Dante and the Nature of Sanctification
A central question in the Christian life is this: what does it mean to grow in holiness, and that particular holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14)?
You should not be surprised to hear me say there are seriously helpful answers to this question to be found in Dante’s Comedy. If you are a thorough-going protestant like myself, you might be surprised to hear that many of those answers are found in Purgatorio. There will be a time and place for unpacking the full nature of what our relationship to the notion of Purgatory should be (seeing that it has no Scriptural support, and, as we find it in Dante, it is almost entirely a creation of his own imagination). For now, I would simply ask that you set those larger questions aside, and allow me to walk through a certain passage from Purgatorio 25 with you, as an example of the precious gems that reward the careful reader of Dante, especially as we consider the nature of sanctification.
In Canto 25, the Roman poet Statius (and very much a Thomist – another mystery to set aside) is explaining to Dante where babies come from. No, this isn’t “the talk.” It’s a fascinating, obscure, arcane, and thoroughly medieval discussion on the nature of the soul. Specifically it is in answer to Dante’s question about how the souls of the gluttons can be getting thinner, because (checks notes…) they don’t have any bodies! Their bodies are dead and in the grave. So how is it that the pilgrim can see them, talk with them, notice the effects of their fasting? This is the question Statius is getting to, and like any good father-figure, is taking Dante right back to the formation of the soul.
Now it is my firm conviction that you don’t need to believe a blessed word of what Statius says about how the body is formed to find a great deal of blessing in his explanations. That is because the poem is always operating on at least two levels: the literal and the allegorical (see my other article An Intro to Dante, by Dante). While Dante most certainly held to the literal view represented here, as a good early 14th century Christian, the benefit for us lies in the allegorical, which was equally intended by Dante to be understood.
With that, let me summarize what Statius says leading up to the passage I want to consider. In the medieval view, there are three different kinds of souls: the vegetative (such as plants have), the sensitive (such as animals have), and the intellectual (such as humans have). The vegetative soul knows how to grow; the sensitive, how to grow and feel; the intellectual, how to grow, feel, and reason. When the body is formed in conception, God “breathes a new spirit, full of power,” into that body, and in that moment it becomes a human being with a rational soul. That God-breathed soul gives power and ability to the body. When the body dies, that soul, used to governing organs and telling limbs what to do, just keeps on keeping on. Just as the flesh took the form the soul told it take, so the air of the afterlife surrounding the soul does the same. Statius uses the example of a rainbow to illustrate how that soul is made visible to Dante: as the moisture in the air reflects the sun’s rays, so the air around the soul reflects its powers, and takes the shape willed by the soul. Got that? Good. He goes on to say:
Because the soul is thus made visible,
it is called a shade; and thus makes organs
for every sense, even including sight.
The soul, continuing to live and give shape to its surroundings, makes organs out of air, for every sense; in effect, creating a reflection of their former body.
In this way we speak, in this way we laugh,
In this way we make the tears and the sighs
that you may have heard throughout the mountain.
This is how the souls in all three realms – Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise – can interact with Dante as he journeys through. Furthermore, this is how they feel punishments in Hell, experience the discipline of Purgatory, and move with holy joy in Paradise.
According as our desires and other(Purgatorio XXV.100-107, my own translation)
affections afflict us, the shade takes form…”
The soul takes a particular form through its shade to purge the crooked desiress and bent affections that it harbored in life. Thus, the prideful become bent over, carrying the weights apportioned to them; the slothful become runners, making up for lost time; the gluttonous become thin (and thinning) as they practice self-control. But it is important to remember that these are not physical pains or torments, let alone punishments. The souls here have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus, stand completely forgiven, and are reconciled to God. Then why are they here? Why are they not in Heaven? The conception of Purgatory in the Middle Ages was that, sometimes, the soul of a redeemed sinner still needed to be trained out of certain habits that plagued it in life. It needed to be prepared for Heaven, made holy. It was not that the work of the Spirit was thought deficient in this; only that that divine work of sanctification was not limited to this earthly life.
Again, I don’t need to actually believe in the Roman doctrine of Purgatory for the fiction of this scene to inform my faith. Dante held to the literal meaning, but I don’t need to. The allegorical meaning is plenty rich.
Here is what I mean. Transfer the activity referred to in this canto (and by extension all the action of the Purgatorio) into our daily lives. Just as souls in Dante’s Purgatory are experiencing a spiritual and intellectual education through the various forms of discipline they must walk through, so our souls in this life undergo the same spiritual and intellectual education by means of the trials and hardships we experience. Just as the souls in Dante’s Purgatory are actively purging, and being purged of, the bent affections, crooked desires, and misaligned loves, so too are we in this life. Just as the souls in Dante’s Purgatory are being reoriented around a love for Jesus, personal holiness, and true community, so too are we in this life. The physical trials and discipline we experience are not for the sake of our physical bodies. It is through our physical bodies that our souls are trained, our minds are renewed, and our spirits are reoriented around Jesus. Every parent knows this. God has made the world in such a way that the rod, administered in faith and love, actually shapes the soul, and not just the bottom.
The deeper point is this. Just as the various souls in Dante’s Purgatory receive personalized forms of discipline (the prideful are given burdens to carry, the envious have their eyes sewn shut, and so on), so too we receive from the hand of our Father exactly what we need to counter the self-centeredness and disordered affections that we are to be fighting against. My trials are going to look different than yours, because my soul needs to be shaped differently. But in Christ we are equally being shaped and disciplined for a purpose. And that purpose is the same as we see in Purgatorio – to experience the beatific vision, to stand before the Triune Majesty and see and know the Father in the face of Jesus Christ, through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
As long as I draw breath, God has determined that I am not ready to see Him yet. There is more He wants to do in me, more pruning, more fruit-bearing. While I have been freed from the power and penalty of sin, there is still sin that remains in my life; there are still habits that must be transformed; there is still holiness that needs to be embraced, a holiness without which I will not see the Lord. And this is precisely what the Lord is doing in me right now, as I walk by faith and embrace the trials and hardship that are hand-picked for me, to shape my soul, to sanctify my mind, my will, and my affections. This side of death, there are more momentary light afflictions He has for me, afflictions that are preparing for me an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as those afflictions are training me, transforming me, teaching me to look not to things seen, but to things unseen, to the eternal reality.
So what does it mean to grow in holiness? It means to experience and submit to the Father-sent trials that I need to counter the sinful habits that remain in me. It means relinquishing control over my own sanctification, while at the same time proactively running in the tracks set before me. It means recognizing that the gracious discipline I experience in this life has purpose, which is to prepare me to see and know God face to face. It means giving myself over to that communion of saints with which I live and worship, who surround me and encourage me as we all together grow to be more like Jesus. It means rejoicing in the work of the Lord, walking by faith, and allowing the Spirit to order my loves after His own. In this way sinful habits are purged from my life, as I am being shaped to live as I was created to live.
This is the allegorical truth beneath the beautiful, and sometimes obscure, poetry of the Comedy. This is what we see specifically played out for us in Purgatorio. These are the kinds of lessons the poem can help us recognize and embrace.
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Joe Carlson (MA Humanities) lives in the DFW metroplex with his wife and son. He received his BA from New St Andrews College, and his MA from the University of Dallas, where he is currently completing his doctoral studies. His thesis explored and unpacked a specifically doxological pedagogy, based on Dante’s educational projects. He has managed a chain of coffee shops, published (micro) epic poetry, co-pastored a church, helped create and staff a university campus ministry, written for the Salvo Magazine blog, and taught many different kinds of classes over the years. It was a passion for the medieval cosmology enjoyed by C S Lewis that eventually brought him back to an ever deepening love for the Divine Comedy.
As long as I draw breath God has determined that I am not ready to see him yet- great thought! How much of the “not ready” also has to do with Gods ultimate plan and part our lives play in that plan( in addition too-but not verses) the transformation of our souls. Not sure it’s possible for me to ever be ‘ready’ to see God. Never ‘ fully cooked’ – love the clarity of Dante’s intentions
“How much of the ‘not ready’ also has to do with God’s ultimate plan…” Totally agreed. There is more He wants to do with us, and through us in this world. Every moment “I draw breath” is a moment with a particular kingdom oriented end. That’s something that Dante gets into in Paradiso…
And as far as never being “ready”… I think thats why we are given eternity to know God 🙂
Joe, I’m grateful for the chance to read these edifying thoughts! I was delighted to follow a link that led to this post where I could see your name and family photo, and some of your recent work. It’s been a while since we last talked!
Christ be with you.