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Purgatorio, Canto XVI

Sorry I’m late with tonight’s canto. I’ve been out all evening with my friend Jen Bickham, who was one of my sister Ruthie’s closest pals. She asked me to go to a book club in her hometown to speak about Little Way. It was a ways away, so we had a long drive over and a […]


Sorry I’m late with tonight’s canto. I’ve been out all evening with my friend Jen Bickham, who was one of my sister Ruthie’s closest pals. She asked me to go to a book club in her hometown to speak about Little Way. It was a ways away, so we had a long drive over and a long drive back. The women of the club were such wonderful hosts, and I had a good time talking to them about the book. Most of all I enjoyed catching up with Jen, who I haven’t seen for a while.

We got to talking about what’s been going on in our lives these past few months. I told her that I’d been going through a pretty rough time, spiritually, emotionally and physically, last year, but I finally came out of it through intense prayer, therapy, and reading the Divine Comedy. She wanted to know more about the poetry, and how it worked together with prayer and therapy. As I was explaining to her about Purgatorio, I heard myself saying, “You can’t proceed spiritually until you humble yourself. Nothing goes forward without humility.”

Suddenly I realized that the breakthrough I had this winter happened in large part because I had to humble myself enough to accept therapy. Therapy was fine for people who read self-help books, but not for me. Prideful as I was. Admitting that I needed help, and that I couldn’t handle it all on my own, and putting myself into the hands of a good therapist, was an important first step to my own inner healing. It’s obvious, I know, but it’s funny to me how I hadn’t thought until tonight about the role humility — a humility I did not seek, but that I had forced on me by depression, physical debility, and the orders of my doctor and my wife — played in turning things around for me.

Today I heard from someone who has been reading these posts, and who reached out to me to talk privately about Little Way and Dante. He’s a practicing Christian, but said this discussion, in tandem with reading Dante, has convinced him that it’s time for him to see a therapist to confront demons from his past. While I was sorry to learn of his suffering, it was gratifying to learn that this 700-year-old poem is still capable of doing what its author said it was for: to deliver readers from a state of misery into a state of happiness.

In his Friday column, David Brooks writes about a TED talk that the musician Sting just delivered, in which he discussed how he found creative rebirth in the desert of midlife by going back to his past, thinking in depth again about his youth spent in a shipbuilding town in the north of England. It worked. Brooks:

Sting’s talk was a reminder to go forward with a backward glance, to go one layer down into self and then after self-confrontation, to leap forward out of self. History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past.

The Divine Comedy is the greatest example of this in Western literature. Dante’s pilgrimage into himself and his past rocketed him out of the black hole of Self, blazing through the heavens and into history, carrying us with him. Every reader can experience a rebirth, if they receive the Commedia in the right frame of mind.

But I digress.

Tonight we enter the choking, blinding black cloud of Wrath. There Dante meets Marco the Lombard, and asks him what is to blame for the world today having been consumed by evil and chaos. The moral philosophy Marco espouses is at the heart of the Commedia‘s meaning. I have abandoned the Musa translation for the Hollander one here, because it has more grandeur:

First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung

to a groan, and then began: “Brother,

the world is blind and indeed you come from it.


“You who are still alive assign each cause

only to the heavens, as though they drew

all things along upon their necessary paths.


“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,

and there would be no justice when one feels

joy for doing good or misery for evil.”

Marco refers to the medieval habit of blaming moral failures on forces outside of man’s control — symbolized by the heavenly spheres (hence the belief in horoscopes). Marco’s point here is the same as Shakespeare’s: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Men believe that they can’t help themselves, that they are playthings in the hands of forces larger than themselves — but that isn’t true. Marco continues:

“Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations,

I don’t say all of them, but even if I did,

you still possess a light to winnow good from evil,


“and you have free will. Should it bear the strain

in its first struggles with the heavens,

then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.”

In less poetic language, Marco concedes that we all have inclinations toward sin, but we can still see good and evil, and have the power, through free will, to resist our sinful inclinations. If we refuse sin the first time, and keep doing so, there’s nothing within our own natures that we cannot overcome. This is what Purgatory is all about: straightening through ascetic labors the crooked paths within us, making ourselves ready for Heaven. Marco goes on to say that if we submit ourselves, in our freedom, to God (“a greater power”), we free ourselves from the forces of fate and instinct. Here’s the clincher:

“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,

in you is the cause and in you let it be sought…”

Boom, there it is. If you want a world of peace, order, and virtue, then first conquer your own rebel mind and renegade heart. Quit blaming others for the problems in your life, and take responsibility for yourself, and your own restoration. God is there to help you reach your “better nature,” but because you are free, the decision is in your hands.

But you know Dante: there are always public consequences of private vices. In the next line, Marco turns to political philosophy, explaining that as baabies, we are all driven by unformed and undirected desire. If we are not restrained in the beginning, we continue on this path, until we become ever more corrupt. This is why we have the law to educate and train us, and leaders to help us find our way to virtue. The problem with the world today, Marco avers, is bad government, secular and ecclesial — especially that of Pope Boniface VIII (his name cloaked here), a wicked man who leads his flock astray.

The rest of this canto concerns itself with analyzing great political questions of Dante’s time, in light of what comes before. For us, we should focus on how the failure of authoritative moral leadership in the family, in the church, in the school, and in other institutions, has brought about our current crisis. Remember how on the terrace of Envy, Guido railed against the progressive decline in moral order owing to parents not raising their children to love virtue? We see a similar judgment here. Yes, each person must be held accountable for his own sins. But it is also the case that the abdication of authority and responsibility by those who ought to be teaching, guiding, and forming the consciences of the young plays a role. Ignorance of the moral law is ultimately not an excuse, but as ever in Dante’s vision, we are not only responsible for ourselves, but also for our neighbors in the family of God (notice that Marco began his address by calling Dante “brother”). If society’s institutions fail to govern justly and teach rightly, the consciences of others will not be “rightly nurtured,” and will, therefore, be conquered by vice.

Yesterday I blogged about this in a non-Dante post. I’m talking here about new research by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team, in which they examine the collapse among US Catholic Millennials of a basic understanding of Roman Catholic teaching and institutional loyalty. Like their counterparts in other churches, these young people are Catholics in name only. You may blame them for their ignorance and unbelief, and you would be right. But that’s not the whole story. The failure of Catholic institutions — families, parishes, schools — played a big role:

The authors say that the hinge of modern American Catholic history was the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s — the first one to be raised in postconciliar Catholicism. Generally speaking, they were poorly taught, and poorly formed in the habits of Catholicism. They have proven to be terrible at passing on Catholicism to their children. According to Smith et al., social science studies have repeatedly shown that the most important factor in passing on religious faith to the next generation is the practices of parents. This is even more important than one’s pastor. If parents don’t know and live out the faith, it is unlikely that their children will. It takes only a generation to greatly increase the likelihood that the faith will be lost to all subsequent generations. In the past, when there were cultural constructs that were recognizably Christians, parents could at least theoretically afford to be less vigilant, trusting that their kids would be more or less catechized by the ambient Christianity in the culture. Those days are long gone, though.

Smith and his co-authors say this is a rule of thumb for all parents with regard to religious education of their kids: “We will get what we are.” That is, the faith of our children will not be determined by what we profess to believe, or what idealize, but by what we live out every day in our families and communities.

It’s not only the churches, obviously. But if you ask me, there is no more important failure than in the churches and in families. As I said in our Canto XIV discussion:

I read this canto in light of several conversations I had over the past two days in Michigan, mostly among college professors. At some point, I mentioned to my new friends how my sister Ruthie taught me a lesson back in 1993, when I was helping her grade papers, and spoke scornfully of a middle-school student of hers who had gotten answers to basic questions wrong. “Let me tell you something about that boy,” she said, then explained how the kid’s mother had dropped him off at her parents’ house on Christmas Eve two years earlier, and disappeared. The kid had been an emotional wreck since then. Ruthie went through the papers from her class, telling me the personal stories of these, her students. Many of them came from shattered and dysfunctional families.

“It’s not like when you and I were in school,” Ruthie said to me, explaining that the family order that we took for granted has disappeared for many children. Today, she continued, teachers have to try to be parents and social workers, not just educators.

I heard similar things from college professors this week. I had been asking about what kind of struggles the undergraduates at this Christian university face — this, so I could make sure I tailored my talk about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming to their needs. Over and over, I heard teachers telling me that the greatest struggle their students face is not grim employment prospects, but rather dealing with the fallout from either their own broken families, or grappling with making sense of a world in which the moral and social structures that in the recent past had provided a habitus conducive to human flourishing had been deconstructed.

“I wonder how these kids are going to form stable marriages, and have families,” one concerned teacher said in my presence. “So many of them have never seen that, and don’t know what it means, and how to do it. They may not even think it’s possible.”

Cantos XIV and XV reveal a characteristically Dantean tension between individual and collective responsibility for sin. You cannot blame society, or nature, or other impersonal forces for your own sin, and failure to confront it within yourself. Yet the rest of us cannot excuse ourselves for our moral laziness and cowardice in not providing good leadership that forms the consciences and the moral imaginations of the young, and nurtures them away from their sinful dispositions, and toward virtue. We are all free — and we are all responsible. And in a moral sense, we are all our brother’s keeper.

Dante seems to be telling us to discipline our own hearts and make them beacons of virtue, and many around us will find their way to the path of righteousness and concord. That’s an easy message for us Americans to grasp. What is much more difficult for us to grasp is Dante’s insistence that there is a public obligation to create a habitus, through secular and sacred institutions, in which people, especially the young, are educated toward virtue. This is a bedrock traditional conservative belief, but it goes against our disposition toward conceiving of public life in individualistic and libertarian ways. Thus the moral thinness in our public life, and, increasingly, a moral thinness in private life as well. We will get what we are — and the fault for that is not in our stars, but in our individual and collective selves.

Wrath blinds us to this. Anger is a dark cloud of unknowing, and the things we who are lost in it do not know are ourselves.

UPDATE: It’s worth reading Tony Woodlief’s reflection on what wrath did to the late Fred Phelps. Excerpt:

It’s easy to hate a man like Fred Phelps, and just as easy to say that we should have hearts filled with pity for him, for the sheep who followed him. It’s easy for me, anyway, because that was never one of my sons in a box, body flayed by a roadside bomb, his memory dishonored by shouting, sign-bearing heretics. I can’t imagine that horror without also tempting myself to hate him even now, to hope he burns as he ached to see others burn. Me, who was never wronged by him.

In truth, people like me need someone like Fred Phelps. He made me feel better about myself. I am as the Pharisee who gave thanks he was not the tax collector—a comparison to which some might object, on the grounds that in that story, the tax collector was a humbled man, aware of his sins and begging mercy.

If you go to Tony’s entry, you’ll see a 1932 photograph of Fred Phelps, age 3, embracing his sister. How stunning it is to confront visually the fact that that he began life as a sweet little boy, and left it as a hateful and hated old man. This can happen to us too, and it can happen to us if we allow ourselves to be blinded by the same wrathfulness that blinded Fred Phelps. Self-knowledge is impossible in a state of Wrath, because it is all-consuming, and directed outward, toward others.

I have known this feeling, and so have you. No wrath is more poisonous than the wrath that comes from righteous judgment — I mean, judgment passed on people who really have done terrible wrong. I am reminded of how my wrath at the Catholic bishops over the abuse scandal ate away at my faith like sulfuric acid. It wasn’t that the bishops were undeserving of the wrath of the faithful. I believe they were, and that many of them escaped justice, in this life at least. Yet I also believe that the wrath I could not suppress, because to do so felt like a betrayal of the victims, did those bishops exactly no harm, but nearly destroyed me spiritually. It’s not so much that wrath hid my sins from me in this case (though it certainly might have done) as that it blinded me to the long-term costs to my soul of tendering its white-hot fire in my heart with bellows-blast of fresh indignation.

Two older black men, both of my parents’ generation, come to mind. Both grew up in the Jim Crow South, under conditions of serious oppression and injustice. One of them was a fighter, who raged his whole life against the enemy. The other refused anger. The angry one more or less destroyed himself. The pacific one thrived. When I learned about these men, and what kinds of things they endured growing up, my heart instantly went out to the angry man. I would likely have been that man had I been black in that era, and suffered what that man suffered. Seen from the vantage point of today, I would have hoped to have been the black man who was not overcome by his entirely justified wrath, because he built a good life for himself and his descendants, despite the injustice. I once talked to him about this; he told me that he took his own mother and father seriously when they told him that to give in to anger gives a victory to those who want to destroy him.

He was right. If anybody had the right to be wrathful, it was that man. But he had the wisdom and the grace to refuse it. Last autumn and winter, I found it within myself to set aside my own anger, which had me trapped in the bramble-bushes in a dark and terrible wood. Today, I can still see the situations that provoked my wrath; they are no less unjust today than they ever were, and no more resolvable. But I came to see that raging at things I could not change was destroying me. I had to be purged of wrathfulness. And so I was. Am. It’s hard. But it’s necessary.