The middle section of Dante’s Divine Comedy has the pilgrim climbing up Mount Purgatory guided by the Latin poet Virgil. Unlike hell, in purgatory the suffering has a purpose – it is purgative, it strips away illusion, distortion, excess.
In the poem, Purgatory is the only part of the journey subject to time. It’s not the subconscious torment of Hell or the superconscious divine union of paradise. It corresponds instead to our conscious, everyday lives.
Notably, the travelers on Mt. Purgatory can only move up the Mountain in daylight. This suggests both the need for external or divine light and grace to guide the process and the need for rhythms and rest along the path.
Early on, the contemplative path can feel a lot like an arduous trudge up Mount Purgatory, with times of clear progress and breakthrough and new horizons, and times of inertia and lack of movement.
By the end of the poem we realize, and this is the most difficult thing to keep in mind as we’re walking, that it all has the potential to move us along, the walking and the resting, if we’re open to it.
The difference between hell and purgatory, or between bitter pain and transformative suffering is internal resistance, it is resentment instead of acceptance of the process as process.
“Process toward what?” we might wonder.
In the pages of Parabola, Jungian counselor and author Helen Luke says it is a path that “inevitably leads us through the agony whereby the ‘I want. I must have’ of the ego is transmuted into the love whose ‘center is everywhere.’”
Part of spiritual community is to help frame our path as process, by staying in touch with peers and mentors who help keep us oriented.
A daily contemplative practice – 20 minutes or longer, twice a day, is like the daily steps of right foot left foot walking along the mountain. But Luke continues “in our weakness we are continually falling back into the neurotic, ego-centric torments of Hell, and so the new attitude must be constantly reaffirmed.”
As Anthony De Mello reminds us, that suffering is ultimately rooted in desire. Here are my go-to desires:
- Time to travel to places I love
- More energy and drive
- Time to see old friends
- Emotional fulfillment in my relationship
- To relive the past (if I’m honest)
- To achieve something worthwhile
In my default, unconscious mode I get preoccupied with these instead of practicing presence. There doesn’t even need to be a trigger. I could be doing the dishes, getting the mail, making lunch. But this is where my mind wants to go. I want to turn these over in my mind. I want to contrast them to another story in my head about the present moment, which seemingly prevents me from all these things. In this state, wherever I am, that’s where I’m not.
The contemplative path says there is a space beneath all of this mental ping-pong, beneath clinging, fixation, anxiety, resentment, longing. A space when we realize and know that all of the striving, attachment, and desire are thought-forms and concepts designed by the ego to keep us on the merry-go-round.
First we need to invite that kind of awareness, and then with clear eyes make our decisions about our life situations. Decisions made out of attachment and desire for ego fulfillment will breed more of the same. Decisions made out of presence and awareness can move us along the path. Maybe we do need to be in a different job, maybe our relationship is toxic, and so on, but ego-driven action will bring about more dissatisfaction.
Christ said to seek after kingdom first, and the rest will come. That means pursuing a selfless clarity and then deciding about the job or the relationship or the move. Sometimes obviously life comes at us and we have limited time to make a decision. That’s why, ideally, we stay immersed in a practice and a community that cultivate the right kind of perspective, so that when the time comes for a decision, our vision is clear.
Helen Luke interprets the inability of the travelers to move at night to mean that during our time-bound lives, the ability for that vision and for movement along the path is not just passive rest, but attentive rest, stillness, silence, listening, receptivity, cultivating the contemplative space itself.
The discipline is to make space for the kind of realization, awareness, the kind of balance out of which right action arises. First the silence. Then the letting go. Then the movement. That sounds about right.
Also, for some fantastic lectures on the Divine Comedy from Open Yale Lectures, click here.