In the previous article, we journeyed with Dante from the first terrace of Mt. Purgatory to the fourth, covering the sins or character defects of pride, envy, wrath, and sloth. Dante sees firsthand how the souls are purified from their attachments to particular sins so that they are ready to receive the radiant splendor of God.
In recovery, we must take stock of our character defects and not only ask God to take them away but also be willing to do our part to cultivate a life of virtue. Our faith is not a passive one. It is not enough to simply pray. We are exhorted by St. Paul to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in [us] both to desire and to work” (Philippians 2:12-13).
The souls in Purgatory are indeed working out their faith through their penance but, more importantly, they are singing hymns and praises to God. They desire this purification because they know it’s the only way they can reach perfection. Upon realizing their sinfulness after death, they see they are not worthy to behold God’s face but they desire it so much that they will happily undergo their purification. They experience what we hope to do in recovery and life: establish an intimate connection between our wills and God’s will.
Now, let’s consider the three remaining sins or character defects detailed in Dante’s vision of Purgatory.
The fifth terrace that Dante travels to belongs to souls who are being purged of avarice. Avarice or greed is an inordinate love of wealth and material objects. Rather than raising their gaze to Heaven, those who struggle with greed cast their eyes down to the material and transient.
I think those of us who struggle with addiction are often guilty of this sin since addiction is a “disease of wanting.” We are always looking for that next big hit or high. We are always looking for more. The reason for this? We are trying to fill a void that is ever present in our hearts. The souls in Purgatory are purified of greed by laying face down in the dirt while repeating the antiphon, “My soul cleaves to the dust.” The souls are prostrated because they kept their eyes on earthly things in life when they ought to have had their eyes set on Heaven.
The Marian example given to us is the nativity of our Lord. Our Blessed Mother did not look for material wealth or the penthouse sweet to deliver her son. Instead, she openly and willingly gave birth to the King of Kings in a stable surrounded by farm animals. The virtue that opposes greed is generosity. Those who are generous give because they love and not because they expect something in return.
The next terrace belongs to the gluttonous. They are in a garden with a fruit-bearing tree that is just out of reach. This echoes the insight that to counter gluttony we must practice asceticism, which is the practice of self-denial. Asceticism is the willingness to say no to something that we desire because it is pleasurable.
One of the greatest feelings in recovery is resisting something that before we couldn’t help but give into. Today’s world seems to believe that true freedom comes from saying “yes” to whatever we want. But true freedom comes from exercising restraint over our appetites.
Oddly enough, there is no Marian example given here. However, I would like to believe that the example of Marian asceticism would be in her title as Blessed Virgin. She denied sexual relations with Joseph to focus her entire being and life on her son Jesus Christ. I believe this is the essence of asceticism, denying ourselves pleasure so we can focus on the only thing that matters, Jesus Christ.
Congratulations! We have reached the seventh terrace, which is at the top of Mt. Purgatory. The souls here are being purged of the sin of lust. They are walking through hot blue flames shooting from the top of the mountain. Dante himself enters the flames and describes it, saying, “No sooner was I in that fire than I’d have thrown myself in molten glass to find coolness—because those flames were so intense.”
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the phrase “burning desire.” In early recovery, the lust that we feel may not necessarily be sexual. That “burning desire” might instead be a desperate yearning for another hit of our drug or unhealthy habit of choice. I know when I am most vulnerable to relapse or acting out I experience a mixture of anxiety and an intense desire that can be overwhelming.
As a porn addict, lust has always been at the forefront of my mind. It has polluted and perverted and seeped its way into my life and marriage. Not only can this burning desire consume us like a flame but it can consume those close to us as well. It is only suitable that the flame of God’s love in Purgatory overpowers the fire of lust, which is desire and love misplaced and misused. The fire of God’s love that burns consumes but not in a destructive way. This is a fire that gives life and bears fruit.
The Marian example that is given to us by Dante is the response Mary gives Gabriel when he tells her she will conceive: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). In biblical terms, to “know” someone meant to have intimate relations with them. So, Mary’s declaration of not having sex and then being “overshadowed” by the spirit of the Lord indicates that Mary’s lack of sexual relations is a result of her devotion to God.
It’s my sincere hope that this series on Dante and his journey through Hell and Purgatory has brought a deeper understanding of vice, virtue, character defects, surrender, and recovery. The idea of having to live a life of virtue and be “perfect” can sound discouraging. However, God is not asking for us to be perfect. He is asking us to do what we can and let Him do the rest with a spirit of trust.
At one point in the epic poem, Dante is scared to step into the flames and be purged so he can be worthy to enter Heaven. Instead of pushing him or yelling at him, his guide Virgil encourages him like a loving father. Virgil, who we might consider a type of sponsor to Dante, instead reminds him of the beauty that lies beyond the suffering and the pain to encourage him to step into the flames.
As we in recovery stand together in the midst of challenges and suffering, we can remind each other like Virgil that, “this too shall pass.” And we can remember that the Lord is always with us, encouraging us to step through the flames of our purification so that we may gaze into the eyes of our beloved one day in 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.