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Reflections on Dante’s Purgatory, Part Two

John Mark Reynolds, 2004.

Dante continues to change me. Today the theme for me was the process of being “disillusioned.” The worst thing about being a professor and trying to be open to students is seeing the look in their eyes when they realize how fallible you really are. Of course, this should not be a bad thing. Who thinks they are perfect? But perhaps this is the point. We as teachers are disillusioned, caused to lose our illusions of goodness, when we see ourselves in their eyes.

Dante spends the Inferno and most of the Purgatorio convincing you of one thing: he loves Beatrice. Then at the very top of Mount Purgatory, Beatrice rebukes him for his false love. He is exposed. Dante has never loved Beatrice, but has been a fraud from beginning to end. His great virtue, his poetry, has come close to damning him. He must give it all up. No wonder he must drink from the River of Forgetfulness! He must forget the false self, his illusions. Only then can he come to himself. God’s grace redeems him and no good work of his own lasts his journey. Heaven is always reaching down, Dante can never reach up. It is all condescension from beginning to end. Beatrice has not come because Dante loves her, but despite his failure to love her. She is good, redeemed, and he is bad. She pities him and so helps him. She has grace on him, though of course her grace is just a piece of the greater grace of God. It is all God’s grace. This notion: that God loves us. . . that he takes away what we think are our virtues and our pleasures is hard enough. But then God gives back to us pleasures without end. . . treats! What a hard thing! We think we are giving up so much only to discover that we give up illusions and receive the very thing about which we fantasized.

So it is in marriage. We seek a grand passion, still I can feel its tug, and then with great pain we give it up, only to discover in the love of a real woman the great passion we always sought. We fantasize about Beatrice, lose her, then see her as she is. She is not the girl of my dreams, our illusions are shattered. She is a saint. She is real. And so we must change, give up our sin. Yet then she shows us Paradise. We get the very thing we had written about, and believed lost to Christ. God shows us Himself, which should be enough, but then in some super-abundance of love and grace, He gives us treats. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

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