Rambling Through Purgatory


We still were by the sea, like those who think
about the journey they will undertake,
who go in heart but in the body stay.
Dante, Purgatorio, II, 10-12

I have had an epiphany. Naturally, I must inflict it on you.

Here it is. Purgatory is real. I’m not talking about one or any of the various towns that go by that name, nor am I talking about the Roman Catholic conception of it. I’m talking about the reality of it.

I’ve been enthralled reading Dante’s Purgatorio. I can’t believe I ever allowed myself to be content with the Inferno. Hell is a poor shadow to the sheer substance of Dante’s second installment in the trilogy. But, lest I forget myself, you are not here for the literary critique. You want to know what I mean by “Purgatory is real.”

I think the Roman Catholics understood that salvation requires work. For you Calvinists, I’m not talking about “works,” nor, do I think, is St. James in his controversial epistle. I’m talking about the need to wrestle in this life with the consequences of decisions, with the need to forgive and find forgiveness, with the whole process of conquering sin and its fruits, not just in oneself but in the hand one gets dealt by others.

That’s work. A lot of work. And that’s what I mean by Purgatory being real. We all live in our very own Purgatories right now.

Case in point. Last night I was at Arnold Elementary to see my son’s 5th grade class and my wife’s 2nd grade class perform in the Holiday Program. Afterwards, as all the proud parents and rambunctious children were bumping, hopping and shuffling out to the refreshments in the cafeteria, the three of us (Leslie, Nick and me) headed for Leslie’s classroom, where we encountered the “new” custodian, busy at work while everyone else was celebrating.

We stopped to chat. What began as a matter-of-fact conversation about dust and floors and brooms and vacuums turned into something much more than that. The custodian slowly metamorphosed from an anonymous and practically faceless night worker into a human being hurting so deeply it hurt to hear him.

He found it necessary to relate why he was there. Suddenly I was with Dante and Virgil, walking through the afterlife, listening to one of those who stopped them on their way to tell them their story. This man, in a former life, now gone, had been a youth minister in the Church of God. Forty years of his life had been poured into working in churches large and small. Then, just three years from retirement age, a local church (one of the big ones) let him go. Shortly thereafter his wife became terribly ill, wracked with pain. To pay the medical bills, they sold their house and just about everything else. He’s now renting from his own son. He totaled his car a few weeks ago. To survive, he is working nights, cleaning classrooms. “I’ve got 10 grandkids, but no money for Christmas this year,” he said, tearing up just a little.

But then his story shifted. His eyes shown when he remembered a time when he and his wife were able to make a missions trip to Russia. He saw destitution on a wide scale and got to touch the lives of very grateful people.

“Life is interesting,” he said. “If I’ve learned one thing it’s that no matter how bad off you are, there’s always someone else who has it worse than you who makes you say, ‘I sure am glad I’m not in their shoes.'”

As we left him to his broom, I came away convinced of two things. First, Purgatory is real. We live in it every day. This man lives in a much rougher part of it than I do. I often stress about my little piece of it. But I wonder if I’m not stressing over it too much.

Secondly, this man brought me to a place where I reside all too rarely–a place of gratitude for what I have. Today, I’m the one saying, “I sure am glad I’m not in his shoes.”

I know it seems almost too convenient for this story to have come together the week of Thanksgiving. It’s hard for me to think it could be an accident.