For the pilgrim making his way through the Divine Comedy, the question of how to see the past becomes a striking theme early in the Purgatorio. Dante, the poet, shows us that there is, and must be, a definite break with the past in the new life in Purgatory. What was done in your past must stay there; repentance requires the purification of memory. The penitent on the mountain of Purgatory have the power to look back, but they are gravely warned that they must not, or the way forward will be closed to them.
Consider the first person they meet in Purgatory: Cato the Younger, who serves as a sort of guardian to Ante-Purgatory. Virgil asks his favor by dropping the name of his (Cato’s) wife, who dwells with Virgil in Limbo. Cato replies that there was nothing he wouldn’t have done for his wife in their mortal lives, but here in the afterlife, she is cut off from him, and cannot have any effect on him. It sounds heartless, but that is how it works here. In Canto V, the pilgrim meets a contemporary who died in a battle in which Dante fought:
Another soul said: “Oh, may the desire
that draws you up the mountain be fulfilled;
and you, please help me satisfy my own.
I am Buonconte, once from Montefeltro;
no one, not even Giovanna, cares for me,
and so, I walk ashamed among these souls.
Notice the point there, which may be clearer in this paraphrase: I am Buonconte, I was from Montefeltro. To the Italians of Dante’s era, your city was a huge part of your identity. But not here. He is in Purgatory, being freed of earthly attachments. To look back is to cease progress. The penitent moves onward and upward, pulled by the desire for God; to meditate on one’s past life is to dilute the desire for God, and to increase one’s time suffering in Purgatory. The habits of Egypt must be purged in desert wandering.
When the pilgrim and his master pass through the Gates Of Purgatory, the Angel of the Lord warns:
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned:
to look back means to go back out again.”
This is sound psychology. When one has made a break with one’s past, one must, with firmness of will, resolve not to go back there. The Israelites in the desert of Sinai got impatient with Moses as he dwelled on the holy mountain receiving the Law, and made a Golden Calf. In their fear for the future, they began to recollect the security of life in Egypt, and fell into idol worship. That episode from Exodus is a dramatic illustration of how freedom from slavery requires never looking back, for fear that you will fall back into old habits of bondage. I found this lesson from Purgatorio so very helpful in finding my way out of my own dark wood. It is my nature to contemplate, even to brood, on past events, on what should have been and could have been, if only, if only. This was keeping me from moving forward. I had to make an act of will, and renew it often, to be able to make progress.
(Hey readers, I’m gone for the day on business. I’ll update the comments as I can. Please be patient.)