I first became interested in Dante’s Divine Comedy because I’ve always been interested in the essential qualities of things. Slowly I began to ask: What is the essential quality of western civilization, and European Christian culture in particular, which is the apex of that civilization?
Dante was consciously writing the great epic poem of Christian Europe, which is why he looked back to Virgil, whose Aeneid was the great epic of the Roman Empire. This knowledge is important in our time, because Europe and our whole civilization are now under siege, though it is not always clear by whom. Right now a great many Muslim immigrants are coming into Europe, but this wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t being allowed by other forces. It sometimes seems as if the global elites want to destroy western civilization, and Christianity along with it.
What is the true spirit of Christianity? It is no accident that Dante writes about the afterlife, seeing that Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world”. The greatest part of any man is his soul, and the soul is something that the senses can’t directly perceive. Christianity emphasized this in order to expand our understanding of what a human being is. Even the Incarnation, though it blesses the body and the material world, has an otherworldly aspect to it, since what is incarnated comes from a higher world. In Christian terms the human being is destined for Paradise, and it is the soul which can intuit Paradise. Without an acknowledgement of the soul, humanity is trapped in the body and what the bodily senses can perceive. In Christianity we talk about the resurrected body too entering Paradise—but if the soul’s journey toward the Spirit is unacknowledged, or no longer believed in, this in no way represents the “acceptance” of the body, since the body can certainly not enter Paradise on its own.
The senses by themselves cannot see the posthumous worlds Dante writes about in the Divine Comedy, but once the soul is accessed it can teach the senses how to perceive them, often by means of the tangible world the senses perceive naturally. The senses can immediately experience, for example, the blueness of the sky, or the difference between sunlight and moonlight, but it is the soul which interprets these experiences and shows us their meaning.
My book, The Ordeal of Mercy, is about the second of the three books of the Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio. Purgatory is the place where the afterlife and the spiritual struggles of this life directly meet. It is no accident that Catholics are exhorted to pray for “the good souls in Purgatory”; they are brothers and sisters to us. It is incumbent upon us in this life to engage in spiritual warfare. The souls in Purgatory are also involved in a kind of spiritual warfare, though as a passive ordeal rather than the kind of active struggle we face, the battle against evil in both ourselves and the world. This is why the good souls in Purgatory are called the Church Suffering, and Christians in this world the Church Militant.
Our spiritual warfare has to be for us also a spiritual path, an inner purification with definite stages to it. If we lose touch with this understanding we are tempted to fanaticism because we see evil and the conflict with evil only exterior. The spiritual path is the soul’s struggle to conform itself to perfection, in obedience to Christ’s command “be ye perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” In this world evil will enter one’s soul and divide it; it is our duty to recognize these inner divisions and do what is needed to overcome them. The soul that triumphs over its inner divisions is ascending toward the Spirit through a kind of Purgatory in this life.
Jacob’s Ladder is often used as an image of this spiritual ascent. In the Eastern Orthodox liturgy the passage about the Ladder from genesis is read on feast days related to the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary. In terms of the western Church this is comparable to the place in The Litany of the Blessed Virgin where Mary is called “Tower of Ivory”. The Virgin is also the Queen of the Divine Comedy—the one who, through St. Lucy, sent Beatrice Portinari from Paradise to guide Dante through the other world while still in this life.
At the summit of the Mountain of Purgatory the Earthly Paradise appears—which, as Dante puts it, is man’s true earthly home. Our humanity fell from a higher order of reality, symbolized in Genesis by the Garden of Eden, where even our bodies were different. The Fathers of the Church—Saint Maximos the Confessor, for example—taught that when Adam and Eve, after they ate the forbidden fruit, put on “garments of skin” [Genesis 3:21], this symbolized the assumption of the bodies we now possess, bodies susceptible to corruption.
In one way it as if terrestrial existence were a school, and the Earthly Paradise a higher school. Yet we never entirely “graduate” from this Paradise; the Celestial Paradise does not obliterate the Earthly one, because the Earthly Paradise is where the body feels at home. If the body finds itself in an alien environment, such as this material world, where it does not feel entirely at home, then it is certainly not in Paradise. Thus the Celestial Paradise carries the Earthly Paradise within it.
Purgatory is a world of preparation. It is designed to be temporary, which is why it is still involved with time; it is not one of the Last Things, which are Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Purgatory ends when time ends, at which point everything the Earthly Paradise has been is assumed into Paradise as such. The scriptural image of this assumption is the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Copyright 2016 Jennifer Upton