission at a parish, and a person who said to me, “It’s been 17 years since I’ve been to confession but that’s okay because I’m basically a good person anyway.” Neither practice is practical or Catholic.
These days, especially during Lent, and in particular this Lent of 2020, it would be well for us to recall the doctrine of Purgatory:
If they have died repentant for their sins and having love of God, but have not made satisfaction for things they have done or omitted by fruits worthy of penance, then their souls, after death, are cleansed by the punishment of Purgatory; also . . . the suffrages of the faithful still living are efficacious in bringing them relief from such punishment, namely the Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers and almsgiving and other works of piety which, in accordance with the designation of the Church, are customarily offered by the faithful for each other.” Council of Florence (1438-1443)
Purgatory reminds us that grace is free but is not cheap, and that mercy does not cancel the demands of justice. What we do and fail to do really matter—they have profound and potentially eternal consequences.
During this Lent, and while many of us are quarantined or “sheltering in place” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be very well for us to think on our mortality and immortality. We will leave this life with only our soul, and we will present that to God for judgment. Using this time to take a sober and hopeful moral inventory, with a graced resolution to get our house in order, could be the best thing to do during this difficult time.
Where to begin? I suggest taking up “Purgatorio,” the second volume of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The book is a literary work and not a doctrinal one, but it is so vividly written (and in many editions so finely illustrated) that it can be used as a basis for a prayerfully thorough examination of conscience. At the opening of this masterpiece, Dante gives us a clear sense of why we should undertake this work:
To run through better waters
the little ship of my wit now hoists its sails,
leaving behind a sea so cruel,
and I will sing of that second realm
where the human spirit purges itself and becomes worthy
to ascend to Heaven.
If you find the taking up of Dante to be a daunting task, fear not—I had the good fortune recently of interviewing Professor Stephen Cordova about reading the Purgatorio as a Lenten practice. (You can find the audio of the interview, along with a resources list, HERE.) Cordova explains that Dante’s Purgatory is a mountain to be climbed. At each level, we confront the various seven deadly sins, and there see souls undertaking arduous tasks to undo the damage of a vice and have planted in the soul the remedying virtue. For example, the sin of pride is replaced with humility, etc.
Might we not undertake a similar task this Lent? Especially for those who find time weighing heavily upon them during the various “quarantines” we are now suffering, rather than binge watching television (or worse) or drinking or eating to excess, let’s take this time to see if anything other than God has been enthroned within our soul.
Let’s ask for the grace to replace the weeds of sin with the fruit-bearing vines of the virtues. And while we are experiencing a kind of absence of God by being unable to enter a church for the sacraments, let’s remind ourselves that we do not want to spend an eternity lamenting bitterly the avoidable distance that sin places between us and divinity.
Dante notes that souls in Purgatory make their ascent only in daylight, that is, only with grace. Likewise, our present dark time can be redemptive if we invoke God to get us ready for eternity.
When I write next, I will offer another reflection for Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.