The Purgatorio as Spiritual Exercise

The Divine Comedy, especially the Purgatorio, is a poetic demonstration of a common medieval theme: the ascent from vice to virtue by the grace of God.


Dante’s Divine Comedy is a wonderful work of poetry and a reflection upon the philosophy and theology of the Church in the High Middle Ages. But, like the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, often missed is its value as a spiritual exercise. Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and St. Francis de Sale’s Introduction to the Devout Life, the Purgatorio especially functions as a spiritual exercise that, approached with prayer, is a great aid toward removing vices and instilling virtues so that one may more easily cooperate with the grace of God.


In each section that follows, an excerpt or two from Dante’s Purgatorio is given, followed by an excerpt or two from a different Catholic spiritual author, followed by a short reflection on the unity of the theme.


Summa Theologica (St. Thomas Aquinas)


“What have your souls to boast of and be proud? You are no more than insects,

incomplete as any grub until it burst the shroud.” (Canto X)


“What, to eternity, is a thousand year?…The fame of man is like the green of grass: it comes, it goes; and He whom by it springs bright from earth’s plenty makes it fade and pass.” (Canto XI)


The subject of any virtue or vice is to be ascertained from its proper object: for the object of a habit or act cannot be other than the object of the power, which is the subject of both. Now the proper object of pride is something difficult, for pride is the desire of one’s own excellence. (STh., II-II q.162 a.3 resp.)


Pride denotes immoderate desire of one’s own excellence, a desire, to wit, that is not in accord with right reason. Now it must be observed that all excellence results from a good possessed. Such a good may be considered in three ways. First, in itself. For it is evident that the greater the good that one has, the greater the excellence that one derives from it. Hence when a man ascribes to himself a good greater than what he has, it follows that his appetite tends to his own excellence in a measure exceeding his competency: and thus we have the third species of pride, namely boasting of having what one has not. (STh., II-II q.162 a.4 resp.)


We must remember what Dante means in the first line: we are incomplete like a grub. That grub was made to be a beautiful butterfly. It was not, however, made to be one on its own, prideful and separated from its maker.


The Interior Castle (St. Teresa of Avila)


“I was sent to show the way his soul must take for its salvation; and there is none but this by which I go.” (Canto I)

“What’s this? What’s this? Negligence! Loitering! O laggard crew run to the mountain and strip off the scurf that lets not God be manifest in you.” (Canto II)

But we should understand that this fountain and this resplendent sun, which is in the centre of the soul, lose not their brightness and glory, for these always remain in it, and nothing can take away its beauty. But if any one should throw a black cloth over a crystal which is exposed to the sun, it is evident that, though the sun may shine upon it, it will have no effect on the crystal. (St. Teresa of Avila)

As I said in an earlier reflection on Dante, This is the entire journey of purification, or sanctification, and of salvation. God created us, and saw that His creation was very good. Stained with sin as we are, we must rise up, cooperate with God’s grace, and be on our way. We need not wait until Purgatory to begin to “strip off the scurf.” Sainthood is not for the “elite;” there is a, I hope by now well known, universal call to holiness.


The Ascent of Mount Carmel (St. John of the Cross)


“Such is this Mount that when a soul begins the lower slopes it most must labor; then less and less the more in nears the goal.” (Canto IV)


The happy lot of the soul, then, lies in this unobserved departure which no carnal desire or aught else was able to hinder. And also in that this departure took place by night, which is the privation of all desire wrought by God, a condition which is as night to the soul. The happy lot of the soul, then, consists in its being led of God into this night from which so great a blessing results, but into which it could not have entered of itself, because no one is able in his own strength to empty his heart of all desires, so as to draw near unto God. (St. John of the Cross)


It is God who purifies us, who removes the stain which we can by no means remove ourselves. As we grow in holiness, we are more and more what we are meant to be. We are held down, so to speak, less and less by the flesh which wars against the spirit. But although it is always God who both calls us to sanctity and effects this sanctity, nevertheless, we must cooperate with His grace. As St. Augustine famously says, He Who created you without you does not will to save you without you. Thus sanctity is also a human labor.


Introduction to the Devout Life (St. Francis de Sales)


“Men run from virtue as if from a foe or poisonous snake. Either the land is cursed, or long-corrupted custom drives them so…The heavens cry to you, and all around your stubborn souls, wheel their eternal glory, and yet you keep your eyes fixed on the ground. And for turning from the joys of Love the All-Discerning flails you from above.” (Canto XIV)


In the exercise of the virtues we should always prefer that which is most conformable to our duty, not that which is most agreeable to our imagination.

Among the virtues unconnected with our particular duty, we must prefer the most excellent to the most glittering and showy. (St. Francis de Sales)

When assaulted by any vice, we must embrace the practice of the contrary virtue, and refer all the others to it, by which means we shall overcome our enemy, and at the same time advance in all the virtues. (St. Francis de Sales)


Virtue makes life easy, if by life we mean right living. But virtue is hard to obtain. Just as many want to be strong and fit but few overcome the laziness of the flesh and actually make fitness a reality, likewise with our habits, our character. When we finally do decide to mold our character and instill true virtue, we must recognize our vices, and not simply try to avoid falling into them, but rather make a very active effort to do their opposite. Only through this positive act do we overcome them and replace them with true virtue.


The Spiritual Exercises (of St. Ignatius Loyola)


“…see that man’s ways, even at his best, are far from God’s as earth is from the heaven whose swiftest wheel turns above all the rest…Perhaps a greater care, as often happens, dims his memory and his mind’s eye…I came back from those holiest of waters new, remade, reborn, like a sun-wakened tree that spreads new foliage to the spring dew, in sweet freshness.” (Canto 33)


Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my whole will


The first Colloquy to Our Lady, that she may get me grace from Her Son and Lord for three things: first, that I may feel an interior knowledge of my sins, and hatred of them; second, that I may feel the disorder of my actions, so that, hating them, I may correct myself and put myself in order; third, to ask knowledge of the world, in order that, hating it, I may put away from me worldly and vain things.


Lost and failing to fix our eyes upon the true Good, we make little idols for ourselves and fail to obtain our own true happiness. Original sin has affected both our intellectual and sensual desires. When we offer these back to God, He purifies us. We are made new, and , as the final words of the Purgatorio tell us, made “perfect, pure, and ready for the stars.


Concluding Thoughts


We are called to holiness. Purified of all sin through the grace of Christ, may we all gaze upon the Heavens. Let us run the race so as to win. May we be among those who persevere until the end so that, ourselves made holy by Him who is holy, we may forever sing: “Holy, Holy, Holy….”


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