In my previous article, I discussed how Dante made his descent into the depths of Hell to not only witness the torments of unrepentant sinners but also face down his own sin and personal hell. At the end of Dante’s Inferno, at the very bottom of the ninth circle, Dante beholds Satan in all his ugliness and torment. Lucifer is frozen up to his waist in ice and every time the ice begins to melt, and he attempts to escape, the gusts from his flapping wings refreeze it, keeping him stuck for all of eternity.
After beholding Satan, Dante and Virgil must climb down the beast’s haunches to exit Hell and begin their journey up Mt. Purgatory. As the Church defines it, Purgatory allows for “[the] final purification of the elect” (CCC 1031). As Dante journeys to the top of Mt. Purgatory, he sees firsthand the purification of souls who died in a state of grace but must still be cleansed of the seven deadly sins they had committed in life. These deadly sins include pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust.
In recovery, as we approach our sixth step we become ready and willing to have God purge our defects from us. When we pray to ask God to take away our character defects we also hope in faith that He replaces our defects with virtues through our willingness to collaborate through our own actions (participating in the sacraments, working the steps, serving others, etc.). The best example of this is what we are called to do in confession.
In Dante’s vision of Purgatory, there are three stones that Dante must walk across, and we might refer to these as the three steps of confession.
The first stone is polished as bright as a mirror, allowing Dante to see his reflection perfectly. This stone represents the first part of confession, which is the act of confessing itself. It represents looking at one’s sins and bringing them to light in the confessional.
The second stone is black and represents contrition. The word contrite comes from the Latin word contritus, which literally means to be ground or worn down. When we confess our sins with true sorrow then we feel the weight of our offense grinding or wearing us down.
The third and final step is crimson red, which represents “satisfaction.” The blood-red color is a symbol of Christ’s blood that was shed for us and for the forgiveness of our sins. Satisfaction is related to penance, which is what we’re asked to do to restore our relationship with God.
After walking over these three steps, an angel appears and marks Dante’s forehead with seven “p’s” for pecata, representing the seven sins that must be purged. Dante then witnesses how those who have committed each of these seven deadly sins are purified so that they can enter Heaven.
The first of the seven is pride, which sits at the base of the mountain because it is considered the foundation of all sins. Those who are being purged are forced to carry giant boulders on their backs, and this causes them to be hunched over looking directly at the ground as they make their way upwards. The bowed posture is a sign of humility since they are forced to stare at the earth from which man was originally fashioned to remind them of their smallness.
Mary serves as a great example of pride’s opposite: humility. Despite the special graces given to her, she refers to herself humbly as the “handmaid of the Lord.” The virtue that opposes pride is humility.
Pride plays a large role in our lives as recovering addicts. I remember hearing quite often that I “need to get out of the driver’s seat” or that “my best thinking got me into this situation.” In other words, I remember others warning me that I’m making the mistake of thinking I knew what was best for me was not allowing the God of my own understanding to help or guide me.
However, when we lower our heads and admit our smallness and frailty then—and only then—can our Lord come and help us with our struggles. Humility is letting go of our ego so that we can make room for Christ. It is like Saint John the Baptist says in the Gospel of John, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). So it is with us. The more we decrease, the greater our Lord’s sanctifying grace can increase in us.
The second sin to be purged is envy. Those being purged of this vice have their eyelids sewn shut. Gore Vidal once said, “every time a friend succeeds I die a little.” Mr. Vidal hit the nail on the head when it comes to expressing envy. Since the eyes enabled those now in Purgatory to see the good fortune of others and, as a result, become envious, they are sewn shut so that seeing nothing they can’t fall into covetousness.
The Marian that counters envy is her response at the Wedding at Cana. Instead of rejoicing in the mistakes of the wedding hosts for running out of wine (a jealous response similar to feeling sadness at someone’s happiness), Mary expresses concern and asks Jesus to help. The virtue that opposes envy is charity.
In the White Book of Sexaholics Anonymous, we read that “our insides never matched what we saw on the outsides of others.” I can remember experiencing this feeling often. It is the feeling of wanting what others have but at the same time getting in the way of myself. So, instead of taking stock of myself, I would often find ways in my mind to make excuses or find some small defect in the person and blow it out of proportion so that, by making them look bad, I would look and feel better.
But charity as the countering virtue does the opposite. It builds off the virtue of humility. Charity is giving until it hurts out of love and expecting nothing in return. When we practice charity, we can rest in the assurance that God our Father sees us as a reflection of His Son.
The third sin to be purged is wrath. Those who are being purged of wrath are standing on a terrace filled with smoke that burns their eyes and causes them to choke and cough. When we express wrath, we are blind to those around us and can say or do hurtful and cruel things. The virtue opposing this is forgiveness.
Mary demonstrates gentleness instead of wrath when she encounters the young Jesus in the temple after they have been searching for Him. Instead of becoming wrathful, she gently asks her son why He has done this to her and His father. She gives us an example of being gentle and tender instead of cruel and wrathful. Of course, we must note: Mary does not forgive Jesus since Jesus, being perfect, has not done anything wrong. Still, she shows us how we can respond to others with love instead of wrath or cruelty when we are justly wronged or simply feel wronged.
I wish I could say that since working my recovery wrath has not been much of a hindrance for me. However, that would be a lie. Wrath stems from our desire to control others as well as from a victimhood mentality. When we are wrathful, we make quick assumptions about what the other person’s motives are.
I cannot tell you how many fights I could have avoided or how much pain I could have spared if I just listened for a moment and asked, “Why did you do this?” When we act from gentleness, we forget ourselves so that we can understand others better.
The fourth sin to be purged is sloth. Sloth is not a physical state but a spiritual sickness causing us to lack fervor to follow our Lord. Those who are being purged of slothfulness are being pushed to run around the terrace shouting out examples of slothfulness followed by examples of zeal.
Mary’s counterexample is represented in her visit to Elizabeth. Mary did not delay but “went in haste to see her cousin.” St. Paul speaks often about having zeal for our faith so that we are able to “run the race” well. There is no time to delay or sit around twiddling our thumbs when it comes to the work of our holiness! Our Lord calls us to share His Gospel and set the world on fire with zeal and energy.
I feel that the worst part of my addiction was all the time I wasted. There were so many moments where I could have been productive—times when I could have done something for my wife or been with my kids. Zeal is a passion in our hearts that stirs us to action, and our addictions rob us of this virtue. Often, the only thing we can “make haste to” is our next fix.
Mary’s immediate visitation to Elizabeth is also a reminder that there is no way to reclaim lost time! In recovery, I think the phrase “do the next right thing” captures the virtue of zeal well. We are never wasting time when we are doing the next right thing. By doing the next right thing, we avoid falling into the slothfulness that can cause us to fall back into active addiction.
So far, we have journeyed with Dante into Hell and have trekked more than halfway through Purgatory with him. In the next article, we will continue our journey out of Purgatory and toward Heaven.
Ambrose is a convert to Catholicism and has struggled with sexaholism and mental illness. He has undergraduate degrees in Catholic theology and philosophy and enjoys learning and reading about the lives of the saints.