Today, the first day of Orthodox Lent, we start preparing for our journey through Dante’s Purgatorio, which commences on Ash Wednesday, the start of Western Lent. As I’ve been saying, you don’t have to have read the first book of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, to walk with us through Purgatorio, but you do need to have a good sense of what Inferno is about to appreciate Purgatorio in its proper dimensions.
The structure of the Commedia (we’ll use the original Italian word for the Divine Comedy) is tripartite: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, or Heaven. Dante, the “Pilgrim” (as distinct from Dante the Poet) is on a journey to recover his soul. He must pass through Hell, then Purgatory, in order to make the journey through Heaven to see God. Why Hell first, or why Hell at all? This quote from a modern Orthodox saint, John of Kronstadt (d. 1908), explains it well:
A terrible truth. Impenitent sinners after their death lose every possibility of changing for good, and therefore remain unalterably given up to everlasting torments (for sin cannot but torment). How is this proved? It is plainly proved by the actual state of some sinners and by the nature of sin itself–to keep the man its prisoner and to close every outlet to him. Who does not know how difficult it is, without God’s special grace, for a sinner to turn from the way of sin that is so dear to him into the path of virtue? How deeply sin takes root in the heart of the sinner, and in all his being! how it gives the sinner its own way of looking at things, by means of which he sees them quite differently to what they are in reality, and shows him everything in a kind of alluring light! It is for this reason that we see that sinners very often do not even think of their conversion, and do not consider themselves to be great sinners, because their eyes are blinded by their self-love and pride. And if they do consider themselves sinners, then they give themselves up to the most terrible despair, which overwhelms their mind with thick darkness and greatly hardens their heart. But for the grace of God, what sinner would have returned to God? For it is the nature of sin to darken our souls, to bind us hand and foot. But the time and place for the action of grace is here alone: after death there remain only the prayers of the Church, and these prayers can be efficacious for penitent sinners alone–that is, only for those who have developed in their souls the capability of receiving God’s mercy or of benefiting by the prayers of the Church–that is, the light of the good works which they have taken with them out of this life. Impenitent sinners are undoubtedly sons of perdition. What does my experience tell me when I am the prisoner of sin? I am tormented sometimes the whole day, and cannot turn to God with my whole heart, because sin hardens my heart, making God’s mercy inaccessible to me. I burn in the fire, and willingly remain in it, because sin has bound my powers, and I–like one inwardly chained–am unable to turn to God until He, seeing my helplessness, my humility, and my tears, takes pity on me and bestows His grace upon me. It is not without reason that a man given over to sin is spoken of as “delivered into chains of darkness.”
St. John was a Russian Orthodox priest who lived almost 700 years after Dante Alighieri, the Roman Catholic layman, but they shared a view of the afterlife and the working of grace. For Dante, this life is an arena in which our eternal fates are decided by our own free will. Because God loves us, He gives us freedom of choice. In every moment, we are either choosing for Him or against Him — which is to say, for deeper unity with the Creator, the Source of our being, or for separation from Him. The Commedia can be read not as a guidebook to the afterlife, but as an allegory of the life we all live here on earth. To be clear, Dante certainly believed in a literal Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and he believed that all men would be judged by God. But the reader should not assume that the point of the Commedia is to be a field guide to the afterlife. Rather, Dante’s imaginative creation is meant to reveal to us the realities and the possibilities of our lives right here, right now.
If anybody knows anything about the Inferno, it’s that it is a place of eternal torment. Dante’s inventive tortures for the dead are unforgettable, but they are not sadistic, in the sense that they are designed to inflict grotesque, pointless pain on the souls of the damned. Rather, they are punishments designed to fit the crime — and, for us readers, intended to reveal the nature of the sin. When Dante has popes who have corrupted the Church punished by being shoved upside down into a fiery baptismal font, with flames licking their bare feet, the Satanic mockery of a baptism is meant to reveal the precise nature of simony: when you turn Holy Church into a whorehouse, you profane the Sacraments, and you will be made to suffer for eternity according to the nature of your sin.
What Dante the Poet is after here is reawakening the conscience of Dante the Pilgrim to the reality of sin. You can well imagine how a worldly Italian of the 13th and 14th centuries might grow insensitive to the reality and the effect of the clerical corruption around him. This stop on the path through Hell, and the shock of seeing a pope humiliated and tormented in such a fashion, would have hit the contemporary reader like a blow. That is precisely the point.
That instance is easy for us moderns to grasp. It’s much more difficult for us to understand why the lovers Francesca and Paolo are in Hell. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother. She and Paolo had an affair. When her husband discovered them, he killed them both. They reside in Hell, forever, because of their sin. Dante the Pilgrim is shocked to see them there. After all, he had become known for composing some of the most celebrated love poetry of his era — and Francesca quotes some of it back to him in her soliloquy, in which she blames everybody and everything for her fate, except herself. The Pilgrim is overcome by shock after talking to her; the point the Poet wants his readers to take away from this is that Francesca — and by implication, a younger Dante — mistook passion for love, and paid the ultimate price for it. One of the more subtle lessons of this encounter is the role Dante played in leading to her damnation. You learn over the course of the Commedia that we are all linked; none can say we are fully separate from each other. The only place we experience full spiritual separation is in Hell. Paolo and Francesca are physically bound to each other for eternity, but they experience it not as communion, but torture.
By the time Dante, and his companion Virgil, make it to the bottom of the pit, Dante has seen and experienced the terrifying wages of sin. In Hell, the one thing the damned have in common, the thing that defines their ontological state, is a complete and irrevocable cessation of contact with God. They refused him in life — and they get for eternity what they chose. As long as we live, the channel of communication between us and God remains open. But if we choose to turn our backs on it, we will be damned (we will see in Purgatorio that any repentance, however late and however puny, will be received by God). The damned are vividly human, but we see that they became so identified with their sin in the mortal life, so possessed by it, that they lost sight of the fact that it was sin at all. They chose sin so often, and so thoroughly, that they gradually lost their powers to repent, until finally death overtook them in that state. And there they are, in Hell, forever.
But then, they were in Hell in this mortal life, because they chose to dwell in their sin so fully that they didn’t even recognize it as sin. This is us. The Pilgrim doesn’t walk through Hell gawking at other sinners, and thanking God that he is not like them. He walks through Hell and comes to understand that he is, in fact, like them. He knows many of these damned souls personally. They aren’t strangers to him. Neither is sin.
The walk through the Inferno is meant to compel the reader to recognize his sins, and to turn from them. Purgatorio is for those who have repented from their sins, and who will be granted Paradise by the grace of God, but who need to be purified of their sinful inclinations before being strong enough to bear the intensity of God’s purity. This is important to keep in mind as we prepare for the journey up the seven-storey mountain. Purgatory is not a punishment for sins, any more than Lent is a punishment for sins. Rather, it is a time to perfect our repentance by subjecting all our passions to the will of God, and having them burned away.