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.

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