Purgatorio opens at the dawn of Easter Sunday in the year 1300. The whole journey of the Commedia in fact spans Holy Week: from Good Friday until Easter Wednesday, the Pilgrim journeys down through the depths of Hell to the heights of Heaven. Now we meet him as he and his guide emerge from the terrors of damnation and sin to greet the “second kingdom where the soul of man is cleansed” (Purgatorio I, 4-5). Purgatory is, fundamentally, a place of hope: we enter it understanding that here we will be perfected and transformed, lifted beyond the terrible sufferings of our fallenness. The Pilgrim enters Purgatory with this hope.
It is better to viscerally imagine the place. To put ourselves in the Pilgrim’s shoes. To feel his fatigue after seeing the terrors of sin exposed for their darkness and wretchedness. He has been profoundly affected by what he has seen: he has “tear-stained cheeks” marred by the grime of Hell (Purgatorio I, 126-129). Are we not similarly stained and dirtied as Lent begins? Exhausted and drained? Wearied and wounded by sights that linger in the mind like nightmares?
So we with the Pilgrim lift our eyes to the perilous climb of the mountain, and the light of Easter’s dawn that makes it visible to us. No good that we do, no good that we are, no good that we are made a part of, comes to us except by this dawn. This is not to say that things are not good in themselves; it is, rather, to say that the sanctification of good things occurs only in the light of Christ. The Pilgrim’s hope rests in this light.
Our hope rests in dawn. This is why, in ancient Christian liturgical celebrations, churches faced East – and why, if they did not face East, the whole congregation would face East during the consecration of the Eucharist. The light of dawn reminds us of the light of Christ, and how our whole being rests in that dawn. We too are able to sing a song of hope and freedom from exile, as in the psalm that the souls of the dead sing in Purgatory: In exitu Isräel de Aegypto –
When Israel came forth from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from an alien people,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel, God’s domain.
The sea saw and fled;
the Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams;
the hills, like lambs.
Why was it, sea, that you fled?
Jordan, that you turned back?
Mountains, that you skipped like rams?
You hills, like lambs?
Tremble, earth, before the Lord,
before the God of Jacob,
Who turned the rock into pools of water,
flint into a flowing spring.
(Psalm 114, NAB; Purgatorio II, 46)
Giuseppe Mazzotta, a Dante scholar, tells us that Purgatorio is the first instance in Dante’s poetry where we see the future tense employed beyond a mere explanatory prose line. That is to say, Dante uses the future tense with the intent that its inherent expectation is able to be fulfilled. Looking to the future necessarily involves hope. Purgatory, though difficult, is a place of hope.
Purgatory is also a place of freedom, which Mazzotta also emphasizes. This is why they meet Cato, the “old man” who goes unnamed and who instructs them on their way as they enter the “second kingdom.” The Pilgrim is one who is “in search of freedom,” and freedom is what Cato killed himself to maintain when he realized that Rome had fallen into the hands of dishonorable men of power and iron control (cf. Purgatorio I, 70-75). Freedom is what is crippled in the hands of sin, and the lost Pilgrim’s freedom has been deeply injured. Cato then figures for us that physical death is preferable over the loss of one’s freedom, and that the death of sin is far worse than any other death. Indeed, it will take death to self for the Pilgrim’s freedom to be restored, which is why Purgatory is a harsh mountain and not an open field.
Yet it is puzzling that Cato guards the realm of Purgatory: he killed himself, which is a sinful thing to do. The Inferno is filled with those who have committed suicide, a sin that – in Dante’s evaluation – is particularly abhorrent because, unlike other sins, it rejects all goods rather than obscenely loving something good in a twisted way (cf. Inferno XIII). Still, here we have Cato, who committed suicide, guarding the place of purification and hope. Why?
Some, like Robert Hollander, emphasize Cato’s goodness and love for freedom. Cato was a man of principle, and this is why he chose to die. For thinkers like Hollander, Cato’s willing death for the sake of freedom parallels Christ’s willing death on the cross for the sake of our freedom. Cato thus is not to be interpreted as an ambiguous figure. I think that, while these parallels are moving, Cato remains ambiguous. His suicide is not to be forgotten. He represents both the hope for freedom that sustains Purgatory, and the acknowledgement of disordered love that makes Purgatory necessary. This is a place where we are perfected, and where we need perfection. Cato is in this way a double-figure, a sign of freedom and a sign of the need for healing freedom.
Our Pilgrim still needs his freedom healed, as we can see clearly in the second canto. He meets an old friend, a musician, and his friend sings him a song drawn from Dante’s own poetry. A song from the Convivio, a series of poems written in dedication to Lady Philosophy. This is, as Hollander notes, almost innocent at first blush. A beautiful reconciliation. But there is a danger here: Lady Philosophy is not Beatrice, Dante’s real love who has sent him on this journey in order to rescue him. Lady Philosophy was, and is now in this seductive moment, a replacement for hope. A different and lesser love – something meant to consume his sense of loss by settling for reduced expectations.
They are all lulled by this song, including the Pilgrim’s guide. Pacified by a song that for the moment allows them to avoid the perilous climb to purification. But our hope for real goodness should never settle for less than its wholeness, and Cato’s voice booms over the distracted souls and they scatter into action (Purgatorio II, 112-133)
It is not that philosophy in itself is bad. It is not that the things of this earth in themselves are bad. They are quite good. They become bad when we love them as if they were everything, as if they held the answers to all things. They simply do not. It is a lie to try and convince ourselves that these lesser things are all we need. Our hearts ache for more. Our hearts ache for the light of Christ, which guides us along the way and which makes our way possible. This dangerous moment at the opening of Purgatorio reminds us to keep our sights set on the dawn.
For next week: read Purgatorio X-XII (Pride)
Commentaries from Giuseppe Mazzotta and Robert Hollander can be found online. The first is a wonderful series of lectures available on iTunesU; the second is available through the Princeton Dante Project.