In re-reading Dante for Lent I am reminded of the legacy of waste and shame he communicates in his vision of hell.
The damned experience the frustration of the waste and shame of their lives. This is terrible enough, but more terrible is the fact that while they have regrets they do not have remorse.
The experience of waste and shame when we see our sin as it really is may plunge us into feelings of guilt, but those feelings of guilt, waste and shame should not be confused for genuine and perfect contrition.
The church calls “imperfect contrition” the remorse we experience as a result of shame, guilt or fear of punishment.
What is required is perfect contrition–which is the remorse at having offended God, and I would add, the remorse at failing to become the saint God designed us to be.
If this is the case, then perfect contrition carries within it a kernel of joy as well as sadness. I am sorry that I have not become the radiant being of light and grace that God created me to be, but I can glimpse that promise just a little, and that possibility spurs me on with joy to be rid of my sin and continue the long journey home.
This is why, after his harrowing journey through Hell Dante comes through the other side and the first thing he glimpses are the stars.
After slogging through the sewers, he began gazing at the stars.
This is why, when reading Dante, one should never stop at the end of the Inferno. Plod on and do the hard work of reading Purgatorio and Paradiso, for then the waste and shame of hell are gradually transformed into our final destiny of light.
This is why Dante’s masterpiece is such a “sacramental” work–because as you read it you move through a sanctifying action and, if your heart and mind are open–receive a measure of sanctifying grace.