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Purgatorio, Canto XXXIII

  And so, tonight we reach the end of our journey up the holy mountain of Purgatorio. This final canto, the thirty-third, I find almost anticlimactic compared to its predecessor. In it, Beatrice changes her tone in speaking to Dante. She has been harsh with him, but now that he has made his final repentance and crossed […]

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And so, tonight we reach the end of our journey up the holy mountain of Purgatorio. This final canto, the thirty-third, I find almost anticlimactic compared to its predecessor. In it, Beatrice changes her tone in speaking to Dante. She has been harsh with him, but now that he has made his final repentance and crossed the river Lethe, she calls him “brother,” adding, “It is my wish that you from now on free yourself from fear and shame, and cease to speak like someone in a dream.”

In other words: You’ve come to the other side of the river now. Things are different between us. Stop mooning over me, because you’ve got an important mission ahead of you. 

Beatrice prophesies that the corruption of the Church will not last forever, that a secular savior will come to reassert the proper order of things (which, for Dante, means getting the Church out of the affairs of the State, and making it focus again on it’s mission: leading people to God). This was Dante’s great hope — and it was not, in fact, to be fulfilled. Beatrice instructs him to tell the world of the Tree’s ruin — symbolizing mankind’s rebellion against God, and its inability to understand the ways of God — and she alludes to the difficulty even one as intelligent as Dante has in grasping even the most basic truths of the divine realm. She gently chastises him once more for his infidelity to her, by which she means his following human philosophy and chasing after worldly ends.

But he has repented, and she leads Dante to his final purification, in the waters of the river Eunoë. Remember, the Edenic baptism in the Lethe took away memories of his past sins. This river heightens in his mind memories of his good deeds. Dante concludes this canto, and the Purgatorio, with an image recalling the rebirth of the Tree thanks to the life-giving power of the Cross:

From those holiest waters I returned

to her reborn, a tree renewed, in bloom

with newborn foliage, immaculate

 

eager to rise, now ready for the stars.

 

The final line of each book of the Commedia ends with a reference to the stars. The last words in Inferno, marking the moment when Dante and Virgil emerged from the pit of Hell:

We climbed, he first and I behind, until,

through a small round opening ahead of us

I saw the lovely things the heavens hold,

 

and we came out to see once more the stars.

In Dante, the stars symbolize the guiding fixtures of Heaven — that is, the presence of God, and the hope He offers. The end of Inferno marks one phase in Dante’s conversion: his re-awakening to the nature of sin, and its horrors. In Dante’s cosmic geography, in which the earth is at the center of Creation, the pilgrim has been to the farthest point in the universe away from God: the bottom of Hell. The end of Purgatorio marks the second stage of his conversion: the cleansing of his sins and the purification of the will, which is completed at the top of Mount Purgatory, the closest physical point on earth to God. Now he will rise through the solar system and beyond it into Heaven itself, a journey that will mark Dante’s theosis, or infilling with the Holy Spirit to the point of total unity with the Creator. 

It is a thrilling journey, one I hope to take with you all here sometime after Easter, if you’re game.

For me, Purgatorio was an immensely practical book, and my favorite of the three. Why? Because it showed me how, precisely, I had gone wrong in my own life, and why asceticism was necessary to correct my path. And it gave me hope, especially the hope that comes through seeing meaning and redemption in my current troubles. When Marco the Lombard tells Dante that his travail is of his own making, and Beatrice compels him to confess the same, I heard the voice of my therapist, who said to me on the first day we were together: “My goal is to help you see that you can’t control other people and events, but you can control your reaction to them.”

This, I think, is a big part of what the pilgrim learned in his climb up the mountain. Yes, he learned how his own particular sins contributed to his suffering, and he repented from those; so did I. But he also learned that he had within him the power to overcome his sins via humility, repentance, and asceticism, all of which open the soul up to the healing grace of God. The damned, in their pride and egotism, blame others, or circumstances, for their own suffering; they cannot accept responsibility for themselves, or their condition. The historical Dante was the victim of injustice and malice, certainly, but he comes to understand that he is not innocent, and that he cannot free himself with is own power. He needs God to unbind himself from his Self, to deliver him from slavery to freedom.

If Inferno was the slavery of Egypt, Purgatorio was the crossing of the Sinai desert, in which the Israelites had to struggle for 40 years, until their minds had been cleansed of the memories of captivity. The great thing that happened to me the first time I read Inferno and Purgatorio was the unmasking of the Golden Calf around which I had been circling endlessly for most of my life, in ritual worship. I didn’t know I had made an idea of Family and Home into a false god, but I had — and it had, in an intimate way so woven within the fibers of my heart that I couldn’t see it with my mind’s eye, led me into a dark wood. I will still need to remain on the mountain a while longer — for the rest of my life, like all of us — but to ascend to where the air is a little cleaner, a little purer, and the sunshine a bit more crisp, is like heaven. David Brooks gets it; from his latest column:

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.

Me to my confessor last weekend: “Father, I wouldn’t have chosen this. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have accepted it. But I am so thankful for it, because it brought me closer to God than I have ever been. It has been a gift.”

What a pity that the only thing most people read of the Commedia is the Inferno. The Purgatorio is a canticle of hope; you can’t understand Inferno without Purgatorio — and you can’t understand Purgatorio without Paradiso, where the reason for the purification is manifest. You wouldn’t understand the Exodus story without the Wandering In The Desert and the Promised Land, would you? You wouldn’t understand the Passion without the Resurrection and the Ascension, would you?

Our pilgrimage isn’t over yet. I’ll see you in Paradise after Easter.

If you have not yet listened to BBC Radio’s one-hour dramatized version of Purgatorio, please do. You have the rest of the week to do it at that online link. It will make what we’ve just read come alive in a new way. Thank you for reading. I am eager to hear from you in the comments section about what you’ve discovered in reading Purgatorio this Lent. May you have a blessed final passage to Pascha!

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