This is one of two short papers on Dante’s Purgatorio given by Philip Harvey at the first Spiritual Reading Group session for 2014 on Tuesday the 18th of February in the Carmelite Library. ‘Purgatorio after Inferno according to Dante’ is another essay on the subject, to be found at Philip’s readings site: http://clippingandcoining.blogspot.com.au/search/label/Dante%20Alighieri
For our purposes it is worth knowing that the definition of Purgatory by the Western Church was only made in 1274, at the Council of Lyons. Dante (1265-1321) in that year was nine years old, living in Florence, which means he was of the first generation of Christians to grow up treating Purgatory as an officially sanctioned place of temporal punishment. One of the reasons Lyons had to make Purgatory into doctrine was because heretical sects like Albigenses and Waldenses had denied that Purgatory even existed. Dante is born into a world in which Purgatory has moved from being a need for purification of sin of the departed, to being a recognised corridor towards paradise, one that all human souls might have to traverse. In such a worldview it is unsurprising that Dante spends a large amount of his productive time and a third of his poem on Purgatory.
The church for the next two centuries after Dante’s death got itself into an almighty tangle over Purgatory by tying the teaching to a little thing called money. Families could pay priests to say masses for departed members of the family and built chantry chapels for the purpose. Only the wealthy could afford chantries.
The most serious development was indulgences, which meant finding penance for others, but with a price attached. The concept that a pardoner could relieve of your money (and your guilt as well) in return for releasing souls into paradise was, when put into action, a practice open to abuse and corruption. This practice of indulgences was one of the central causes of the Reformation, and even in Rome itself it was stopped by Pope Pius V in 1567, one of those examples of the Catholic Reformation picking up on the good ideas of the Protestant Reformation. In our own time Pope Paul VI revised the doctrine to say indulgences are really about increasing an individual’s fervour for charity. The English church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has this to say on the subject:
To understand how indulgences were intended to work depends on linking together a number of assumptions about sin and the afterlife, each of which individually makes considerable sense. First is the principle which works very effectively in ordinary society, that a wrong requires restitution to the injured party. So God demands an action from a sinner to prove repentance for a sin. Second is the idea that Christ’s virtues or merits are infinite since he is part of the Godhead, and they are therefore more than adequate for the purpose of saving the finite world from Adam’s sin. Additional to Christ’s spare merits are those of the saints, headed by his own mother, Mary: clearly these are worthy in the sight of God, since the saints are known to be in Heaven. Accordingly, this combined ‘treasury of merit’ is available to assist a faithful Christian’s repentance. Since the pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, it would be criminal meanness on his part not to dispense such a treasury to anxious Christians. The treasury of merit can then be granted to the faithful to shorten the time spent doing penance in Purgatory. That grant is an indulgence.
MacCulloch delineates the general obsession, as he calls it, with Purgatory geographically, saying that people north of the alps and on the Atlantic seaboard became more concerned with prayer as a ticket out of Purgatory than those south of the alps. As he phrases it in a sentence typical of his suave irony, “Dante Alighieri’s detailed descriptions of Purgatory in his fourteenth-century masterwork the Divina Commedia might suggest that southerners were indeed concerned with Purgatory, but his Italian readers do not seem to have transformed their delight in his great poem into practical action or hard cash.”
Martin Luther not only brought down the indulgence industry in the 1520s, he also shattered many illusions about Purgatory, those same illusions that were given palpable literary credibility in Dante’s, by then, old poem. The connection between sin and salvation is essential in Christianity. Penance and purging of sin certainly pre-dates the Council of Lyons, whose task was to set in concrete a collection of beliefs and related practices already common throughout Christendom. Isabel Moreira lays out an early history of Purgatory, starting in late antiquity. She says that Purgatory was “hardly doubted” throughout the Middle Ages, existing at the popular level more insistently than at the official level.
Purgatory was successful as an idea in these early centuries because it accomplished a number of important things: it impressed upon lukewarm Christians the need for ongoing penance; it suggested coherence at the point at which the scriptures and religious practice converged, as in the prayers for the dead; and it drew ordinary Christians within the eschatological net of salvation. Yet, I think we come closest to understanding purgatory’s success and longevity when we ask, not when did purgatory achieve doctrinal status, but when did purgatory achieve theological viability? The answer, I have suggested, is the point at which Origen’s universalism was repudiated in favour of an expanded access to salvation as was endorsed in the work of Bede. Purgatory’s future was assured once it was supposed that a broad segment of the Christian population could be saved by means of exposure to purgatory’s fires, even if they repented only at the very moment of death, and even if they were compelled to rely on the piety and resources of their “friends”.
So that when we read the 33 cantos of Purgatorio we are shown a version of the place (it is now a place) at a very precise moment in its evolution in religious awareness. We have to accept the idea that Dante wrote a poem about somewhere none of us can talk of with 100% certainty, the afterlife, using geographic forms like a mountain for Purgatory, which all of his readers knew to be a literary trick, but about which the place itself his readers decidedly believed in. It is, for us, a remarkable suspension of belief on their part to read Dante’s descriptions of Purgatorio knowing they are a fiction, while the whole time hanging on his every word in the certain knowledge that they and those they love will very likely find themselves in Purgatory itself at some future date. Anytime soon, in fact.
This is because Purgatorio the poem is an instruction about expectations. Dante meets two of the vital requirements of good storytelling: to entertain and to inform. Attentive readers of Purgatorio are wised up: they finish the poem better prepared than when they started. And they will read Dante ahead of other accounts because it is a superlative poetic accomplishment. While there are countless artworks and writings from the period that help explain Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise to believers, Dante’s Commedia is an artistic expression in its own league. It is like comparing the seven minute rock video on the subject with the three hour cinematic masterpiece put out by Dante Studios. There is time for both, but most people will more certainly be wowed and warned by the big new sensaround release at the local picture house. Soon to be out on DVD.
The question then remains, so how do we read the poem? We are each part of reception history, with our own 21st century (post-Paul VI) ideas about how to understand Purgatory, and how to read Purgatorio.
Sources of quotes:
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. A history of Christianity : the first three thousand years. Allen Lane, 2009, pp. 555-557
Moreira, Isabel. Heaven’s purge : Purgatory in late antiquity. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 211.