Monthly Archives: February 2013

Purgatorio Cantos 4 and 5

“Enclosure baffles so many people. Even those who love and admire the contemplative life think the importance of enclosure is exaggerated. That is why it must be understood in the beginning.” –Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C. in A Right to be Merry.


Not all of us are called to the contemplative life of a cloistered monk or nun. However, we are all called to be contemplatives, and to keep our eye fixed on our end. We are not all called to that which is called “the state of perfection” by way of the vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, yet we are all of us called to “be perfect” as our Father in Heaven is perfect. This is the universal call to holiness that belongs to all mankind.


To do so, we must not let the distractions around us keep us from our objective. “Do we go right or left, or do we still climb” Dante asks Virgil. “Take not one step to either side, but follow yet, and make way up the mountain…” the guide replies. In the following Canto (V) Virgil must turn back to Dante and again speak to him, saying “Why do you lag? What has so turned your mind that you look back?…Follow my steps, though all such whisper of you: be as a tower of stone, its lofty crown unswayed by anything the winds may do. For when a man lets his attention range toward every wisp, he loses true direction, sapping his minds force with continual change.”


Most of us live in the world, although we know that our “Kingdom is not of this world.” We must be, as the saying goes, IN the world, but not OF the world. But as Brother Lawrence makes so plain in his “The Practice of the Presence of God,” we must be as near to God at work in the kitchen as we are when at adoration during a holy hour.


We can take to heart what Mother Mary Francis says a little earlier in the book referred to above. “It is monastic life which signifies a monastery, and the fact has no vice versa. The most ‘correct’ monastic building in the world would not be a monastery if monastic life did not pulse within it.” Here, she is referring to the old farm house that the nuns converted into a new monastery in New Mexico in the late 1940’s. But we also may take it to heart. Though we be not part of a monastery, in each of our hearts and minds it must never be said that “monastic life did not pulse within it.” We must not be those who delay, and think, like the foolish virgins who did not fill their lamp with oil, that we will eventually get around to preparing ourselves for the Kingdom which is not of this world.

Purgatorio Canto II

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When we begin the journey of purification, we realize that it is a cooperation of our will with God’s, but it is all in God’s power and love. Our cooperation with God does not mean it is by our efforts that our sanctification is attained. It is by the “gift of God, not by works” that we are sanctified. “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


It takes humility to grow in virtue. Humility tells us that we are not (yet) what we are meant to be. A proud person can hardly grow, for (in his own mind and heart) he has already arrived at perfection. The humble see that they are not ultimate. Only with this humble disposition can their eyes be opened to what is in fact superior to themselves. In honoring this greater good, they will seek to conform themselves to it.


But when he saw what wings they were, he cried “Down on your knees! It is God’s angel comes! Fold your hands! From now on you shall see many such ministers in the high kingdoms.”


Virgil, human reason, can indeed take us a great distance along this journey, and we are never asked to “check our minds at the door” of our faith. But when our eyes are opened by grace to the supernatural reality of the only true path to holiness, our first reaction is one of awe. In fact, we will forever be in awe of the Holy One:


‘The throng he left seemed not to understand what place it was, but stood and stared about like men who see the first of a new land.’


In the Gospels, Jesus tells the parable of the sower of the seed. ““Hear then the parable of the sower.  When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path.  As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.  As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


Similarly, the souls standing around admiring the music in purgatory are told to let that seed take root and perfect them: “Negligence! Loitering! O laggard crew, run to the mountain and strip off the scurf that lets not God be manifest in you.” This is the entire journey of purification, or sanctification, and of salvation. God created us, and saw that His creation “was very good.” Stained with sin as we are, we must rise up, cooperate with God’s grace, and be on our way.

Inferno Canto 34

In Canto I, Dante’s pride is exposed and he realizes that human wisdom is not a “quick route” to heaven and happiness. Pride, in fact, is the root of all evil. It is the devil that told our first parents that “you will be like gods, for you will see as He does.”


In Canto XXXIV, the Tempter of all this pride is seen, displaying the sadness and result of such pride. Beating his own wings in an attempt to fly alone, he merely locks himself more and more in his own world of sorrows, separated from God. The phrase “let go and let God” is, of course, meaningless to him. Power is the tool he thinks to use, and yet power is not the ultimate answer to all things. He beats his wings the harder, only to further freeze the lake; in a similar way, one only becomes more and more trapped in a Chinese finger trap when effort is made simply to pull.


Most are familiar with Sauroman the wizard from the Lord of the Rings movies. In the book The Hobbit, also by JRR Tolkien, he has not yet turned to ally with evil, but we do see his insistence upon power as the way to “get the job done.” Gandalf, another wizard, speaks of this, telling of Sauroman the Great’s desire to save the world from evil through power, while he (Gandalf) thinks the answer actually lies in small acts of great love.


Now God certainly is all powerful, and power is neither good nor bad, but is useful to one or the other. Certainly I must disagree with the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” for none s more powerful than the incorruptible God. But this power is equaled by perfect Love. God is Love. The fire’s of His love burn with a heat opposite the frozen lake in which that the old angel of light, (also certainly powerful, although in a contingent way incomparable with God) lies frozen.


Dante has come full circle and seen the father of lies; the one who would tempt man to think he is sufficient unto himself, as Dante’s attempt at a short sprint to glory in Canto I is a prime example.



Canto XXX


“I was still standing, fixed upon these two when the Master said to me: “Now keep on looking a little longer and I quarrel with you.” Dante listens for too long to a couple of the damned argue and belittle one another, and Virgil is quickly agitated with the whole scene.


C.S. Lewis has written a brilliant book (he has written dozens) in his The Screwtape Letters. In it, he really goes into the workings of evil from its own point of view. It is an eye opening book for those who may have a false understanding of what is good in the world and how it can be misued. It certainly clears up the still oft taken [Manichean like] position that spirit is good and matter is bad. Are not the demons spirit, and is not the Christ also Flesh?


Tolkien, also a member of The Inklings, a group that CS Lewis and a few others belonged to for the discussion of literature, did not like the fact that CS Lewis wrote such a book. He thought that it is dangerous to delve too far into the ways of evil, even when the intention was the good one of exposing evil that its traps may be avoided.


Tolkien felt so strongly about this that an entire character in his great stories of Middle Earth directly reflects this. Sauroman, the White Wizard, is in the beginning good. He often relies on power as the means of solving the problem of evil. Of course, we need law enforcement and soldiers to battle evil even today. But primarily it is not power that wins all. I digress.


Sauroman eventually delves far into the ways and workings of evil, the greater to understand it. As a military officer, I certainly respect the need to know thy enemy. You must understand his tactics and procedures and capabilities to better defeat him. But when you let your mind spend too much time on these ways, the heart may follow. Sauroman, as we know, eventually goes to the evil side, allying with it and thinking it too powerful to overcome. He thinks, and not relying on God’s good providence, that evil is too powerful and will win, and thus it is best to side with it now rather than wait until good is defeated.


Know your enemy, yes, but do not become overly interested and involved. “…should it occur again, as we walk on, that we find ourselves where others of this crew fall to such petty wrangling and upbraiding,…The wish to hear such baseness is degrading.”

Sacred Places

Many today think that “places” cannot be sacred, and that somehow “take of your sandals, for you are on holy ground” went away with the Old Law. But Jesus Himself so often not only rose early and went to be alone to pray, but went away to a mountain, or to a hill, or some place of significance.

God is certainly present everywhere, but we humans, bombarded by the everyday and the “normal” need to go to special places to be more aware of Him. Just as our spirit does not “move” when we kneel but the position of our bodies truly affects our souls, so our going away to a mountain to be alone with God is a very real “change of place” for our souls as well.

God is present everywhere, but I doubt many who knew Jesus as God when He walked the earth would turn their gaze away from Him and say “but you are over there as well.” If God became Incarnate, the physical world and special places within it take on more importance, not less, when rightly understood.

“Jesus meets us where we are” but doesn’t wish us to stay there. We should praise Him, as the song goes, “on that holy mountain.”