Sunday, April 20, 2014
Since It's Easter--Dante's In Heaven
Rod Dreher writes about Dante's The Divine Comedy in The Wall Street Journal this Easter weekend, reminding us that Dante starts his visit to the afterlife in Hell on Good Friday and enters Purgatory and Heaven on Easter Sunday:
On the spiral journey downward into the Inferno, Dante learns that all sin is a function of disordered desire—a distortion of love. The damned either loved evil things or loved good things—such as food and sex—in the wrong way. They dwell forever in the pit because they used their God-given free will—the quality that makes us most human—to choose sin over righteousness.
The pilgrim's dramatic encounters in the "Inferno"—with tormented shades such as the adulterous Francesca, the prideful Farinata and the silver-tongued deceiver Ulysses—offer no simplistic morals. They are, instead, a profound exploration of the lies we tell ourselves to justify our desires and to conceal our deeds and motives from ourselves.
This opens the pilgrim Dante's eyes to his own sins and the ways that yielding to them drew him from life's straight path. The first steps to freedom require honestly recognizing that one is enslaved—and one's own responsibility for that bondage.
The second stage of the journey begins on Easter morning, at the foot of Mount Purgatory. Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, stagger out of the Inferno and begin the climb to the summit. If "Inferno" is about recognizing and understanding one's sin, "Purgatory" is about repenting of it, purifying one's will to become fit for Paradise.
Purgatory is the most dramatic of the three books of The Divine Comedy, because it is in that book that Dante himself and all the Poor Souls can make progress in perfection. The damned in Hell can achieve nothing for all their useless activity; the blessed have achieved their goal in Heaven.
As Dreher notes, The Divine Comedy is a story of redemption for the poet, and can be for the reader too:
The practical applications of Dante's wisdom cannot be separated from the pleasure of reading his verse, and this accounts for much of the life-changing power of the Comedy. For Dante, beauty provides signposts on the seeker's road to truth. The wandering Florentine's experiences with beauty, especially that of the angelic Beatrice, taught him that our loves lead us to heaven or to hell, depending on whether we are able to satisfy them within the divine order.
This is why "The Divine Comedy" is an icon, not an idol: Its beauty belongs to heaven. But it may also be taken into the hearts and minds of those woebegone wayfarers who read it as a guidebook and hold it high as a lantern, sent across the centuries from one lost soul to another, illuminating the way out of the dark wood that, sooner or later, ensnares us all.