5 Spiritual Lessons from Dante’s Divine Comedy
, February 7, 2013
As my family was living in Dante’s home of Florence last semester, one of the courses I co-offered with my theologian-wife was a seminar on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the foundational work of the Italian language which remains as relevant to our Christian lives today as ever. I’d like to share some thoughts from our class discussion and my reflection. The translation quoted below is from is a great newer one by Anthony Esolen which contains Dante’s original Italian verse on the left and the English on the right–I highly recommend it. Here are the five thoughts:
1. “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.”
All of us who read the opening lines of the Comedy have wandered from the narrow way and find ourselves — to one degree or another — immersed in the hellish mire of sin. Dante wants to sear this reality in our minds as we read his work and are invited to join him in a grand journey through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
If you read the Comedy on a superficial level, you miss the fact that Dante purposely intended it to contain multiple levels of meaning — “spiritual senses,” as we call them in Sacred Scripture. Thus the Comedy depicts Dante’s physical journey through Hell (literal sense), but, as Dorothy Sayers observes in her masterful Thomistic notes to the text, this is actually the least important part of the work. What goes on here represents the final state of man’s perdition (anagogical sense). It further signifies Dante’s — and in turn our own — downward journey through ignorance and sin (moral sense) before we begin to ascend the mountain of conversion in the Purgatorio.
Applying this to our lives, we can benefit a great deal already from this opening canto: “How I entered, I can’t bring to mind…when I first left the way of truth behind.” Dante’s descent into Hell (the vicious cycle of sin) begins almost imperceptibly, as in a dreaming state. Every one of us often falls in this same way. We start with something “small,” something that hardly seems a sin, and before you know it you’ve ended up with a seemingly unbreakable vice. If you read C.S. Lewis, in particular his Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, you see the markings of Dante all over the place, as when he has the master demon instructing his understudy not to cast great temptations before Christians at first, lest they notice that they’re being tempted and fly to God.
This line of Dante also reminds us of the reason the Church Fathers, in commenting on the disturbing words of Psalm 137, emphasize that we need to bash nascent sins, to nip them in the bud before they flower into abhorrent, eradicable vices. Thus Dante bids us to ask: what sins are we slumbering in, and what evil in our lives do we need to bash this day?
2. The souls in Hell “have lost the good of intellect.”
Man’s Last End is the Beatific Vision, which, as Aquinas tells us, is an act of the intellect, i.e. contemplation of God. “This is eternal life,” Jesus says “to know the one true God.” Here the damned do not know God and do not see themselves rightly. This is especially true in the case of Francesca, the damned lover who still thinks she loves even though she clearly hates her husband (whom she cheated on).Tags: Catholic Church, Dante, Divine Comedy, Heaven, Hell, Inferno, Matthew Ramage
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