Dante reborn in his journey through purgatory – Press Enterprise


One of the difficulties of any discussion of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is that if anyone has actually read the critter, they most likely have read only the first third of it, that is, the “Inferno.” Somehow the lurid description of human sin and its utterly painful potential generally captivates human interest.

Gregory Elder is a professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. (Courtesy Photo)

Unfortunately, the “Purgatorio,” which describes the remedy for sin, and the “Paradisio,” which discusses the rewards for virtue, do not generate the same interest level. This is regrettable, as they both have much to offer the reader in terms of insights into human nature.

Readers of the Nov. 13 column will recall how Dante describes hell as a series of concentric circles, with each circle representing a different kind of sin, with the more grave sins nearer the bottom. Dante goes on to tell us that this wretched hole under the Earth was created by the fall of Lucifer, when he slammed into the underworld after his vain rebellion against God, like some vast cosmic indentation. In “Inferno,” Dante and Virgil descend through the circles of horror until they reach the ice lake reserved for the traitors. In “Purgatorio” they climb through an opening in the ice caused by Satan’s body and climb back to the upper world, which is envisioned as a mountain on the other side of the world, like an island in the Pacific.

Clearly, while Dante knew the Earth is a round sphere, he did not know about the Americas. Could California be where purgatory is located?

Dante imagines purgatory as a colossal mountain, also endowed with terraced rings at various levels, which get smaller as the poet and his guide climb up it. There they see various sorts of people working at various labors to be rehabilitated in the hopes of one day reaching heaven itself. The residents of purgatory are different than the damned. In the “Inferno,” people are proud of their sins or blame others for them, while in “Purgatorio” on Mount Purgatory people are sorry for what they have done. In the “Inferno,” the torment is perpetual and unending, but in purgatory the struggles only last in the daytime and the condemned are allowed to rest and sleep at night.

Perhaps before we move on to repent our sins, a quick comment on the concept of purgatory might be in order for some. Purgatory is not a second chance for the dead to reach heaven and all of the souls in purgatory will eventually be in paradise. It is based on the idea that while Christ’s sacrifice on the cross sets faithful people free from their stain of sin, divine justice demands punishment for the temporal and earthy damage the sinner has done, even if the spiritual alienation from God, caused by sin, has been washed away. As a well-known Catholic authority defines this, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” That said, belief in purgatory is not necessary to the enjoyment of Dante.

Upon arrival in purgatory, Virgil and Dante are met by the gatekeeper, Cato of Utica, the stern Roman statesman known for his strict pagan morality. Cato demands to know how they got out of hell, which Virgil answers, mentioning that he personally resides in Limbo where he has met Cato’s wife, Marcia. Mollified by Virgil’s explanation, the two are allowed to wash up and then move to the mountain. At the base of the mountain Dante comes across the souls of the late repentant, those who saved repentance for the very last moment and so must wait for years before they can even begin. He meets Buonconte of Montefeltro, an actual Italian man known for his cruelty and heartlessness. Dante is amazed that such a man could be on the long path to heaven, but we find that he died in an ambush, and his last word spoken was “Mary.” This smallest gesture of faith is enough to save him, although he will be in purgatory a very long time.

As the pair begin their ascent after several adventures, we meet people repenting of various sins. We meet the terrace of the proud, who must carry huge boulders on their backs while marching in a circle around the mountain. As in the Inferno, the punishment fits the crime. In life these souls were arrogant and now hard labor teaches them humility. In the terrace of the envious, we meet penitents with their eyes sewn shut by iron wires, to teach them not to want what others have. The terrace of the wrathful has residents choking and blinded by black smoke, just as anger choked them in life. The slothful in their terrace must run around a track, hurrying to their salvation instead of being lazy. The terrace of the lustful requires souls to walk through flames to undo the blazing passions of their lives.

While all this otherworldly tourism is going on, Virgil and Dante continually discuss a number of philosophical questions which were current in the 14th century. The nature of free will versus predestination, corruptions in the Church, the nature of happiness and so forth. Interrupting these discourses are moments of rejoicing breaking out over the sacred mountain whenever some soul has been completely purified and is sent up to heaven. Unlike in hell where the damned often rejoice in the sufferings of others, in purgatory the blessings given to others are a cause for celebration. This in itself is an interesting commentary on human nature.

When the pilgrims eventually reach the top of the mountain after passing many checkpoints, Dante finds himself in the old Garden of Eden, which is the state of innocent and unfallen but not yet redeemed humanity. There Dante meets an obscure figure named Matilda, whose actual identity is debated by literary scholars. Matilda prepares Dante to meet his long lost love Beatrice, the blessed woman who had interceded for him and his rescue. This preparation consists of a series of masques or formal plays which demonstrate various revealed Christian doctrines, as well as a rant on the corrupt papacy. Finally Beatrice appears, surrounded by red, white and green colors – which will later appear on the national flag of Italy. Beatrice greets Dante saying, “Look at us well, for we, indeed, are Beatrice, How wast thou able to approach the Mountain? Didst thou not know that man is happy here?”

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