How to Understand Purgatory’s Gate in the 21st Century

I saw a gate; three steps beneath it, each

Of different hue, led upward; and thereat

A porter, who as yet vouchsafed no speech

Purgatory, Canto IX, lines 76-78

Dante

I originally published this post in 2022 as part of the very first complete journey through Dante’s Divine Comedy. I have republished here it with a few additions and edits.

At approximately 6am on Easter Monday, perhaps a little later, Dante and Virgil pass through the lower terraces of purgatory and reach St. Peter’s Gate. Beyond, seven “cornices” rise, each purging a different fault from the souls who pass through.

The Gates of Purgatory, or St. Peter’s Gate, are less familiar to us than either the gates of Hell or Heaven. Yet, in our 21st century hyper-politicized world, we need the gates of Purgatory more than ever before. If Hell shows us how not to be. Purgatory shows us not only how to be better, but that we can be better.

If only we go through the gate.

We often dismiss purgatory as an outdated relic of a controlling religious elite or even worse, heresy.In reality, Dante is providing us with a template to live in liberty by showing us how to deal with some of the messiness which comes with being human. We may know him as the “poet of hell” but he proves in Purgatorio he’s much more.

The Three Steps to the Gate

There are no steps to the gate of Hell—it’s supposed to be easy to get through. Easy like continuing to choose the faults and bad habits that keep us enslaved in a broken way of life. Purgatory’s three steps mirror the same steps involved in penance. We may shy away from using words like “penance” in our world—partially because of the greater importance placed on opinion.

But, the steps are still the same.

Step 1: Confession

Confession is taking ownership of the problem and admitting you messed up, whatever your true intentions were. Think of this as identifying the bad habit you want to break, or the thing that’s keeping you stuck. And doesn’t psychology tell us the first step in fixing any problem is identifying it?

That is exactly what confession is. It’s acknowledging there is a problem and that you are part of the problem.

Step 2: Contrition

Contrition is being sorry, saying sorry, and then receiving forgiveness. Note that last part: receiving forgiveness. Which means it’s incumbent upon the wronged party to forgive. I think it’s also important for us to recognize that we have to be genuinely sorry.

This means we don’t just apologize because we’re being forced to apologize. That would be a fake apology. Anything that’s forced ultimately isn’t genuine because, as with anything involving human nature, you can speak the words, just as Dante did in Canto II of Inferno when he faked modesty to hide his fear. But it’s much harder to actually follow through when you don’t mean what you say.

And if you’re saying the words just so you stay in business, or stay relevant, or get accepted, then there is no contrition involved.

Step 3: Restitution and Amendment

Restitution and Amendment are two separate things in Dante’s world, but they are part of the same step. Restitution is the physical amends to the wronged party. Amendment is when you do the inner work to repair the fault in your own life. They are the same step, because this is where the real work comes in.

What this looks like in reality is not clear—human emotions never are. There’s no set agreement on what restitution and amendment look like or what order they go in. Nor does Dante enlighten us. That is something we must figure out for ourselves. But, like with anything else in Dante’s world, it must be genuine and freely chosen.

Angel at the Gate

Unlike the gates of Hell which stand open and are broad, Purgatory’s gate is guarded by an angel with a sword. If you recall the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve, then you may make a connection between the angel at the gate and the angel who stands guard to the entrance of the Garden of Eden.

This is Dante showing, allegorically, there is a way back to Paradise and it’s through purgation. If this term also disturbs you, follow the link for my own take on what purgation means in our present-day world.

Who is this angel to you? Is it your conscious? Your expectations of yourself and others? Your worldview? Your God? The angel is the one who inscribes the P’s and who opens the gates so purgation can begin. If you look at the angel as your conscious, then are you holding yourself back?

The 7 P’s of Purgatory

At the top step, the letter “p” is written on Dante’s forehead with ash. This mimics the rite Christians take part in on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent.

You may think the P is for Purgatory–but it’s not. It’s for peccatum. Peccatum has several different meanings in English. The most common translation is “sin” but you could also translate it as “mistake” or “fault.” Given the use and abuse of the word “sin” by some theologically bankrupt sects, it may be easier for you to think of “sin” in those terms.

Why seven? Each “p” stands for one of the seven deadly sins and corresponds to one cornice, or level in Purgatory. As Dante passes each level, the angel on that level cleans a “p” off his forehead, literally cleansed from his mind as injury caused by the sin itself is cleansed from his soul.

With each successive “p” that is wiped away, Dante starts to feel lighter. Much in the same way you or I would instantly feel freer once we’ve broken a bad habit.

Framing the Gate in the 21st Century

If you are non-religious, then the Gate can be difficult to comprehend. So can most of Purgatory, for that matter. But, I think if you look at the Gate in terms of “doing the work”–the inner work we all must do if we’re to be well-rounded individuals, then you are actually fairly close to Dante’s original meaning, anyway.

If the steps to the gate are the actions, you have to perform when you’ve messed up, then the angel is what you have to satisfy before you can move towards purgation.

Remember, the angel is the one who opens the gates to Purgatory and inscribes the P’s. So, personally, I think if you were to give the angel a non-religious context, you should think of it as your own conscience, standards, principles, etc.

A word of caution, however, if you find yourself unable to move on or to move through purgation, then perhaps you need to seek someone else to be your angelic gatekeeper whether that’s a spiritual advisor, mentor, therapist, or religious leader. We are often the hardest on ourselves.

But, as Virgil points out to Dante in Canto II of Inferno, there comes a time when being hard on yourself is cowardly and not brave.

How do you understand the Gate of Purgatory and who is your gatekeeper?

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