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Purgatorio, Canto XXXII

  Peter S. Hawkins, in his essay collection Dante’s Testaments, writes about the Commedia as pilgrimage. A pilgrimage, he explains, is a rite of passage in which the pilgrim leaves the familiar, joins with others on the same journey, undergoes physical hardship, learns lessons along the way, reaches the destination, and finds himself transformed, ready […]



Peter S. Hawkins, in his essay collection Dante’s Testaments, writes about the Commedia as pilgrimage. A pilgrimage, he explains, is a rite of passage in which the pilgrim leaves the familiar, joins with others on the same journey, undergoes physical hardship, learns lessons along the way, reaches the destination, and finds himself transformed, ready to return to ordinary life, but living a deeper level of existence. The rigors of the journey and the revelations along the way, especially at the end, have transformed the pilgrim. Life can never be the same.

Hawkins contends that the Commedia is a “pilgrimage text” that was “written both to testify to a process already completed and to inspire others to undertake the same.” From Hawkins I learned that Dante revolutionized the idea of Purgatory, which had taken formal shape in Roman Catholic theology of the 14th century. Prior to Dante, the theologians and friars considered Purgatory to be just like Hell, only for a limited time. In Dante, Purgatory is like Hell in its punishments, but the spirit is entirely different. The penitents suffer joyfully, because they know they are being refined for heaven. Hawkins writes:

What [Dante] portrayed in the central canticle [Purgatorio] of his poem was exactly what the church’s teaching on penitence had long needed as a theological redress — a sense of health and excitement to be found in the refining fire, of exhilaration over new discoveries awaiting the broken and contrite heart. For in Dante’s vision the point of purgatory was not so much to “serve time” in a place of temporal suffering as it was to enter a process of transformation, to become someone new.

In so doing, says Hawkins, Dante illustrated the importance of the liturgy — liturgical prayer and practice — in effecting the desired transformation. Dante revolutionized the concept of Purgatory by filling the holy mountain with:

…the singing of hymns, the recitation of the Our Father and other prayers, the echo of the Beatitudes. Here as well the poet discovered his own way. In his purgatory, the penitents worship their way into holiness.”

It delights me to know that the Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith is reading Purgatorio this Lent. In his book Imagining The Kingdom: How Worship Works, Smith draws on the work of the French sociologist, anthropologist, and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu to explain to his readers how living and worshiping liturgically forms our way of being in the world:

States of the body “give rise” to states of mind: here is the refusal of intellectualism and the recognition that our most fundamental orientations to our world (habitus, practical sense) are embedded in our bodies. So a social order or social body recruits me by conscripting my body through the most mundane means: through bodily postures, repeated words, ritualized cadences. The body politic implants in me a habitus by immersing me in an array of tangible movements and routines that effectively “deposit” an orientation within. This is the mechanics of initiation and incorporation: to incorporate bodies into the social body and to inscribe a common habitus into our bodies in such a way that we “sense” this in ways we don’t know. In this way, the very posture of our body can be a kind of cognizance — and our body can “know” even when our conscious mind might be otherwise engaged. Indeed, the posturing of our body can call up an entire world of “sense,” a web of associations and understandings that reframe our being-in-the-world. When a social body has successfully incorporated me through ritual formation, then what I “know” in this way is triggered by the same movement and postures, even “at a distance” from ritualized space. (This is Proust’s madeleine, or course.) The embodied, ritualized formation begins to spill over, shaping and priming my perception of the world in other spheres of experience. In other words, the ritual is not an end in itself or merely a script for one “compartment” of a life. Because it effectively implants a habitus in the body, that habitus begins to govern action across one’s life. “Thus the attention paid to staging in the great collective ceremonies derives not only from the concern to give a solemn representation of the group,” Bourdieu notes, “but also, as many uses of singing and dancing show, from the less visible intention of ordering thoughts and suggesting feelings through the rigorous marshaling of practices and the orderly disposition of bodies.” By putting the body through these paces, the social body marshals my body to act as a kind of organ of that wider body — and so primes my action in ways that resonate with the vision of the social body well beyond the specific ritualized sites.

In more plainspoken terms, this is saying that the way we worship orders not only our minds but our entire beings. (In his study of Dante, Charles Williams says the entire poetic drama can be read as a guide to the incarnation of God’s word to the Hebrews in Genesis 17: “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.”) In Purgatorio, we see that the penitents are refined and made ready for the Kingdom — that is, eternity in the presence of God — not only through mortifying their bodies, but also through liturgical praise and worship. This is an essential part of the pilgrim’s experience; it is the difference between a traveler and a pilgrim. The journey up the mountain re-enacts both the Passion and Resurrection of the Christ, and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt: crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt = crossing the water from the Inferno to the base of Mount Purgatory; wandering in the desert = the climb up the mountain; entering into the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan = Dante carried by grace across the Lethe). Dante’s pilgrimage from death to new life is the re-enactment of the Hebrews’ pilgrimage from slavery to freedom, and the re-enactment of Jesus’s death and resurrection, through which, in the Christian belief, the entire world is delivered from bondage to liberty.

On his pilgrimage, Dante is now, in Canto XXXII, caught up in mystical ecstasy, and receives revelation. Hawkins, following the classicist Jane Harrison, says what we see is the communication of sacra, the holy, into three kinds: exhibitions (what is shown), actions (what is done), and instructions (what is said):

Thus an initiate may be shown holy objects or relics, may witness or participate in the performance of sacred drama, and may formally receive the teaching of spiritual guides or adepts. Initiation, therefore, entails the handing on of lore and the movement from skills to wisdom; it is a kind of catechumenate.

Now, at the climax of Purgatorio, Dante witnesses a sacred drama unfold. In the beginning, the ladies representing the virtues chastise him for staring too intently at Beatrice. He has not seen her face for 10 years, and is transfixed by it. “Too fixed!” the virtues say, and he turns away, temporarily blind. Again, we see that he is not yet ready to bear the full brilliance of holiness. He is tempted here to make an idol of Beatrice, instead of seeing her as an icon. That is, his love temporarily becomes a thing between Beatrice and himself, not as something sanctified in God.

His vision corrected, Dante watches as the great procession of the Church Militant turns and moves toward a barren tree. This is the Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good And Evil; the host complain about Adam, whose eating of the tree’s fruit caused the Fall. Here commences a difficult passage symbolizing Church history. The Griffin — that is, Christ — lashes the pole with which he has been pulling the chariot (the Church) to the tree. That pole is the Cross.  John Ciardi interprets it as having to do with the reordering of Church and Empire; the praise the host have for the Griffon, for not eating of the tree, is taken by Ciardi to mean that Jesus refused the corrupting riches of the world — unlike the later Church, which has led to its corruption. “This is how the seed of justice is preserved,” replies the Griffon.

As I said, Ciardi interprets this to mean that the Church has to refuse power to maintain its holiness and ability to impartially render justice. Hollander is mostly silent on this point, except to say that this passage has long confused commenters. He does say that the dominant view today is that this is a symbol of the Incarnation, and how Christ restored life to a world grown dead by Adam’s disobedience. I’m not sure that it matters much for our purposes, but it should be pointed out that lashing the Cross — which by legend was made of wood taken from that very tree — caused it to re-grow leaves — in other words, to resurrect. This image of resurrection makes us think of springtime, when the trees grow their leaves again (the photo above is of the new growth on the fig tree in my backyard.)

A hymn lulls Dante to sleep. When he awakens, Matilda stands before him, telling him to arise. The Church Militant has ascended to heaven, along with the Griffon. He is afraid that Beatrice has left him, but Matilda points to her sitting alone under the blossoming Tree, guarding the chariot. Symbolically, this represents the presence of Divine Love guarding the Church. Beatrice tells him:

“Here for a time you shall be a woodsman

and then forever a citizen with me

of that Rome where Christ Himself is Roman.


“Therefore, to serve the world that lives so ill,

keep your eyes upon the chariot and write down

what now you see here once you have gone back.”

Translation: After this exile on earth, you will one day join me in the Heavenly City, but first, you must go back and tell others what you have seen here — watch the chariot! — so that they may be converted.

Thus commences an allegorical drama that could have been taken from St. John’s Apocalypse (“What you see, write in a book, and send to the seven churches.” — Rev. 1:11). I won’t recount it all here; it’s important to know that it’s a history of the Church. It depicts the Roman persecution of the early Church, the defeat of heresies, the corruption of the Church by wealth and power after Constantine (that is, the Roman Empire) embraced it, and the Church came to do what it never should have done: exercise power in the secular realm. Later, schism, and the growing wealth of the medieval world weakened the Church’s spiritual strength further, with the corruption of the clergy, from pope to humble friar, being the worst of all calamities. Beatrice has been replaced as the chariot’s protector by the harlot who fornicates with the kings of this world — in particular, with the French monarchy, symbolized her by a giant who ravishes the harlot. The enraged giant kidnaps the harlot and the chariot, and runs with them into the woods, where Dante can no longer see them — an allegory of the papal court leaving Rome for Avignon, which happened in 1309. Though this final calamity occurred as Dante was writing the Purgatorio, the poem is set in 1300, which gives the character, Dante the pilgrim, the status of a prophet, whose vision calls on the Church to repent and save itself from apocalypse.

Tomorrow, the final canto of Purgatorio. Today, though, BBC Radio aired its one-hour radio play of Purgatorio. I will listen to it with my family this afternoon, online. If you would like to hear it, click here.



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