Lenten Mountain Climbing With Dante
BOOK PICK: Oratorian Father PaulPearson tackles purgatory with and through ‘The Divine Comedy,’ offering a springboard for a prayerful reflection of our own lives.
“… And of that second kingdom will I sing
Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,
And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy.” (Longfellow translation)
So begins Purgatorio, the second part of the 14th-century poem La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri.
The Toronto-based Oratorian Father Paul Pearson, having led us through Dante’s Inferno (Hell) in Spiritual Direction: From Dante: Avoiding the Inferno, now leads us through Purgatorio (Purgatory) in his next volume, Spiritual Direction From Dante: Ascending Mount Purgatory.
The Divine Comedy consists of three parts: hell, purgatory and heaven. Written in medieval Italian, the poem recounts the adventures of the speaker (who is presented as Dante himself) through the three realms, accompanied initially by the pagan poet Virgil before a woman, Beatrice, appears and guides his final journey through the nine celestial spheres of heaven.
In this, his second book, Father Pearson uses exactly the same format and intention as in the first. The structure is a straightforward examination of the themes and topics that make up the 33 cantos on purgatory of Dante’s epic poem. But Father Pearson’s intention throughout is not simply to guide the reader through the literary landscape of Dante, but to make its spiritual insights applicable to our 21st-century lives in practical ways.
Commenting on Dante’s opening canto of Purgatorio, Father Pearson makes some interesting points about the “spirituality” section in modern bookshops. Such sections, he maintains, are the preserve now not of books on God but on “self-help.” The Purgatorio section of The Divine Comedy is the perfect antidote to this misguided approach, he says. The souls in purgatory can do nothing for themselves. They remind readers that it is not “self-help” of which they are in need so much as divine assistance.
Thankfully, unlike Inferno, Purgatorio is about change. Purgatory is a state of flux and ascent — Dante’s purgatory is a mountain; souls there are in the process of undergoing an eternal change. Looked at through the lens of Dante, one could argue that purgatory is a destination for which the modern “self-development” industry might dream of: All the changes happening there are positive, mind-blowingly so.
Yet, as Father Pearson points out in his introduction, purgatory suffers from an “image problem” in the modern world; it is “misunderstood, misrepresented and unappreciated.” Yet he goes on to add: “It is intended by God as a gift and received by us as a punishment. It ought not to be a stumbling block for those considering entry into the Church. … It should be a draw, an answer to our questions and a cure for our anxieties.”
While Dante’s Inferno has a decidedly morbid, if not outrightly horrific, feel to it, being essentially a travelogue among the damned, Purgatorio is mercifully contrasting. The souls that Dante encounters here have not reached their end point; they are only at a staging post on the path to an infinitely better place, namely, heaven.
Father Pearson’s modus operandi is the same as that deployed in his earlier work on Inferno. Each canto is introduced with a short reflection elucidating its application to our lives. Then there follows a commentary on specific chosen lines from the canto. The blurb on the back cover tells readers that no prior knowledge of the original text is necessary, stating: “Reading Dante not required!”
There is no actual text translation of The Divine Comedy in Father Pearson’s book. Therefore, unless one’s knowledge of the original poem is extensive, to benefit fully from Dante’s thought and indeed Father Pearson’s reflections on it, one needs to read Spiritual Direction in conjunction with an English translation of The Divine Comedy: Read a canto of the original followed by any notes and references given in the translation and then proceed onto Father Pearson’s reflections. What he writes will then, in turn, send you back with greater appreciation to the original text.
Any good translation of The Divine Comedy will have copious notes. These tend, however, to be on the linguistic, historical and literary aspects of the text. Father Pearson takes The Divine Comedy and the reader in a wholly different direction, one related specifically to the spiritual direction inherent in Dante’s thought. This makes the book much more than just another commentary on Dante, as Father Pearson’s lucid and incisive spiritual insights drawn from Dante’s text are applied to one’s interior life. In so doing, he has succeeded in rescuing The Divine Comedy from the world of academic discourse and situated Dante’s thought as a springboard for a prayerful reflection of our own lives.
Rather than deciphering yet another “self-help” book this Lent, I suggest you pick up Dante’s Purgatorio accompanied by Spiritual Direction From Dante: Ascending Mount Purgatory by Father Pearson. Unlike any secular “self-improvement” book, Dante does not just show us what needs changing in our lives but also reminds us of the hope inherent in that process, as represented by the doctrine of purgatory.
Spiritual Direction From Dante
Ascending Mount Purgatory
By Father Paul Pearson
TAN Books, 2020
390 pages $24.95
To order: tanbooks.com or (800) 437-5876