Canto 25 begins with our little group of three travelers climbing, single file, up the narrow gap and flight of stairs to the final terrace of the Mountain of Purgatory. This terrace, the terrace of the Lustful, is unlike all the other terraces of Purgatory in that it is so narrow that the group has to continue on in single file. It is interesting to note that although the group travels together, supports one another, and provides advice and encouragement to one another, ultimately, each pilgrim has to climb the narrow gaps between terraces and cross the final terrace alone, essentially, and without support. Throughout the Purgatorio, we have seen many times the interplay and connection between souls, with the prayers of one affecting the purification and ascent of another. But ultimately, the purification and cleansing of a soul as it prepares to enter Paradise and face God is a solo journey.
Before our group gets to the final terrace, though, Dante has a question that has been bothering him since Canto 23. He hesitates and changes his mind about asking the question, but Virgil encourages him to speak. Here we see, yet again, another instance of Virgil guiding and encouraging Dante. Dante then goes on to ask why the shades on the previous terrace of the Gluttonous were so lean. Recall that back in Canto 23, Dante was marveling at the famished skeletal bodies of skin and bones. [lines 22-39] He now seeks the answer to this mystery.
Prompted by Virgil, Statius gives a biological explanation of the creation of a human body and a lecture on the nature of the “shades” that Dante has encountered. Statius ends his treatise by explaining:
The shade takes on the form of our desire,
It changes with the feelings we have:
This, then, is what amazed you earlier. [lines 106-108]
In other words, the shades of the Gluttonous take on the form of the starving because they desire the pains of starvation. Here we see the paradox of Purgatory. Although, as they undergo their purification, the souls in Purgatory experience extreme pain, they nonetheless earnestly desire this pain. We are reminded of the words of the shade Forese in Canto 23: “our pain is constantly renewed. Did I say pain? Solace is what I mean!” [lines 71-72] The pains of Purgatory are actually desired by these souls. It is their true solace and consolation.
Our group of travelers reaches the final terrace, which has a fascinating description: fire is coming out from the bank of the mountain, while air blasts up from the mountain’s ledge, bending the flames back and leaving a narrow path for travelers, single file. Virgil warns Dante (and the rest of us traveling with Dante to reach salvation), “be sure to keep your eyes straight on the course, for one could slip here easily and fall.” [lines 119-120]
The souls of the Lustful are in the middle of these flames, singing a hymn and shouting out examples of chastity. The first example they give is the Virgin Mary, the exemplar of purity and chastity. Then, as we have seen many times before, we hear an example from pagan mythology: Diana’s virginity. The third example consists of shouts of praise for married couples who live in chastity and virtue. It is interesting to see a celebration of the exercise of chastity in both the single and married states of life. Today’s society, so saturated in the sins of the flesh, would do well to heed the lessons these lines contain. We don’t overcome lust by denying our sexuality but by properly recognizing our sexuality as a gift (to the Lord or our spouse) in accordance with our vocational call.
Dante’s (and our) journey of purification is almost over, as the final line of the canto reminds us that on this terrace of fire, “the last of all their wounds is healed.” [line 139]
Mrs. Ellen Reilander is a graduate of Notre Dame Law School, a licensed attorney, and a stay-at-home mom. She lives in South Bend, Indiana, with her husband and two young children.