In my last post, I focused on the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Inferno. There I attempted to draw lessons out of Dante’s text regarding the place of courage in sport. Here, I want to extend the examination to the second book of the Divine Comedy, the Purgatory. In this post, I will attempt to draw lessons out of that text regarding what sporting talents means and how it ought to be used.
“No man so loses, by their curse’s power,
eternal love, that love cannot return
So long as hope shows any green in flower.”1
Purgatory has gotten bad press. Many Catholics misunderstand the doctrine and therefore see it as a medieval vestige, perhaps even as an extra-biblical embarrassment, which is easily ignored.2 Many Protestants misunderstand the doctrine as well, and therefore see its punitive nature as a paradigm case of Catholics watering down the salvific nature of the Christian gospel.3 Though I think the case for the truth of the doctrine of Purgatory is strong, I will not adjudicate that here. I simply want to introduce the basic concept of Purgatory as understood by Dante, so as to use that vision to shed light on how athletic gifts ought to be understood and how gifted athletes ought to live.
A pithy summary of Dante’s vision of Purgatory would be that it is a marriage of Aristotelean philosophy and Augustinian theology. That is, Dante’s poetic vision is Thomistic in nature.4 Aristotle’s vision of ethics can be quickly paraphrased by the idea that “we become what we practice.”5 Character is key. The life of virtue (or vice) reshapes who we are. Tell the truth and you become an honest person. Lie, and one horrible day you wake up – look in the mirror – and you are a liar. Our moral habits create who we are.
Saint Augustine, in turn, emphasized the ubiquitous danger of pride as well as the metaphysical implications of such inordinate self-love. As Augustine famously put it,
A body by its weight tends to move towards its proper place . . . Things which are not in their intended position are restless. Once they are in their ordered position, they are at rest . . . My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.6
On this Augustinian account, complete love of self means complete separation from God, in hell.
A perfected love of God means the Beatific Vision in heaven. Finally, imperfect love means that any vestiges of pride (and the sins that follow from it), must be burned away in Purgatory.
God’s grace is efficacious, it really saves everyone who repents. Our weakness is no match for God’s strength (2 Corinthians 4:5–7; 12:9–10). As with the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ famous parable, God’s love comes to every repentant heart that turns back to God, even while we are “still far off” (Luke 15:20, NRSVCE).7 As Dante puts it,
That Good, ineffable and infinite –
as beams of light stream to a light-filled body –
turns to whoever turns in love to It.8
Nevertheless, the effects of sin on our character are real and must be actually dealt with, not merely covered over.9 To be set right, to be made whole, bad spiritual habits (and their effects) must be purged away. Suffering in Purgatory is real, but rightly understood, such purification is a merciful act of God’s love. We must be refined, by fire, so that we are living embodiments of the Greatest Commandment. That is, we must come to personify the love of God and neighbor.
As such, Dante envisions Purgatory as a climb up a seven-story mountain. At each stage of the mountain, a different inordinate love is dealt with and then shed away. For instance, pride is at the base of the mountain as a perverted love of self, sloth is halfway up the mountain as the insufficient love of God and the good, while the top three levels deal with an excessive love of the worldly goods (money/power, food, and pleasure). Therefore, progress up the mountain of Purgatory frees us, by reordering any of our loves that were disordered in life.
One of the many areas of life that encourages virtue, but can also tempt one to vice, via an inordinate love of self, is sport. The dangers of sport in modern culture are well known, so I will only briefly outline two key sources of the problem. First, achievement and success in sport are allegedly unambiguous. Success is stark and clear. Winning, records, and championships indicate both team and individual athletic prowess. In short, as a recognition of serendipity, luck, fortune, and support from others recedes, athletes often come to believe that they are solely responsible for their own success.10 Second, there is great prestige in athletic achievements. Elite athletes generate far more accolades, attention, fame, honor, and revenue for themselves than do similarly talented individuals, in other, but less prestigious areas of human endeavor. They are like kings and queens and emperors, but with one important difference. They have no one whispering “memento mori”11 in their ears. In short, as a gifted athlete gets an inflated sense of importance (and thereby invulnerability) they often come to believe that they deserve their rewards, no matter how extravagant or superfluous.12
Each of these issues can delude athletes into thinking that they are not only self-sufficient but also self-made. Such hubris is not only vain and impractical—all athletes, for instance, rely on others such as family, coaches, trainers, teammates, and fans—it is also spiritually foolish. As St. Paul so beautifully put it in his preaching at the Athenian Areopagus, God is “not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27–28, NIV). Our talents are, just like our very lives, gifts from God. Recognizing that our lives and talents are gifts has three important implications for athletes: gifts must be cultivated, gifts are temporary, and gifts must be used well. I will expand upon these points in tomorrow’s post.
- Dante Alighieri, Purgatory, trans. Anthony Esolen (New York: Random House, 2003), Canto III, 133–136.
- To the first charge, biblical warrant has been surmised from many places. Here I will quickly mention two. First, in Revelation 21:27 we learn that “nothing impure” will enter heaven. This suggests to the defenders of Purgatory that “cleansing of the effects of sin,” even forgiven sin, is necessary. Vice twists us “out of joint”, such imperfection must be “set right” before we can see the “face of God.” Just as physically resetting a joint involves pain, so too spiritually “resetting a joint” involves suffering. Second, in 1 Corinthians 3:12–15, where St. Paul says: “If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” The testing by fire mentioned here suggests to the defenders of Purgatory that the impure effects of sin upon our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls is burned away, so that we become a “new creation” (Galatians 6:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17).
- As regards the second charge, theologian Frank Sheed’s explanation should suffice to explain the Catholic position: “It may seem like laboring a truth already made sufficiently obvious to say that Purgatory does nothing for us that only Christ’s blood can do; it simply removes the obstacles that we have imposed to the cleansing power of his blood. Far from being a lessening of Calvary’s power, the existence of Purgatory means that this power can reach beyond the grave. If there is any spark of supernatural life in us, however overlaid by natural grossness, Our Lord’s blood can still remove the grossness, and the supernatural life can at last reach its own true end. Frank Sheed, Theology for Beginners, 3rd ed. (Cincinnati, OH, Servant Books, 1981), 169.
- Aquinas famously calls Aristotle The Philosopher and Augustine The Theologian.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2002), Books I & II.
- St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 278.
- Or put another way, all of us, no matter how much we struggle with sin, no matter how often we fall, can be saved by simple contrition: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15:18, NIV).
- Dante, Purgatory, Canto XV, 67–69.
- Forensic justification, from the Catholic point of view, simply doesn’t make sense. Instead the Catholic affirms that grace is fully efficacious while insisting that, “grace does not dispense us from acting ourselves but restores to us the power to act well . . . the total causality of grace in salvation requires that both the good works follow on grace and the faith that receives it are its product . . . The great mystery lies in the fact that this consent should remain free; but the reason is that God, the Lord and Creator of all, is Lord and Creator of our very freedom.” Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (New York: Scepter Publishers, 1956), 70–73.
- The hubris this creates can lead to profoundly bad places. For instance, see: Kevin Williamson, “Schmucks Like Us”, nationalreview.com, May 30, 2017, https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/05/tiger-woods-dui-everyman/.
- “Remember that your will die.”
- This too leads to a false sense of security and often financial ruin. The spiritual lesson is obvious (Matthew 6:19–21). See, for example: Pablo S. Torre, “How and Why Athletes Go Broke”, vault.si.com, March 23, 2009, https://vault.si.com/vault/2009/03/23/how-and-why-athletes-go-broke.