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


The Gates of Purgatory 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.

Far from being outdated relics of religious fervor, Dante’s Gate of Purgatory actually gives us a template to live our lives and to deal with some of the messiness which comes with being human.

The Three Steps to the Gate

There are no steps to the gate of Hell–its supposed to be easy to get through. Purgatory’s three steps mirror the 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 personal 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.

Step 2: Contrition

Contrition is being sorry, saying sorry, and then receiving forgiveness. Note that last part: receiving forgiveness. Which means its incumbent upon the wronged party to forgive.

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. Moreover, 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.

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, Dante’s forehead is inscribed with the letter P seven times. You may think the P is for Purgatory–but it’s not. It’s for peccatum–Latin for sin. Seven P’s for the seven levels of Purgatory and the 7 Deadly Sins.

Only the levels are called cornices.

As Dante passes each level, one of the P’s disappears from his forehead, literally cleansed from his mind as the injury causes by the sin itself it cleansed from his soul.

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 do 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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