Lent as Purgatorio

In Lent, we confront the barrier between us and God, our sinfulness and many personal sins. For this, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are recommended, but a guidebook is also useful. Dante’s Purgatorio is one of the best I know. The crisis in the world is always a crisis of sin.

For over forty years, I have read and taught Dante. But my assignment this year, made by my young principal, a medievalist, was to teach not the Inferno in an introductory course in medieval literature, but the Purgatorio. “It’s more interesting theologically,” he opined. Having seen young non-Catholics in several secular schools and colleges paradoxically lap up Dante’s descent into the narrowing and excruciating circles of adultery, usury, curiosity, counterfeiting, and treachery, from the wind-tossed Paulo and Francesca to the ice-bound Judas, Cassius, and Brutus, I feared that the laborious slog up Purgatory Mountain from Superbia through Luxuria would bore these first-time readers. In literature, as Blake contended of Milton’s Paradise Lost, whose Satan outclassed Christ for star billing, vice often compels more attention than virtue does. For the first time, however, I was teaching the Florentine student of Thomas Aquinas in a no-holds-barred orthodox Catholic high school, with a board of trustees prayed over by parents who wish to protect their children from the toxicity of American culture, and I sensed a special sensitive circumstance. Would I really want the graphic horror of eternal damnation jammed suddenly into the tender eyes and ears of my thirteen-year-old granddaughter? Surely Dante wasn’t thinking of such innocence for his own starting place.

It turns out that the Purgatorio is also a good place to begin for guilty elders wearied and stymied by sin. It is a practical compendium of the Church’s traditional strategies for climbing toward the light. Every canto moves forward and up, rather than down and away. It, too, follows the hierarchy of sin, but with an accompanying set of hopeful armor in dealing with the Seven Deadly Sins: songs, prayers, opposing virtues, beatitudes, the mysteries of the rosary, and classical and biblical exempla as corde (whips or “carrots”), and frene (reins or “sticks”). The Church, Dante knew, possesses a multitude of enticements to virtue and protections from vice. It’s a virtue-building vice-destroying organization, and Dante gathers its traditions into a how-to program.

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At the bottom of the seven-storied mountain, the Proud, who had sought to rise above others, suffer motionlessness, weighed down by the stones of their self-love, in the purgatorial equivalent of the infernal contrapasso (“having suffered against”), the fitting result of sin. In the natural moral law, sinners get exactly what they want, which is why Paulo and Francesca, who had yielded to the motions of their adulterous hearts, were forever condemned to the shifting winds of desire. Similarly but contrarily, however, since those in Purgatorio died free of mortal sin and so subject only to its remaining temporal effects, the contrapasso is also a fitting means of escape rather than merely a punishment. Sinners enjoy several other fitting means of climbing up.

Lex cantandi, lex vivendi, as it were: we live what we sing. As I’ve told my students, would there really be no difference to souls listening to Gregorian chant instead of drums and electric guitar? The proud sing the Te Deum, praising the God whom their self-love had prevented them from knowing and loving enough. Humility is the virtue that counters their pride; they had not stooped, yielded, and given place to others. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the specific beatitude for this opposing virtue. Mary’s Annunciation is the joyful mystery and one of the corde that spur on humility against pride: She accepted in her littleness the awesome fiat of the Incarnation. The counter examples, or frene, that turn away from pride include Nimrod, who engineered the Tower of Babel, and, since pride is the heaviest sin, Satan himself, a haughty lightning bolt carved into the mountainside, futilely fulminating. Women, a priest once told me, confess this sin regularly, which shows their spiritual superiority, but he didn’t have to remind me which one men dwell on.

Eyes wired shut and dressed in haircloth, the Envious, who had looked too much at others’ clothing, sit shoulder to shoulder against blue-black stone, bruised and bruising in their sorrow for another’s good, having been blind to their neighbors’ hearts and hyper-focused on their exteriors, but touching them in solidarity. They chant the Litany of the Saints: communion had been their difficulty. Love of neighbor is the virtue they had had too little of, and “blessed are the merciful” is the missing beatitude. The marriage feast of Cana, when Mary generously thought of the deprived wedding guests, is a fitting meditative corda, and Cain, who slew his brother in jealousy, an appropriate Old Testament frena. A bodiless voice repeats “Love your enemies,” the most difficult and unique teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, a saying which “lashes with love” those who have failed to love. 

In the cornice just above, the eyes of the Wrathful tear up in smoke as these sinners jostle about, praying “through peace and mercy.” Wrath is an agitated sin that must loosen its knot by chanting Agnus Dei “in concord,” as the discord of competing voices had been their earthly problem. They lacked meekness, and their necessary beatitude is “blessed are the peacemakers.”  The joyful mystery of the Finding at the Temple is a surprising corda. Perhaps the Blessed Mother praised her Son for following his heavenly vocation rather than disciplining him for an apparent temporal disobedience. Haman, who sought the death of Mordecai and the Jews captive in Persia in the Book of Esther, is himself crucified as a frena for those guilty of unjust vengeance. Not that the Purgatorio is any freer of righteous anger than Sacred Scripture: As Thomas Aquinas taught, it is the rational will’s correct response to injustice, apathy and neglect being in fact sometimes sins. Moderation, of course, is the key.

The first three sins are especially sins of love in the wrong direction, aimed inwardly, whereas the next one, in a class of its own, is a lack of love entirely, even for oneself. Smack in the middle level, the Slothful run constantly, in need of the virtue of zeal, as they had been slow to appreciate creation, in “sorrow for their own good.” Dante’s guide Virgil discourses at length on the relationship between love and free will as an appropriate secular song that can help the despondent in this world, both the hyperactive and the paralyzed, rouse themselves and turn their beatitudinal mourning into a blessing. Love frees the trapped soul, and so mourning looks outward beyond one’s self-directed chains. Running to the hills to see Elizabeth in the mystery of the Visitation, Mary exhorts zeal. Time’s a wasting. Don’t be like the Israelites who whined in the desert and died before seeing the Promised Land. The depressed and the counselors of the depressed today often fail to see acedia as the sin of carelessness. Dante’s psychology presents it as subject to willpower and a function of gratitude.

The last three sins are sins of incontinent love. The Avaricious lie outstretched, tied up hand and foot, with their faces in the earth, having failed to consider the higher things above. They have hoarded and wasted creation, refusing to share. Their liturgical hymn is the Gloria, which directs them upwards to God “in the highest.” Poverty is their missing virtue, but their beatitude is not “blessed are the poor” but “blessed are those who thirst”—for righteousness, not material wealth.  The joyful mystery of the Nativity, also a corda, features the traditional fruit of poverty. Midas, who so lusted for gold that even the food he touched turned into this inedible, is the perfect frena.

Dante the pilgrim moves faster and faster as he scales the mountain. The sins of the flesh weigh us down less than the spiritual sins perhaps, but they are the last to go. Emaciated, food having failed to nourish properly, the Gluttonous fast and sing Psalm 51, Labia mea: “Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim thy praise.” The most exalted use of the mouth and lips is for praise of God, not tasting and chewing. These souls “hunger for righteousness,” not meat. Once again, the mystery of the marriage feast at Cana is a corda, for Mary sought to satisfy the wedding guests “more than her own mouth.” Abstinence, not surprisingly, counters gluttony, and Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit of disobedience and curiosity, is its counter example.

Finally, to the last cornice where I find my male readers already meditating. The Lustful, wrapped in flames, sing Summae Deus Clementiae which calls on the God of Highest Mercy, with a “heart pure of sordid things.” Lest we have fooled ourselves with a regimen of perfect practices, we are thus reminded that we do not save ourselves like Pelagian superheroes, but pray for our salvation like helpless sinners. Once again, the mystery of the Annunciation, this time offering the virtue of chastity (“I do not know man”), is a joyful frena. The Sodomites, who walk past Dante in the wrong direction, are the principal frena, for their perversion of the marital act is the essential expression of all lust.

To overcome sin is to approach Paradiso. Having “forgotten” its temporal effects with the waters of Lethe, Dante the pilgrim sees the Garden of Eden and an immense Heavenly Pageant, the Chariot of the Church Triumphant drawn by the Griffon two-natured Man-God, and attended by the candles of the Four Cardinal and Three Theological Virtues, and the Books of the Old and New Testaments as marching elders. The allegory explodes in a triumph, a victory parade over sin. 

You could take on one sin a week and mount the mountain of Lent, or spend all six and a half on your thorniest sin, using the suggested hymns to cleanse your soul and the examples and counter-examples from Sacred Scripture (and many from secular mythology) to direct your path. Of course, Dante didn’t mean Purgatorio as a Lenten prelude to Easter, especially since Inferno begins on Good Friday and Purgatorio ends well into Easter Week, but on the cusp of Paradiso Dante the pilgrim emerges “from the holiest wave remade like new plants renewed from a new shoot, pure and disposed to jump to the stars.” No guarantee that these preparatory meditations will do that for you, but they’re worth a shot. My young principal was right.


  • Kenneth Colston

    Kenneth Colston’s articles and reviews have appeared in The New Criterion; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; First Things; New Oxford Review; St. Austin’s Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is a retired teacher who lives in St. Louis.

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