Chapter 10: First Ledge — Pride (Purgatory)
Dante and Virgil walked through the gate, and they did not look back. The people who walk through that gate learn to love the right things for the right reasons and with the right intensity.
Then they climbed a narrow, zigzagging path through a cleft in the mountain.
Virgil advised Dante, “Walk carefully.”
Finally, they had walked through the metaphorical eye of the needle and had reached the first ledge of Purgatory Proper, which had seven ledges, each devoted to purging a particular sin. This ledge was not wide: It was the width of three men’s bodies, lying end to end.
Dante looked at the side of the mountain, which was sheer and impossible to climb. The mountain’s side was pure white marble, a sculptor’s dream, and an Artist who was better than the ancient Greek sculptor Polycletus, the greatest of all human sculptors, carved it. The Artist who had carved the mountain was also a better Artist than nature.
Dante thought, God is the sculptor here; God created the art on the Mountain of Purgatory. Previously I learned that He is an architect — when He built the Gate to the Inferno. Now I see that He is a great sculptor, too.
Dante looked and saw an exemplum of humility or lack of pride: Mary and the Annunciation. He thought, When the angel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah, Mary could have understandably been proud. Instead, she gave all glory to God and called herself a servant (handmaid) of God.
The carving was so well done that speech seemed visible. As Dante looked at the carving, he seemed to hear the angel say, “Ave,” as in “Hail, Mary.” And he seemed to hear Mary reply to the angel, “Ecce ancilla Dei,” or “Behold the handmaid of God.”
Virgil watched Dante look at this carving for a while and then suggested, “Why don’t you look at the other carvings as well?”
Dante looked ahead and saw another carving and moved closer to it. Here in the marble he saw oxen and a cart bearing the Ark of the Covenant: a chest containing the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. In the carving, King David showed humility by dancing as the ark is brought into Jerusalem. In contrast to the humility of David, his first wife, Michal, shows scorn for her husband, as he dances with his robes pulled up, revealing his legs. Because Michal was so proud, God punished her by making her barren: She could not bear children. In the sculpture, incense came from censers, and Dante seemed to smell the incense as he looked at the carving. Dante also seemed to hear the singing of the choirs as the ark entered Jerusalem.
Beatrice looked down from Paradise and thought, All of these carvings are important, but Dante, pay special attention to this carving. King David is especially noted for these things: 1) He is a great politician: a King. 2) He is a great poet: the author of the Psalms. 3) He is a great sinner who was saved by God. 4) He is a very talented man, just like Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro in the Inferno. Fortunately, David repented. And he had a lot to repent. From a rooftop, David once saw a woman bathing, and he desired her. Because he was King, he was able to sleep with her, although she was married — her husband (Uriah the Hittite) was away on a military mission. Because of King David, she got pregnant. David sent for her husband so that he (her husband) would have sex with Bathsheba and so think the child was his, but her husband did not want to have sex while people were dying in war. (David should have been fighting, not committing adultery.) Therefore, King David ordered that Bathsheba’s husband be put in the front lines where he would probably be killed, and he was killed. Other people were killed with Uriah. Bad battle tactics were needed to get Uriah killed, and other innocent men died with him. David then made Bathsheba one of his wives. This story does have a happy ending, as David repents his sin, is forgiven, and is now in Paradise. You, Danto, are very much like David in being a great poet and a mostly successful politician. Of course, both you and David are highly intelligent people. Dante, you have also sinned, and you can learn a lot from David. You need to learn to be humble: to give credit to God and not to yourself. You also need to learn to repent your sins.
Dante then moved to see a third carving, one that showed the humility of the Roman Emperor Trajan. On his way to fight a battle, Emperor Trajan spoke to a poor widow who wanted him to give her justice for her son who has been killed. At first, Emperor Trajan wanted her to wait for justice in the murder of her son until he came back from a military campaign, but she asked him, “What if you don’t come back?” Emperor Trajan said, “Then whoever replaces me will give you justice.” The widow replied, “How can you let another person’s virtue do what you should do?” He then agreed to give justice to her for her son’s death, saying, “Justice demands that I perform my duty.” All of this conversation Dante seemed to hear as he looked at the carving. God is such a good sculptor that He can create visible speech.
By looking at the carvings, Dante understood that good art can lead to education. For example, to understand something, look at examples of it. He would soon learn that one should look also at examples of its opposite. For example, to understand humility, look at examples of humility and at examples of pride.
Dante thought, We need to tell the right kinds of stories, and we need good role models, and we need the ability to identify bad role models.
Virgil said to Dante, “Look at the crowd of souls slowly approaching us. They will be able to tell us how to climb further up the mountain.”
Dante the Pilgrim now looked and saw something, but what exactly it was he could not make out. He said to Virgil, “Some things seem to be moving toward us, but they do not appear to be souls. What are they? I can’t make them out.”
Virgil explained, “These souls are being purged of pride. Because they were proud, each now humbly bends toward the ground. Look closely. You can see huge stones, and underneath each stone is a soul purging its pride. Each soul beats his or her breast.”
Dante the Pilgrim thought, These souls carrying huge stones look like corbels, little sculptures of people that appear in architecture. They sometimes appear to be holding up a roof or other heavy weight such as a column. The souls on the first level of Purgatory Proper look like corbels, and each soul seems to be saying, “I can’t go on.”
Dante the Pilgrim noticed that the stones the souls carry are not of equal weight. The prouder a sinner was, the heavier the stone is.
Dante the Poet thought, Someone may want to say that the repentant sinners are being punished for their sins, but it would be better to say that they are being purged of their sins. The stones the souls are carrying are huge; however, they will gain from all of their hard effort. They will be purged of their sin.
Although some souls suffer in Purgatory, the purpose of the suffering is to educate the souls and to purge the souls of sin. The souls benefit from their suffering, and they expect to benefit from their suffering. The souls want to be in Purgatory. They are confident that God will keep His promises and they will reach Paradise. People should keep in mind the purpose of the suffering that takes place in Purgatory.
Christians should also understand that each of us is born to die. When we die, the immortal part goes to God to be judged and leaves the mortal part behind. A living person is defective. Only after purgation of one’s sins can a soul be perfected.
A good Christian will avoid pride and so make the perfecting of his or her soul easier.
Copyrighted by Bruce D. Bruce
Note: This is an excerpt from my book Dante’s Purgatory: A Retelling in Prose.