Dante on Freedom
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Dante: On Freedom
Purgatory is about one thing and one thing only: freedom.
Yes, when Jesus died on the Cross, he paid the penalty for our sins and brought us back into a right relationship with the Father. On that terrible day, the Herculean labor of salvation was completed, paving the way for the final defeat of Satan, Sin, and Death on that first glorious Easter morning.
But that, as I learned on my journey, was not the end of the story. We are saved by grace, but that does not mean we are ready to leap directly into the arms of God. As the children of Israel wandered forty years in the desert before they could cross the Jordan into the Land of Canaan, so our souls must take the long road up the mountain of purgatory before they will be ready to enter the true Promised Land of heaven.
The truth of this analogy struck me with the force of a revelation as I stood at the base of purgatory and watched a boat full of saved souls approach the shore. The boat was guided by an angel whose wings propelled it through the water at remarkable speed. But the sound of beating wings and rushing waters was drowned out by the joyous singing of the saints: in exitu Israel de Aegypto; “when Israel out of Egypt came.”
As the Jews of old had been released from bondage to the Egyptians, so these souls celebrated their release from bondage to sin. The waters had parted for them as they had parted for Moses, and they were eager to move forward into the inheritance promised them by God and his messengers.
But they all knew that a long journey still awaited them. Merely to reach the dwelling place of the eternal God was not enough; their deeper desire was to be able to bask fully in God’s glory. And to do that, they would need to free themselves, not only from the propensity to sin, but from the desire to do so.
When it comes down to it, the real issue is weight. Yes, I realize that your age is obsessed about slimming down and flattening your stomachs, but that’s not the kind of weight I’m referring to. When we bear a grudge against someone—as I have done far too often in my life—we, quite literally, heap an immense boulder upon our back that grows heavier the longer we allow it to remain.
Purgatory is about removing that boulder, about letting go of those big and small sins that we grasp on to with such tenacity. We can be redeemed Christians who partake of the Mass every Sunday, yet still cling to old wounds and grudges as if they were a part of us. Our sins may have been forgiven and forgotten by God, but too often we continue to define ourselves by them, refusing to release them from our desperate embrace.
It took me two days of vigorous climbing up the mountain of purgatory before I realized that Virgil and I had changed the manner of our forward progression. As we descended the levels of hell, we moved consistently down and to the left; in our ascent up purgatory, however, we reversed our trajectory, moving ever up and to the right.
All the sinners of hell, I realized, were tied up in knots. Every impulse or desire that might have been healthy or health-inducing had been turned back against itself and contorted. I could almost feel the unresolved tension; these were people who had lost the ability to let go of their narcissism and find rest and peace.
The saints of purgatory, in sharp contrast, were each embarked on a mission to release that tension and untie those terrible, dehumanizing knots. Unlike the sinners, who learned nothing from their punishments and persisted in believing that they were innocent victims, the saints welcomed their punishments and confessed their need to endure them.
Of course, they were able to do this precisely because their punishments were not really punishments. They were burdens that they freely and joyously took upon themselves for the purpose of releasing themselves from the burden of those seven deadly sins that efface God’s image in us and turn us aside from the path that leads back to God.
God, in his grace, not only allowed me to see those remedial punishments but to participate in them. No, I did not actually suffer alongside the saints, but I did bear upon my brow the heavy marks of the seven deadly sins. Those marks were placed on my forehead by an angel as I crossed into the central seven levels of purgatory. Bearing them was painful and debilitating, but doing so allowed me to share in the liberating joy of having each mark brushed off my brow as I left the level that corresponded with each sin.
Oh, how wonderful it was to feel those marks being brushed off one by one, to feel the grievous weight of sin lifted. Each time it happened, I felt like leaping and dancing. I was so light, like a newborn child.
Believe me, once that weight was taken away, it took with it any desire to return to the sinful lifestyle that had made the weight a necessity. That’s how all the saints felt as they moved up the mountain, but I’m sure the feeling was strongest for those who found total release from the sin of avarice.
Their remedial punishment was to be bound hand and foot and to have their faces pressed downward into the ground. It was a terrible punishment, for it prevented them from seeing the sun—itself a terrible thing for, while on the mountain, the sun acted as a surrogate for the God they desired to meet. The sun was their greatest delight and the source of their energy. Indeed, only while it was shining were they able to progress up the mountain. When the sun set, all the saints immediately fell asleep.
What a joy it was for the avaricious to be released from their bonds and to be able to behold the sun in all its glory. Rest assured, once their faces were freed from the dirt, none of them ever desired again to look down at the mundane things of our world. Forever, they would direct their gaze upward toward the sun and the God who made it.
Remember this well, my friends of the future, for your age is far more guilty of avarice than my own. Too often you lose your desire for heaven, for you are too busy trying to make a heaven out of earth. Without knowing or intending it, you have bound your own hands and feet and pressed your faces into the dirt.
Look up, my friends, and seek the true freedom for which you were made.
Originally published by The Imaginative Conservative
Louis Markos (amazon.com/author/louismarkos), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; he is the author of 22 books, including From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition, From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith, and The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes.