5 Spiritual Lessons from Dante’s Divine Comedy
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).
3. In Dante there is a special place in Hell for those who refuse to choose between the Lord and some other god. Canto 3 is interesting because here—outside of Hell—Dante creatively places “those sad souls whose works in life merited neither praise nor infamy…who were for themselves alone, not rebels, and not faithful to the Lord.” In this vestibule reside the people who knew the demands of the Gospel and didn’t outright reject it, yet they were not brave enough to stand up for what is right and take up their cross to follow Christ. How many people today say that they are “personally” in favor of virtue and against evils like abortion, but never really make up their minds to speak or do anything about it! Dante’s third canto is a chilling reminder that we can’t sit on the sidelines of this life if we want to be happy in the next. As for the “paltry souls” in this canto, the punishment that fits their crime consists in the fact that they are “pricked to motion now perpetually by flies and wasps” as they “leer with envy at every other lot,” i.e. the lots of those who made a choice in life for good or evil. Hence, although these “worthless wretches who had never lived” are not technically in Hell, they wished they were in Hell, which Dante wants us to consider as perhaps being even worse.
4. Charon, the ferryman of the dead in classical mythology, makes his appearance in a similar role in the Comedy, as do many other figures of antiquity. For me the lesson here is simple, and it is readily illustrated by spending a few minutes in meditation upon his figure in Michelangelo’s portrayal of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The lesson is: have fear of God and don’t do the sin you want to do, or else you have to meet this guy. Actually, the reality behind Dante’s image of “crossing the melancholy shores of Acheron” is infinitely worse, but the image is sufficient enough to give my untamed will pause for at least a little while.
5. Our disordered passions are like a “hellish cyclone that can never rest.” Canto five hauntingly reminds us to keep our desires subject to our reason and not the other way around. The lustful punished here are not in the depths of hell—their corruption is, in a certain sense, not as disgusting as the corruption in those whose intellects and wills are perverted—yet they remain in Hell nonetheless and have “no hope for rest…lashed and scourged in the black air.” How easily do we today let ourselves be tossed about by our passions, naively believing like Francesca that we ought to follow every whim of our passions for love’s sake! We get divorced because we no longer feel the passion of love as we once did, we have premarital sex because Cupid struck us with his arrow and “couldn’t help it,” and we put ourselves in situations where we’re doomed to fail—like Francesa and Paolo who claim to be “alone and innocent” reading about Lancelot’s affair. We, too, all too often find ourselves caught in situations where we say with Francesca, “That day we did not read another page.” Behind Dante’s playful euphemism here stands a lesson for us all to live by. Let us today avoid the near occasions of sin and ask God to help us see ourselves as he sees us, so that we can ever more dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell.
I hope these insights are helpful to you. I’ll share some more reflections in later posts.