Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 21 Retelling — Fifth Ledge — Avarice and Wastefulness

Chapter 21: Fifth Ledge — Avarice and Wastefulness (Purgatory)

Dante kept walking as he continued to wonder about the shaking of the mountain. He thirsted for the answers to his questions just as the woman of Samaria thirsted for the water of everlasting life that Jesus offered to her and to all. Dante also thought about the saved souls purging their sin on this ledge, and he grieved.

Suddenly a figure appeared just like the newly risen Christ had appeared to two apostles on the road to Emmaus. The figure appeared from behind Dante and Virgil as they carefully maneuvered through the saved souls who were lying on the ledge.

Dante and Virgil were not aware of the figure until he spoke to them: “May God give you peace, brothers.”

Virgil greeted the figure and said, “I have appropriately been banished to Limbo by God, and I trust that God will appropriately lead you to Paradise.”

The figure said, “I am surprised. If you two souls are appropriately banned from Paradise by God, how can it be that you are climbing this mountain?”

Dante thought, We are on the shadowy side of the mountain. I am not casting a shadow, and so this figure does not know that I am still alive.

Virgil said to the figure, “Look at the forehead of this man beside me. You will see the remaining Ps that the angel carved on his forehead. This man, who still lives, will eventually make his way to Paradise. But because he still lives and the Fates are still spinning his thread of life and the Fate named Athropos has not yet cut the thread, he cannot climb the mountain as we can. His eyes do not see as the eyes of souls do. Because he needed a guide, I was brought up from the Inferno to guide him, and I will do my duty and guide him as far as I can with the knowledge that I have.

“But can you tell me please why the mountain shook just now and why all the souls shouted, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,’ as if with one voice?”

These were exactly the questions that Dante wanted to have answered, and he listened eagerly to the reply of the figure, who said, “This mountain is not subject to the natural laws that move the rest of this world. What causes earthquakes there does not cause earthquakes here. Heaven itself causes what happened here. In Purgatory Proper are no dew, no rain, no frost, no snow, no clouds, no lightning, no rainbows. An earthquake caused by natural laws can occur in Prepurgatory, but never in Purgatory Proper.

“Here in Purgatory Proper, the mountain shakes when a soul feels itself to have become purified. The mountain shakes with joy when a soul is purified enough to ascend to the top of the mountain and then to Paradise. And that is when all the saved souls shout with joy, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ or ‘Glory to God in the highest.’ The saved souls are not envious.

“The saved soul determines when its sins are purged and the saved soul is ready to climb to the top of the mountain. The saved soul is trustworthy. When it is not sufficiently purged of a particular sin, it desires to stay on the appropriate ledge and purge the sin. When that sin is sufficiently purged, it moves to a higher level. Not all souls need to spend time on each ledge. Some souls can skip a ledge and move to a higher ledge. It all depends on the kind of life that that soul lived while in a living body. When all sins are sufficiently purged, the soul moves to the top of the mountain and then to Paradise.

“Purging one’s sins takes time. I have spent 500 years on this ledge, purging my sin of greed. I died in the year 96 C.E., and since this is the year 1300 C.E., I have been purging my sins for 1204 years. Only just now did I feel myself sufficiently purged of sin that I am ready to climb to the top of the mountain. This is why just now you felt the mountain shake and heard souls shout. I hope that soon the other saved souls will be with God in Paradise.”

Dante was happy. His thirst for knowledge had been quenched in a most satisfying way.

Virgil said to the figure, “Now I understand why the mountain shakes and the souls shout. You have broken through a net that bound you. Please tell me who you are, and why you have lain on this ledge for 500 years.”

The figure replied, “I was alive during the reign of the Roman Emperor Titus, who, with justice and before he became Emperor, revenged the crucifixion of Christ by destroying Jerusalem and defeating the Jews in 70 C.E.

“I was a pagan, but I became a Christian.

“I was a poet — a title that long endures and is much honored. I was, others say, a major poet of Rome’s Silver Age. I wrote the Thebaid, which told of the Seven Against Thebes. Oedipus ruled Thebes, and after he died, his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, decided to take turns ruling the city. Eteocles would rule for a year, and then Polynices would rule for a year, and so they would alternate as rulers of Thebes. However, after Eteocles’ first year of rule, he was greedy and refused to let Polynices rule for the following year. Polynices raised an army. Thebes had seven gates, and the seven captains in the army raised by Polynices each attacked one of the seven gates. The two brothers fought in single combat, and they killed each other.

“I also started to write the Achilleid, an epic poem about Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan War, but I died before I could complete it.

“My name is Statius, and I am still famous in the Land of the Living.

“I became a poet because of Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic poem that also caused more than 999 other people to become poets. The Aeneid is the mother of my poetry and of much other poetry. I learned how to write poetry from the Aeneid; without that model, my poetry would have been worthless. I wish I had been alive when Virgil was alive. I would willingly spend another year on this ledge if only that would happen.”

Virgil looked at Dante and silently communicated, Don’t tell him who I am.

But Dante had already started smiling, anticipating Statius’ joy when he found out that Virgil was standing before him. He quickly stopped smiling, but too late — Statius had already seen the smile.

Statius looked at Dante and requested, “Please tell me why you were smiling just now. You quickly smiled and quickly stopped smiling.”

Dante was standing between two souls. One soul wanted him to tell what he knew, and the other soul did not want him to tell what he knew.

Dante sighed, and Virgil relented and said to him, “Feel free to tell this soul what he wants to know.”

Dante said to Statius. “I was smiling because my guide who is helping me climb to Paradise is Virgil, the one who taught you how to write poetry that sings the deeds of gods and of men.”

Statius was happy and was kneeling so he could hug Virgil’s knees to show him respect, but Virgil said to him, “Don’t. You are a saved soul, and I am not. You should not show me reverence.”

Statius relented, stood up, and said, “Now you can understand how much I respect you and your poetry.”

Dante thought, Purgatory has surprises, and the surprises are good surprises. Statius said that he would love to meet Virgil, and here Virgil is.

The three poets walked on: Virgil, a pagan who had stayed a pagan; Statius, a pagan who had become a Christian; and Dante, a Christian.

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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