Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 2 Retelling — New Souls Arrive in Purgatory

Chapter 2: New Souls Arrive in Purgatory (Purgatory)

Dawn arrived, and Dante and Virgil looked around them, wondering in which direction they should go. Then Dante saw far out at sea on the horizon a light like that of Mars as it glows through fog.

Dante the Poet thought, That is a light that I would like to see again!

The light moved quickly. Dante the Pilgrim looked at Virgil and then looked out at sea again. The light was brighter and much closer than before. Two spots of whiteness appeared beside the light, and then a spot of whiteness appeared under the light, and Virgil, recognizing now what he was seeing, told Dante, “Fall to your knees! Look! The angel of the Lord is coming! Fold your hands! You will see more angels like him!”

Dante looked, and now he saw that the two spots of whiteness on either side of the light were the wings of the angel and the spot of brightness under the light was the body of the angel.

Virgil said, “See how the angel scorns to use any human-made means of acceleration! The angel does not need oars or sails! Only the movement of the angel’s wings powers the boat! See how the angel has the wings pointed toward Heaven! The wings have feathers that do not molt as do the feathers of birds on earth!”

The angel came closer and closer to the Island of Purgatory, and as he came closer and closer, he shone brighter and brighter until Dante could no longer look at him and had to bow his head.

The angel steered straight to the shore on his swift and light boat, on which over 100 souls were on board. All the souls were singing “In Exitu Israel de Aegypto” — “When Israel Came Out of Egypt.” This song is Psalm 114, of which these souls, who were leaving exile to go to Paradise, sang every verse:

“When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;

“Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.

“The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back.

“The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.

“What ailed you, O sea, that you fled? You, Jordan, that you were driven back?

“You, mountains, that you skipped like rams; and you, little hills, like lambs?

“Tremble, you earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob;

“Who turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.”

Dante thought, This is a place of song, unlike the Inferno. And this is a place where people come to end their exile from God, also unlike the Inferno.

The angel made the sign of the cross, allowed the souls to disembark from the boat, and then left as quickly as he had come.

The newly arrived souls curiously examined their surroundings; after all, they were strangers to this place. Full morning had arrived, and one of the newly arrived souls shouted to Dante and Virgil, “Do you know where is the road that leads up the mountain? If you do, please show it to us.”

Virgil replied, “We are not yet familiar with this place. We are like you, newly arrived, but we came here by way of a journey that will make climbing up the mountain seem easy.”

Dante thought, This is a place where one can ask for help, and no doubt, usually get it. We asked Cato for help, and he willingly gave it to us. If Virgil and I had the knowledge that would answer these souls’ questions, we would willingly share our knowledge with them. In the Inferno, souls seldom ask for help, and seldom do they get help. And when they do get help or pity, it is from a naïve visitor such as me.

Then the newly arrived souls noticed something odd about Dante: He breathed! He was still alive! The souls crowded around Dante, curious about him and forgetting the reason they were on the Island of Purgatory: to climb the Mountain of Purgatory so that they could see God.

One soul in particular was happy to see Dante. This soul came toward Dante with arms outstretched as if he wanted to hug him. Dante did not recognize this soul, but willing to be gracious in such a place, he came toward the soul and attempted three times to embrace him, but each time he failed.

Virgil thought, This is like the scene in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus visits the Underworld and sees his mother. Three times he tries to embrace her, but he fails each time. His living body is unable to touch her soul. This is also like two scenes in my Aeneid. In fleeing Troy, Aeneas’ wife, Creusa, dies. Aeneas returns to the city to find and rescue her, but he sees her shade. Three times he tries to embrace her, but each time he fails. Later, Aeneas is in the Underworld, where he sees the shade of his late father, Anchises. Three times he tries to embrace him, but each time he fails.

Dante was surprised, but the soul smiled and suggested that he not try again to embrace him.

Now Dante knew the identity of the soul by the richness of his voice. This was the soul of his friend Casella, who had died months ago and who was a singer, a musician, and a poet. Dante begged him to stay and talk.

Casella replied, “We were friends when I was alive, and we are still friends although I am dead. Of course, I will stay and talk to you. But why are you, a living man, here now?”

Dante said, “I am making this journey as a living man now in hopes that I will be worthy to come back here after I am dead rather than being condemned to the Inferno. But you died months ago. Why has it taken you so long to arrive here?”

Casella replied, “I have no complaint. The angel often declined to take me on board his boat, for God, who is always just, guides the angel’s will. But three months ago, Pope Boniface VIII granted a plenary indulgence because 1300 is the great Jubilee Year, a time of joy, of pardon, of remission of the punishment of sin. We saved souls have been forgiven our sins, but we still must go through Purgatory so that we become purged of all sin. God does not always allow those who have died to come quickly to the Mountain of Purgatory. If we kept God waiting until we became Christians late in life, God keeps us waiting at the mouth of the Tiber River, where the saved souls assemble. By granting a plenary indulgence, Pope Boniface VIII allowed those of us who kept God waiting by becoming Christians late in life the chance to come quicker to the Mountain of Purgatory than we otherwise would. Because of the plenary indulgence, all any of us have to do is to ask the angel to take us here, and the angel will do it. Even now, the angel is heading back to the Tiber to pick up another load of saved souls.”

Dante thought, Pope Boniface VIII is doomed to the Inferno, but even he can do a good deed sometimes. God can accomplish much even through the deeds of evil men. And what about you, Casella? For three months, all you had to do was ask the angel to bring you here and he would have done it, but only now are you arriving here. Did you do a good deed by allowing others to arrive here first? Or did you feel not worthy yet to come here?

Dante asked, “If no law forbids it, I would like to hear a love song, one of those that brought me happiness on Earth. Please sing one, and help me to rid myself of some of the exhaustion I have suffered as a result of my journey.”

Casella was willing, and he began singing, “Amor Che Ne la Mente Mi Ragiona,” or “Love, that Within My Mind Discourses with Me.”

Dante thought, I wrote the poem that Casella is singing. Casella set it to music.

Dante, Virgil, and all the newly arrived souls listened to the line with great enjoyment, but their enjoyment was quickly interrupted.

Cato, the Just Old Man, appeared and shouted, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU NEED TO CONCENTRATE ON YOUR SOULS, NOT ON SILLY LOVE SONGS! KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE! RUN TO THE MOUNTAIN! LOOK FOR THE PLACE AND THE TIME TO BEGIN CLIMBING!”

You may have seen a flock of pigeons feeding in a field and strutting, showing off their fine feathers. But they are suddenly interrupted and instantly fly away.

Like the pigeons, the newly arrived souls instantly fled — and so did Dante and Virgil.

Dante thought, So this is the job of Cato — to make sure that the saved souls stayed focused on the job of purging their sins. Obviously, these souls are not yet perfected, just as Virgil and I are not. Obviously, they — as well as Virgil and I — can be distracted from the job they and we ought to be doing.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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