Most have read Dante’s Inferno and enjoy the psychological illustrations of punishment fitting the crime. But few have read the entire Divine Comedy: which comprises of Purgatory and Paradise. What can we learn from the Divine Comedy?
The word comedy does not mean funny, although there are vulgar, comical things that happen in the Inferno. Classically, comedy refers to a character going through trials and mishaps, but ultimately reaching a blessed end or the good. Shakespeare’s comedies always ended with a marriage. At the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante sees what it means to be in union with God with all the saints. This is a kind of marriage.
Dante must travel through hell—moving downward—to understand how terrible sin is, including his own sin. Then he must ascend the mountain of Purgatory to understand the mercy and forgiveness of God. That through suffering, one is transformed and finally purged of all sin to be able to enter Paradise. Inferno begins with the lines: “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.” In historical context, Dante was exiled by an opposing political party. He lost everything: his family, his income, his way of life. He became a beggar.
As Dante descends into hell, he meets many who are tormented by their sin. As Dante travels, we who journey with him also understand that sin has terrible consequences. There is no love in hell. Each person has followed his or her own star and ended up in hell. In a way the journey through the Inferno is one into our own dark hearts. We are sinners, we must admit. To fall completely from grace is to “lose the ability to perceive God and share in his love,” as Rod Dreher shares in his book about Dante’s Divine Comedy. Our failure to love is sin. To be entirely bent on self, disregarding God and others is grave, potentially leading toward hell.
Dante was in love with love. He was one of the greatest poets in his time devoted to this topic, romantic love. But when he was exiled, he realized this sin had almost overpowered him into destruction. There is a chapter in the Inferno where Dante meets Francesca and Paolo. They were a real life couple in Florence who had had a love affair. Francesca’s husband caught her and Paolo, his brother, in the affair and murdered them both. “They were so focused on each other, and on satisfying their desire for each other, that they saw nothing else.” This is making an idol of love. Anything we make higher than God is an idol and leads to our destruction. Dante came to remember how sin will destroy a person as he travels through the abyss. There are many other sins encountered, but little space to talk about each one.
Yet, there is hope. When one repents of sin, there is forgiveness and restoration. Once Dante and his guide and teacher, Virgil, leave hell, they move on toward the mountain of purgatory. Many Christians have a problem with purgatory. Let’s use the idea as a metaphor for this earthly life. Do we not struggle with temptation and trial through the journey of our lives? This life is a purgation from all the sin, temptation and trial that we struggle with. We climb the mountain with Dante, leading toward joy, the end of our journey, the good, unity with God.
At one point in Purgatory, Dante has a dream. He dreams there is a beautiful woman whose beauty lures and tempts him. In the dream, Virgil tears the cloak off of the woman and reveals to Dante this woman is a Siren, the ancient luring temptress who led sailors to their death. Siren’s seem to be beautiful, but turn out to be ugly monsters whose only desire is to destroy. Along the journey, Dante is tempted to turn back.
To turn back to sin. To turn back to his old ways. When he wakes, Virgil was calling his name to keep him moving up the mountain to the top where he will pass through fire to purge him of all the sin that has burdened him. This act of burning away is joy. After this consuming fire will be Paradise.
“If Dante’s Inferno is about recognizing the harsh reality of your sinfulness, his Purgatory is about learning how to overcome the sinful tendencies that drag us down and prevent us from living a life of spiritual health and wholeness” (Dreher How Dante).
In the spiritual life there are no quick fixes or answers. This Christian life is a journey with many perils and temptations. It takes grace and humility to reach the good. It takes others to help lift you out of your sin. Feeding ones ego, bottom line, is basically what sin is. The goal is to look away from the ground, from our problems, from all the things we want immediately that fill our egos and look toward God, look toward heaven. By looking toward God and moving toward Him, we are given grace to make it through the perilous journey through Purgatory. Dante’s journey was perilous, so is ours. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Nothing lasts in this life. But as our eyes are upon the God of life, we can love others, even though we may suffer through our time here.