Sunday, March 18, 2012

My next post will be about Dante.

I'm not ready to write that, though (9:45 PM on Sunday night is not the best time to work out tangled thoughts), so tonight, something less literary. Yes, you can draw a sigh of relief, wipe the sweat off your forehead. 

Last week, I flew out of Chicago for Spring Break in Dallas. Travel by flying is always a tad stressful for me, given how many hoops the dear ol' system makes me jump through: present my boarding pass at security, smile at the guard, figure out how to respond when he flirts, strip off belt and coat and shoes, stand with my hands above my head in the full-body scanner, find my gate, and present the exact same boarding pass again. Perhaps more stressful, though, this trip marked one of the rare times I actually flew out of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Usually I just fly through it, but this time, there would be an entirely new system, in a very big airport, for me to navigate. I ended up doing a lot of guessing. 

In Texas, half the flowers are on cacti. 
At 7:15 AM, I bundled myself into my car, bought a hot cup of coffee and popped Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air into the audio cassette player in my car and set off for Chicago. By mid-morning, I paid my last toll and drove into the small city that is the Chicago O'Hare Airport. Its streets were a maze of arrival and departure lanes, rental car centers, a curiously named Kiss-And-Fly lot, and the economy lots for which I was searching: all a maze that I had to navigate with the clock for my departure ticking.

I recall doing a fair amount of guessing: I guessed which parking lot to turn into, I guessed that I was in the correct lot, and I guessed that the bus which pulled up was indeed the bus I was supposed to take to arrive at the airport. I almost lugged my bags right back off the bus when it pulled up to the Chicago Metro stop; the driver checked me, fortunately, and we kept going to the elevated trains that run from the economy parking into the airport. 

At the train stop, I guessed some more: The train that pulled up seemed to be the only one available, so it must be my train; to be sure, I asked a janitor resting with her cart right next to me and tried not to get mop in my mouth when I spoke. I guessed that I was in fact heading to the correct terminal. Once there, I actually did lug my bags up an escalator and watched the other passengers: A few people headed towards bag check; others punched in at unmarked kiosks; I checked the unmarked kiosk as well. Turned out, I could reprint (for the third time) my boarding pass. I guessed that empty bottles go through security okay (they do in Europe, though they don't make passengers strip there), and sure enough, I toted an empty orange juice bottle with me through security. 

Look, more flowers on cacti!
If traveling makes me a tad nervous, it also makes me philosophical, so here's the lesson that I took away from all my guessing. 

In O'Hare, almost every guess I made was right (with the exception of almost boarding the Chicago Metro). This was not due to lucky chance: O'Hare has their airport system laid out clearly and well-marked with signs, and I had done my research in advance. I knew which parking lot I wanted, I knew that I'd use a combination bus and train to reach the airport, and I had toted empty bottles through airport security before this. 

At the same time, I didn't actually know what was coming next in airport maze or even exactly what it would look like when I arrived. In fact, the near-fail of the Chicago Metro indicates the uncertainty: I knew that I would take a train to reach the airport itself, but I did not know what the train would look like. So, the Metro station kicked my brain into "Train!!" mode and almost sent me off the bus and into the heart of Chicago via the Metro. In more successful situations, I thought, "Oh, so that's what this step of the maze looks like!", breathed a sigh of relief, and moved on to the unknowable future. 

Texas has more to offer besides cacti, thankfully.
So, application: As travelers move forward, hesitantly and step-by-step, through their journey, so we too move forward, hesitantly and step-by-step, through life. I wonder sometimes whether we approach life with an overconfident attitude, telling people to choose what job to take or what person to marry or where to live as if they can know from that perspective whether the rest of their lives will be happy. As an example, I used to fear that, if I chose the wrong college, I would put myself out of the will of God forever; I approached decision-making and in fact all of life as though I could know what the rest of my life would look like if I could only find the golden key. 

Life isn't like that at all. C.S. Lewis tells us that, from within time, "all answers deceive"; nothing about the future (and even about the past) can be known for certain. Life is instead much like a trip through a new airport. Yes, we can do our research and look for signs and use good, sound wisdom and common sense. Still, we can't know for certain what comes next. We can make a perfectly good and rational decision, and find that life hits an unexpected rough patch; on the other hand, we can make a horrible decision and find goodness blooming like a spring flower even in that rocky soil. 

It is a frustrating exercise to attempt to know or secure a certain future. It was terribly frustrating and stressful for me to believe that the success or failure of my life hung on whether I chose the correct college; it is equally frustrating to try to 'guess' what will happen to us next even without making a decision. Will gas prices keep rising? What about food prices? Will I ever find someone to marry, or will I find a job? What would happen if I went on for more education? 

Had I tried to know my airport route for certain, I would have been stuck at the side of the road, slightly off the interstate. The only way to conquer the maze was to move forward, with uncertainty. That is the only way to go about life: to move forward, with uncertainty, with God.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Last Sunday I headed off to church with two books in my bag: my Bible (of course) and (of all things) Dante's Purgatory. I held my Bible on my lap during church service, leaving Purgatory in my bag, spine-upwards, its title blindingly obvious in bold navy letters against a teal background.

I wondered what my fellow church attenders, all very Protestant, would think if they glimpsed the title in my bag. I got to find out.

Immediately after the service, the woman behind me introduced herself and told me that she and her husband had been wondering about Purgatory in my bag. A few days back, she continued, she and her husband had been taken aback by a radio broadcast on Purgatory, in which a Catholic priest described the purifying of sins after death. This message, of course, did not jive with their Protestant belief that Christ wipes away all sins at the moment of conversion.

How could a Protestant, then, read a book titled Purgatory ?

Turns out, my Christian Classics students (all two of them) had the same question on their mind. So far we have read C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. In both texts the authors send their characters on a trip through Purgatory, a trip crucial to their spiritual purification and renewal.

"Why," my student asked, "are Christian authors so obsessed with Purgatory? Why does it keep showing up?"

For Dante himself, the answer is simple: He was a good Catholic and really believed everything he wrote about Purgatory. For Eliot and Lewis, the answer is more complex. Anglicans instead of Catholics, they use Purgatory in their works in basically the same way that Lewis uses Narnia: an imaginary, deeply symbolic place where people can connect with God more visibly and directly than in this present world. Still, both of them go out of their way to emphasize that their symbolic Purgatory is in fact more real than this present physical world.

Its theological existence aside, the realm of Purgatory is a deeply meaningful one. Authors recognize in Dante's description of Purgatory not only a spiritual fact but also a metaphor for the Christian experience - a metaphor that even Protestants should appreciate.

Esolen, one of the most recent translators of Dante, writes that "[s]urely it is one of the sillier features of modern piety to believe that we can betake our indifferently righteous selves off to eternal bliss as effortlessly as one might enter the pantry" (432).

This is the reason that believing authors discuss and describe and set their stories and poems in Purgatory: its realm reminds us that we humans are but "indifferently righteous" and that this indifference must be purified.

"Indifferently righteous". I can name scads of examples of indifference in the church, and in my life.

This morning, I planned a nap instead of listening to the last fifteen minutes of the sermon.

This week, a few of my students brutally condemned a woman in a story for feeling unhappy about her unhappy marriage, instead of feeling compassion for her.

Years ago, I forced my roommates to conform to college rules, instead of spending time loving them and listening to their stories.

This is indifference: a dominating concern for our comforts, our assumptions, our rules, than for God and for the people that He loves. This is the value of Purgatory: to remind us that we are "indifferent" to God and to purify our "indifferent" selves until, above all, we love God and His people.

Eliot writes of this redemption:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
    Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
    To be redeemed from fire by fire. 
Christ describes the end result - believers who follow the Greatest Commandment.
'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind'. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'.

In literature or in theology, Purgatory reminds us of the importance of love.