It is just before dawn on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1300 when Dante and Virgil arrive on the shores of the island-mountain of Purgatory (see Purgatory Introduction). Upon making ground they encounter Cato – a Roman military leader who lived from 95-46 B.C. and who committed suicide after he was defeated in the rebellion against Julius Caesar. Although a pagan, a suicide, and a traitor, Cato was considered quite virtuous (symbolized by four stars [=cardinal virtues] that light up his face like the sun). Cato is honored in the Comedy with both escape from Hell and a role in Purgatory similar to Charon’s in the Inferno.
Despite fine treatment by Dante the author, however, Cato is not impressed with Dante the character.
Dante has exited the Inferno, but he is not yet ready to begin his ascent of this, the “second kingdom given the soul of man wherein to purge its guilt and so grow worthy to ascend to Heaven.” The idea of needing cleansing to achieve worthiness is heavy in this canto. In his “dark flight” Dante was just escaped “the eternal prison of the dead . . . the eternal valley which lies forever blind in darkest night.” And the residue of the Inferno remains upon him.
Thus, when the poets meet Cato, Purgatory’s gatekeeper on the shoreline, he is upset by Dante’s appearance and even thinks he may be a soul escaped from the Inferno itself (whether he thought this impossible or merely “against the rules” is unclear). Virgil assures him that Dante is not yet among the dead, and that by “Heaven is the power and the command” given for him to continue his journey.
Cato immediately allows them to continue but admonished Virgil to clean Dante up before they step foot on the mountain (to remove “all trace of the pit”). At the edge of the water Virgil plucks a reed out and it is instantly replaced by a new one. This he binds about Dante’s waist (replacing the Cord he through to Geryon), and it is never mentioned again. Virgil also washes Dante’s face -“lifting my tear-stained cheeks to him, and there he made me clean, revealing my true color under the residues of Hell’s black air.” Finally clean, Virgil leads Dante through a cool morning breeze and over dew-covered grass to “show him those whose suffering makes them clean.”
The imagery here is almost startling when compared to that of the Inferno. Everything here is bright and wet and clean – the opposite of the dark, dry, dirty pit of the Inferno. The point is difficult to miss – here there is cleansing from sin. Note that all the cleansing comes from an external source and act – Dante does nothing but submit. This may seem a strange introduction to the climb of suffering they are about to embark upon – but it is important to remember that this suffering is not punishment per se – it is simply the necessary final step(s!) in the application of Christ’s work: the final infusion of sanctifying grace that actually makes the soul prepared for Heaven.
Here, as in life, the soul must do what it does not want to do in order to become what it wants to be.