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Purgatorio, Canto VII

Before we resume our journey through Purgatory tonight, I want to tell you about a conversation I had today with my father. This is a story my longtime readers will have heard before, but many of you will hear it for the first time here. Having read Purgatorio made me think of it in a […]


Before we resume our journey through Purgatory tonight, I want to tell you about a conversation I had today with my father. This is a story my longtime readers will have heard before, but many of you will hear it for the first time here. Having read Purgatorio made me think of it in a new dimension.

The photo above is of my late grandfather, Dede, taken, as you see, in the summer of 1971, on his front porch in Starhill. He died in 1994. Today as I drove my father into Baton Rouge to see his doctor, we talked about how he did the same thing for Dede (pron. “dee-dee”), back in the day. We were talking about those times, which were very hard for my father. He had discovered that Dede was being robbed blind by someone close to him. My father confronted Dede and the thief with the evidence; Dede, who was growing feeble-minded, couldn’t accept this. The thief had been caught — I heard her on audiotape brazenly admitting to the theft, and essentially daring my father to do something about it. But my dad couldn’t act without Dede’s permission. Dede wouldn’t give it. He chose to believe the thief.

My father was crushed. It was his duty to look out for his father’s best interests, but his father chose to believe a thief over his own son, and over the clear evidence. But my dad did not turn his back on his father. In fact, he continued to serve his dad, driving him to the hospital for all his appointments, even, on occasion, putting up with abuse from the thief. He did all this out of filial devotion. When Dede finally died, with my father holding his hand, my sister and I were relieved; we feared that our dad, in his anxiety and grief over his father’s disavowal, would go to his grave first if this lasted much longer.

My father spoke briefly this morning about how much pain that caused him. And then we talked about the strange spectral happenings at my father’s house in the days after Dede’s funeral. I had come in from Washington, DC, for the funeral, and was present when all of this happened. Put simply, my father was haunted by Dede’s ghost. My father, mother, and I all experienced poltergeist activity, beginning hours after we buried Dede. It was so intense and strange that my father, who was neither a Catholic nor a believer in ghosts, agreed to let me call a Catholic priest I knew to come pray in the house. Father Termini brought with him Shelby, an older Cajun lady who had a powerful gift of spiritual discernment, to see if she could figure out what the problem was.

Shelby did not know that anyone had died; all she knew was that the people living in this house were having spiritual trouble of some sort. We all watched her turn beet-red and sweat as she walked into a bedroom where I had first heard the banging, and tell us that something important to the mystery was in the closet. My mom all but cleaned the closet out, but Shelby insisted something was still there. She became so red and sweaty — this, with the air conditioner on — that she couldn’t remain in the room. Minutes later, my mother found a photo of my grandfather, in the closet, behind a board.

“That’s it,” Shelby said. We told her that Dede had died last week. We all sat in the living room and prayed with her. After a minute, she whispered something to the priest. Father Termini looked at my father, and said, “It’s him, and he needs you to get him forgiveness. He can’t move on.”

“Daddy, tell Father what happened,” I said, meaning that I wanted him to tell Father Termini about the break between father and son, and how he, the son, had remained faithful in spite of everything.

After my dad told the story, Father Termini looked at him and said, “Do you forgive him?”

I do, said my father.

Later, after I returned to Washington, Father Termini said a mass for Dede. And that was the end of the story. Mostly.

Today, recalling those events, I told Daddy about Dante, and Purgatorio, and how the prayers of the living help the dead to move on, to be purified and strengthened for the journey to unity with God. My father is an old-school Methodist, and not a believer in Purgatory, but he knows from experience that the prayers of the living, and their forgiveness, really do matter.

As I write this on the second week of Lent, with Purgatorio open on the arm of my chair, I’m thinking of four souls I’ve known in life, all gone from this place, who wronged me or my loved ones. Are they detained on the road home to God, fettered by my unforgiveness? Maybe. What am I going to do about it? The answer is in this question: What would I want those I’ve hurt in my life, even without meaning to or knowing I had done it, to do for me after I’m gone?

This is not just a scenario from a medieval poem. This is real life.

We join Dante and Virgil tonight as they stand with Sordello, the Mantuan poet, who discovers that his new friend is, in fact, the great poet of antiquity, who advises that he “lost Heaven  … through no other fault than my lack of faith.”

Not what I did, but what I did not do

cost me the sight of that high Sun you seek

whose meaning was revealed to me too late.

Virgil goes on to explain that Purgatory is where he dwells with the unbaptized infants, “unstained,” but who had natural knowledge of the virtues, “and practiced all of them.”

This is hard for us to understand, or accept. How can this be just? Unbaptized babies, and good Virgil, not punished, exactly, but still denied eternal life in the presence of God because they lacked faith in a Christ they were never given the chance to know. How can that ever be just? From what I can determine, the Catholic Church has never formally proclaimed the existence of Limbo, though it was taught by Aquinas and other medieval theologians, who believed that the fates of the virtuous who had not been baptized had to be accounted for somehow. It’s strange that Dante can have bent the rules, so to speak, to emphasize God’s mercy and sovereignty over the demands of justice, yet still place Virgil in Limbo. Yet this is a reminder that Dante’s understanding is limited by his time, and the theologizing of his day. Today, the Catholic Church says that the fates of unbaptized infants and others we leave up to God, and hope for His mercy.

For allegorical purposes, it’s enough for us to observe that Dante presents Virgil as the perfection of merely human virtue; all he lacks are the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which can only be received by revelation. Dante is making the point to the reader that natural reason can give us a man as great and as good as Virgil, but that is insufficient to bridge the chasm between God and fallen humanity. Only faith can achieve that leap.

Virgil describes God to Sordello as “that high Sun” — an important metaphor here, given that Sordello then advises the travelers that no one can move in Purgatory once the sun goes down. The idea here is that the only way we can progress in repentance is through the energies of God’s grace, represented here as the light of the Sun.

Dante and Virgil decide to spend their first night in Purgatory in a valley where they find a group of men singing the Salve Regina (“Hail, Holy Queen,” a traditional evening prayer to the Virgin Mary; it includes the line, “To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”). There are the Negligent Rulers, a class of the late repentant that includes deceased Christian kings and emperors — including at least one pair, Ottokar and Rudolf, who fought each other on earth, but are reconciled in Purgatory.

We know they are late to repent, which is why they dwell in Antepurgatory, but what does their late repentance have to do with their negligence, and their royal state? These men were appointed by God to rule their kingdoms, Dante tells us, and the duties of state distracted them from paying proper attention to their souls. It is a less bad form of failing to repent in a timely fashion than the ones we’ve seen so far — the contumacious, and the others — because these rulers would have been more diligent had they not been consumed by serving their subjects. That’s the theory anyway.

I have no interest in historical trivia about the deeds of these monarchs, but I’ll tell you why the mercy shown to the Negligent Rulers meant something to me. Julie and I are the monarchs of our household. How many times were we unable to pray as we ought to have done because we were busy seeing to the affairs of our domestic kingdom: soothing a crying baby, folding clothes, preparing homeschool lessons, working long hours to pay the family bills, and so forth? Once, when Julie was a new mother, she confessed to Monsignor Sadek, our dear parish priest in Brooklyn, that she was so overwhelmed by learning to take care of Baby Matthew that she feared she was neglecting God. Monsignor, that kind old soul, comforted her, telling her, “If you want to be holy, sanctify your children.” Today when Julie has those crises of faith, our pastor Father Matthew counsels her that a mother’s sacrificial labor for her children is a prayer dear to the heart of the Lord. We mothers and fathers who have failed to say our prayers as we ought to have done because the needs of our family overwhelmed us may feel a kinship with the Negligent Rulers, assured of heaven after this short exile in their valley of tears.

UPDATE: After writing this and thinking about old Ottokar and Rudolf, sitting there in the valley, singing compline together, I gave in and sent an e-mail to someone I had a disagreement with, asking forgiveness.  Stupid Dante. Stupid Lent. Making me do things I don’t want to do, but need to do!



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