The Spiritual Master Pope Francis Wants You to Read
This year marks the 750th anniversary of the birth of the great Catholic poet Dante Alighieri. Michelangelo reverenced Dante, as did Longfellow, Dorothy Sayers, and T.S. Eliot. In fact, it was Eliot who commented, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” One of Bob Dylan’s finest songs, “Tangled Up in Blue,” contains a reference to Dante: “She opened up a book of poems, handed it to me/ It was written by an Italian poet from the 13th century/ And every one of those words rang true and glowed like burning coal/ Pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul.”
I first read Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, in the summer of 1990, when I was studying German in Freiburg in Breisgau. The experience changed my life. Almost every book I’ve written contains some reference to the poet, and I’ve used him extensively in my preaching for twenty-five years. Just this past summer, while filming with my Word on Fire team in Ravenna, I had the opportunity to visit Dante’s tomb, which I found incomparably moving.
There is so much to admire in The Divine Comedy: its architectonic structure, its lyrical language, its unforgettable metaphors, its cadences and rhythms (impossible to convey in translations), its psychological perceptiveness, its deep humanity, etc. But I would like to focus on its extraordinary spiritual power. How wonderful that arguably the most significant poem in the Western tradition is all about sin and redemption and is suffused through and through with a distinctively Catholic sensibility.
The epic poem opens in the year 1300, when its protagonist was thirty-five, mid-life by a Biblical reckoning: “The measure of our life is seventy years…” (Ps. 90:10). As psychologists and spiritual teachers over the centuries have testified, mid-life is often a time of crisis and breakthrough. The justly celebrated opening lines of the Comedy signal this truth: “Midway on the journey of our life, I woke to find myself alone in a dark wood, having wandered from the straight path.” Though he was a massively accomplished man, renowned in both the artistic and political arenas, Dante was, by his mid-thirties, spiritually lost. That he realized this—that he woke up to it, to use his metaphor—was a signal virtue and the impetus for his journey, much as “hitting bottom” and “turning one’s life over to a higher power” are essential for those undertake a Twelve-Step process.
He meets the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil, who functions as his psychopomp, mystagogue, and spiritual director. One of the most important truths in the spiritual order is that one should never commence the journey alone: things get complicated fairly quickly, and a skilled guide is essential. Virgil tells the troubled Dante that there is a way forward but that it involves a journey through Hell. In our “I’m okay and you’re okay” culture, this is a very difficult message to take in, but every authentic spiritual master acknowledges its indispensability. We have to confront our sin and dysfunction with complete honesty; otherwise we will get stuck. The Twelve-Step program speaks of doing “a searching moral inventory” as a non-negotiable prerequisite to dealing with an addiction. So Virgil leads Dante on a thorough-going tour of the underworld.
As the pilgrim takes in the sufferings of the damned, he is sometimes so overwhelmed that he faints dead away, but Virgil brings him back around, for the point is to see what sin does to the soul. In watching the pains endured by the denizens of Hell, Dante is seeing his own sin and appreciating, perhaps for the first time, precisely what it has done to him.
At the very bottom of Hell, Virgil and Dante confront Satan. Unlike any other depiction of the devil in the great tradition, Dante presents Satan, not as ensconced in flames, but as buried in ice. The more one muses on it, the more this seems an apt image of the coldness, immobility, and isolation that follow from rejecting God’s love. Moreover, Dante imagines the devil as possessing three faces—a twisted imitation of the Trinity. Deep down, every sinner, in making himself the center of the universe, is aping God. From all six eyes, Satan weeps, signaling that, in the final analysis, sin is sad. Unlike Milton’s Satan or even Al Pacino’s version of the prince of darkness in the film The Devil’s Advocate, Dante’s devil has nothing glamorous or romantic about him. He is just stuck, pathetic, and sad.
Having gone all the way down, Dante is now ready to rise. Moving through the center of the earth, he comes out the other side (interestingly, the 13th century poet somehow intuited the roundness of the earth) and commences a journey up Mt. Purgatory. On each level of that seven-storey mountain (the title, by the way, of Thomas Merton’s autobiography), one of the deadly sins—pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust—is punished, usually through some version of enantiodromia, or moving in the direction opposite of one’s sin. So the prideful, who elevated themselves in their earthly lives, are forced to carry huge boulders that press them to the ground; and the envious, who spent their lives looking resentfully at others, have their eyelids sown shut; and the slothful, who could muster no spiritual energy in this world, are made to run, etc. Dante thereby takes in the two essential steps in the process of conversion: seeing and acting.
Having then been purified, Dante is ready to fly. At the top of Mt. Purgatory, now accompanied by the blissful Beatrice, he commences a flight through the various levels of heaven. What he sees are, in essence, different modalities and dimensions of love, for heaven is nothing but love. One of the most memorable examples of this is that the Franciscan St. Bonaventure introduces St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, and the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas introduces St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscans. Rivalries and jealousies are absent in heaven; all that remains is courtesy. Finally, at the very end of his pilgrimage, the poet is permitted to look into the face of God, which he appreciates as “the love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”
The itinerary through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is not a bit of medieval fantasy; instead, it is a vivid description of the process by which we find salvation. Hence, it is as relevant now (probably more so) than it was in the thirteenth century. Pope Francis has said that, especially in this Year of Mercy, we should read and reread this magnificent spiritual teacher. I think he's right.