The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (c 1265-1321), who died 700 years ago this year, takes the poet on an epic journey from earth to the utter depths of hell, on a long climb up Mount Purgatory (Dante envisioned Purgatory as a mountain), and finally through each successive ring of heaven, moving inward until the climactic moment when he stands before Almighty God.
I do not think I need to call this a “spoiler alert.” I mean, the poem has been around for seven centuries now. Anyone who has not yet read it probably will not mind if I give away the ending. In any case, Dante stands before Almighty God, Whom he sees, first as an infinitely brilliant light, then as a united set of three rings—signifying the Holy Trinity, and then as a single, perfect circle—symbolizing the love of God by which God’s Son came to save us and which is the first defining reality of God. As St. John tells us, “God is love” (I John 4:8). Dante finishes his poem with these words, explaining his inability to go any further in describing God’s majesty:
But mine were not the feathers for that flight,
Save that the truth I longed for came to me,
Smiting my mind like lightning flashing bright.
Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.
Already were all my will and my desires
Turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by
The love that moves the sun and other stars. (Paradise, Canto XXXIII)
As much as any scene in literature, painting, or any other art form, the final cantos (or sections) of the Divine Comedy help us to appreciate God’s unfathomable holiness and majesty. And Dante’s poetry gives our minds a picture, inadequate as any picture wrought by man must be, of what Jesus means when he refers to the perfection of God in the Sermon on the Mount. “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Any sane person will find himself a bit startled the first time he realizes that Jesus juxtaposes His followers and the perfection of His heavenly Father. What have ordinary disciples to do with such holiness as God’s? Yet Jesus not only mentions His disciples in the same sentence, but does the seemingly unthinkable—He tells us to be like God in holiness: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We might be tempted to think this is some kind of mistake. But does not the Lord say in Leviticus 19:2, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy”? And is not Jesus’ command squarely in the middle of His Sermon On the Mount, which is basically an extended teaching about holiness? The kind of holiness no human could achieve on his own? The kind of holiness only possible for God? A holiness that makes a person meek, poor of spirit, able to suffer persecution, willing to make any sacrifice in order to avoid sin, loving not only to God and those who are easily loved, but also to strangers and even enemies?
At any given time, Christ’s call to perfection is received by two groups of Catholics: those for whom the call to holiness is a relatively “new” teaching and those who have heard about this call already.
Those for whom it is new have probably been present before when this text and similar texts were read at Mass, but it strikes them for the first time or in a new way. For these Catholics, the call of Jesus can seem to be too much. How could I possibly be like God? I who on the way to Sunday Mass argue with my husband or wife? I who often feel like prayer is a chore? I who am not even exactly sure what holiness would look like in the concrete circumstances of my life?
Those who have already heard about Christ’s call to perfection, perhaps under the title of the “universal call to holiness,” often have the opposite problem. They easily slip into thinking they have holiness all figured out. They may or may not think they have made much progress so far, but they at least know what they are doing. Or so they think.
It helps to meditate deeply upon the mystery of God’s holiness, no matter which of the two groups a given Catholic belongs to. For those who are intimidated by the idea that Jesus could be calling them to perfection, they are on the right track! No disciple has what it takes to become holy, left to his own devices.
Fortunately, God does not leave the faithful to their own devices. There is a gift each baptized Catholic has, a gift easily overlooked, but one that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to doing what Jesus asks of His disciples: the Gift of the Holy Spirit. A person intimidated by God’s majesty might as well go all the way and admit that God is so powerful and holy that He can even perform the miracle of making him holy. Such an admission would be a great start. As such disciples surrender their lives to Him each day, remaining docile to the indwelling and influence of the Holy Spirit, they would be poised to advance quickly on the path of holiness.
For those already familiar with the idea that all the faithful are called to holiness, the answer is really the same. All Catholics must beg for the Gift of the Holy Spirit to be renewed in them. They must pray to see the limits of their understanding. They must pray to stand in total awe of God’s holiness. In this way, they will become humble enough to allow God to do in them what they can never do by their own power: to live every word of the Sermon on the Mount.
There is another step on the path of holiness and divine perfection. One of the lessons of the Divine Comedy, rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and the other teachings of the Lord Jesus, is that holiness always has to do with others. In his depictions of the punishment of sinners and the glories of heaven, Dante treats with utmost seriousness the social dimension of holiness or its lack. Holiness is never merely a program of self-improvement. Christ commands His disciples to love their neighbors and pray for their enemies.
And while there are lots of ways to show Christ’s love or to pray for one’s enemies, what more could be done for other people than to help them to hear Christ’s call and to respond with all their hearts? What greater act of holy charity could Catholics perform than to let people know of the love God has for them—each of them—and to invite them to surrender their lives to that love as members of His Church? What greater goal of prayer and work could there be than such acts of loving surrender to Christ?
The holiness of Christ’s disciples does not lie dormant inside of them. It will come out, in word and action. Catholics have the tremendous blessing of bringing people closer to God and God closer to them.
In the final canto of the Divine Comedy, Dante offers a brief but incisive prayer:
Grant then to my tongue sufficient power
to leave the palest flicker of your glory
to readers of a later day and hour,
For should something return to memory
and sound but faintly in my verses here,
the clearer will they see your victory.
Dante knew that the transformation he experienced in his journey to God was not for him alone. He knew that to share his vision with others could transform their lives as well. May the God Who gives Himself in the Holy Eucharist make His disciples more and more like Him, that they might offer a despairing world at least the “palest flicker of (His) glory” and help defeated souls more clearly to “see (His) victory.”
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