We're heading down the home stretch of Goat Rope's Fun With Dante series. That's been the main item on the menu this week and last, although there are also daily doses of links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.
After Dante and Virgil have gone through hell (literally), they come up on the other side of the world at an island which is the site of Purgatory, a place where souls destined for salvation atone for sins before they rise to Heaven.
Here's a little background on the idea of Purgatory for the catholically impaired. Medieval theologians wrestled with the problem of what happens to people who died in good standing with the church but still had unabsolved sins and the idea of Purgatory, a sort of cleansing place for the soul, provided a neat solution.
Those who die "in friendship with God," i.e. free from mortal sin, but who were still tainted with venial sins were believed to undergo a temporary period of purgation or cleansing that was generally imagined to involve suffering. It was also widely believed that prayers and masses offered by the living as well as the intercession of the saints would speed the passage of the soul through Purgatory.
This is the site of the second volume of the Divine Comedy. Purgatory is a seven storey mountain (hence the title of Thomas Merton's autobiography) where the taint of the seven deadly sins are removed. There are some striking things about Dante's Purgatory:
*First, the drill sergeant in charge is the Roman Cato the Younger, who was a pagan opponent of Caesar who committed suicide, i.e. not what you would expect to find. Purgatory and Heaven have other surprises too, which are probably meant to remind us that while the divine Mind isn't irrational, it is beyond our ability to comprehend.
*Second, some people get a major time-out before climbing the mountain. These are those who delayed repentance or "made God wait."
*Third, unlike in hell, people are nice to each other here.
*Fourth, Purgatory is all about time. Souls are told "Think that this day will never dawn again."
*Fifth, unlike many mountains, Purgatory gets easier the farther you go. Dante is told in Canto IV,
This mount is such, that ever
At the beginning down below 'tis tiresome,
And aye the more one climbs, the less it hurts.90
Therefore, when it shall seem so pleasant to thee,
That going up shall be to thee as easy
As going down the current in a boat,
Then at this pathway's ending thou wilt be;
There to repose thy panting breath expect;
No more I answer; and this I know for true.
Still, it's no cakewalk. As in hell, the punishment fits the crime. The sin of pride, by which we lift ourselves too high, is purged by carrying heaving stones and facing the ground. Dante, who goes through it in the flesh, at one point has to go through a fire so hot that he says he would have gladly thrown himself into molten glass to cool off.
At the beginning of his ascent, Dante receives seven P's (from peccatum, the Latin word for sin) on his forehead. These are removed as he purges the sin in question. It is at this point that Dante comes to his own and stops relying on Virgil. Virgil for his part as a pagan is out of his league now.
As Dante matures spiritually, Virgil declares his independence by saying "I crown and mitre you lord of yourself." Virgil becomes more silent and eventually disappears at the upper level. This means that reason and human effort can only take you so far and divine grace is needed to ascent closer to God.
At the summit, when his sins are cleansed, he is told he can do whatever he wishes since his will is now aligned with God's. He reunites with Beatrice, whose prayers made his journey possible. Before beginning the journey to Heaven, he drinks from two river: Lethe, the river of forgetfulness so that he will no longer remember his sins and bad tendencies, and Eunoe (from the Greek for "good mind.")
Next stop: Heaven.
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