the last Word
Deborah Smith Douglas
few years ago, I began mixing
up my walking regimen with
intervals of running, working
my slow way up to running
a mile at a time, and then—eventu-
ally—to four. And now I’m hooked.
I’ve experienced all the benefits that runners have long ex- Fowlie, our Dante professor at Duke, to someday read the rest of
tolled—I sleep better, I have more energy, my heart and bones the Divine Comedy.
are healthier. (To say nothing of the boost in serum levels of com- Imagine my surprise when, on cornice after cornice of the
placency, which has been significant.) The real surprise, though, Mountain of Purgatory, I encountered the souls of the penitent
has been the way running has taken me to a whole new place in running up the steep paths. And the more they are purified of their
prayer—given me a deeper understanding of the promise of the sins, the faster and more joyfully they run. Not because something
Christian journey. awful is chasing them (there are no demons in Purgatory) but
Now when I read St. Paul’s exclamation that he has “finished just because they are so eager to be ever closer to Paradise. The
the race”—or the prophet’s promise that we shall “run and not penitents not only “run with perseverance” but with a jubilant
be weary”—I feel the power of the images in the depths of my haste that Dante initially finds undignified.
tendons. Which is odd, since I habitually cringe whenever I hear Maybe if we—like the penitent, jubilant souls in the Purgato-
sports analogies in homilies. I have never warmed to anything rio—run with perseverance when that is the best we can do, and
remotely muscular in Christianity. for as long as we must, we too may discover wings on our heels.
Partly this is due, no doubt, to my pre–Title IX youth, throughout Perseverance itself might burst into joy, as Aaron’s rod burst into
which only boys were athletes, ladies didn’t sweat, and mothers bloom.
never ran anything but the PTA. But mostly I blame Dante. In Dante’s Paradiso, the souls of the blessed no longer merely run
When I was an undergraduate, I took a class on Dante’s Inferno, for joy (as th