Dante, or Three Things to Love About the Divine Comedy

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. I continue to press forward, this being number 13 of 15, and at this point 15 Classics in 15 Years seems quite doable…

Late last week I finished reading Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in its entirety for the first time. I had read excerpts for different classes over the years, and have read a little about the great work. The book itself was something of a pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. This is my least favorite of the thirteen classics I’ve read so far as part of this challenge, and was tough sledding at times. Nevertheless, I do agree that this is a great literary work and worth the effort to complete at least once.

Without further ado, Three Things to Love about Dante’s Divine Comedy:

  • The Ambition. Dante the poet takes us on a journey through the Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradisio (Heaven) with Dante the Pilgrim in order that the fictional Dante may change his ways and be saved. Each of these three journeys are told in verse, thirty-three cantos each, with each canto approximately 140 to 150 lines long. Along the way he meets ancient and more recent historical figures, who comment and prophesy on the political and religious turmoil of Dante’s time and place, along with sharing their own experience in the world and in the afterlife. The running commentary on the political machinations and rivalries in Dante’s home was the least interesting aspect of the book for me, but it is nonetheless impressive how much he weaves into this ambitious work.
  • The Creativity. The denizens of Hell and Purgatory, in particular, suffer in hundreds of ways peculiar to their specific sins and attachments. Dante’s Hell is hellish, disgusting and terrifying at times, culminating in an immense figure of Satan, not surrounded by flame, but eternally frozen in ice, suffering for his own sins. The journey through Purgatory is hopeful, but not easy, as imperfect souls labor to let go of those earthly things that weigh them down. Heaven, to me, was actually the least interesting of the three, in part due to the poet’s continued insistence that the beauty of the place was beyond his words and ability — but persevering to the end, to full union with God in the beatific vision, has its rewards. The last few cantos are lovely.
  • The Deep Belief. This, to me, is the greatest aspect of Dante’s masterpiece: the depth of theology, of faith, of true belief. Dante believes in the reality of Hell, and he puts people he loved in this world in that place of torment because of their sins. He peoples his poems with friends, contemporaries, nobles, and popes, explaining how and why each fell or rose, and when Dante the Pilgrim is asked to testify to his own faith, the lines resonate as the poet’s own sincere profession. Who knows how accurate a portrayal of the afterlife these poems are, but Dante gives us much to contemplate as we navigate this world.

I have begun number fourteen of fifteen classics, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with that great opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is a long book, but engaging— I hope to be done within the month!

Love Does Not Divide

How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day?  – Psalm 13:2-3

I ended last night with coverage of the shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. I woke to 12 police officers shot by a sniper in Dallas, Texas.

Can you feel it? The tension in the air? A spark has been struck, I fear, that cannot be contained.

And it’s an election year. Everything is spun, hyper-analyzed, re-calculated, and spun again. Everything is us-versus-them.

Can you hear it? The rattle between my lungs of the small stony lump that passes, these days, for a human heart? I can. It has shrunken and solidified more while I slept.

I can feel my heart hardening, each time my “enemies” advance. I can feel the love draining away and the anger rising. I am tempted to turn away from those I once cared about because we don’t agree. I have no time to spend on the lost sheep with my little flock to attend.

How cavalierly we treat the salvation of souls—including our own.

Here’s what I know for certain about these shootings: Someone took a life. Someone lost a life. Both are terrible and permanent things with serious implications in this world and the next. And the proper response for most of us, who are removed from the situation, is earnest prayer for the souls of those involved and for peace.

The Evil One relishes these divisions in humanity, and fans the flames that rage around us. Instantaneous media coverage and commentary stifles reflection and discernment, prudence and justice. Politispeak and emotionalism obscure the truth, without which there can be no love. We paint our enemies with one brush and hue, and lose sight of them as unique images of God—each one a masterpiece.

Yesterday I ran across a quote from C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity:

[The devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.

Our way, as Christians, is narrow, between the errors. Our Way is Christ.

Here’s the truth, as simply as I can express it this gray morning. We have good cops and bad cops; racist, noble, and scared cops…and this morning, living and dead cops. We also have young black men who are good men and bad men; racist, noble, and scared men; and yet again, living and dead men. We have well-intentioned activists on both sides who want justice, and rabble-rousers who just want to fight.

The same applies to Muslims and Christians, to immigrants and natural-born citizens, to men and women. How do I know this? Because all of them are human, and so am I. All of these tendencies live in me, and I must choose which to follow.

It is also true that significant differences exist between the wealthy and the poor, Christianity and Islam, rural and urban America, liberals and conservatives—differences that we must acknowledge plainly and address if we hope to find peace in our communities—but none of these differences are discernible in our DNA or our soul. None are who we are.

I am Catholic, so I am at odds with the culture, with many of my friends, and with much of my family. And it’s complicated. I am a Christian, but I am at odds other Christian creeds, not to mention the non-Christian religions of the world. I’m at odds with scientism, but not science. I am at odds with supporters of abortion, same-sex marriage, and many other ideas. Faith and reason set me at odds with all of these things, but none of these persons—at least, not if I’m practicing my faith well.

So we disagree. Big deal; it happens all the time at my house.  And we each think we’re right? Well of course. If we thought we were wrong and persisted, we have more serious problems.

But one of us must be wrong? True enough—and likely both of us. But truth and love go hand-in-hand, so what are we worried about? Being proven wrong? That’s pride talking, the root of sin.

Is it possible to disagree and get along? We do it all the time with people we love. And Jesus said to love our neighbor and our enemies as we love our own selves. We have our work cut out for us.

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. … You will live in the land I gave to your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. – Ezekiel 36-26, 28

We can bring God’s good work to fruition, but we must keep foremost in our minds our common humanity and the dignity of each person as made in the image of God. We must focus our attention on the infinite value of each soul to the Creator, and the boundless desire God has for each of us. Salvation of souls is our goal; repentance and love is our means. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by the concerns of this world—goods, comforts, guns, money—and lose sight of the only things worth loving: God and neighbor.  These other things are not bad in themselves, but can they get us to Heaven? Not likely, but they could drag us to Hell.

Love ought to be our first and last response. And God willing, as we learn to love as He has loved us and align our love completely with His eternal Truth, it can become our only response.

Book Break: The Great Divorce

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had a profound Good Friday, but that was only half the story. The other half of the story is that, early that Friday morning, I sought out some spiritual reading for the day, and wound up with a new top-five favorite book: C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Of course, when reading spiritually, the Bible is always a good place to start, and I’m also making slow but steady progress through Dante’s Divine Comedy a canto or two a day. But I wanted something fresh, something I could possibly read in a day, and something related to the penitential character of Good Friday and the great saving act of our Lord.

On a hunch, I took C.S, Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the bookshelf. I have great regard for Lewis as a writer and had heard good things about the book, particularly from my good friend Angie at Take Time for Him.

Lewis had me hooked from the preface, which begins by explaining the title of his fantasy:

BLAKE WROTE the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either-or”; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.

The book begins with our narrator in line at a bus stop in a grey and gloomy town, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and wouldn’t want to — unsure of where he is or where he’s going. It unfolds like Dante’s Divine Comedy in modern miniature: a pilgrim’s journey from hell to the edge of heaven in just 128 pages. I’m reading Dante now, too, canto by canto, and it is powerful in its way, but this held my attention from the preface to the end, with every word relevant to this sinner and this sinful time. Lewis articulates with poetic beauty and unflinching honesty the glory of God and his angels and saints, the pain of detaching from this world, and the stubbornness, the grasping, the pride and distrust that keep even “good” people from choosing God and reaching Heaven.

The book challenges the reader particularly on the Greatest Commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). On this point, Dante provides an unintended summary (being some seven centuries older) which, as providence would have it, I read over lunch on Easter Monday. In Purgatorio, Canto IX, Lines 127-132, he writes the words of the angel guarding the gates of Purgatory proper:

“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised
‘Admit to many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.'” 
Then pushing back the portal’s holy door,
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned;
to look back means to go back out again.”

We sin when we put anything — even the blessings of life on this good Earth — ahead of loving and seeking God. Pilgrim after pilgrim turns his or her back on Heaven because the cost of entry is too high: the cost of admitting that they are mere creatures and of letting go of their earthly pleasures, passions, and prejudices. They want Heaven on their own terms and choose Hell to feel like they have some say in the matter. They cannot stand the humiliation of grace as an unmerited gift.

It is a powerful book: perhaps tied at this moment with Steinbeck’s East of Eden as my favorite of all time (although Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings (which I still need to review as an adult) and Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy are right up there, too!) It paints a stark and revealing picture of how far so many of us have to go to be purged of all sin. So I will end this post with Lewis’s words from the Preface, on a hopeful note:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot “develop” into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, “with backward mutters of dissevering power”– or else not. It is still “either-or.” If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.”

The Great Divorce. Find it. Read it.