Monday, February 5, 2007

Il Purgatorio

The concept of Purgatory is fundamentally a Roman Catholic idea; it occurred to me that Limbo is the ideal division between Heaven and Hell (if I were constructing Heaven, which I'm not). The only way Purgatory can make sense on a literal level is if, as Dante has it, souls are gladly working their way towards glory. In many ways, this earthly life seems like a Purgatory; after my conversion to the Christian faith I began to feel a sense of purpose, as if I were climbing a mountain towards God. Earthly life is a place and time for us to seek glory and joy. I'm reminded of the poem "Uphill" by Christina Rosetti:

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
For me, it feels like I am moving "onward and upward" (C. S. Lewis). I began life not knowing what it was all about. I spent many years in the "Dark Wood" where Dante's poem begins. This makes me wonder if Dante was contemplating suicide, because obviously he is lost and grieving, and the suicides are in a dark wood in Hell. Either way, that's where I was. Without oversimplifying the greatest event in my life, or sounding like a lunatic, at the age of fourteen I heard the voice of God, totally unexpectedly. I always say that "Jesus had me at hello." He didn't show up as Virgil and take me on a tour, but I do think there was a Heavenly Lady interceding on my behalf (my Abuelita Uva). I say I "heard" God although what I was using was not so much my ears as my blood. God asked me "Aren't you tired of this? Aren't you ready for more?"
At that point, I knew I was ready for more. Purgatory in Dante involves a lot of choosing to move on- the souls decide for themselves when they are ready to arrive on the shore, and when they are ready to move up. My own life has involved some serious decision-making, and I feel like since I've know what I'm moving towards, I haven't regretted a single move. There are days when I question myself, and even God, sure, but I have full confidence that this movement called my life is, in fact, "onward and upward."
It's easy to confuse the circumstances of my life with the condition of my soul, but on further examination there is clearly an enormous difference. Through the "Purgatory" of this life, God is preparing me for His kingdom. I am being tested, not punished (because just like in Hell, punishment is a choice). The test is my own willingness to say "I'm ready." Because by choosing readiness, you're already there. Furthermore, like the souls in Purgatory, I am moving in joy. Jesus said "These three things remain: Faith, Hope, and Love." I am moving in faith, with hope, and in love, towards the greatest of these, Love. I can't help but see the parallels between this and Dante's Purgatory.
I know this is pretty religious and personal, and I tried to make "I" statements, because what I think about other people's lives is irrelevant. Of course, I want everyone to think life is joyful, and purposeful, but hey, that's up to the individual. What I am attempting to discuss, through my personal experience, is Dante's Purgatory, and how it relates to life in a culture that mostly doesn't believe in such a place. Dante wants us to read allegorically, and I can't help but feel that's the best interpretation for Purgatory. Because, otherwise, what is redemption and what is salvation? Jesus' sacrifice needs no help, and we don't get to Heaven for doing good works (apparently, it didn't work for poor Latini or Avicenna or anyone else). But by our attitude towards others, and towards life, we can promote God's kingdom in our hearts. I think it is ESSENTIAL to see this as a personal thing. I, like everyone else, want to better the world through good government and law, etc. but I must admit that the way to start is right here, right now, with these two hands. I don't think I'm a very good person, really, but God is a forward-thinker and He's asking me to think positively. God is moving us towards perfection, whatever that looks like. He is asking us to be joyful and to see other people, not just the long uphill climb, because when we look at the road it can really freak us out and discourage us. I think this is what Dante is saying. I shared some personal stuff because that's my way of understanding Purgatory, NOT because I want people to agree with my beliefs.