Guillaume de Machaut (c1300 – 1377) and Nicole Oresme (c. 1320–1325 to 1382) were contemporaries, a fact that somehow escaped me. These are two very interesting characters, and are, in my limited knowledge, the only two great creative geniuses who flourished during the 14 century in Europe, with the exception of Dante, who died in 1321.

Nick at work

Why this is interesting to me: the High Middle Ages, in the sense of a healthy, European-spanning civilization, ended in 1315 with the Great Famine at the end of the Medieval Warm Period. Efforts to reestablish the social order destroyed by the famine were crushed by the Black Death starting in 1347, leaving only an empty shell of what was before. After half or more of the population of Europe died, the social disruption was irreparable. The famine disrupted the land-based wealth of the aristocracy, the foundation of the the various feudal structures: a vassal theoretically held land in exchange for military service, such that a knight needed enough surplus off his land to maintain his small military retinue – armor, horses, weapons, squires, maybe a smith, and supplies for all of the above. And so on, up the line: the kings counted on their lords, the greater lords counted on their knights, and it all came down to counting on a peasantry that could consistently produce more food than they needed to survive.

Now starve out those peasants for 3 solid years, wash away their farmland, starve their animals to death or force the peasants to eat them – and, once things got back to ‘normal’ in 1322, that surplus is out the door. And the weather has turned colder and less benign. Knights aren’t able to maintain their arms; the wealth of the lords was stretched beyond breaking, and kings, both weakened and seeing weakness all around them, start in on the never-ending wars that characterize the 14th century, most famously the 100 Years War 1337-1453.

Italy was spared the worst effects of the Famine, which mostly struck Northern Europe. Italy was also the least ‘feudal’ place in Europe, with communes and city-states dominating the social structure, not liege lords and vassals. The Plague hit Italy bad.

Dante dies in 1321. He represents, perhaps, the apex of medieval thought. He was both a rigorous Thomist/Aristotelian and on fire with Franciscan spirituality. I’ve read (but have no way of verifying, as I don’t read Italian or Latin) that for most of the next century in Italy, poetry, as well as other arts such as painting and sculpting, aped the styles dominant in 1321 – Dante and the sweet new style in poetry and Giotto in painting. Can’t verify, but this stagnation would fit. The energy evident in the previous century, where a southern Italian – Aquinas – studied in Paris under a German – Albert the Great – and taught Frenchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards, Czechs, and so on, who brought their learning throughout Europe – seems to be gone.

Except not quite. During the 13th century, the first surviving evidence of polyphonic music is created. The names of the first two composers of whom we have any records are recorded – Leonin and Perotin – or Little Leo and Little Pete, as I like to call them. They were masters of organum, adding a vocal line or lines to a modified chant melody. The few shreds of written evidence suggest organum was already an old practice when Leo and Pete got to it. The practice was continued and presumably developed over the 13th century by their unknown successors

A century later, Willy Machaut almost comes out of nowhere, with his Ars Nova, or new art (‘new style’ is probably a better way of understanding it). Willy is the first composer for which we both have a large body of work and about whom we know a lot. He was well know all across Europe as a composer, poet, diplomat, and soldier. The uniquely Western development of polyphony spread, until, over the next two centuries, we reach an apex in Josquin and Palestrina.

Nick Oresme was a French professor, scientist, cannon, and bishop. He is the last great scientist of the Middle Ages. Here’s something about him I quoted about a year ago:

The next (and, as it proved, final), steps taken in this direction (physics of motion – ed)  were the accomplishments of the last and greatest of the medieval scientists, Nicole Oresme (1325 – 1382). …devoted much of his effort to science and mathematics. He invented graphs, one of the few mathematical discoveries since antiquity which are familiar to every reader of the newspapers. He was the first to perform calculations involving probability. He had a good grasp of the relativity of motion, and argued correctly that there was no way to distinguish by observation between the theory then held that the heavens revolve around the earth once a day, and the theory that the heavens are at rest and the earth spins once a day. 

Then everything came to a stop. Given the scientific and mathematical works of Descartes and Galileo, but no chronological information, one might suppose the authors were students of Oresme. Galileo’s work on moving bodies is the next step after Oresme’s physics; Cartesian geometry follows immediately on Oresme’s work on graphs. But we know that the actual chronological gap was 250 years, during which nothing whatever happened in these fields. Nor did any thing of importance occur in any other branches of science in the two centuries between Oresme and Copernicus.

 James Franklin, Honorary Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of New South Wales

Both these guys somehow survived the Black Death. They might be called the exceptions that prove the rule, the rule being that the high intellectual energy of the Middle Ages came grinding to a halt in the mid-13th century.

That’s my amateur take, anyway.

Chesterton, Dante, and the Disciplines of Lent

Here is a talk I gave yesterday, February 13, 2023. I opened with the lame excuse that my library is still in boxes in storage, and thus I had to write this mostly from the top of my head. Also, as is necessary with a talk of this sort, my historical comments are broad generalization. For the most part, I’m taking these gross generalizations from Chesterton. That understood:


The work that most defines Chesterton high schools, that most guides and inspires us, is G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Chesterton wrote it in response to H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, which is Wells’ attempt to deemphasize, denigrate, if not out and out remove, Christianity and especially Catholicism, from mainstream history. 

Unfortunately, Wells was very successful. Only Catholics, and only some of us, seem to be willing to say much of anything positive about the Church’s role in history. The Everlasting Man is a detailed argument for why Wells and his myriad followers are wrong from the get go – they misunderstand and misrepresent man in fundamental ways, misunderstand and misrepresent man’s religious impulses, are confused about what a church is, and in general, seem baffled and confused by the common experiences of common people.  

And that’s before we even get to Jesus! If you have any interest at all in understanding  our schools and the task we have had set for us, please read The Everlasting Man. It’s not an easy book, but the payoff is high. 

I’ll circle back to Chesterton throughout this talk. For now, we take up the same challenge Chesterton did in his response to Wells: describing truly that oddest and most surprising of creatures – us. I think he would agree that the best place to look for understanding of human beings would be the poets, and that the best poets are Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante. 

An aside: some people may want to shoehorn Milton, Virgil, maybe Goethe, in there. Some people broaden the definition of poetry to include the opening of the Gospel of John, which to me is in its own class, not to be lumped in with mere human invention. But when it comes to human genius, especially as applied to understanding human  beings, I’ll stick with my Big Three. 


I chose to talk about Dante, specifically his glorious Purgatorio, because in a week we will be entering Lent. That great poem is about Lent. All of Dante, no matter how appalling or uplifting, is about people here and now, in the real world. The Purgatorio is the most beautiful account ever written about the struggles of people in the Church Militant, even though its matter is the Church Suffering. We who want to be holy, who want to be saved, who want to be able to endure seeing God face to face – the Purgatorio is our story. 

The poem takes the form of a medieval allegory. On the surface, this should be a little terrifying – allegory is usually a pretty unwieldy and blunt tool, so a long allegory about the afterlife should not be expected to be a particularly gripping tale. Another medieval example of religious allegory, written 60 years after Dante, is Piers Plowman. If you read that first, you might lack the stomach for even trying another one! Piers Plowman has all the grace of getting hit over the head with a 2 X 4, and all the art of a battering ram. 

The saving grace of the Purgatorio is Dante’s genius. In his hands, allegory is like a paintbrush or even a scalpel. He illustrates and lays bare. Not that he doesn’t whack the reader over the head once in a while, but, in general, he is more subtle and always more beautiful. 


The world out of which Dante crafted the Divine Comedy, the high Middle Ages, requires a little clarification for us modern readers. In his beautiful biography of St. Francis, Chesterton identifies the beginning of the truly high Middle Ages with the activities of the great Italian beggar. The suffering of the late Roman Empire, the darkness of what modern historians call Late Antiquity, was, in Chesterton’s view, a required purging of the evils of the late stages of Paganism. In Everlasting Man, Chesterton speaks at length about the more simple, more mythological forms of paganism, which are not in themselves particularly evil. But as time goes on, the tendency for a more practical paganism, one directed towards Getting Things Done, ends up with actual demon worship, with Carthage and the rites of Moloch. The world, particularly the civilizations built on the shores of the Sea in the Middle of the Earth – the Mediterranean – had been steeped in such horrors for millennia. Both the prophets of Israel and the sturdy peasants of Rome hated and despised this demon worship. Tyre and Sidon, lands where Jesus himself tread, were home to rites of making infants “pass through fire” – while drums were beaten to drown out the screams. Carthage, hated and ultimately destroyed by the Romans, was their independent colony, Not independent enough to abandon the demon worship of its mother cities, sadly. 

While the Empire, at peace under Augustus, had put an end to these practices, it had no way to exorcise the demons. Such evil can only be driven out with prayer and fasting. (Mk 29; Mt 21). The Church, in its penitents and saints and monks and hermits, struggled and suffered with what looks at times like a grim asceticism, from around 400 AD to St. Francis’s time in the eleven hundreds. The exorcism, according to Chesterton, was finally achieved in the Middle Ages. A new spirit of joy was bodied forth in the Little Friar of Assisi. 

Stating that St. Francis was not grim is like saying the sun is not dark. With the little beggar, the Church was dragged into a new age, the age of growingly flamboyant and playful Gothic buildings and art, of love songs and organum growing into polyphony, of study growing into recognizable sciences, of applied technology much greater than anything known to the ancients. And of a new thing under the sun – the medieval university. 


More context. The Medieval Warm period lasted from about 900 to about 1300. This is significant, because almost everything we call the Middle Ages was born and first flowered in this timeframe. With more predictable and warmer weather and longer growing seasons, and the introduction of improved technology, the population of Europe is estimated to have quadrupled over those 4 centuries. The heavy wheeled iron plows, iron tired wagon wheels, much more efficient horse harnesses, the practice of growing oats to feed to your horses so that you could work them harder and longer, and a myriad related developments – meant that the work of peasants was much more productive. Life was not as tenuous as it had always been everywhere before, where, as one English historian put it, population was “harvest sensitive” – one bad harvest, and the weak died off, and the population fell. Populations in the Middle Ages were not quite so harvest sensitive. 

More and more land was put into production – those strong, well-fed horses could pull those heavy wheeled plows through dense muddy soil, and grow more and more food and feed more and more people. Other horses could pull heavy wagons loaded with foodstuffs and rolling on iron tires, into the towns and villages. More people living more secure lives allowed for the development of commerce and social orders more human and stable. The whole great and highly varied set of systems known as feudalism flourished. 

Francis died in 1226; his slightly older contemporary, friend, and fellow mendicant Dominic Guzman died in 1221. Each founded religious orders. While Francis had little interest in and even less talent for organization, the Spaniard was an organizational genius. Thus, the various offshoots of St. Francis’s orders quickly strayed from his humble vision and fierce orthodoxy, requiring papal intervention and reorganization, and even condemnation of certain of Francis’s followers as heretics, St. Dominic’s orders still to this day largely follow his original rule. 

Both Franciscans and Dominicans figure strongly in Dante’s story, by the way. I will bring this digression back around to the point in a minute. By the time St. Dominic died, his first great intellectual disciple was somewhere between 16 and 27  years old. Brother Albert, known in his own time as the Universal Master and in our time as St. Albert the Great, took Dominic’s passion for learning in the service of God and wed it to his native intelligence, to become the most formidable intellectual of his day. Until he was overshadowed by his star pupil. 

St. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225. After his harrowing escape from his family and their well-intentioned desire to keep their well-born son away from these new, rather gauche mendicant orders – see Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox for details – he fell in with Albert in Paris. By 1250, young Thomas was already a famous teacher who soon eclipsed his own master. 

Now that the demons had been exorcised by centuries of prayer and fasting, a scholar could safely dive into pagan literature without too much fear for his soul. Thomas famously baptized Aristotle, following here the lead of his teacher Albert. For centuries afterwards, every educated man and woman (and the universities trained hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of women) would have to know his Aristotle to participate in any learned discussion. The properly educated student could make rigorous arguments, spot the logical flaws in his own and others’ arguments, and weigh the degree of certainty any proposition warranted. 

Dante was born into this world in 1265, and thoroughly educated in it. St. Thomas died in 1274 when Dante was 9; St. Albert in 1280 when Dante was 15. The shadows, or more properly, the daylight,  of these two giants most definitely fell across Dante’s life. The Purgatorio and indeed the whole Divine Comedy is imbued and enlightened by Dante’s Dominican education. His constant references to the stars and geography and geometry, which might seem pedantic to us moderns, gave verisimilitude to his contemporary audience, who likewise had fallen under the grace or spell of the great Dominicans. 

But much more important and telling, Dante chooses Reason in the person of Virgil to be his guide through Hell and Purgatory to the threshold of Heaven – very Thomistic choice. Virgil’s explanations and expansions on their journey are little examples or extracts of the Questions Method used by the Dominicans, where a question is stated, all the arguments against laid out, and au contraire issued, and then the counter arguments presented, The master would then wrap it up with a concluding statement. Virgil teaches Dante and us using what might be called the Questions Method Lite, but the bones of the full Method still show through.  

Yet while Dante is fully a product of Dominican education, in his religious life, one might even say in his emotional life, he is expressly a Franciscan. Dante joined the Franciscan  third order. There is even a curious scene in the lower levels of Hell, where, in order to summon the monstrous embodiment of Fraud and use it to catch a ride to the bottom of the Pit, Virgil instructs Dante to undo the rope around his waist – the belt symbolic of his membership in the Franciscans – and cast it in. No commentator I’ve read makes a convincing argument about what this is supposed to mean. The drama is real enough – Dante meant something by it – but exactly what is unclear. 

One can truly say that both the great founders of the two great mendicant orders are present on every page of the Divine Comedy. Virgil, as Reason itself, speaks mostly for the Dominicans; but Dante’s soul is formed and honed by the joyful yet stern asceticism of Francis. His empathy or horror, disgust or sorrow, at the fates of the souls he meets in the Purgatorio and especially the Inferno seem to me to more strongly reflect the Heart of the little beggar. Two stories from the life of Francis will have to do as illustrations, where Francis and Dante would perhaps most agree on an emotional level. Peaceful, loving Francis spared no disgust at priests who would let their altar linens get dirty – the very idea that one would call down Our Lord and Savior in the Eucharist without having done everything in his power to prepare a proper reception infuriated him. And the better known story about Francis returning from a trip to find his brothers had built a very nice building for themselves, much nicer than he thought appropriate. So the saint climbed up on the roof, and began in a fury tearing off roofing tiles with his bare hands. 

I think Dante would be in solid agreement with these actions. 


Dante was a minor, relatively impoverished Florentine noble. He nonetheless took a very active role in Florentine political life. When his faction fell out of power in 1301, he was exiled. He spent the rest of his life living on the generosity of others, and writing his Divine Comedy. After the first book, the Inferno, came out, many in Florence were eager to welcome the now-famous poet back home. But the leaders of his beloved city put conditions on his return that Dante, proud son of Florence that he was, simply could not comply with. He never again returned to his home. 

Dante died in 1321, shortly after completing his Paradiso, the final book in the Divine Comedy. A few years earlier, In 1315, the Medieval Warm Period came to a dramatic end. Europe north of Italy and Spain suffered one of the worst famines in recorded history. For almost 2 years, it rained in what is now Germany, France, and England. It was three years before any crops were grown, Anything like normal productivity did not resume until 1322. While millions starved to death, the more disheartening damage was an almost universally weakened population – even the survivors were likely near death. Farms were washed away; work animals were eaten or starved to death themselves. A weakened, impoverished population was forced to rebuild. 

Northern Europe never quite recovered. A mere 25 years later, in 1347, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing from 50 to 60% of everybody, perhaps as many as 200 million dead. 

The rich commercial and political culture built over the previous 400 years did not survive. Local population numbers often did not recover to pre-plague levels for many centuries. In place of complex local loyalties and duties, war and unrest spread. New, less human and humane structures took their place. Heroic efforts were made to restore the old order, and the Middle Ages did, according to some accounts, limp forward for another century and a half. 

But the world of Dante had died. 


On that depressing note, we return, finally, to the Divine Comedy. 

Dante was the first writer, prose or poet, to give a thorough and coherent account of Purgatory. Christians from the beginning, and even Jews back at least to the Maccabees, had believed in the importance of prayers for the dead. Once you accept that the dead can benefit from our prayers, the question arises: where are the souls of the dead? Over the centuries, a concept of a purgatory developed: the souls of the dead who escaped damnation yet are still trapped by the effects of their sins undergo sufferings to purge them of those sins. Our prayers can help them, just as our admonitions and prayer could help them here on earth. 

But there it sat for centuries. If forced to describe Purgatory, a typical response from before Dante wrote would have been something like ‘just like Hell, except the souls eventually get out.’

Such a description was completely unacceptable to Dante. Comparing the state of saved but not perfected souls to the fate of the damned offended both his Dominican and Franciscan sensibilities. One can almost imagine his fist slamming down on the table at the very thought, like St. Thomas Aquinas in intellectual battle with the Manichees. As a man educated by Dominicans, the irrationality of imagining Purgatory as a kind of Hell offended him. As a third order Franciscan, the lack of Divine Love in such an understanding of Purgatory was unacceptable. No, the souls in Purgatory are saved! The must – MUST – be filled with a joy beyond anything any of us who is not a great saint can imagine. 

Souls in Purgatory are saved! Therefore, they joyfully accept the Will of God, and embrace their sufferings, that they might see Him face to face. In Purgatory there will be none of the wailing and despair of Hell; none of the hatred of one damned soul for another. Instead, the saved but impure souls love and support one another, and sing the praises of God! 

In addition to Catholic traditions, Dante had before him a couple pagan descriptions of the afterlife, most centrally Virgil’s account of Aneas’s visit to the underworld in the Aeneid, book VI.  Virgil becomes the obvious choice to lead Dante through Hell and even Purgatory, as he’s theoretically been there, as the author of Aneas’s journey. 

The afterlife crafted by Virgil, the virtuous pagan, bears little similarity with Dante’s Christian understanding, except perhaps in the idea of Justice. In Virgil’s underworld, the punishment more or less fits the crime; those pagans who are virtuous after their fashion, are reincarnated. The suicide Dido, for example, suffers nothing like what the suicides in Dante suffer, as killing oneself is not the horror to pagan Romans as it is to Catholics.

Reincarnation is right out for Dante. But Virgil’s image of the souls waiting for reincarnation has some slight echo in the souls in Dante’s ante-Purgatory, waiting for their true cleansing to begin. 

In building his Purgatory, Dante begins with the story from Revelation 12,  where Satan and his angels are swept from the sky. Dante imagines Satan flung with such force that he is embedded in the earth at its exact center, leaving a conical crater above him. The circles of Hell are along the inside of this cone. Dante’s journey through Hell takes him down to the center of the earth from one circle to the next.

This cosmic impact of Satan is imagined to have taken place where Jerusalem sits now; thus Jerusalem sits above Hell, buried deep in the earth. On the direct opposite side of the earth, in the vast ocean Dante imagines covering the Southern Hemisphere, the material displaced by Satan and the cone of Hell raised up a mountain. This mountain is Purgatory. The Pit is for the damned, but God brings good even from the fall of Satan by creating from that fall the mountain by which repentant sinners can climb to Heaven. 

The symbolism is clear: the damned descend into the pit until the worst sinners are near the Father of Lies and farthest from the Heavens; on the diametrically opposite side of earth, a mountain is raised by which repentant souls might climb toward Heaven. The central part of Medieval cosmology that is often confused here: the earth is imagined as the center of the Universe, yes, but much more importantly, earth is imagined as the farthest point from Heaven. The center of the earth, the very center of the universe, is occupied by Satan! Climbing a mountain takes one both closer to God and further from Satan. It is not pride that imagines the earth as the center of the Universe, at least to Catholics. 

The mountain of Purgatory is surrounded by hilly plains and ocean shores. The repentant are delivered to Purgatory on a boat driven by an angel, just as the damned were carried into the heart of Hell on a boat driven by Charon, conceived by Dante as a demon. The repentant must ascend to a gate guarded by another angel in order to enter Purgatory proper. Above the gate are seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins. On top of the mountain, nearest to Heaven, is the Earthly Paradise. 

While the top and the bottom of the mountain are very interesting, here we will focus on the active repentance taking place on the terraces of the Seven Deadly sins. 

Dante describes rules for the repenting souls: 

  • Only in the light of day can the souls move up the mountain. 
  • Once through the gate, looking back will land you back outside, and you must start the whole process over. 
  • The penitents decide when they are cleansed, and then move on to the next terrace. Nothing other than their own knowledge of their sins keeps them on any particular terrace. 

Dante hammers home the first point above by falling asleep as night falls on the slopes outside the gate to the terraces. He dreams an eagle lifts him to the fiery realms of heaven, only to set him back down on earth. He awakes to find himself at the gate. Virgil explains that, as the morning started to break, St. Lucy – her name means Light – came down from heaven and carried him to the gate. For we can make no progress in our repentance without the light of Grace, but must wait out the inevitable periods of darkness. 

The second point above recalls Lot’s wife. Under the new dispensation, those who look back are not turned to pillars of salt, but merely need to start over. 

The final point emphasizes that repentance is an act of our wills – stirred and aided, of course, by divine grace. The Divine Wisdom is not punishing penitents in Purgatory, but helping them reach the point where they could endure the full glory of heaven! 

The angel guarding the gate holds from Peter the two keys, one of gold, the other of silver. He has been instructed to err rather in opening than in keeping shut. This angel uses the point of his sword to mark the forehead of Dante with 7 wounds in the shape of the letter ‘P’ – for pecatta, or sins. He is told that he must do penance until he has healed the wounds symbolized by the letters cut into him. 

In a scene as close to humor as Dante usually allows himself to get, the angel uses the keys of Peter to unlock the gate to Purgatory proper, which groans and screeches on its hinges. As the Esolen translation puts it: 

And as the sacred portal’s pins and bolts,

Forged of strong metal, of a booming tone,

Were twisting in the hinges no such groan

And stubborn grinding came when Caesar forced

The good Metellus to give up the vault 

On the Tarpeian Rock…

So seldom do we fallen humans commit ourselves to repentance that the gates to Purgatory are practically rusted shut. Here Dante uses, as is his habit, stories from history or mythology to illustrate his point. Caesar was on campaign and out of cash, and raided an old temple treasury, whose gate had not been opened in many years. Then, following the practice of Virgil, he asserts that what’s happening in his story is *greater* than what happened in history and legend – the groans of those rusty temple treasury gates are as nothing compared to the screeching of the neglected gates of Purgatory.  

Of course, there’s a deeper layer. There always is with Dante. Just as Caesar raided a temple to get treasure for his war, each repentant sinner who enters the gates of Purgatory has discovered the treasure needed to win his war against sin.  

Once through, Dante hears – barely – unseen voices singing the Te Deum – the ancient prayer sung at Matins, the liturgical office prayed in the morning before sunrise. The hymn begins: 

O God, we praise you; O Lord, we acclaim you.

Eternal Father, all the earth reveres you.

All the angels, the heavens and the Pow’rs of heaven,

Cherubim and Seraphim cry out to you in endless praise:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts,

heaven and earth are filled with the majesty of your glory.

For a Catholic, repentance is fundamentally liturgical – the work of the people of God. The souls in Dante’s Hell hate and curse each other. Part of their punishment is being stuck with other people they don’t like. But souls in Purgatory, repentant souls seeking mercy and healing, rejoice in the company of their companions. Prayer is a constant in their lives; praying together, especially praying the Church’s formal liturgical prayers, is not just natural, but makes up the solid core of their repentance. 

The Te Deum is a hymn of God’s glory sung just as the sun begins to bring light to the sky. It is only in the light of God’s grace that the penitent can hope to make any progress. The souls beginning their purification join with the whole Church in thanking and praising God, and walk in his light. 

Now Dante and Virgil are properly on their way. Each terrace, or step of repentance,that they encounter shares these characteristics: 

  • Upon first reaching the terrace, a scene from the life of Mary illustrates the virtue that lies opposite the sin being purged.  
  • Then follows a scene from secular history or mythology also illustrating the virtue
  • A liturgical prayer is being sung by the penitents or unseen voices
  • The purifying act is introduced – the penitents are shown to be repenting
  • Examples of the sin and its destructive power are witnessed as Dante and Virgil make their way counterclockwise around the terraces. 
  • Finally, an angel guarding the climb up to the next level uses the tip of his wing to gently erase one of the letters P from the penitent’s brow. Penance for that sin has been completed; the symbol of the damage done by that sin is removed, and the penitent is ready to attempt the next terrace. 

The terraces are arranged such that sins are tackled in a logical order. The first and last terraces, for purging the sins of Pride and Lust, respectively, mirror the arrangement in Hell, where Satan’s pride is punished at the very bottom of Hell, and the lust of Paolo and Francesca is punished at the very first and highest circle of Hell proper. Pride separates one from God and neighbor in a profound way, making one’s self a god, and so must be beaten down first before any other sin can be overcome. The ever popular sin of Lust, on the other hand, is at its roots near to Love – a perversion of a good thing, and therefore a lesser sin and easier – not easy, by any stretch, but easier! – to correct. It can wait, in other words, while Pride has to be dealt with before any progress can be made. 

Here’s the full batting order: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice and Prodigality, Gluttony, and Lust. 

While I  had originally planned to touch upon each sin and its cleansing, that is probably too much detail for a talk like this, and – would you look at the time! Instead, I will focus on three sins, and encourage you to read the Divine Comedy over Lent. 100 Cantos of between 130 and 160 lines each. Read 2 to 3 Cantos a day, 15 to 20 minutes of reading, and you’d get through the whole thing in 40 days. Or just focus on the Purgatorio, get a translation with good notes – I like Sinclair’s excellent notes – and spend some time learning who all these Italians were, what all the classical references refer to, and what the battles of Dante’s day were all about. Less than 1 canto a day! 

Although I haven’t done so for the last few years, for many years I reread the Divine Comedy as my Lenten reading. I won’t kid you – it’s not an easy book, especially at first. It is full of obscure – to us – historical and mythical figures, and features Thomistic digression about once every other Canto. It assumes a familiarity with medieval Italian politics few possess. So you will need an edition with good notes, and a willingness to spend the time reading them. Beach reading it is not. But I think it’s worth it. 

Moving on – 


After Dante and Virgil pass through the gate, they must climb up a steep and treacherous path in order to simply get to the starting line. Virgil in his role as Dante’s reason, must cajole and encourage Dante to keep moving. The path is compared to a needle’s eye, an uncertain zig-zag, no straight shot. Thus the path looks to those suffering from pride.

Finally, exhausted, Dante reaches the first terrace. It is as lonely as a desert path, so little do men repent of their pride. He sees carved into the path, with art so great the images appear to Dante to move and speak, the Annunciation, the ultimate act of humility and surrender to the Will of God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Repentance from Pride begins with the great drama of Mary’s fiat. 

Stories of pride and humility from the Old Testament follow, and then a legend about the Emperor Trajan, who humbly gave in to the pleadings of an old woman for justice. The Old and New Scriptures, as well as secular history, are brought to bear. 

Dante is delighted at the images, and needs Virgil to interrupt him to point out the penitents themselves. They are reciting the Our Father, praying that God’s will, not theirs, be done. Not for themselves do they pray – that blessing was lost when they died – but for us, the living!

The penitents of this terrace each carry a huge rock on their backs that cause them to be bent double. Instead of standing proud and tall, their sin makes them bow nearly to the ground. Dante, who was a very proud man, also bends until he can talk face to face with the penitents. This is the first example of Dante revealing his own sense of his sinfulness – in this canto, he clearly identifies with, and assumes the posture of, the penitents. 

The exhausted penitents, weighed down by their sin, plod along, forced to see as they walk the images carved into the floor – the Annunciation, Trajan’s humility, and many illustrations of the wages of the sin of pride. One penitent notes that he must carry this weight here because he would not carry it in his earthly life. 


After talking with a couple of his proud fellow Florentines, Dante and Virgil are directed to the next stairs to the next terrace. Dante cannot bear to look directly at the angel guarding this passage – the reflected glory of God in this member of the heavenly household is too great for his sinful eyes. Virgil assures him that the strength of his vision will grow as he repents. 

The touch of the angel’s wing wipes the first P from Dante’s forehead. The climb to the next terrace is much easier, now that he’s been healed from his pride. 

As they reach the next terrace, hidden voices fly by and cry out: “They have no wine!” and “But I am Orestes!” Mary, always selfless, feels for the poor host of the wedding at Canna suffering the embarrassment of running out of wine. According to the myth, Orestes was about to be condemned to death for the revenge murder of his mother and her lover, when his friend Pylades stepped forward and declared he was the real Orestes. The two friends fought for the honor of dying for the other. Selfless love is the opposite and antidote to envy. 

The sin of envy is close, in some ways, to the sin of pride, and thus comes second. The twisted inability of the envious to take any pleasure in the blessings bestowed on others is a poison that soon spreads. The sinner grows more and more isolated and bitter. 

The penitents on this terrace are weak and immoble, sitting leaning against the cliff wall and each other. They cannot even so much as sit up without the help of other people. Their eyes have been sewn shut with iron wire, a practice used by falconers when taming their birds. They envied what the saw in life, and so have lost that power until the sin is purged. Their livid clothing blends in with the stone of the terrace and cliff. All are one. They are forced into companionship and away from any individual show. 

Blind, unmoving, weak, but now part of a community precisely as they could not be in this life because of their envy, the penitents recite an endless Litany of the angels and saints! Everything on the terrace of the envious moves them to recognize and praise and be thankful for others! 

Here Dante merely mourns for the suffering of the sinners, but does not share in it much. He remarks that he will be little detained on this terrace, but he’s seriously worried about that last one! Not too envious, but very proud. 

Another angel heals another P, and the climb to the next terrace is easier still. 

Dante and Virgil move on through Wrath, where the penitent must live in a blinding smoke, Sloth, where they never stop moving, Avarice and its twin Prodigality, where the sinners lie face down on the pavement, admiring the dust that so occupied them in life, and gluttony, where the souls fast while being tempted by delicious fruit. None of these sins hits Dante very hard personally – then we come to Lust.


“All around this ring,” Virgil warns Dante, “You’d better keep a tight rein on the eyes. One small misstep, and you’ll have gone astray.”  Right. On this circle, the repentant sinners walk in a fire that hugs the cliff face, leaving only a narrow path along the precipice. Dante must either plunge into the fire, or walk a narrow and dangerous path. 

As they quickly move through the fire, the sinners sing Summæ Deus clementiæ, God of Greatest Clemency, a hymn sung at Saturday matins – again, like the Te Deum in the circle of Pride, sung just as the sun begins to light the sky. The most relevant section: 

Do Thou in love accept our lays

Of mingled penitence and praise;

And set our hearts from error free,

More fully to rejoice in Thee.

Our reins and hearts in pity heal,

And with Thy chastening fires anneal;

Gird Thou our loins, each passion quell,

And every harmful lust expel.

When the souls reach the end of this hymn, they all cry out “But I have not known man,” acknowledging Mary’s holy virginity and the proper ordering of sexual desires to the divine Will. Then, 

Returning to their singing, 

they would cry of wives and husbands who were chaste and lived 

as virtue’s laws and marriage both demand.

Dante was after all a married man and father. The next moment, a group of people come from the opposite direction from which the first group came. When the two groups of souls meet, they greet each other with a holy kiss, and then get on their way – the souls must practice proper physical contact in order to defeat their desire for sinful physical contact! The souls then shout Sodom! Gomorrah! before continuing their way.  

Dante puts those who repent from *any* kind of lust on the same level – all are sinners who need to reorder their desires in accord with God’s Will. This is in keeping with the Church’s ancient understanding – we all need to repent. No one is beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

An angel appears, singing “How blest are they, the pure of heart!” He advises Dante and Virgil: 

Holy souls, you pass no further on, 

Unless you are bitten by the fire. Come, enter, 

And turn no deaf ear to the hymns beyond.

Virgil pleads at length with Dante – the fire may be painful, but it won’t hurt you. It is for your own good! Do it! Finally, Virgil plays his trump card: you want to see Beatrice again? Then you must endure the flames. 

Dante finally plunges in. 

The blazes there inside did so surpass

All measure, that to feel the cool again,

I’d have flung myself into boiling glass

The angel eventually wipes the last letter P off his forehead. Dante is now free from sin and ready for Heaven. 

Concluding remarks

The formula Dante lays out for repentance and purification in the Purgatorio, although expressed with great art, is not much different than what one should expect from a solid confessor: turn to Mother Mary, practice the opposite virtue, pray with the Church in her Liturgy (the sacraments are implied here, but, since they are no longer available to the Church Suffering, Dante doesn’t expressly mention them). Do penance! Be constantly aware of the evil of your sins so as to avoid temptation! Dante gives this wise guidance a beautiful poetic and theological foundation. 

The Purgatorio is not just a masterpiece of poetic imagination. It is also a great theological achievement. As Chesterton describes it in a number of places, particularly in Orthodoxy and his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, penance had taken on a rather grim aspect in the last days of Rome. In the lingering shadow of the more demonic late stages of paganism after the decline and fall of Rome, the Church’s saints and other leaders tended to emphasize the evils of the world and seriousness of repentance. It took centuries, but the demons were exorcised from a natural world that had grown unnatural. Starting in the 12th century, a great blossoming of the Church and human culture spread across Europe. The greatest example and engine of this flowering was St. Francis. After he had called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister, after he had tamed the wolves and preached to the birds, Christians were brought back to the joy that God intended for us. To be sure, the little barefoot beggar prayed hard and always, and subjected himself to disciplines that would make most hermits blanch. But – here’s the thing – he embraced his mortifications with endless, irrepressible joy. 

At the same time, the followers of another great saint helped reestablish the Church’s ancient intellectual traditions. Dominic’s great followers – Alburtus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas – looked at the same freshly scrubbed world as Francis, and saw that it was good. They found the Joy of God lurking in every detail and argument. 

Finally, Dante Alighieri, son of minor Florentine nobility and a proud and ambitious poet, the intellectual son of Dominic but a Franciscan at heart, set out to write that new world. Of course, evil had not miraculously vanished, but, as Chesterton might put it, the mirth of God had finally managed to peek through. So Dante first describes the evil in the world – his Inferno, which is much more about this world than the next. But that is only one third of the Divine Comedy. Fully 2/3rd is about salvation and glory. In particular, the Purgatorio lays out for us what true repentance looks like. True repentance is a source of great joy! We lean on and sing with our brothers and sisters, we support each other with prayer, we rejoice in the light of God. We see the world, for the first time, as it is. 

A Lesson Idea…

Here I talk about a story John Taylor Gatto tells about a little lesson he learned in 3rd grade, back in the 1930s. Not sure if my high school kids would get it. Here’s another approach:

Kid’s drawing, borrowed from an NPR article. My tax dollars at work.

You all are taking drawing, and this is a very good thing, but maybe not for the reasons you think. When you ask a little kid to draw Mommy, what the little kid does is draw a circle for the face, add a couple little circles for eyes, a red curve for smiling lips, and some squiggles for hair.

The kid is happy and satisfied. Mommy sees the drawing, is informed that it’s her, and is also happy.

So it is a picture of mommy. But what did the little kid actually draw? The mommy in front of him? Or rather, his idea of his mommy?

All of you, taking drawing lessons now, and no longer little kids, would not draw mommy this. No, you’ve learned not to simply draw your idea of your mom, but rather to look carefully at you mom (or whatever you are drawing).

Rather than simply drawing something you ‘know’ inside, you want to look at the world outside and try to draw what’s actually there.

It’s a lot more work than just drawing what you think. You have to be prepared to study and absorb the lines, shading, and colors of real physical objects, and then work hard and practice to render those elements into a beautiful drawing.

It’s worth it, I hope. Some of you already draw fairly well, and all of you are already better than when you started a few short weeks ago. If you just stop at your idea of mommy or a horse or whatever, you’re stuck in your own head. The real world is unable to get through.

Now let’s look at an expression in English: to draw a conclusion. I propose that drawing a conclusion is very much like drawing your mommy. It’s easy, and childish, to simply reach a conclusion based on what’s already in your own head. Such conclusions might be satisfying to you; maybe even make your mommy happy – but they’re lazy and immature. You can do better. It is the business of this school to help you do better.

It’s a lot of work to try to understand an argument from outside your own head. You have to listen, puzzle it out, ask questions, think some more, maybe run a few ideas past your friends and family to see how others think. It might take a long time; sometimes, you may never reach a very firm conclusion at all! But the process of trying to understand, of exercising your mind, is how you grow outside your own head.

Here’s the big question: how do those ideas inside your own head, the ones we all tend to use to answer almost every question we face, get there in the first place? Magic? A miracle? Or something else? How do you know these ideas are true?

And here’s the hard lesson:

There are many reasons to lie to children, the Jesuit said, and these seem to be good reasons to older men. Some truth you will know by divine intuition, he told us, but for the rest you must learn what tests to apply. Even then be cautious. It is not hard to fool human intelligence.

John Taylor Gatto

Some people lie; many more people, for many different reasons, repeat lies without consciously lying themselves. And you – young people who naturally trust your friends and teachers – are the target of a LOT of lies.

The world is full of peoples who do not love you, but certainly want to use you for their own purposes. They know how to tell a lie such that children, whose defenses have not yet fully developed, are likely to absorb it without even being aware of having come to believe. The easiest way: get other children to parrot the lies, and then level criticism at anyone who dares say anything against it. You don’t believe X? Then you’re a hater, a bigot, a Nazi! And worse!

Nobody wants to be called names by their friends! So we take the easy way out, and just follow along. Pretty soon, we’re the ones calling our friends and family foul names – names we’re unlikely to even understand! We’re the ones parroting ideas we don’t understand. This is not an accident. A lot of evil intelligence has been devoted to convincing kids they believe things that they don’t even understand. Then those kids grow up to be adults who have never learned how to really work at thinking, and parrot the lie to yet more children.

This is the source of a lot of the misery in the modern world: lies told to children, who grow up into mobs willing to shout down, insult, and ostracize any who dare disagree. All over ideas they don’t really understand.

It is critically important for you, our beloved students, to learn how to examine ideas on your own. We are going to teach you how. Do not just accept what you are told, even from me! I will do my best not to tell lies, but even I – especially I! – am easy to fool!