Dante and the Singing Sufferers of Purgatory

While we began to move in that direction,
Beati pauperes spiritu was sung
so sweetly—it cannot be told in words.
How different were these entryways from those
of Hell! For here it is with song one enters;
down there, it is with savage lamentations.

—Purgatorio, Canto XII, Allen Mandelbaum Translation

(The following post is based on an Elder’s Quorum lesson given on November 14, 2021.)

I have always liked the middle parts best: The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Goblet of Fire. My favorite Stooge is Larry, and my favorite Brady is Jan. Middle parts tend to lack both the drama necessary to bring closure to a story and the deep explanation required to begin one. If a story doesn’t have a strong middle, then it probably isn’t a very good story.

It should be no surprise that my favorite book of Dante’s Commedia is Purgatorio, or Purgatory. Inferno is fascinating, but it is basically the Medieval Italian version of the Jerry Springer Show. We watch it because we can’t turn away from the grotesque spectacle of unfiltered human folly. And Paradiso is wonderful and serene, but who wants to read 33 cantos of serenity? Bo-ring.

Purgatory is where it happens—where the story really matters. For Dante, it is the crux of the whole salvation experience. On the surface, Purgatory is similar to Hell. Many of the same sins are punished in many of the same ways. The prideful that he encounters in Cantos X-XII, for example, have to crawl around a room with huge stones on their backs while reciting a super-long version of the Lord’s prayer. And when you finish there, you go to the level of the Envious, where your eyes are sewn shut with iron wires.

And yet, the people that Dante sees, going from crushing stones to iron wires, are singing a happy song. They rush to their torment—unlike the people in Hell, who mainly just moan all the time. Purgatory is a joyful place, where people suffer tremendously but know that their suffering has a purpose—that, by suffering, they are making progress towards Paradise and that, at some point, their suffering will be replaced by joy.

The difference between Hell and Purgatory is hope. The first thing you see at the gates of Hell is a big sign that says, ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE. The gate to Purgatory, on the other hand, is guarded by an angel with a sword and instructions not to let in anyone who is not genuinely penitent. The presence of hope is all that is necessary to turn unimaginable suffering into something joyful and good; the absence of hope is enough to turn even the pleasant existence that Virgil enjoys among the virtuous pagans into Hell.

Belonging, as I do, to a religious tradition that does not recognize the existence of Purgatory (or, for that matter, of Heaven and Hell), I have the freedom to enjoy Dante on an archetypal, rather than a theological level. His understanding of the cosmos is alien to my Enlightenment mind and my Mormon sensibilities, but his understanding of suffering has profoundly influenced my life.

Following Dante, we can divide suffering into two categories: infernal suffering is suffering that has no end—in both senses of the word. It has no purpose, and it has no date of termination. It is simply misery. On the other hand, Purgatorial suffering has at least one kind of end—either it is temporary, as a passage to something else, or it is purposeful, and we understand its meaning.

Human beings have a tremendous ability to endure things that seem to have some purpose, no matter how awful they are, and we are also pretty good at doing hard things for a while when we know (or at least believe) that the hard things will lead to something good. But we are spectacularly bad at suffering for no reason that we can comprehend or at enduring pain and privation that does not seem to have an end. In my own life, depression has not been caused by extreme suffering, but by any kind of pain, even mild pain, that does not seem to have an end. Depression is not caused by the presence of pain, but by the absence of hope.

I am drawn to religion primarily because it provides a fertile ground for hope. When they are working their best, most human religions are really narratives designed to prevent suffering from turning into despair. They do this by teaching us how to eliminate suffering, or by framing earthly suffering as a prelude to future bliss, or by convincing us to do everything we can to eliminate and prevent human suffering within our spheres of influence. Ultimately, religion is in the business of hope. Through faith, I hope that I can change myself, fundamentally, into a better kind of human being; I hope that something recognizably me will survive after death; I hope that my Redeemer lives. I can’t say that I know, or even believe these things. But I hope them really, really hard—and much of the time, that is sufficient.

But some of the time it isn’t. If I have learned anything from my decade-long struggle with the Book of Job, it is that there are a lot of easy answers to questions about human suffering, and they are all wrong—most of them disastrously so. The most important message of Job, I believe, is not that we shouldn’t try to understand our suffering. It is that we shouldn’t try to explain other people’s suffering–especially while they are going through it. The only thing that Job’s comforters do right in the story is to sit with Job in his suffering for a week without saying a word. That is it. That is what we are called to do when people are going through hard things. The last thing a suffering soul needs is some guy quoting Dante.

In my own life, Dante’s framework of Infernal and Purgatorial suffering has given me a starting point for explaining myself to myself. Dante teaches me that suffering has a strong narrative component—not that a narrative can decrease suffering, but that it can prevent suffering from becoming despair. Religion, at its best, is a collection of narratives that we can use to interpret, or discover, meaning in our pain. Other things that can do this are poetry, ideology, history, philosophy, and science. Somehow, we have to find large narratives that give our small narratives meaning and direction. Otherwise, life gets weird–and not the good kind of weird.

“Anxiety,” says Kierkegaard, is “the dizziness of freedom.” I have no idea what the great man meant by this, but I have always interpreted it to mean that, in the absence of a grand, over-arching metanarrative to explain things like suffering and pain and pleasure, we must choose from among many competing narratives to explain them—and that can be scary. In many ways, the narrative itself does not matter much—what is important is the fact that the absence of such a narrative can turn the inevitable experience of suffering into crippling despair. And while the presence of such a narrative can’t turn Hell into Heaven, as Milton’s Satan once boasted it could, it can turn Hell into Purgatory–and that can make all of the difference.    

Comments

  1. Very insightful, thank you.
    Something else that I find important is expectations. Situations rarely play out as planned, but the correct expectations make a situation bearable, which would be intolerable with incorrect expectations.

  2. “Anxiety,” says Kierkegaard, is “the dizziness of freedom.”

    We can get caught in a whirlwind when we tap into our potential for both good and evil.

  3. Thank you for this. I could not only use the hope, but confess a lament is my favorite genre of music.

    I should try to sleep no, right? Also,not intended as a guilt trip … but say “live, Andi”, and I will. I am a woman of miracle making, but they require being requested.

    The idea of life feels like a miracle right now. All that is required is the simple request for my own.

    Goodness, I’ll use any excuse for a dram of drama.

    – A

    This is a tough round, Mike. Like all of the others bunded into one great round of Sisyphus. Visit soon?

    On Sun, Nov 14, 2021 at 5:21 PM By Common Consent, a Mormon Blog wrote:

    > Michael Austin posted: ” While we began to move in that direction,Beati > pauperes spiritu was sungso sweetly—it cannot be told in words.How > different were these entryways from thoseof Hell! For here it is with song > one enters;down there, it is with savage lamentations.—Purgat” >

  4. Pure D awsome.

  5. Stephen Hardy says:

    Michael: I look forward to your posts very much and I share them widely. Especially with my non-member friends who may wonder what we talk about at church. You make us look good!

    I have to ask: this post was written based on a priesthood lesson? What was the topic? Did you teach it? Is this what you were pondering about in place of listening to the lesson?

  6. Stephen Hardy says:

    I just have to admit that I’ve never pondered profound things such as Dante’s writings during our meetings. Except to occasionally wonder which section of hell I’m in at that particular moment.

  7. Stephen, yes, this is from the Priesthood lesson that I taught yesterday in my Newburgh, Indiana ward. The assigned topic was Elder Soares’ Easter Sermon, “Jesus Christ: The Caregiver of Our Soul.” Since this was a fairly generic talk on the Atonement, I kind of took it in my own direction. So, instead of saying, “Christ’s Atonement makes everything OK,” I said, “Christ’s Atonement gives us the hope that we need to make our suffering bearable.” I used Dante as a way into talking about the role of hope in framing suffering.

    I can usually get away with stuff like this because I have carefully cultivated a reputation as the ward kook. The guy who says strange things all the time but is basically harmless and good natured, so you put up with him.

  8. Simply put. Mormonism = Purgatory. yes?

  9. Michael,

    One of my philosophy professors told us: “If you want to make people happy, don’t make them think.” I always enjoy the comments and thoughts.

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