Radiant DanteSTEPHEN SPARROW
Not for nothing has The Divine Comedy been called the fifth Gospel, and for those prepared to make the effort, it is both readable and easy to understand.
Dante was born in Florence in 1265 where he lived until he was thirty-six. He died in Ravenna in 1321, shortly after completing Paradiso, the third and final canticle of The Divine Comedy. Those last twenty years he lived in exile because of his commitment and courage in defending truth and honour, and speaking out against public corruption and immorality. Naturally his combative style made enemies who in turn trumped up charges of fraud involving public money. The authorities confiscated all of Dante's not inconsiderable wealth and property and he had no option but to flee his beloved birthplace. In those days an accusation of fraud was sufficient to have someone burnt at the stake, especially if he had run afoul of the Pope, which Dante had. Later, in his Divine Comedy, Dante was to portray Pope Boniface VIII as his personal enemy. In medieval times Popes wielded enormous power and often lost the plot and forgot they were leading a divine institution charged with the salvation of souls. So if some irritating citizen got in the way, he could expect no mercy.
The 13th and 14th centuries were probably the high point of Christendom. Most of Europe was Catholic; the Holy Roman Empire had risen out of the remains of the Roman Empire and Church and State were united in a strong bond, which meant that each saw heresy as a threat to civil order. The Protestant Reformation was still two centuries away and Islam, using brute force, controlled much of Spain, Eastern Europe and all of the Holy Land and North Africa. Wars between European kingdoms were fairly frequent but compared to the 20th century's blood-soaked conflicts they were like bar room scuffles. Communications were creakingly slow and most people were illiterate, but there was a steady and growing demand for good poetry, especially poetry that conveyed a bite; 'protest literature' if you like and that is where The Divine Comedy comes in.
The story of Dante's journey through the afterlife, guided first by Virgil and then Beatrice, spells out the reality of both Hell and Heaven. The Divine Comedy is an incredible mix of visions, dreams, theology and prophecy. I'd bet (almost) anything that it was a strong influence on J. R. R. Tolkien when he wrote his Lord of The Rings trilogy.
But mention Dante in today's pop culture and if you get a reaction at all it's likely to be a snigger about The Inferno, as if that was all Dante wrote. Such a reaction testifies to the common and almost ghoulish fascination people have with evil and punishment and the confusion that stirs them all together in the same pot with witchcraft, the occult, black magic, God and sin. You can test this out yourself: Just look at your local cinema guide in the paper; people cannot leave the supernatural alone. The materialism and hedonism of our age leave a spiritual vacuum that must be filled (See Matthew 12: 43-45). And this contemplation of dark things is often the condition of people who actively shy away from holiness, scared that holiness might somehow make them miserable, when in fact the opposite is the case. Authentic holiness is all about wholeness, which in turn is about the balance of sensible things in our lives. Without that balance, joy and happiness become inaccessible. As Dante and countless others have affirmed, contemplating goodness and beauty is the surest way to approach truth; and Dante portrayed this brilliantly in the opening three lines of his great poem.
along the road we have to go,
The forest is error, Dante's error, the error of everyone; and Dante looks around seeking an escape route, but wherever he looks, some wild animal blocks the way. A leopard represents sensuality; a lion is pride and a she- wolf materialistic ambition. Dante is frantic until he sees the shadowy figure of the ancient Latin poet Virgil standing at the edge of the forest. Virgil offers to be Dante's guide but only if he agrees to travel along the path of philosophical wisdom and reason. Error can only be dealt with when it has been identified along with its causes and agents. Dante and Virgil commence their journey in Hell and as they enter, Dante reads a sign above the gate proclaiming: No Room for Hope When You Enter This Place. Virgil urges Dante to look but to keep moving. One of the first things Dante sees is a wildly flapping flag.
Behind it came a huge torrent
— Inferno IIIAmong them he recognises Pope Celestine V, a member of that "miserable and useless gang of those who please neither God nor His enemies."
That calamitous crowd, who never were alive,
Their faces ran with blood
from these attacks
— Inferno III
Such scenes are typical of Dante's imaginative journey as Virgil guides him down into the depths of Hell. They see the torments and punishments of blasphemers and heresiarchs; seducers, paramours, flatterers and simonists; hypocrites, thieves, and evil counsellors; schismatics, (among them Mohammed) and forgers and traitors and of course Lucifer himself and his helpers.
Then Hell is behind them and the pair enters Purgatory full of late repenters, the avaricious, the slothful, the lustful and the gluttons; all being scrubbed up until such time as they are fit to enter Heaven. Although in agony, their faces shine with hope and Dante hears the sound of hymns being sung. Near the end of the Purgatorio, Virgil hands Dante into the care of his new guide, Beatrice. Beatrice Portinari was someone Dante knew in real life. Medieval custom favoured arranged marriages and Dante's family betrothed him at the age of twelve, but at about the same time he became smitten with Beatrice. Eventually, Dante and Beatrice entered into their respective arranged marriages, but Beatrice was to die five years later, aged twenty-four. Dante never forgot her. For him she embodied all goodness and innocence and he graced his great poem with her virtue, making Beatrice his guide through Heaven. There Dante's mood understandably changes as he describes the peace and joy of the place. He meets saints Bernard, Francis, Benedict and Augustine; he meets Jesus Christ transfigured and Our Lady enthroned. Bernard explains that.
Within the length and breadth
of this kingdom
whatever you see has been established
— Paradiso XXXII
And so to the end when Dante, overwhelmed by all this beauty and order and harmony, utters the poem's famous last four lines.
At this point high imagination failed;
But we cannot leave The Divine Comedy without touching on a few of the many other gems sprinkled through it. From time to time curiosity gets the better of Dante, and Virgil or Beatrice has to fill him in on points of doctrine or theology. The first thirty lines of Canto XI in Purgatorio are devoted to an explanation of the Our Father as it is recited by a passing group of those still undergoing purgation. Moving to Canto XVI we find an astonishing description of free will. In Paradiso, Canto VII, is as eloquent a rationale for Christ's redemption as can be found anywhere:
For not accepting a rein
upon his will
that God alone, by his gentleness,
Within his own limits man could never
he had aspired in disobedience;
— Paradiso Canto VIIFurther on in the same Canto is a hint that Dante was ahead of Charles Darwin on the subject of creation and evolution by nearly 600 years:
The soul of every animal and plant
— Paradiso Canto VII
Actually, they were all beaten to that punch by the first five verses of the Gospel of St. John. Yet, it is amazing how Darwin's followers who embraced Atheism, became so fascinated with scientific detail that they failed to realise that Atheism is also a faith, albeit a negative one; and yet those two simple lines of Dante's encompass all natural science. But fame is a fickle thing and Dante may even have been talking of himself when he wrote in Purgatorio, Canto XI:
is nothing but a breath of wind,
— Purgatorio Canto XI
Truth, however, is not fickle and Dante's witness to it in the poetry of The Divine Comedy verges on the sublime. It contains no flowery language or superfluous words or, for that matter, any mealy-mouthed relativism. Its radiant common sense looms larger with each reading. But, get yourself a modern version. The quotes used here are taken from C. H. Sisson's translation issued in paperback by Oxford University Press. Now don't just sit there, if you have yet to read The Divine Comedy, go and get it and make a start.
Stephen Sparrow. "Radiant Dante." Catholic Education Resource Center (April 10, 2004).
Stephen Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and Sigrid Undset. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children.
Copyright © 2004 Stephen Sparrow
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