Worthy of the Kingdom
Dante couldn’t care less about my evangelical sensibility and sensitivities, and I love him for that.
Even beyond the fact that a third of the Commedia has to do with Purgatory, a state of post-mortem being that I’m not supposed to believe in, and even beyond the fact that the figure guarding the coast of Mount Purgatory is none other than Cato of Utica, named for posterity not after the place where the old pagan was born but where he committed suicide, and even beyond the fact that one gets to Heaven only by departing the land of the living from the mouth of the Tiber, there’s the stated purpose of Purgatory, as translated by John Ciardi:
Now shall I sing that second kingdom given
the soul of man wherein to purge its guilt
and so grow worthy to ascend to Heaven. (canto 1)
Even if our hymnals have edited “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” so that we no longer sing of “such a worm as I” (a poetic loss for the hymn, I think), we low-church Protestants have a really hard time imagining a scenario in which we become “worthy to ascend.” In fact, just thinking about this question, I can think of youth group talks, Sunday school lessons, and more than a few sermons in which the speaker’s primary concern was to establish or reinforce the claim that salvation happens in spite of mortal worthlessness, not because of mortal worthiness.
Of course, Dante is no stranger to the notion of divine grace. After all, everyone who inhabits the second Canticle is there because God willed it. In fact, early in the Purgatorio Dante hears a boat full of the saved singing a Psalm of the Exodus (canto 2, Psalm 114/113), arguably the Old Testament’s central event and a saving act of God that has nothing to do with Israel’s goodness or obedience or excellence or any other marker of worth. God hears, God remembers, God saves. That’s the Exodus, and that gratuitous rescue from an evil and power-mad world is the memory that frames the whole poem.
Yet the worth is still there, and once again the question might be worth more than an immediate jump to answers and counter-answers.
Dante’s notion of Purgatory (his was not and is not the only way to think about it, but I think it’s the best way to think about it) always points towards Heaven, and Heaven, more than anything else, is eternal presence with God. As Dante climbs the mountain, he discovers both that the Church, for all of its importance, can never bar a sinner’s way to that presence in a final sense (canto 3) and that sinners who begin the climb find the journey more joyful as they grow closer to the final ascent (canto 4). The terror of earthly trial remains in the antechamber of Purgatory, before one enters Saint Peter’s gate (canto 8), but among the saved, fear is the final enemy and has no ultimate power or even any memory once a saved soul enters properly.
In other words, Dante’s big-picture concern in the Purgatorio is not that human beings might think too highly of themselves (as is the valid concern of evangelicals in a self-help world) but that Christians might underestimate the true power of love (and yes, I am singing Huey Lewis in my mind) and think that souls who still desire vengeance or status or money or illicit sex more than God would even remotely enjoy eternal presence with God. To be worthy of Heaven is to desire God, and if Statius (whom we meet later in the poem) is a paradigm case, to desire God might be an educational project that takes a thousand years.
That’s alright; the folks in Purgatory have nothing but time.
I’ve written more about Dante’s notion of art in the Commedia than just about anything in the poem, but the more times I read through, the more I realize I’m still learning Dante’s ways and learning to engage in conversation with the old master.
This go-round, what took me by surprise, despite the fact that I’ve read the Purgatorio a dozen times and taught it three of those times, is the warning at the outset of Purgatory proper that Dante’s own descriptions might scare a soul away from repentance (canto 10). Now I’m not enough of a Rube to think that Dante writes such a caveat without irony, but nonetheless the relationship between terror and redemption does run through the whole Commedia, and philosophically, it highlights Dante’s strong Thomist and Aristotelian leanings.
If our souls really can become more excellent or more distorted, then two people looking on the same scene might see very different things. A soul who fears the pains of the world more than she loves the Kingdom unseen but proclaimed might well look upon souls crushed by rocks, eyes sewn shut, starving shades, and a ring of fire (yep, now I got Johnny Cash in there) and turn back, horrified; but the soul taught to see such suffering as a path to Heaven, and who desires the Kingdom ultimately, will see that what gets crushed, blinded, starved, and burned is not the soul’s true nature but the distortion itself, the sin that keeps the soul from God.
I discovered, as I worked on the Milton chapters of my dissertation, that a similar trial of interpretation lies at the core of much religious poetry, especially Paradise Lost. Milton readers (most famously William Empson) who call themselves the Satanic school take Milton’s Satan basically at his word, regarding God the Father in Paradise Lost (and by extension in Christianity more generally) as a tyrant, a figure whose unchecked power is his primary attribute and whose fiat derives its authority not from any intelligible goodness but simply from the fact that nobody can say “No” to it. Other readers (and I do not fall in the Empson camp) regard the apparent tyranny of the Father to be a function of Satanic narration more than any inherent evil in God, whether Milton’s version or the Bible’s. If God appears evil, readers like me contend, the fault lies not with the God whose story we tell but in the way somebody tells that story. It’s not an uncomplicated distinction, but I’d contend (and I did–I passed that dissertation defense, O Reader!) that it’s an important one.
Purgatorio demonstrates that complication better than most. Granting that the historical man Dante likely did not ascend a mountain diametrically opposite the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (modern geography makes that reading significantly more difficult), the allegory of the ascent still presents a composite challenge of interpretation: Dante (the character) journeys to a place, then remembers the place, then writes about the place, then warns the reader not to interpret his own articulation of his own memory of his own journey the wrong way. That’s a whole bunch of layers, and any look we get at Purgatory, even as an allegory, must be more complicated than the experience of having one’s sins purged in Purgatory precisely because, although our own mortal existence is more like Purgatory than like Hell or Paradise, nonetheless the uncertainty of our lives makes our world so different from Purgatory that we still must interpret, whereas the souls there have no need to do the same.
And I reckon that’s why Dante is still worth another read, even as I make my way through for more than the tenth time, even as I get to the point that I know which bits are coming after which bits. The problem of interpretation in Purgatorio certainly did not occur to me a decade and some change ago, the first time I made my way through the whole poem, and I have a hunch I’m going to be chewing on this one for some time. (My tortured examination above probably already gave you that impression.)
That’s what makes a book a great book, as far as I’m concerned. The main point is not whether a text is “Western” or “Canonical” or any of that; a book’s excellence lies in its ability, even after a few times through, to pose a challenge to a reader, to read a person even as the person reads the book. There are old texts and new texts that do that work, and there are new texts and old texts that fail to do that work. I teach Dante not because he’s a dude or because he’s “white” (though he certainly got in trouble for associating with White Guelphs) but because his poetry poses challenges that don’t rely on critical acrobatics or novel theories that overshadow the received and edited and translated text. With some guidance from a latter-day Virgil, students can really go on a journey with this book, and with some disciplined repetition, even that latter-day Virgil can find new ways in which Dante, from a distance of 800 years and more, still outruns my capacity to think philosophically.