By Noëlle Hiester
Dante and Virgil emerge from hell on Easter Sunday morning to a new reality in an opening Purgatorio canto filled with symbols of life and resurrection.
At the bottom of hell they’ve encountered Satan, but perhaps a different Satan than expected. Dante’s Satan is large and grotesque, but he’s also trapped in ice, flapping his wings to no avail. This Satan is monstrous and horrible, but not all-powerful. In fact, he is stuck, like all the inhabitants of hell, in a continuous circle of repeating that which traps him.
Recently I heard a talk in which the presenter’s task was to remind us who we are. In doing so, he started with the fact that we are blessed, that God loves us. The presenter went on to give us the other side of the story. We are also sinners. There he stood, physically demonstrating to one side blessedness and to the other side sinfulness. And I realized that those two sides are not even. There is not an even tug of war between blessedness and sinfulness. Blessedness is greater because God is greater. Even if we’ve been hearing God is love for years, do we really believe it? Or do we face the world with a dualistic attitude? Do we deep down think of God and Satan as two co-equal forces of good and evil in the world? Do we think of our blessedness and sinfulness as offsetting sides of our being?
By first looking at the end of the Inferno we can see more clearly the contrast that Dante is drawing for us in the opening canto of the Purgatorio. When Dante and Virgil climb out of hell they come to something new. We’ve been through hell and have seen sin stripped of its glamour. On that journey, we saw how stagnant, how lifeless, how impotent sin really is. Now we’re in a world where change is possible. Now we’re in a world where God’s grace acts.
In this new world Dante and Virgil immediately see things that have not been seen before – stars, sky, light, cleansing water. And to indicate this newness Dante for the first time uses the future tense:
And I will sing about that second realm
Given the human soul to purge its sin
And grow worthy to climb to Paradise. [lines 4-6]
By using the future tense Dante immediately places us in time. Even though the sinners we meet in hell are in a sort of constant motion, they are really timeless. Again, hell is stagnant. Those sinners are not going anywhere. In Purgatory, however, the sinners are going somewhere. The sinners we will meet do have a future, and that future is Heaven. For that reason Purgatorio is concerned with freedom. Saint John Paul II once wrote, “For freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. Hence the words of our Lord, which speak so clearly to everyone: ‘The truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). There is no freedom without truth.” It is in purgatory that the disfiguring effects of sin are repaired and sinners become more and more what they were created to be. And, as each draws nearer to the truth of his or her being, so each also becomes more free.
Dante’s understanding of freedom as the great work of purgatory is the lens through which we need to view the appearance of Cato the Younger later in the canto. Here is a pagan, and a suicide at that. Why is he in Purgatory when other virtuous pagans, even Virgil, are in limbo? Why is he here and not in the suicide wood? Marcus Porcius Cato (95 B.C.-46 B.C.), Julius Caesar’s great opponent, was a Roman Senator who tried to protect the Roman Republic from tyranny. In his day, the Republic represented the stable temporal order. Remember that Dante lived in a turbulent time when Italian cities were fighting each other. For him Rome represented rightful order. This also explains why Brutus and Cassius are being chewed endlessly by Satan along with Judas Iscariot. It makes sense that Judas, the betrayer of Christ, should be in the lowest level of hell. By why Brutus and Cassius with him? Though Brutus and Cassius had also opposed Caesar they had accepted the amnesty offered to them by Caesar when he became ruler. Instead of honorably opposing him they had accepted his favor and then they deceived him and killed him. Brutus and Cassius were betrayers, but Cato was not.
C.S. Lewis offers some insight that may further help in understanding why Dante may have placed Cato on the shores of Mount Purgatory. In his book,The Discarded Image, Lewis notes that Cato appears in some of Dante’s other writings and that these appearances help us interpret Cato’s appearance here in Purgatorio. Like many Medievals, Dante tended to look for allegorical meanings. Thus in the story of Cato as told by the Roman poet Lucan, particularly in his marriage, divorce, and subsequent remarriage to Marcia, the Medievals found an allegory for the stages of life with an eventual return to God at the end of life. In this allegory Marcia represents one who journeys through life, while Cato represents God. Add to this allegorical reading of Cato the fact that he virtuously fought for freedom to the point of giving his life it, and Cato becomes a kind of symbol of Christ.
It is now possible to see how Dante might view Cato’s suicide as a martyrdom. In Dante’s reading Cato freely gave of his life not as a wanton act of self-destruction, but as self-sacrifice for the cause of freedom. And so Cato’s decision to give up his life rather than live without freedom is a decision that corresponds with the journey through Purgatory, where sinners work to become free of the sins that blind them to the truth.
In an extended meditation on martyrdom in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II writes, “Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice.” How are we sincerely seeking truth so as to be genuinely free even to the point of accepting “grave sacrifice”? Let us pray for the grace to more firmly desire truth so that we may be free.
Miss Noëlle Hiester is the Director of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester. She first encountered Dante’s Divine Comedy as a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville and has been a fan ever since.