Sanctification is the purifying process that prepares us for the glory of God’s presence.

Personal sanctity is not “in” today. We are not yearning to become holy. Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living is not a best seller.

We are busy—busy with other things, like getting and spending, entertaining ourselves, or attending elders’ meetings and church conferences. We are “into” liberation or relational theology, or social action, or biblical authority, or the gifts of the Spirit, or good marriages, careers, total sexual life, losing weight after Christmas, jogging—all for Jesus, of course. And slightly fewer than half of evangelicals read the Bible every day.

We feel, apparently, that attention to such a concern as personal sanctity is dangerously subjective, anxiety breeding, depressing—akin to the antics of the desert hermits in the Dark Ages. And it surely would be painful. It smacks of such unhappy things as self-denial, discipline, mortification (a horrible old idea having to do with putting to death). And besides, present-day psychology, with all it tells us of our need for self-fulfillment and wholeness—and self-indulgence?—would surely disapprove. In short, even at best we are concerned with doing rather than being, with doing without being; we forget that the doing that pleases God rises out of being. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Augustine differed from many of us about self-fulfillment: “Thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.” John Donne in his sonnet “Batter my heart,” after complaining that he is like “an usurpt towne” and that his reason is “captive,” cries out:

Divorce me, untie, or breake that knot againe,

Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I

Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,

Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

J. I. Packer agrees in his Knowing God: “What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God.… What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment, than anything else? Knowledge of God.”

Richard Lovelace, writing of spirituality, says, “But it is seldom recognized to be the indispensable foundation without which all of these (sound doctrine, correct social engagement and soon) are powerless and fall into decay.” Peter seems to be of the same mind: “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:15–16, NIV).

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And finally there is that classic passage in Hebrews 12:10–11: “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

Notice what is affirmed in that passage. First, God has a central purpose in our lives: our sharing in his holiness, being holy as he is holy. Next, we come to that sharing by a painful discipline. Third, the result is righteousness and peace. God’s desire for us. And from elsewhere in the Scriptures, I think we may add joy.

There is another writer who has given us a long and beautiful development of this theme—almost a long exposition of the Hebrews passage. The writer: the poet Dante of the thirteenth century. The writing: one-third of his great poem, The Divine Comedy, the “Purgatorio.”

It will repay us to study this with care. Of course, we must note in the beginning that Dante’s starting point is Roman Catholicism and its doctrine of purgatory. Protestants reject that doctrine, and this is no plea for it. We are declared just by God when we repent and receive Christ’s righteousness by faith. But after we are justified, God sets out to make us inwardly pure, here and now. Dante gives us a magnificent poetical statement of what the author of Hebrews is saying about our purification in this life. Once we make this adjustment Protestants as well as Roman Catholics can find in Dante’s poem a gold mine of spiritual insights.

Before we can come to examine these insights it is necessary to be clear about a bit of Dante’s doctrine and symbolism. For him the child of God, though justified and regenerate and so not lost from God, still has a nature stained, coarsened, damaged by the sins he has committed. He is therefore not yet fitted to dwell in the presence of a holy God, and must be purged and purified before he can come in peace into God’s presence.

What must be purged and purified is one’s love—of God and men. All the evils of man’s heart, for Dante, are evils of love. And this is logical, for if the two great commandments are to love God and man, then all sin must involve some fault in love. The power to love and to direct that love is thus for Dante God’s greatest gift to man and the central element of man’s nature. All that really matters in life is: What have I loved? How have I loved it? How deeply? Thus Dante is writing about a kind of divine hospital where defects of love are cured—a hospital from which none who desires cure is ever turned away, however ill, and from which none ever goes away unless in perfect health.

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Now obviously, though Protestants put this purifying in this life and Dante puts it after this life, both agree that we must be holy to come into the presence of God and that God provides a cure for our unholiness. After we trust Christ and are declared just, and before we are made perfectly Christlike at the point of our death, God moves to change us from one degree of parity to another, and to another … What both Dante and Protestants are talking about is sanctification, the process of being made holy, spiritually mature, ripe for heaven.

The symbol Dante uses for this work of God’s grace is a great mountain towering precipitously up above the earth’s clouds and winds and storms into unbroken sunlight and starlight. Clinging to the sides of this mountain are cornices—narrow and without parapets—where the various faults of love are cured. They are the wards of this divine hospital. Souls progress toward perfect health and love by laboriously climbing up the mountain to the levels where, by the disciplines of the place, they are purified. But each stage upward becomes easier, and the upper levels remind one of the Land of Beulah in Pilgrim’s Progress. Obviously for Dante the process of becoming holy is no easy stroll and romp, an afternoon’s picnic. It will cost desire and effort and pain. But as it progresses it will bring increasing ease and joy until the final triumphant cure. Dante would be appalled at our half-expecting the cure without the cost.

Three insights into sanctification can be gotten from Dante, matters on which we can agree. They parallel the statements in Hebrews.

First, sanctification must be to all of us transcendently important. It is God’s will for us. For we deal with a holy God with whom we hope to dwell forever. But he is unimaginably holy—a constantly recurring theme in Dante. Therefore, we must be holy if we are to come into his presence. And he works to this end. What, then, can be more important to us? What deserves more, and more diligent, care and attention? Dante insists upon this insight by requiring that all Christians from peasant to pope toil up that towering mountain. And, of course, we all agree with this at least on Sundays, maybe after a searching sermon (“I really must include that idea in my next New Year’s resolutions”). But we often forget it on the way to work Monday.

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Or we trust that God will take care of it all, and expect that he will in answer to a hasty, or even a long, prayer give us a heavenly hypodermic of the fruit of the Spirit—“Lord, give me more love”; zip, and we’re overflowing with it. Or since needles are somewhat painful, a heavenly One-A-Day pill compounded of all the virtues. And so we haven’t to give the matter much thought, and certainly no great concern. God will take care of it all, painlessly.

But Dante, with the author of Hebrews, thinks otherwise. There is, he insists, cost; there is pain in becoming holy. We must give ourselves completely to it. Negligence will increase the cost, but not remove the necessity.

The second insight concerns the methods of purification Dante lays out. They are not all the possible methods; he is not writing a formal treatise. He is suggesting to our imaginations the nature of the process, the cost of sanctification.

One of the methods of sanctification is meditation. Now, of course, we approve of meditation; we even try it occasionally, for a few minutes. Not fasting, though; that would be too much. But Dante has more than this in mind; he thinks of hours upon hours, days upon days. Of meditation upon examples of the appropriate fruit of the Spirit to move us to imitation; and upon examples of the sin to be purged. Meditation on evil? Surely this is contrary to Paul’s admonition to think upon wholesome things. But what Dante has in mind is that we stare so long and deeply at our evil that we shall come to abhor it as God abhors it. Remember! He cannot look on evil (Hab. 1:13) nor be tempted by it (James 1:13). But we? Ah, we can bear to look on evil, and be drawn to it. We can be tempted. But if we are to become sharers of his holiness, we must come to acknowledge our evil and abhor it.

The souls in Dante’s purgatory are frank to own their evil. By contrast, those in his inferno are full of excuses, as we are: “It was only a little lie.” “That’s the way it is in business.” “Everybody does it.” But none of that in sanctification. We are to be holy as God is holy. And the way to become so is to face our evil. Saint Augustine agreed: “I wish now to review in memory my past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of my soul—not because I still love them, but that I may love thee, O my God.” And isn’t there a hint of this in Aristotle when he argued that contemplation of the tragic end of evil purified the soul? Or Holocaust—wasn’t one effect of that movie to be a resolve that such evil would never be tolerated again?

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Another method of sanctification suggested by Dante is pain: the discipline of suffering the nature and consequences of sin so that souls might realize its monstrous nature and abhor it. The indolent must endure years of doing nothing in his purgatory; and those too busy with careers, property, politics, or church affairs to give time to personal holiness must worry about them (“What is my son doing with my estate?”) until all this palls and they are ready to think of God. The proud must walk bowed down in postures of humility; the envious with eyes sewn shut from sight of the things that aroused their envy. The slothful—the lukewarm, the easily tolerant, those who would not in life lift a hand for God—must run for their cure ceaselessly.

All of this to make them feel the necessity of coming to know their evil and hate it. Like the child who sickens himself to nausea by some food and finds that he cannot bear the sight of it ever again, so we by suffering the pains of evil must come to nausea and to holiness. For we will not become patient by any divine pill. We will become patient by suffering painful, exasperating circumstances and in them, by the grace of God, being patient. And thus, painfully and slowly, that fruit will come to holy maturity. Dante is saying with great imagination and symbolism what the author of Hebrews says plainly in the passage on discipline.

And there is prayer. Dante has his souls doing a great deal of praying. And we agree. Indeed yes, prayer is an admirable practice that will surely help us on to God. Of course. Also, of course we can’t find more than ten minutes a day for it, provided (of course) that nothing of importance comes along to prevent even that. Dante would not have understood that ten minutes a day; he was thinking of hours and hours of prayer. Or maybe, knowing well the human heart, he would have understood. After all, he had a special place for the indolent and procrastinators.

And if we endure all this, if we diligently give ourselves to this matter of personal sanctity—to hours of meditation, of prayer, of painful discipline—what then? Why, purgation, sanctification, holiness. And joy! Dante makes much of the joy of sanctification. He begins with joy: those beginning purgation sing a psalm about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and—symbolically—about their own. He continues with joy: the patients in his hospital suffer, but they suffer in hope and in rejoicing at their coming cure. He ends in joy, gloriously.

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Three episodes from the poem will illustrate the outcome of sanctification, and its joy. Dante meets one of the popes and kneels to do him reverence. But the pope refuses the obeisance. Here, he says, all earthly titles and honors—including those of the church—are passed away. All that matters now is God. Earthly life, its evil, its concerns, even its legitimate joys and good things, are forever far away and long past. It is a striking picture of a soul in the process of coming to love God with its whole being.

The other two episodes point up the theme of cure and growth even more powerfully, by (I think) deliberate contrast. Both involve Dante’s meeting of poets whom he loved on earth. The love is not evil, but it is earthly and narrowly personal. In these two episodes Dante shows us both the cost and the exalted joy of the purging.

The first occurs at the very beginning of his journey. Dante has just arrived at the mountain’s base, and witnesses the arrival of a group of souls singing their psalm of deliverance. Among them he recognizes a friend, Casella. The two rush to greet one another with an embrace. They converse about their earthly lives and concerns, and Casella sings a secular love song of Dante’s composing. But all this is cut short by the guide. Why this dallying? They are wasting time; there is work to be done—their purging. To be fitted for the presence of God is serious and pressing business.

Consider what Dante is saying. Both men are but a short time removed from earth and its life and concerns. Both are still of the earth. We would call them babes in Christ. They show little love of God, little thought of his holiness, little haste to change. But they have begun; they are facing toward their cure and toward the presence of God. On the way to the second episode Dante shows us what must happen to these ties to the old life. On one of the levels he inquires for any Italians present. This is the reply:

O my brother, each of us is a citizen of one true city;

But you must mean to ask if any of us lived as a pilgrim in Italy.

So—no longer an Italian but a pilgrim and stranger to earth, a citizen of the city which has foundations. Thus must the ties to earthly things fade away from heart and mind.

The second episode is simple and restrained, not impersonal, yet transcending usual human attitudes and actions. It takes place on the top level of purification: sanctification is all but accomplished; souls feel keenly the drawing toward God. Earth and earthly things are but a faint memory. Dante meets a group busy with their purging; one casually reveals his identity. He is the poet Guinizelli, greatly loved by Dante and influential on his writing. Moved to embrace him, Dante nevertheless masters the impulse—he is past embracing now. He tells Guinizelli of his love and admiration. And Guinizelli? He does not even halt in his task of purification; he merely points to another as a better poet than he, and passes on. Gratitude and honor from men for something done long ago on earth are now, here on the verge of coming to God, of slightest concern. The painful cure is almost done, the sanctification almost complete. God is soon to be faced, and joy awaits.

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And when at last the purging is accomplished, the cure achieved; when the stain of evil no longer clings to repel the soul from the Holy Presence; when once again it stands in a purity equal to that of Eden, and no slightest weight of sin’s effects presses it back toward earth; then a glorious thing happens. The soul knows intuitively that the work is done, that it is ready to rise. There is no need of a physician’s release. It knows. And the great mountain trembles with joy at another victory, while all the other patients—still suffering, but filled with hope and joy—give a mighty shout of rejoicing and raise the Gloria in Excelsis. And the soul, like an iron filing drawn by a great magnet, rises, rises, RISES toward paradise and the Blessed Vision.

“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn”

Flash floods of tears, torrents of them,

Erode cruel canyons, exposing

Long forgotten strata of life

Layed down in the peaceful decades:

A badlands beauty. The same sun

That decorates each day with colors

From arroyos and mesas, also shows

Every old scar and cut of lament.

Weeping washes the wounds clean

And leaves them to heal, which always

Takes an age or two. No pain

Is ugly in past tense. Under

The mercy every hurt is a fossil

Link in the great chain of becoming.

Quite often pick and shovel prayers

Turn them up in valleys of death.


Rugged Hearts

In solitude, while meditating

in easy chairs, it seems impossible

not to love.

But in crowds

where we bump and brush against

each other’s prickly sensitivities,

love is practiced, not by the sentimental,

but by the practical, the tough.

When bubbly reasons to love have burst,

when lace is ripped, when paper heart is torn,

only those with rugged hearts remain

to shine in the likeness of God

who is Love.


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