Purgatorio, Canto 3: The way that leads to blessedness

At the foot of the mountain of purgation, a fundamental issue pertaining to salvation surfaces. How far can unaided human reason take us toward the blessed life? The answer provided is that it can only take us so far, perhaps only to the base of the penitential mountain. The blessed life cannot finally be attained by reason alone. To obtain forgiveness and reconciliation with God, one must ascend by faith and hope.

The problem with Plato, Aristotle, and the all the other ancient and modern pagan philosophers is that they can only take us so far. They cannot lead us to knowledge of the mystery of God the Holy Trinity. They cannot lead us to the atoning death of Jesus and his life-giving resurrection. For that knowledge, we need the revelation of God made known in the incarnation. Only this heavenly Wisdom born of Mary’s womb can lead us to the higher and more weighty matters pertaining to our existential condition. Reason has to be completed by revelation if we are to attain that for which all of us deeply long: saving knowledge of divine Love.

The way that leads to life is less a way of reason than a way of penitence, faith, forgiveness, and hope. Moreover, this way is not the way of disembodied contemplation of eternal verities so much as it is the way of embodied practice. We cannot think our way from heaven to hell. We must practice in faith and hope, relying on the promise of the love of God to forgive sinners.

Even if through penitence and faith we ascend to the blessed life, we will still never comprehend the ultimate mystery of the all things. No matter how pure and blessed, we will never be able to comprehend the full mystery of the Holy Trinity. It is enough for us to accept that the One God is Three, not to know how that is so. The way we come to know that this mystery is Love itself is by taking up our cross and following the Incarnate One on the way to the top of mount Calvary.

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About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary View all posts by gmikoski

2 responses to “Purgatorio, Canto 3: The way that leads to blessedness

  • John Timpane

    This is exactly on-target. I wish more human discussions would acknowledge the central point of this post (and Canto). I’m an RC, and we get warned of the dangers of presumption (which, under the right conditions, can be a mortal sin) all the time . . . but nobody really listens. In the public sphere, so many debates take off from the notion that we can know it all, and *do* know it all. But what is clearer, from even a cursory glance at human events, than the opposite truth? We sure can’t, and our very limits blind us to it. It takes a Dante to set it, clear and simple and humbling, right on the table.

  • bobsinner

    Gordon. I agree with John, that you have nailed the essential point of the Canto. And, unfortunately, you demonstrate how little, if any, humankind has grown spiritually in the 700 years since Dante wrote.
    If anything, we are more believers in “Salvation by Reason” than ever Dante was. The Enlightenment brought us into this “modern world,” and yet what has that done? Do not the scientists themselves state that “the more we learn, the more we learn we do not understand.”
    We recognize that knowledge alone is not wisdom, yet we act to the contrary. The Soul / Mind division has been discussed (rationally) for thousands of years. But … Well, just “But” …

    “He is insane who dreams that he may learn
    By mortal reasoning the boundless orbit
    Three Persons in One Substance fill and turn.”
    – Ciardi III, 34-36

    This, unfortunately, BUT equally fortunately, applies to both “Powers Secular and Spiritual.”
    “No man may be so cursed by priest or pope
    but what the Eternal Love may still return
    while any thread of green lives on in hope.”
    – Ciardi III, 133-35

    Yes, there is help beyond both temporal powers:
    “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can
    be against us? Romans 8:31

    For the church terrestrial is at most, the Body, not the Head, of Christ. Bob

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