Though the doctrine of Purgatory has far more to do with the traditions of men than anything stated in the word of God, classic depictions of such a place often provide striking reminders of the spiritual and eternal consequences of sin. So, for example, in Canto XVII of Dante’s Purgatorio, Virgil explains to Dante that the root of all sin is a perverted love that has become twisted in three ways: loving what is bad, too little love for what is good, or too much love for the temporal goods of this life (see Mark 12:28-31; 1Jo 2:15-17). And for this reason, the first three sins found in Dante’s Purgatory (pride, envy, and wrath) might be best interpreted as aspects of the first sort of love-led-astray—of man loving what is bad (Purgatorio XVII.112-114).
Pride is the first of these sins, both in Dante’s mind as well as in the mind of the sinner, an assertion supported by the place of humility in Christ’s first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 5:3 ESV; see Purgatorio XII.109-111). One who is proud has an undue regard for himself as superior to others. In his mind he is one of the “few;” set apart from the common, vulgar, and profane. In the words of Virgil, “some think they see their own hope to advance / tied to their neighbor’s fall, and thus they long / to see him cast down from his eminence” (XVII.115-117). For this sin in life, Dante witnesses the proud dead crawling around the Mount of Purgatory under slabs of rock whose size is commensurate with the pride its bearer had in life (Cantos X-XII).
Similar to pride is the sin of envy. Just as the proud view others as less worthy than themselves, the envious see as their own what rightfully belongs to others. As Virgil reminds our poet, “some fear their power, preferment, honor, fame / will suffer by another’s rise, and thus, / irked by his good, desire his ruin and shame” (XVII.118-120). In other words, the envious forget the grace of God they have themselves received, judging the worth of another’s servant rather than reflecting divine mercy in their own lives. But as Jesus said, this is exactly backward; it it is the merciful who in turn receive mercy from above: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mat 5:7; see Purgatorio XV.37-39). Because of this willful blindness to the interests of others, the envious sit on the second cornice of Purgatory along the face of the cliff, huddled together, with their eyelids sewn tight by wire (Cantos XIII-XV).
Wrath is the culmination and sometimes-violent assertion of this lack of love. If I am better than everyone else and more deserving than they of the things they possess, why shouldn’t I be angry? Virgil reminds Dante of this self-delusion: “and some at the least injury catch fire / and are consumed by thoughts of vengeance; thus, / their neighbor’s harm becomes their chief desire” (Purgatorio XVII.121-123). Wrath, therefore, is the primary mover of quarrels, fighting and violence (Jam 4:1-3), a fact depicted in the punishment of the wrathful. As Dante begins Canto XVI, he has stepped into a cloud of smoke like none he has ever seen – at night, under a cloud, or even in Hell itself – “nor one whose texture rasped my senses so, / as did the smoke that wrapped us in that place” (lines 1-6; see also Canto XVII). At least here, however, they are finally speaking with one voice, reciting the words of the Lord: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mat 5:9; quoted in Canto XVII.67-69).
The apostle Paul once wrote of love’s many virtues: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1Co 13:4-7). Those undergoing the crucible of Dante’s Purgatory, however, reflect the exact opposite of this love: loving what is bad, having too little love for what is good, or having too much love for the temporal goods of earthly existence. And as Virgil reminds Dante on the fourth cornice: “Such threefold love those just below us here / purge from their souls” (Purgatorio XVII.124-125).
But we have been shown “a still more excellent way”: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1Co 12:31; 13:13).