As I expressed in an earlier post, I have come to love Dante’s Commedia more and more through rereading. In a manner almost scriptural, he manages to address every aspect of human life and, as a poet-theologian, particularly the artistic life.
My favourite of canticle is Purgatorio, which is perhaps a humorous choice for a Protestant. I have long viewed Purgatory as a parable of sanctification and Dante’s allegorical ascent of Mt. Purgatory as a poignant depiction of the trials and triumphs of the Christian life. Most impactful for me personally—and, I believe, Dante himself—is his encounter with prideful Christian artists.
Perhaps what my fellow Protestant readers often overlook in Dante’s theology is that the souls in Purgatory are not earning their salvation; rather, they are “working out their salvation in fear and trembling,” as Philippians 2:12 prescribes. Those that Dante meets in Purgatory are saved by grace and faith in Christ; however, they are undergoing purgation. That is, they are actively overcoming their sins, enduring trials that are refining instead of—like the souls in Hell—defining. Therefore, I think Purgatory is a vital concept for Christians—whether Roman Catholic or Reformed Protestant—for it reminds us that Christianity is a life of ongoing formation.
Dante presents pride as the foundation of sin by situating it at the base of Mt. Purgatory. Pride, along with envy and anger, are vices generated by wrongful love Pride, then, is not the lack of love but instead misdirected love: “ill-bent love which makes the crooked way, to us, seem straight.”
Most often, prideful love stems from consuming self-love which, rather than producing holy caritas, leads to the arrogance of perfectionism, competition, and overactivity. Souls consumed with such pride are focused on their own achievements, pursuits, and desires.
As the largest and most populous level of Purgatory, all souls in Dante’s cosmology must conquer pride by developing its corresponding virtue, humility. So, too, with our sanctification on earth. We are all guilty of pride, yet faith in Christ requires, first of all, surrender. Not my will, but Thine. Not my selfish striving, but Thy Spirit’s sanctification.
Dante locates fellow artists and poets in the terrace of pride. This is perhaps a deeply personal literary choice, for Dante as a poet thus identifies himself as prone to pride. As a musician and writer, I can speak to this as well: the virtuous desire for artistic excellence can all too easily become arrogant striving that proves spiritually unsatisfying.
As he arrives in the terrace of pride, Dante encounters glorious works of sacred art, which testify to the beauty of humility. David is depicted as “the humble psalmist.” A king and prolific worship leader, he yet danced before the Lord in self-abandon. Most significantly, perhaps, is the Virgin Mary, who is shown submitting to the Lord, her Magnificat simultaneously becoming an act of enduring poetic beauty and spiritual sanctity. So, too, artists in Purgatory are required to surrender themselves and their craft before God as “instruments of righteousness.”
The most powerful moment in this Canto is the following exhortation:
“Proud Christians, wretched and — alas! — so tired,Dante, Purgatorio Canto X, lines 121-129
who, feeble in your powers of mental sight,
place so much faith in your own backward tread,
do you not recognize that you are worms
born to become angelic butterflies
that fly to justice with no veil between?
Why is it that your thoughts float up so high?
You, with your faults, are little more than grubs,
chrysalides (no more!) that lack full form.”
In constant striving, Christians—and, particularly, Christian artists—move backwards. In always seeking ambitious advancement beyond mere excellence, we risk devolving spiritually, losing our true vision. And yet, we are meant to be so much more, for we are created to ourselves become living artworks through faith and sanctification. Instead of conforming to the restlessness of Martha, we are called and permitted to partake of “the good portion” of Mary, to rest in our salvation as we undergo the divine metamorphosis from pride to humility, self-love to caritas.
The prideful souls in Purgatory are required to carry immense burdens, to endure the weight of their own self-assumed pride when they could have enjoyed the easy yoke of Christ. Canto X ends with a tearful depiction of these souls:
“The truth is each was hunched up, less and more,Dante, Purgatorio Canto X, lines 136-139
according to his load, some more, some less.
The one who, from his actions, bore the most,
appears in tears to pant: ‘I can’t do more.'”
Amazingly, as soon as these souls fall to their knees beneath the weight of their sins, they burst forth in supplication, and Canto XI begins with a gorgeous paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer. In this, the souls praise God who in His infinite love will ease their burdens and skilfully reform them after the pattern of the eternal, incarnate Christ.
“Our Father, dwelling in the heavenly spheres,Dante, Purgatorio Canto XI, lines 1-6
not circumscribed by these but through that love
which you bear more, on high, to primal things,
Your name, and all the prowess of your might,
be praised by every creature. It is fit
to pay all thanks to Your sweet forming power.”
Artists may thus find themselves and their creative endeavours redeemed; in surrendering from the oppressive perfectionism and ambition of pride, they become more truly artistic as God’s living poiema. More so, this finally transforms selfish “ill-bent” love into holy charity, leading purged souls to pray for others to urge them onward in their own spiritual journeys.
“The final prayer is made, O dearest LordDante, Purgatorio Canto XI, lines 22-24
not for ourselves (we now have no such need).
We speak for those behind us, who’ve remained.”
I returned to this passage of Purgatorio earlier this week as I finished my master’s dissertation. Written on the theology of musical practice, my dissertation is a deeply personal project, for it seeks to redeem the thousands of hours I’ve spent in strenuous, repetitive, and isolated labour. In my hours spent researching and writing—as in my years of practicing music—I was often tempted to despair. I do not generally use impressive words like “apophatic” and may never be a world-leading theologian, just as I will likely never make it to Carnegie Hall. As an artist and academic, I am filled with ambition which often feels as though it outstrips my ability. This perfectionism is my strength and my weakness, my diligence and my pride.
Returning to Cantos X and XI of Purgatorio remind me, though, that even if I were already a doctoral candidate or a concert pianist, these accomplishments would be nothing if not offered to the service of God and neighbour in prayer, rest, and charity.
Yesterday, as I finalised formatting and edits, I was severely tempted to make an academic martyr of myself, staying awake until the 5:00am (UK time) deadline. Ultimately, though, I had to recall the poets in Purgatory. I had to declare in fatigue, after doing all that I could, “I can’t do more,” and turn instead to prayer and rest. After all, surrendering our work before the Lord is perhaps the most productive thing that we as Christians can do.
“Return, O my soul, to your rest,Psalm 116:17, ESV.
For the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
Dante’s Commedia, then, serves as a necessary reminder that sanctification is an ongoing process, not to make our lives as Christians more difficult, but to lighten our load as we put our sins to death, surrendering our prideful burdens and turning to the levity offered in Christ.
**note: quotes taken from the Robin Kirkpatrick translation.