An Appreciation of Dante
Few Christians today know anything about Dante and his writings. Thus we are indebted to Mr. Edwin Fesche of Westminster, Maryland (the author of “The Current Scene” column), for his insights regarding this unusual man as expressed in his work, The Divine Comedy.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), an Italian poet, is best remembered for The Divine Comedy. This book consists of three parts: The Inferno, The Purgatory and The Paradise. It is a Christian allegory about the soul’s vision of sin, its cleansing from guilt, and its rising in newness of life.
The best Protestant version of from sinnerhood to glory is, of course, Pilgrim’s Progress. Its universal popularity is based on its practicality and simplicity. Dante Alighieri, on the other hand, presents his spiritual pilgrimage with illustrations from history — current scenes in and around his native Florence. Then he draws heavily on pagan mythology and a remarkable acquaintance with the poets, philosophers and church fathers that had preceded him. This makes for heavy reading and calls for constant reference to a glossary. Beneath all of this profusion of classical imagery and references there is a steady development of truths that could only originate from the Holy Scriptures. Not, as to be expected, without a Roman Catholic flavour.
Dante’s famed poem The Divine Comedy, opens with these words, “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself in a dark wood.” Here Dante is describing what he had discovered the world to be, “a dark wood.” At “midway,” half of man’s alloted span of seventy years, he is awakened from wrath to flee. For the first 35 years of his life he had enjoyed affluence, education, active military duty and success in politics—all “a dark wood.” Three animals bar him from making a short journey to heaven, one of them, a she wolf, (incontinence) drove him to despair as she had so many others. In a swoon, and with a sense of lostness, he is awakened by Virgil who has been sent to him by Beatrice to escort him to the bliss he seeks.
Dante’s work is in three parts: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso. Virgil, who represents the best of human reasoning, escorts Dante through hell and purgatory. Virgil, because he lived before Christ, cannot go on to Paradise. Here Dante is assigned to Beatrice who symbolizes pure love and who leads him up to the Empyrean—heaven.
Dante, then, is to learn depths and consequences of sin from his escort (as sort of guided tour) through The Inferno. Next, he is to learn the necessity of personal holiness as he ascends the “mountain of Purgatorio.” In other words, personal sanctification. To the Protestant here and now is the only place that this struggle for acquired purity can be achieved. Paul informed his converts “that we must through tribulation enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The bliss of The Paradise is the only satisfactory answer to the “whys” of the imponderables of the present. Again, this is in line with Paul, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
This is seen as an inverted cone placed in the lower parts of the earth. Along with his guide Virgil, Dante descends to the bottom where Satan is. On the way down he passes different spheres where the sufferers are tormented according to the nature of their sin. Dante on occasion swoons as he beholds the gruesome nature of the sufferers along with such noxious vapours. Some he does not fail to name, even including his contemporaries, also the pope of his day — Boniface VIII whom he particularly loathed (and rightly so).
The poets coming out of hell are challenged by Cato (symbol of freedom) and Virgil intercedes for Dante, “As I told you, I was sent to show the way his soul must take for salvation. I have shown him the guilty people, now I mean to lead him through the spirits in your keeping, to show him those whose suffering makes them clean.”
The two ascend and on seven ledges encounter those, with himself, who are combating the seven deadly sins. They start with pride and end with incontinence. Dante is left to wander through a wood until confronted by two rivers. The first is Lethe, which in pagan mythology is river of oblivion. Dante, with the aid of Matilda, crosses Lethe and finds he has lost the memory of the evil he has done. The next river, Eunoe, brings back to his memory all his virtuous acts. These are two things we need on the heavenly path: “I will remember thy sin no more,” and “Thou shalt remember all the way that the Lord Thy God led thee.” Commenting on this part of The Purgatory, the late Harold St. John remarked: “And if a man gets a good drink of these two rivers he will never sink into the depths: but you can only find these streams by the mingling of a sinner’s tears and a Saviour’s blood.”
Here, Dante is taken into the custody of Beatrice. This maiden must have been the girl of his dreams. He made her acquaintance as a child and later in adulthood (although he never married her). He now climbs to the stars. There are nine of them and beyond is the Empyrean — heaven. The moon is the first to be reached. Dante’s universe believed the earth to be the center of all things; Copernicus, the founder of modern astronomy, was not even born. The moon represents those who had once lost their purity, David-like, but lived it down. When Mars is reached, the fourth sphere, Mars was the god of war. Dante makes this the sphere of the warriors of God, Joshua and Gideon, for instance. When Saturn is reached we are introduced to those who have passed their life in holy contemplation—Saint Bernard is the example selected. When the outskirts of the universe is reached—the Pruim Mobile—then comes the arrival into Empyrean where all dimensions cease and Dante received a vision of God. It is Bernard that now escorts him to the ultimate — heaven. This includes a huge white rose. Its center is occupied by the Virgin and her Son; she is declared the Queen of Heaven. The circles around the center are peopled by those who have reached the eternal bliss. Their distance from the center proclaims the extent of their piety. This reminds us of the famous rose window in Notre Dame, Paris. The poet finally gets a vision of the Trinity. This vision is to suggest the highest human aspiration reached—a soul returned to its Maker.
The reading of these three headings reveals that Dante has been struggling with the imponderables that suggest themselves to the spiritual thinker, such as election, the consequences of Adam’s transgression, total depravity, the limitations of human reasoning, and the mystery of Christ’s two natures. Dante amply reveals he has read the Bible from cover to cover and believed it. He laments the corruption of the church of his day. From the very first canto it would suggest he had had a real born again experience.