Jennifer Doane Upton, The Ordeal of Mercy: Dante’s Purgatorio in Light of the Spiritual Path, edited by Charles Upton (Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2015)
By Michael Martin
“It is one of the greatest merits of Dante’s poem,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “that the vision is so nearly complete; it is evidence of this greatness that the significance of any single passage…is incomplete unless we ourselves apprehend the whole.” So it is with Jennifer Doane Upton’s insightful and often illuminating The Ordeal of Mercy: Dante’s Purgatorio in Light of the Spiritual Path: to remove a single thread from the fabric of the whole is to potentially do damage to its unity.
Upton is a Perennialist and her book, which follows the Purgatorio canto by canto, could be rightly understood as an essentially Christian Perennialist meditation on Dante’s great poem. It is a follow-up to her earlier book, Dark Way to Paradise: Dante’s Inferno in the Light of the Spiritual Path (2005) and, one might assume, an anticipation of a final work treating the Paradiso. Upton’s intention here is not scholarly, though her knowledge of an impressive array of spiritual writings—drawing on figures as varied as Maximos the Confessor, René Guénon, Meister Eckhart, and Frithjof Schuon, among many others—is both ecumenical and impressive. Rather, her task here is to accompany the reader in meditation the Purgatorio as we consider the role of soul’s purgation in our imaginative and spiritual lives. It is a testament to Upton’s humility that her role is that of a docent. In a world wherein the ego of the writer permeates (and often pollutes) the text, it is refreshing to encounter a book characterised by such grace.
Indeed, this quality marks The Ordeal of Mercy as a very uncommon text. And, to read it as one might read most works of theology, philosophy, or literary criticism—in a rush to find the argument and evaluate it—will prove unfruitful. There is a Lenten mood to the work; a mood characterised by contemplation and reflection, not only on the poem itself, but on one’s own sins. The best approach to reading the book, then, might be as a spiritual retreat accompanying the reading of the Purgatorio itself. Indeed, Upton may be acting as a guide here, a Virgilian echo, in turning the reading of Dante into a spiritual exercise.
The book, furthermore, articulates a telos absolutely congruent with Dante’s, as these words from the meditation on Canto V evince: “From one point of view the whole purpose of the Divine Comedy is to invoke the name of Mary, who is foreshadowed by both St Lucy and Beatrice; St Bernard sings the praises of Mary toward the end of the Paradiso. All speech becomes concentrated in a single name, and all sight as well, because the name of Mary is the name of Wisdom.” Such sweetness of insight is a hallmark of Upton’s consideration.
This is not to say that everything is sweet in the book. Some of the perennialist applications to the text from Islamic and Hindu thinkers, for example, seem a little forced at times, but certainly not all such insertions. In addition, the tendency for the editor—whose own commentaries are often wonderful—to let his discussion get bogged down upon occasion with complaints about Vatican II or Pope Francis’s theology are often jarring in consideration of the magnanimity and ecumenical warmth that are among the book’s most endearing qualities.
Despite these rather infrequent digressions, The Ordeal of Mercy: Dante’s Purgatorio in Light of the Spiritual Path is a splendid companion in turning the study of the Purgatorio into a spiritual exercise. And for that, it cannot be recommended highly enough.
Michael Martin teaches at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michigan.