Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 3 Retelling — Prepurgatory — The Excommunicated

Chapter 3: Prepurgatory — The Excommunicated (Purgatory)

The recently arrived souls raced ahead, but Dante stayed close to Virgil, who slowed down and felt remorse.

Virgil thought, My job is to be Dante’s guide and to make sure that he sees what is necessary to save his soul, but here I have failed. I should have known that secular love songs are not permitted here because the purpose of Purgatory is to prepare souls to enter Paradise.

Striding beside Virgil, who had resumed his normal pace, and heading west, Dante looked up at the mountain in front of him. But as he raised his eyes, he noticed his shadow. He also noticed that only one shadow was ahead of him. Afraid that Virgil might have abandoned him, he looked quickly beside him.

Virgil noticed and said, “Why are you worried? Did you think that I am not still your guide? Are you surprised that I have no shadow? Your body blocks the Sun’s rays, but my body lies in the tomb in Naples to which it was taken by the order of Caesar Augustus after my body had been buried in Brindisi, where I died. Because I have no body, I do not cast a shadow. But although I have no body, I can still feel pain and feel cold and feel heat, all by the order of God, whose Will cannot be totally known by us humans. None of us outside of Paradise will ever be able to understand the Trinity: Three Persons in One Being. Be satisfied with knowing the Fact of some things without knowing the Why. If we humans knew everything, Mary need not have given birth to Jesus. You have visited Limbo. There people such as Plato and Aristotle and others reside who would like to know the Why but never will. Such souls know that they will never reach Paradise and acquire such understanding. Because of this, they suffer endless pain.”

Virgil was silent and unhappy.

Dante thought, Virgil is thinking that he is one of those who reside in Limbo and will never reach Paradise.

Dante and Virgil reached the foot of the mountain. Looking at its side, they saw that it was so steep and so sheer that they had no chance of climbing it. Any of the mountains in any of the other parts of the Earth would be an easy climb compared to this.

Virgil asked himself and Dante, “How can we find a place at which we can begin to scale this mountain?”

Virgil’s head bent low as he thought, and Dante’s head raised high as he looked at the mountain. A crowd of souls came toward them from their left — a crowd of souls moving so slowly that they seemed not to be moving.

Dante said to Virgil, “Look over there! Some people are coming who should be able to help us find a way up this mountain — if you have not already thought of a way.”

Virgil looked, and relieved, he said, “Let us go to meet them because they are moving so slowly, and you, you continue to hope that they can help us.”

Dante and Virgil walked a thousand steps toward the group of souls and were as far away from them as a person who is talented with a slingshot could throw a stone. Then the group of souls halted and stared at them.

Virgil said, “Saved souls, you ended your lives well, with the promise of eventually residing in Paradise. Please tell us in which place the mountain is not so steep that it cannot be climbed. We are eager to climb it, and we regret the time that we spend waiting.”

One of the saved souls moved forward, and then another, and then another, until the entire group was moving forward, slowly. Dante thought, They look like a group of sheep that lack a shepherd. Sheep move like that. One or two move, and then the others follow them. The sheep move so slowly because they have no shepherd to keep them moving.

But the saved souls in front saw Dante’s shadow. They stopped and backed up. The saved souls in the back also backed up, although they did not know the reason for backing up.

Virgil said, “I know what is bothering you. This man casts a shadow because he is still living. But do not be afraid. This man would not be here if it were not the will of Heaven. His purpose for being here is to climb the mountain.”

The saved souls replied, “Go ahead of us in the direction in which we are heading. You will find the place from which you may climb the mountain.”

One of the saved souls in front said, “As you walk forward in pursuit of your goal — I don’t want to keep you from accomplishing your purpose — look backward at me and see if you recognize me.”

Dante looked back and looked closely at the saved soul, who was blond and looked like a patrician, although a sword had cut through one of his eyebrows.

Although Dante looked closely at the saved soul, he had to confess that he did not recognize him.

The saved soul then showed Dante a gash above his breast — a second mortal wound. The saved soul smiled and said, “I am Manfred. My grandmother is the Empress Constance. I humbly request that when you are again in the Land of the Living, go and see my daughter, whose sons are the King of Aragon and the King of Sicily. No doubt, rumors are that I was sentenced to spend eternity in the Inferno because I was excommunicated. Tell my daughter that as I lay dying with these two mortal wounds, I was saved. I asked forgiveness for my sins from God. My sins were horrible, but God’s forgiveness is infinite. All who believe that their sins are incapable of being forgiven by God are guilty of the sin of pride.”

Dante thought, Why is Manfred smiling as he says these words? He may simply be amused that I do not recognize him. Manfred was famous. I have heard of him although I did not recognize him, Manfred is humble; he did not get angry when I failed to recognize him. Manfred was killed in the Battle of Benevento in 1266, the battle that led to the return of the Guelfs to Florence — I was one year old at the time. Or Manfred could be smiling because I will be able to give the good news of his salvation to his daughter. He is happy that I can give good news to his daughter and make her happy. His daughter will know that he is a saved soul and is not suffering the torments of Hell. Or perhaps Manfred is smiling because he is aware that I am likely to think that he does not belong here in Purgatory. He may be thinking, I bet you didn’t think I was saved, did you? After all, I know that he was excommunicated. But it does not take years of penance to get God’s mercy. All it takes is a moment, and Manfred repented his sins in the very last moment of his life.

Manfred continued, “Because I was excommunicated from the Church, my bones were dug up by the Pastor of Cosenza who was following the orders of Pope Clement IV. The Pastor of Cosenza then cast my bones outside Church territory. Now the wind and the rain buffet my bones. But even though I was excommunicated, that will not keep me from Paradise. Repentance and salvation can occur in the very last moment of life.”

Dante thought, Manfred is right. Excommunication is being expelled formally from a religious body. Excommunication is not the same thing as damnation. God decides where we will go in the afterlife, not the Church. I see that Manfred is not angry about how his body was treated on Earth. Many sinners in the Inferno were angry. Manfred is happy that he was saved.

Excommunication does mean being without a shepherd. Manfred and other excommunicated souls did not have a shepherd to guide them because they were separated from the Church.

Manfred continued, “But those who are excommunicated, although they repent at the end of life, must stay at the foot of the mountain for thirty times as long as they were excommunicated. However, prayers by the living for the dead can shorten that time. Please tell my daughter that. I hope that she will pray for me and others.”

Dante thought, Manfred is a saved soul, but his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, is in the Inferno — he is in the tomb with Farinata. Members of the same family can end up in different places in the afterlife.

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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