Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 9 Retelling — Prepurgatory — First Prophetic Dream and Saint Peter’s Gate

Chapter 9: Prepurgatory — First Prophetic Dream and Saint Peter’s Gate (Purgatory)

In Italy, dawn was arriving and the Sun appearing. On the mountain, night and the Moon had arrived. In the hour before dawn, sometimes dreams are true.

Dante fell asleep, and he dreamed that an eagle with golden feathers was soaring in the sky and was ready to swoop down, just as Jupiter, disguised as an eagle, had swooped down and seized the young Ganymede, the most beautiful mortal alive, to serve as cupbearer to the gods on Mount Olympus.

In his dream, Dante watched the eagle circling in the air, and then the eagle swooped down and seized him, just as the disguised Jupiter had seized Ganymede. The eagle soared with Dante to the sphere of fire, and then both Dante and the eagle seemed to burn, and Dante woke up.

In Paradise, an angel thought, The medieval conception of the cosmos was that the Earth is at the center of the universe. People believed that over the Earth are a number of crystalline spheres, one of which is a sphere of fire. That is the sphere that Dante the Pilgrim is dreaming of here. The medieval conception of the cosmos was that other spheres held the Sun, the Moon, various planets, and the fixed stars (they are fixed in placement to each other; in contrast, the planets are not fixed in placement to each other). The modern conception of the cosmos is much different; modern scientists think of the cosmos as consisting mostly of empty space and dark matter and dark energy. Medieval thinkers believed that each celestial sphere made contact with the sphere above it and with the sphere below it.

When Dante woke up, he did not know where he was. When he had fallen asleep, he had been with Virgil, Sordello, Nino Visconti, and Corrado Malaspina. Now he was in a new place. He reflected that he was as confused as the young Achilles must have been when his mother, the goddess Thetis, had taken him while he was asleep away from his tutor, the Centaur Chiron, in Thessaly, to the island Skyros to live, disguised as a young woman, among the women in the palace of King Lycomedes. Thetis’ plan failed to keep Achilles out of the Trojan War. Ulysses and Diomed came to the palace and showed jewelry and weapons to the women (and the disguised Achilles) of the palace. The women were interested in the jewelry, Achilles was interested in the weapons, and Ulysses and Diomed carried Achilles off to fight and die in the Trojan War.

Dante was dazed and confused by his surroundings, but Virgil explained what had happened and where he was.

Virgil said, “Do not be afraid. We have made much progress on our journey. Let us keep going. You are now before the gate leading to Purgatory. Look at the cleft in that rock there. That is where the gate to Purgatory is located.

“Before dawn arrived, a lady from Paradise — Saint Lucia — came to us. She said to me, ‘I am Lucia. Let me take this sleeping man and speed him on his way.’ Sordello and the other saved souls remained behind; they are not ready to climb this high.

“Saint Lucia carried you in her arms here. I followed. With her beautiful eyes, she let me know where the gate to Purgatory is located, and then she left, and you woke up.”

Dante felt relieved. He thought, I am becoming aware of reality and learning truth. Before, I was thinking of Jupiter kidnapping a young boy. Then I thought of something better: a mother trying, but unfortunately failing, to protect her son. Then I learned the reality and the truth, which are best: A Heavenly lady is seeking to save the soul of a sinner and providing impressive aid to make that happen.

Dante also thought, While living, Saint Lucia was persecuted and tortured — including being blinded — because she was a Christian. In Paradise, her eyes have been restored to her.

Dante was ready to climb higher. He and Virgil approached the gate leading to Purgatory. Leading to the gate were three steps; each step was a different color.

Sitting on the highest step was an angel. Dante lifted his eyes to look at the angel, but the angel’s face was too bright to look at, so Dante looked down again.

The angel carried an unsheathed sword. It also was too bright to look at.

The angel said to Dante and Virgil, “Stay where you are and answer me. Why are you here, and where is your guide? You must have permission to pass through the gate.”

Virgil replied, “A lady from Paradise has given us permission to pass through the gate. She said to me on behalf of this man, ‘Behold the gate. Go through it and continue your journey up the mountain.’”

The angel courteously said, “May the lady from Paradise continue to help you. Come forward and climb the stairs.”

The first step was white, the second step was darker than purple-black, and the third step was red.

Dante thought, The three colors represent the three stages of repentance:

1) self-examination: white,

2) sorrow for sin, contrition: darker than purple-black, and

3) penance: red.

Dante and Virgil climbed the steps, and Virgil said to Dante, “Ask the angel now, humbly, to turn the keys and let us through the gate.”

Dante knelt and begged the angel to let him and his companion through the gate.

First, the angel carved with his sword seven P’s on Dante’s forehead and told Dante, “Make sure that you heal these seven wounds as you journey up the mountain.”

The angel thought, The P is an abbreviation for Peccatum, the Latin word for “sin.” All who journey up the mountain will heal seven wounds. Pride is the foundation of all sins; pride makes a person think that he or she is the center of the universe. These are the seven wounds, and these are illustrations of how these sinners think:

1) Pride — A sinner who is guilty of Pride thinks, “I am the center of the universe, and I am better than other people. Quite simply, I am more important than other people.”

2) Envy — A sinner who is guilty of Envy thinks, “I am the center of the universe, and if you have something I want, I envy you.”

3) Wrath — A sinner who is guilty of Wrath thinks, “Because I am the center of the universe, everything ought to go my way, and when it does not, I get angry.”

4) Sloth — A sinner who is guilty of Sloth thinks, “I am the center of the universe, so I don’t have to work at something. Either other people can do my work for me, or they can give credit for work I have not done because if I had done the work, I would have done it excellently.”

5) Avariciousness and Prodigality — A sinner who is guilty of Avariciousness or Prodigality thinks, “I am the center of the universe, so I deserve to have what I want. If I want money, I get money and never spend it, or if I want the things that money can buy, then I spend every penny I can make or borrow to get what I want. Either way, I deserve to have what I want.”

6) Gluttony — A sinner who is guilty of Glutton thinks, “I am the center of the universe, so I deserve these three extra pieces of pie every night. This is my reward for myself for being so fabulous.”

7) Lust — A sinner who is guilty of lust thinks, “I am the center of the universe, so my needs take precedence over the needs of everyone else. If I want to get laid, it’s OK if I lie to get someone in the sack and never call that person afterward. My sexual pleasure is more important than the hurt of someone who realizes that he or she has been used.”

As saved souls climb the mountain, they will purge each of these deadly sins. They will learn some examples of the sins and they will learn some examples of the virtues that are opposed to the sins:

Ledge 1: Sin — Pride; Virtue — Humility

Ledge 2: Sin — Envy; Virtue — Kindness and Love of Others

Ledge 3: Sin — Wrath; Virtue — Meekness and Patience

Ledge 4: Sin — Sloth; Virtue — Zeal and Diligence

Ledge 5: Sin — Avariciousness (and Wastefulness); Virtue — Charity and Detachment from Riches and Detachment from What Riches can Buy

Ledge 6: Sin — Gluttony; Virtue — Abstinence or Temperance

Ledge 7: Sin — Lust; Virtue — Chastity or Proper Sex

The angel wore a robe that was the color of ashes: the color of penitence. From beneath the robe he took out two keys: one was gold and one was silver.

The angel inserted both keys and turned them one at a time.

The angel said, “If either of these keys does not turn, the gate will not open. One key is more precious than the other, but both are precious.”

The angel thought, The gold key is the God-given authority to absolve — forgive — a person who has sinned. The silver key is the act of absolution. To be absolved of sin, a person must really repent sin and not be trying to scam God.

The angel said, “Peter gave me these keys and told me to err on the side of mercy, saying, ‘It is better to admit too many than to admit too few. They must ask for mercy.’”

Dante thought, Jesus gave keys to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19: “And I say also to you, That you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”

The angel pushed against the gate, and it swung open.

The angel said, “Go through the gate, but don’t look back, or you will find yourself in Prepurgatory again.”

The gate creaked as it swung open, but Dante heard the souls in Purgatory Proper rejoice as another soul joined them. The rejoicing souls sang the “Te Deum Laudamus” — “You, O Lord, We Praise,” of which these are the first few lines:

“Lord God, Your praise we sing;

“Lord God, our thanks we bring;

“Father in eternity,

“All the world worships You.

“Angels all and Heavenly host

“Of Your glory loudly boast;

“Both Cherubim and Seraphim

“Sing ever with loud voice this hymn:

“Holy are You, our God!

“Holy are You, our God!

“Holy are You, our God, the Creator and Lord of All!”

The creaking of the gate made it difficult for Dante the Pilgrim to hear some of the words being sung, just as at church a worshipper may not hear some words of a hymn because of the music of the organ.

Dante the Poet thought, At this time, I was not yet a perfected soul. I was required to spend time in Prepurgatory in part to learn that one can prepare to be a perfected soul before one dies and before one enters Purgatory Proper. One way to do that, of course, is through the sincere repentance of one’s sins. Another way is through religious songs. The main point is this: Don’t wait before repenting and before beginning the process of purging your sins.

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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