Lessons From Purgatory

By Autumn Kennedy

In its own capacity, Dante's Purgatorio resembles Virgil, shepherding its readers up the sacred mountain in this life as he shepherded its narrator in the next.

The office of the Christian educator is to prepare students for the spiritual life, largely by giving their students books. The Bible reigns supreme over all, but there are others which reflect and illuminate it—for instance, Dante’s Purgatorio.

Being the second portion of his three-part Divine Comedy, Purgatorio traces the ascent of Dante up Mount Purgatory. In the first, he has toured the abyss of Hell; he labors now for the third part, when he will explore the spheres of Heaven. In Hell and Purgatory, the poet Virgil guides Dante, but hereafter Virgil will yield to Beatrice, Dante’s first love and his guide through Paradise. She is the patroness of Dante’s whole supernatural journey, for she orchestrated it to save his soul.

On the slopes of Purgatory, Virgil teaches Dante (and us) many wonderful truths, truths that are absolutely necessary for the Christian life. The first is that love increases in the person who gives it away. At first, Dante is perplexed by this; Virgil explains in a beautiful discourse:

“You’ve fixed your mind upon the things of earth
alone,” he said to me, “and that explains
why you glean darkness from the light of truth.
That Good, ineffable and infinite—
as beams of light stream to a light-filled body—
turns to whoever turns in love to It,
And gives according to the warmth It finds,
so that, the greater love you spread abroad,
the more will the eternal Worth reward.
And the more souls that burn in Heaven above,
as mirrors flashing light on one another,
the more there is for all of them to love,
And all the more they do love.” (Purg. XV.64-76)

This is one of the key paradoxes of reality: not scarcity, but abundance, characterizes reality. This inspires great selflessness for the one who takes it to heart.

Purgatorio also illustrates that sin is disordered love. “Not the Creator nor a single creature, as you know, ever existed without love,” explains Virgil. “Love strays if it desires what’s wrong or loves with too much strength, or not enough”: in other words, love can be misdirected, or deficient, or excessive. The Mountain has three sections, each devoted to purging these classes of sins. The first purges pride, envy, and wrath (forms of misdirected love), the second purges sloth (deficient love), and the third purges avarice, gluttony, and lust (forms of excessive love).

Thinking of sin this way expels unnecessary shame: evil does not lie in desire itself, but in a lack of proportion or direction. It is an encouragement to know that love motivates all action; this opens the way to repentance. Moreover, God in His mercy shows us what to repent toward as well as what to repent away from. In each cornice of Purgatory, carved images line the pathways for the souls to look upon, depicting virtues corresponding to the vice they are crucifying. The prideful contemplate examples of humility, and the lustful contemplate models of chastity. They sing “Grant us your peace” in the ring of wrath, and “My soul clings to the dust; revive me, O Lord” in the ring of avarice. The souls do not stumble aimlessly on the path of virtue, nor look merely to their own best efforts to find the new creation. Christ is the new Adam, and in addition He gives them many other saints to imitate when reordering their loves.

Next, Purgatorio makes it clear that sanctification requires a soul’s participation, and the kind of participation must correspond to the kind of holiness desired. Thus the slothful are driven about in a constant race, for they had not spurred themselves to righteousness in life. Every soul takes responsibility for its condition, as witnessed in the drills of the Mountain.

From those most holy waters, born anew
I came, like trees by change of calendars
Renewed with new-sprung foliage through and through,
Pure and prepared to leap up to the stars.

These drills are not vain exercises. They free the soul from the burden of sin to fly to the Earthly Paradise, and from there to the Heavenly. Their reward is mastery over oneself and the freedom to do good. “Vincit qui se vincit” means “He conquers who conquers himself”; this is the point (pun intended) of Purgatory. Virgil bestows this reward upon Dante in a climactic moment of the Comedy: “Your judgment now is free and whole and true; to fail to follow its will would be to stray. Lord of yourself I crown and miter you.” Though Purgatory may seem a place of subjection and toil, it ultimately lightens the soul. It embodies again that paradox of love: “If you save your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for My sake, you will save it.” Anthony Esolen included in the notes for his translation: “As God is no taskmaster, Purgatory is no dungeon. It is the place where slaves are made sons and heirs.”

But the greatest lesson from Purgatorio for me, a lesson like a compass for the heart, is the lesson of Dante and Beatrice. As a boy, Dante was filled with longing at the sight or thought of the beautiful Beatrice; he judged the fulfillment of his desire to be Beatrice herself. But in the Terrestrial Paradise, she scolded him for his error, for her beauty was not her own. God had sent her to Dante not to make him fall in love with her beauty, but to spark his longing for the source of all beauty. Beauty is a signpost: it is meant to arouse desire not for itself alone, but for a destination. To make the signpost the destination is delusion—in Dante’s case, idolatry. Dante had not understood what Beatrice was; as a result, he idolized her, and loved her with a lesser love. (The great lesson of the Inferno was that without the love of God, the love of neighbor becomes no love at all.)

Everyone meets a Beatrice in their lives, whether that is a fellow image of God or some other part of Creation. Everyone desires God, and the desire is far too persistent and powerful to sleep for long. Yet desire often awakes without giving a hint as to what it really longs for. “It is spring fever,” wrote Mark Twain. “That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t know quite what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” With the example of Dante’s desire, I do know what it is, and what to do when I meet Beatrice. I know her origin and her purpose. I also know my proper response: Lord, I praise you for divine beauty reflected in the form of this person. Now train my heart so that my response to their beauty would not be twisted downward into envy or desire, but would instead be directed upward in worship of You, their Creator—Your intention for all such beauty, before the breaking of the world.

And in addition, I know what to do when I am Beatrice: I know to point beyond myself and be truly humble.

The Mountain narrates the Christian life, where most of the time we suffer, and all of the time we sing; it is, unsurprisingly, the most relatable book of the Comedy. But it is also the most creative. Anthony Esolen wrote, “For sheer inventiveness, the Purgatorio is arguably the product of Dante’s most brilliant poetic conception … Purgatory is not Hell, not even a lighter version of Hell. It is a completely new kingdom.” It speaks a wisdom which Hell cannot, and in a language easier to understand than that of Paradise. Purgatory affected me so markedly because I could apply so much of it to my life today.

It is of great consequence to note that Purgatorio may never have affected me (or at least I would never have realized its effect) had I not actually obeyed its commands, especially the last. Had I not looked beyond Purgatory to Christ, I would have thoroughly missed the point. Once I could see how God was at work in Purgatory, I could understand the power of the book. Until we see God we are blind. A Great Books education, or a culinary education, or an athletic education, may be fondly loved; but its roots cannot be understood without a Christian education. Students should treat their study, and teachers their teaching, as a great signpost. It is not a destination, not even a continually pilgrimaging destination. One day we will reach the destination; one day we will come Home. Look towards Home, and the Road will show itself.


Autumn Kennedy is a rising freshman from Cincinnati OH, about to leave home for New College Franklin. She loves big ideas, fairy-tales, dance, and driving with the windows down.

Thank you for reading the Journal today. If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our podcast, Anchored, or our series on the men and women of the CLT Author Bank.

Published on 8th August, 2023. Page image of an illustration for the Divine Comedy drawn by Gustave Doré (created in 1857), showing the initial appearance of Beatrice to Virgil in Limbo, moving him to go to Dante’s rescue.

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