Dante: repentance and Purgatory

“Dante believed that genuine and passionate conversion or repentance is in any case necessary to salvation. If a man is not so repentant at the moment of death his way lies to Acheron, and repentance is for ever impossible. But if, at that moment of death, not only his aspirations and resolves but his affections and impulses are directed aright, then there is no going back for him, and his dispositions, secure from all change or slackening, become irrevocable as he passes into the world of spirits. When Dante had seen Hell he felt that whatever weakness or fluctuation there might still be in his life the vision itself could never wax dim. Henceforth he would always know sin for what it was; and when the decisive moment came the rush of his affections would inevitably sweep him towards that which is good; just as when we are most chilled or even embittered in our feelings towards those we love, we know in our heart that if, at that instant, our whole relation to them were collectively and conclusively at stake our trivial sense of alienation would be utterly consumed in the flame of all-embracing love; and this very knowledge makes us ashamed of the momentary disproportions which our distorted vision has imposed upon the things that matter and the things that do not. It was to secure men to this condition of underlying certainty of affection, even amid the rise and fall of random impulses not yet under full control, that Dante deliver his message to “remove those living in this life from the state of misery and bring them to the state of bliss.” Thus, if the Inferno is a study of unrepentant sin, the Purgatorio is a study of the state of true penitence wherever and whenever it may exist.

It was part of the general belief and tradition of Dante’s day that though the act of repentance follwed by confession and absolution obliterates the guilt of sin, yet unperformed penances and the perpetual accretion, at the very least, of venial sin will in all cases, save that of saints and martyrs, leave a surplus to be expiated in dire pain of the senses after death. Here as elsewhere we read Dante’s mind in his distribution of stresses more than in the articles of his creed. He accepted indeed the penal and expiatory function of Purgatory, but his stress is laid on a conception of it that the official representatives of the Church overlooked if they did not deny. For to him not even the most efficacious sacrament, not the atoning death on the cross, not even the sense of the divine forgiveness can supersede the need of the self-expression of penitence following on the act of repentance: and it is to this essential quality of penitence that he directs our minds For he regards the pains of the souls in Purgatory not as a price they have to pay for entry into Heaven, but as a medium through which they can vitally utter their repudiation of their own past and assert their loyalty to the things they had once denied and betrayed. Thus, the pains of Purgatory are not endured, but are welcomed and embraced as a solace and support which relieves the else intolerable sense of discord in the soul between the things it loves and the things it has actively stood for” (P. H. Wicksteed, From Vita Nuova to Paradiso, p. 47-49).

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