Purgatory as a Type of the Spiritual Path by Jennifer Doane Upton

As many have pointed out, the Divine Comedy is a complete map of the spiritual life. In the Inferno, sin— both moral and intellectual—is discovered; in the Purgatorio, it is expiated; in the Paradiso, Divine Love leads on to spiritual Knowledge.

Of these three, the Purgatorio symbolizes the spiritual Path per se. This truth becomes clear in Canto II, where Virgil and Dante arrive in Ante-Purgatory at dawn, at the foot of the mountain which is Purgatory itself. As the sun rises, a boat full of souls, steered by an angel, glides swiftly across the waters. Among the souls Dante recognizes his friend Casella, the musician, who had set some of Dante’s own poems to music. Casella is persuaded to sing, and all the souls gather around to listen—but then Cato appears and rebukes them for wasting time:

“What have we here, you laggard spirits?
What negligence, what lingering is this?
Quick to the mountain to cast off the slough
That will not let you see God show Himself!” [120-123]

The souls, like frightened doves, begin their ascent.

Dawn on the shores of Purgatory is initiation, the real beginning of the spiritual Path. As Venus rising in the first Canto is love, here “Mars….overcome” [line 13] indicates love overcoming hate:

…. just as Mars, when it is overcome
by the invading mists of dawn, glows red
above the waters’ plain, low in the west,
so there appeared to be—and may I see it
again—a light that crossed the sea: so swift,
there is no flight of bird to equal it.
When, for a moment, I’d withdrawn my eyes
that I might ask a question of my guide,
I saw that light again, larger, more bright.
Then, to each side of it, I saw awhiteness,
though I did not know what that whiteness was;
below, another whiteness slowly slowed. [13-24]

“See how he holds his wings, pointing to Heaven” says Virgil of the angelic boatman [line 34]. Both heavenly and fallen angels are “birds” [line 37], but the wings of the boatman are pointed up: he moves by virtue of his relation to the vertical dimension. Dante initially has a hard time making out the angel’s shape [line 16-28]. His vision must rise to meet the angel; it must train itself to perceive the angelic realm. First he sees a light; then two “whitenesses” on either side of it which he can’t recognize; then another “whiteness” below (possibly the angel’s reflection, as in the engraving of this scene by Gustave Doré). It is only then that he recognizes the first light as the angel’s wings. Dante must discriminate between substance and accident here—between the angel and his reflection—placing substance “first”; this is all that is required for the accidental, the secondary reflection, to take its proper place, so it need not be explained or mentioned again.

As the boat is crosses the water, the souls are singing the psalm “In exitu Israël de Aegypto” [line 46]. The Exodus is traditionally a symbol of the spiritual Path, and Purgatory is the realm of the spiritual traveler par excellence; anyone seeking initiation is asking to go through Purgatory in this life.

came on to shore with the boat so light, so quick
that nowhere did the water swallow it. [40-42]

Water here is heaviness and instability of soul, the weight of unredeemed material nature; the boat is like the “Spirit of God” that “moved on the face of the waters” in Genesis. Redemption is implicitly identified with creation, as in the Catholic prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of Thy love. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.” The Spirit in Purgatory moves up through all levels of the soul until the entire soul is purified.

According to Frithjof Schuon, Christianity, unlike Judaism or Islam, is an esoterism preached openly to the whole community—an “eso-exoterism.” It is an initiatory Path, and the rite of initiation is Baptism, or Baptism plus Confirmation. Dionysius the Areopagite likewise identified Baptism with purgation, Confirmation with illumination, and the Eucharist with perfection, the three classical stages of the mystical Path. If a Christian is more or less passive to the initiatory import of his Baptism, but is nonetheless faithful, he will not experience the fullness of purgation until the next life.

Virgil and Dante, having passed “alive” (i.e. consciously) through Hell, are the gnostics—not in the sectarian sense of the word, but rather those whose path to God is through knowledge. The knowers arrive “a little” [line 64] before the pious faithful, but they too are “strangers” at the foot of Mt. Purgatory [line 63], because the spiritual Path is the one Path for all—something the heretical sectarian Gnostics denied. Yet the knowers, having had to do more conscious work earlier on, find their later path easier; having “taken up their cross,” they finally discover that their “yoke is easy” and their “burden light.”

After the angel blesses the souls and they disembark,

Upon all sides the Sun shot forth the day;
from mid-heaven its incisive arrows
already had chased Capricorn away…. [55-57]

Capricorn the Goat is like Lucifer expelled from Heaven; as the spiritual light dispels the heaviness of materiality, the residues are carried away by Lucifer, the scapegoat.

This is Dante’s initial encounter with souls in purgation. The first soul he meets, that of Casella, loves him, and he returns that love. This is not quite the love of Paradise, but it is a love which extends beyond the grave. Love in Limbo is admiration; in Hell, pity; in Purgatory, true love; in Paradise, timeless love.

The souls of the dead crowd around Dante when they realize he is alive:

And as to a messenger with an olive branch
The people crowd around to hear the news,
And no one hesitates to join that throng,
So at the sight of me stood motionless
Those fortunate spirits, all of them, as if
They’d forgotten to go forth and take their beauty. [70-75]

The gnostics bring the hope of consciousness to these souls; gnosis in its own way can also be a prayer for the dead. The olive branch, as a symbol of the peace of contemplation, represents the souls’ hope for greater consciousness; the oil of the olive is a source of light. According to Tertullian, “the flesh [in Confirmation or Chrismation] is anointed that the soul may be sanctified, the flesh is signed that the soul may be fortified, the flesh is placed in shadow by the laying on of hands that the soul may be illumined by the Holy Spirit.” But Dante, for those souls, is only the image of greater consciousness, not its realization; since they have become only partially conscious, the consequences of their former unconsciousness now begin to emerge, “as if/They’d forgotten to go forth and take their beauty.”

As soon as the souls forget to pursue their course, they are ready to listen to Casella [lines 106-119]. His poetry has a celestial beauty which truly brings Paradise to earth, but this is not what they are there for. Casella’s poetry reflects gnosis, but the people look at him in the wrong way; they pay attention to him instead of to the Mountain of Purgatory.  This shows how gnosis should keep its own place and not distract simple souls; the gnostic above all should know where the Mountain is and not divert others from it. If he divulges the secret of his insight, he runs the risk of dazzling and blinding the simple souls—and also himself. In these latter days this secret must be divulged, however, which means that great and destructive illusions will necessarily abound. Through the celestial beauty of Casella’s songs, the aesthetic dimension its parading itself before those souls undergoing purification. But because they contemplate this beauty as something apart from themselves, they enter into a spiritual stagnation which earns them the accusation of being “loiterers.” Cato arrives in order to break this spell, so that they may go forth and become the beauty they are called to embody.

Dante attempts to embrace the shade of Casella, but his arms pass through him as if he were made of air:

O shades—in all except appearance—empty!
Three times I clasped my hands behind him
and as often brought them back against my chest. [79-81]

When the deepest form of truth is openly revealed, it is sometimes accompanied by the greatest lack of substance; this is the perennial pitfall of art and aesthetics. As with a great deal of latter-day “esoterism,” the spiritual understanding is there, but not much real benefit is derived from it. The will is not engaged.

And so Dante ends in a self-embrace: art falsely worshipped, or esoterism wrongly lived, is narcissism; it is related to incomplete cognition. There is an attempt to mentally grasp the fruits of love and gnosis before having gone through the refining fires of Purgatory.  In a story which appears in many traditions, a man destined for sainthood is seen with a glowing light around him. When told of this by the onlookers he is ashamed, and lets them know that this means he has not yet reached perfection.

Casella questions Dante:

“….As I loved you when I was
within my mortal flesh, so, freed, I love you:
therefore I stay. But you, why do you journey?”
“My own Casella, to return again
to where I am, I journey thus….” [88-92]

Casella is saying: My soul has been saved without gnosis, without consciously traveling the spiritual Path—why, then, do you travel? The inner, “gnostic” answer is that Dante, who as a gnostic is “traveling” while still in the flesh, himself becomes the goal, in a certain sense, of the simple believer. To return to where one already is implies illumination. Because Dante is consciously returning to where he is, Casella can rest (“stay”) in his presence, as if Dante were carrying the olive branch of peace. This reminds one of a statement by Martin Lings that “all who pass through the gates of Heaven incur thereby a tremendous responsibility: it is henceforth the function of each to be, himself or herself, an integral feature of the celestial Garden, a source of felicity for all the other inmates, a vehicle of the Divine Presence” [Symbol & Archetype, p. 53].

On the outer level, however, Dante is also saying that he must travel the spiritual Path in the flesh simply to be saved; if he doesn’t go through Purgatory in this life, after death he will be damned. Greater spiritual capacity brings with it greater temptation:

“To whom much has been given, much will be required.”

When Dante asks Casella why he has been tardy in reaching the shores of Purgatory, he answers:

“….No injury is done to me
if he who takes up whom—and when—he pleases
has kept me from this crossing many times,
for his own will derives from a just will.” [94-97]

Here Casella is beginning to intuit, and rest in, a justice that is beyond his mere individuality. (cf. the Paradiso, Canto III)

As the Canto ends, Cato the Younger arrives, provokingly and deftly awakening the souls from their complacency, reminding them that for the ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory they will need aspiration, zeal, and the fear of God. Cato, as a suicide—though for reasons of honor, not despair—may be one of those souls who must wait in Purgatory until the end of time, but he has as compensation his position as Purgatory’s “ruler.” The souls who must wait until the end of time to enter Paradise are those who lack the ability to transcend time through intellectual intuition.

When Cato appears, the pride of love is transformed into love in the mode of fear.

Feast of the Dormition, 2003