As he sleeps, Dante begins Canto 9 with a dream. In what can only be explained as foreshadowing of the purification to come, Dante is seized by an eagle and brought to a “sphere of fire” wherein “it seemed the bird and I both burned.” Interestingly, this section is peppered with references to Greek mythology, pre-Christian figures who—had they been real—might also have passed through the gates of Purgatory.
His journey is aided by St. Lucia (how powerful is the intercession of the saints!). It lands him at the feet of Purgatory’s gate. Here he encounters a guard who gives him guidance:
Then with his sword he traced upon my brow
the scars of seven P’s. “Once entered here,
be sure you cleanse away these wounds,” he said. [lines 112-114]
In this instance, the letter “P” stands for peccatum, which is the Latin word for sin. So, these seven P’s are, as you might guess, the seven capital sins. It is incumbent on Dante—and by extension every one who enters Purgatory—to be purified of whatever pride, envy, greed, sloth, wrath, lust and gluttony that they still might have. Each of our sins may be different, but they all must go—as each separates us from the love of God.
I found it quite reassuring, though, that the guard who holds the keys to Purgatory from St. Peter himself has an attitude of mercy. St. Peter advised the guard:
‘Admit too many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.’ [lines 128-129]
In other words, when it comes to forgiveness, if you have to err on the side of mercy or of extreme caution, choose mercy! We get a sense from this guard that while Purgatory won’t be a cakewalk, it is a necessary step forward towards God, a God who loves us and ultimately wants us to be with Him in Paradise.
What else do we learn here? As Dante prepares to enter the gates he is told not to look backwards or he will find himself once again outside of the gates. This is consistent with what St. Teresa of Avila, the great doctor of the Church, tells us about making progress in the spiritual life. In the Interior Castle she explains that we may pass through gates of the castle, ever closer to the Lord, but temptations may still persist. If we give in to them, we may lose the progress we have made. The only way is forward!
Canto 9 ends with chanting of the Te Deum Laudamus—a hymn of praise and thanksgiving—in the background as Dante prepares to pass through the gates. Within these brief lines, we are left with some very simple, yet profound advice about purifying our life:
First, it won’t be easy or painless as Dante’s dream demonstrated. Whether on earth or in Purgatory, shedding sin can be much like going through fire.
Second, we must never forget that sin keeps us from God. No attachment to pride, over-indulging in food or drink or sexual pleasure can take the place of a relationship with Christ.
Third, we should throw ourselves at Christ’s feet, asking for His Mercy. Our Lord is just, but also ready and waiting to forgive us and bring us closer to Him.
As Dante enters Purgatory, he continues to give us a glimpse into the experience of “everyman”. To reach Paradise, many of us will go through Purgatory and a process of purification. The great consolation in all of this is that this journey and this process begin and end with God’s Mercy.
Mrs. Caitlin Bootsma is the editor of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum as well as the Communications Director for Fuzati, a Catholic Marketing company. She lives in Richmond with her husband and two sons.