The Journey of the Repenting (Purgatorio, It's Lit #24)
Last week, I discussed Dante’s exploration of the people you may come across in Hell. Once Virgil leads Dante out of Hell, however, the real fun starts. Though Inferno is referenced more than the next two installments of The Divine Comedy, I actually found this middle piece to be my favorite overall. After leaving the nine circles of Hell, Dante is led to the base of a large mountain. This mountain symbolizes the journey of repentance that worthy humans must take in the afterlife before reaching heaven. On his journey up the mountain, Dante shows that through following the good and atoning for your earthly wrongs, you can make satisfying progress toward enlightenment.
Though the end goal is obvious, there are many ways to get to the top of the mountain. Dante’s description of how to find the best way reflects one of my favorite Biblical concepts, which I spoke of in this essay--you follow the light. At the beginning of his journey, Dante is told, ‘The sun, which rises now, will show you how/this hillside can be climbed more easily’ (I.107-8). Similarly, when atoning for your sins, the only way to transcend your previous wrongdoings is to follow the path of goodness, symbolized here by the sun.
Purgatory, unlike Hell, is thankfully a journey that can be completed. Of course, this journey takes hard work. Similar to Hell, the tasks that each soul must complete match the sin. For instance, those who indulged in pride are made to carry heavy rocks up the mountain. As the souls labor under the weight of their sin, they begin to see why it was that their actions were considered sinful. For instance, one soul explores his earthly thirst for fame, saying
‘O empty glory of the powers of humans!
How briefly green endures upon the peak—
unless an age of dullness follows it.
In painting Cimabue thought he held
the field, and now it is Giotto they acclaim—
the former only keeps a shadowed fame.’
Even the greatest painters are bound to be outshined by future generations once they have left this earth. The soul mentioned above has realized the transient nature of such fame, learning the lesson he is meant to learn on this climb—the rewards of heavenly pursuits are eternal, infinitely more valuable than the earthly temptations of fame. Of course, humans need not wait for the afterlife to learn this lesson. Beauty fades, previously glorious accomplishments are overshadowed, and all the individual is left with is solace to the extent of the depth of their spiritual connection.
Climbing the mountain of Purgatory can take some time, but prayers from the world of the living can speed up the process. Belacqua, for instance, must wait outside the gate of Purgatory for a period the same length as his life ‘unless, before then, [he is] helped by prayer/that rises from a heart that lives in grace’ (IV.133-4). Because of this, Dante is constantly coming across souls that request he pray for them. Similarly, in our modern earthly life, programs like AA provide support systems that encourage their members to stay on a straight path, and to apologize to those whom they have wronged.
Perhaps the greatest difference between Purgatory and Hell is that, as you move through Purgatory, your load actually gets much lighter. As it is explained to Dante, ‘This mountain’s of such sort/that climbing it is harder at the start;/but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind’ (IV.88-90). This is one of my favorite concepts in the whole poem, as it maps beautifully onto the human journey of self-improvement. As our journey to better ourselves gains momentum, the returns are compounded, and it is easier to live the life we wish. As Dante moves through each gate of Purgatory, he feels a weight lifted off his shoulders, commenting, ‘How different were these entryways from those/of Hell! For here it is with song one enters;/down there, it is with savage lamentations’ (XII.112-4). Just so, atoning for sins in the earthly realm often feels refreshing, lifting a weight that you may have not even realized was holding you back.
This journey of atonement makes Purgatory, in my opinion, the most practical of the Comedy’s three sections. Aside from the spiritual imagery, this journey up the mountain best reflects the journey we are all on. To cap off the whole journey, the Garden of Eden is found at the top of the mountain. Similarly, we are all on a journey to shed our sins and become enlightened, regaining the Paradise of Eden. It is appropriate that this journey takes place on a mountain—the most earthly of settings in the whole epic poem. Whether or not there is any afterlife to look forward to, the best of us will spend our lives climbing many mountains. Next week, however, I will briefly discuss what Dante believes lies beyond the summit.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Notes by Peter Armour, Everyman’s Library, 1995.