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Dante’s Purgatorio: Canto III

  As Dante and Virgil stand at the base of the mountain, Dante marvels that his body casts a shadow, but the bodies of the shades do not. Virgil says this is a mystery. And: …madness it is to hope that human minds can ever understand the Infinite that comprehends Three Persons In One Being. […]



As Dante and Virgil stand at the base of the mountain, Dante marvels that his body casts a shadow, but the bodies of the shades do not. Virgil says this is a mystery. And:

…madness it is to hope that human minds

can ever understand the Infinite

that comprehends Three Persons In One Being.


Be satisfied with quia unexplained,

O human race! If you knew everything,

no need for Mary to have borne a son.


You saw the hopeless longing of those souls

whose thirst, were this not so, would have been quenched,

but which, instead, endures as endless pain:


I speak of Plato and of Aristotle,

and many others.” Then he bent his head,

remaining silent with his anguished thoughts.

For me, the image of noble Virgil quietly mourning the tragedy his permanent exile from heaven is one of the most moving in the entire poem.

This is a passage about the limits of intellection. The Pilgrim’s journey is one from slavery to freedom, but it’s also one from ignorance to knowledge. If the wisest men who ever lived could not penetrate the mysteries of existence by Reason alone, what hope is there for others to do so? The “quia” is a Scholastic term; the expression here means, “Some things you have to take on faith.” Virgil indicates that if humankind had perfect knowledge, we would not have needed God to reveal Himself to us as Jesus Christ.

An important distinction to be made here is what “knowledge” means. It does not mean simply propositional knowledge — that is, facts about the world. The intellect, in classical usage, means one’s entire capacity to know, including through intuition. The back story here is the Fall damaged humankind’s unity with God, and therefore our capacity to know Him (not simply to know about Him). In our prelapsarian state, we possessed unity with Him, a unity we lost when our ancestral parents turned from Him and tried to stand on their own. Given our finitude and brokenness, and His infinitude and perfection, we cannot hope to know God and His reality to the fullness of our capacities without divine assistance, which includes revelation, and includes the gift of grace. Without Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, we were lost in the dark woods, as Dante was in the opening of the Inferno. Had he been able to find his way out on his own, he would not have needed a guide sent from heaven, Virgil, serving as God’s agent. Similarly, the human race would not have needed the Second Person of the Trinity to incarnate as the Son of a Virgin, to reveal to us the way to restore our unity with God, and to lead the way out of the realm of Death to everlasting life.

That’s what Virgil is getting at in these lines. Thinking we can know everything there is to know, that the depths of reality can be fully plumbed with the unaided intellect, is to give oneself over to a hopeless longing. Consider all this in light of the fact that the beginning of all saving knowledge is Humility — the Humility that leads to repentance, and to the concession that we need God.

In the next part of this canto, we meet the Contumacious — that is, those who, in their pride, were very late to repent. But repent they did, and the smallest act of repentance, however late in coming, was enough to win God’s mercy and spare them the suffering of Hell. Notice that it wasn’t a discovery of the intellect that saved them, but an act of the will — of saying, simply, in whatever way, Lord have mercy on me, a sinner. As Alan Jacobs commented on yesterday’s thread, compare those who just debarked from the angelic boat, who came across the waters singing a Psalm of thanksgiving for God’s mercy and their deliverance, with the damned crossing in Charon’s boat to Hell (Inferno, Canto III); they groan and curse and blame everyone for their miseries except themselves.

Note that the Contumacious move very, very slowly. This reflects their spiritual condition. Because they were so late to repent, they lack the spiritual strength to ascending the mountain of purification. Here they must wait to be restored enough to begin their climb. We learn that the prayers of the living back on Earth can help them regain their spiritual strength, and progress onward. This reveals to us the connection between the living and the dead (though not the damned) in the cosmic harmony.

One of the Contumacious is Manfred, an actual historical personage who was the son of Frederick II. He had run afoul of the Pope, and had been excommunicated. He died on the field of battle:

As I lay there, my body torn by these

two mortal wounds, weeping, I gave my soul

to Him Who grants forgiveness willingly.


Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

to any man who comes in search of it…


The church’s curse is not the final word,

for Everlasting Love may still return,

if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.

When I first read those lines, coming so soon after the grim horror of the Inferno, I very nearly was moved to tears. This is Dante saying that God’s mercy is so overwhelming that He will overrule His own church’s authorities for the sake of saving a repentant sinner — a sinner who, with his dying breath, has the humility to ask for mercy. Manfred tells us that there is no sin, no matter how horrible, that God will not forgive.

But you have to humble yourself to ask.

One more thing: this passage shows that Purgatory is not a place of punishment for one’s sins. The sins have been forgiven — that’s why Manfred and all the others are in Purgatory in the first place. Purgatory is a place where one’s tendencies to sin are purged, to prepare one to be able to bear the intense brightness of Heaven, and the full knowledge of God. If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, you’ll understand what Dante is getting at in his theological fantasy.

UPDATE: On why a soul on its way to heaven must be purified and strengthened before being able to bear the Light of God, here is a remark by the Orthodox Metropolitan Hierotheos, from his book Orthodox Psychotherapy:

The heart experiences the grace of God first as a fire, a fire which burns up sin and the passions, and then when the passions burn away, it experiences God’s grace as light illuminating our whole inner man.

This teaching that we first experience God’s grace as a fire and then as a light is analysed by St. John of the Ladder. He says that when the supercelestial fire comes to dwell in the heart, it burns some because they still lack purification and it enlightens others “according to the degree of their perfection.” This same thing is called “both the fire which consumes and the light which illuminates.” That is why some people come from their prayer as if from a fiery furnace, and feel a relief from defilement, while others, when prayer is ended, feels as if they were coming out resplendent with light and clothed in a garment of humility and joy. This fire which the heart of man perceives is often perceived by the body as well. Thus the person thinks that he is in hell and burning with the flames of hell. This is important and salutary. For such repentance heals the soul. And we know very well that the greater the repentance, the more effective the healing. Also the more the fire of repentance is experienced, the more the preconditions are created for the vision of uncreated Light.

Those last two sentences sum up the effect of Purgatorio on the soul, and the experience of Paradiso.