Principles of Catholic Morality IX: Dante on Purgatory

There’s an idea held by both Protestants and not a few Catholics that the doctrine of purgatory is Catholicism’s way of assuring us that spiritual mediocrities get into heaven.  Christ may have demanded perfection, but we can be more generous;  we say that all souls not guilty of obvious wickedness are good enough, but they just have to sit in some sort of waiting room for a while as punishment for their venial sins.  Those who are never put to the test, as the martyrs were, will get into heaven easy, without ever having to overcome their cowardice and weaknesses.  In fact, the doctrine of purgatory means the opposite.  Every one of the souls in heaven is holier than the holiest saint on Earth, braver than the bravest hero, more single-minded in his devotion to God than the most extreme fanatic.  Heaven can be occupied by no other type, and God’s love is too generous for Him to leave us untransformed.  Although, if we are protected by God’s grace, we will die without stain of mortal sin, still none of us leave the Earth in this blessed state.  Our love of God is real but imperfect, hampered by disordered attachments.  We must be purified.

Dante’s Purgatorio has always been my favorite book of The Divine Comedy.  A minor reason is that this is the book where Dante is on a level with the souls he encounters.  In hell, he was a spectator, standing “above” the reprobate souls and not taking part in their agonies.  This was appropriate, because virtue–or at least Virgilian rationality–is the best vantage point to understand sin.  The less intelligible is best understood with reference to the more intelligible.  Sin being unintelligibility and non-being, it has no logos that Dante could only understand by sinking to its level.  In paradise, Dante is again the odd man out, only coming to the same level as the other souls at the end, when he glimpses the Trinity, which they’ve been seing the whole time.  But at the Gate of Purgatory, Dante himself has the seven ‘P’s marked on his forhead.  As he ascends Mount Purgatory and has these marks removed, he follows the same path as all the souls there, although he doesn’t endure their penances.  At the last Cornice, he himself must walk through the fire, and afterwards he drinks from the rivers Lethe and Eunoe.

The major reason that Purgatorio is so appealing is that it is the most dynamic of the three books.  The souls in hell just wallow in degradation; the souls in heaven just repose in bliss.  In purgatory, there is a definite sense of movement and continual progress.  The very imgage of Purgatory as a giant mountain to be scaled is a powerful symbol of the action in store.  There is a goal not yet reached and a sense of how each experience pushes souls forward toward it.  The torments endured by the purging souls are sometimes not milder than those of the damned, but the context is entirely different.  The souls in purgatory undergo their penances willingly; they understand that what they endure is making them fit for heaven.  The atmosphere is one of hope.  Although chatty like all of Dante’s characters, they are anxious that they not be distracted from their penances for long.  As Dante and Virgil ascend the mountain, we see ever stronger evidence of the superhuman devotion and self-control these souls are acquiring.  I vividly remember how, at the seventh (final) Cornice, Dante encounters souls being tormented by fire (symbolizing both the lust they are rejecting and the purity they are gaining).   They are made curious by the presence of someone who is obviously not yet dead.

Then some among them, with great caution, came \ Approaching me, till they could come no nigher, \ Being scrupulous not to o’erstep the flame.

scrupulous not to o’erstep the flame“.  How’s that for dedication!  That’s the kind of devotion a soul needs to enjoy God in heaven.  He Himself will transform us (God is definitely present in purgatory, as represented by the sun, in whose absence no one can make progress on their ascent.), but He won’t settle for less.  I find it a frightening thought, even if we take all these torments as metaphorical (as of course we should).  It is certainly the case that, before I see God, I will have to become the sort of Christian who endured tortures in the arena or the gulag, praising God and forgiving his killers with his last breath.  One way or the other, we must all walk through fire.

Dante’s understanding of the moral life, as presented e.g. by Virgil in Canto XVII, will be familiar to us from Augustine.  The important thing is to love correctly:  loving the right things in the right way.  All actions proceed from love; the root of evil is evil or disordered love.  The sins of lower purgatory have to do with love of evil things, namely the malice whereby we love our neighbor’s harm.  Next there is imperfect love of God (sloth), Who we ought to love above all things but don’t.  Finally, there is disordered love of finite goods.  Being goods, it is correct that we should love them, but we should love them in God and subordinately to God.

In Paradiso, we encounter the virtues and vices one last time.  In the lower spheres, we see the vices perfectly vanquished.  In the higher spheres, the emphasis becomes positive as we behold Christian excellences:  justice, martyrdom, theology, contemplation.  Finally, the emphasis shifts again, even more positively, to the Object of contemplation.  By this point, we have gone far beyond morality, and thus beyond the focus of this series.

3 Responses

  1. How is the progression of the soul best attained? Through love conjoined with wisdom; the right kind of loving oriented to the right object and end, that object and end being the absolute beauty of the Divine. The essential teaching may be found shot through Dante’s Commedia, as articulated with particular comprehensiveness and clarity by Marc Cogan, in his “The Design in the Wax”. As one of the central cantos in the Purgatorio makes clear, embodying the metaphor of a seal or design placed in wax, the entire range of human possibilities, for good or ill, turn on the nature and orientation of the love borne by the soul: [Purgatorio 18:34-9; tr. Mandelbaum] “Now you can plainly see how deeply hidden truth is from scrutinists, who would insist that every love is, in itself, praiseworthy; and they are led to error by the matter of love, because it may seem – always – good; but not each seal is fine, although the wax is.” The souls in Inferno are cursed by misdirected love, those in Paradiso blessed by love properly directed.

    Swedenborg, in the central section of Heaven and Hell, introduces the notion of the dominant or ruling love of an individual [para.477], which one bears within oneself and which is the determinant of one’s posthumous destiny: “We are our love or intention after death” [para.479] In this realm, as in so many others, Heraclitus’ maxim holds true: “Character is destiny.” The Koran similarly: [91:5-10, Arberry tr.] “By the heaven and That which built it and by the earth and That which extended it! By the soul, and That which shaped it and inspired it to lewdness and godfearing! Prosperous is he who purifies it, and failed has he who seduces it.” Similarly the Bhagavad Gita [7:23] “Verily, ephemeral is the gain of the ignorant; they who worship deities go to these deities, and they who love Me go to Me.” To summarize the matter: How should one love? One should love both wisely and deeply. What should one love? One should love the Divine and others in light of the Divine. This is all very well understood, even to the youngest catechumen: [KJV: Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30] “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

  2. I appreciate the time you put into all your great work on this website. It is really helpful, may God bless you.

  3. Thank you.

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