This year for Lent I'm bringing back the Meditations on Dante's Divine Comedy series from last year, in hopes of getting through Purgatory by Easter. Last year, I worked through the Inferno and the first eleven books of the Purgatorio up until the poets leave the terrace of Pride. I've reposted the last of those posts (Purgatorio: Pride) directly below this one for anyone who wants to refresh their minds on where we left off. The whole series of Commedia posts can be found here.
This post will provide a brief introduction (or re-introduction, for those who were reading a year ago) to the Commedia and its particular appropriateness to Lent.
Why read Dante for Lent? Why read Dante at all?
For far too many in the modern world, Dante is that medieval guy who wrote the poem about hell. The Inferno is by far the most read, and when it crops up in high school or college reading lists, it's often read quickly with an emphasis on some of the more horrific images involved and Dante's notorious propensity to put real characters (ranging from political enemies to recent popes) in hell. This is a shame, because in focusing on some of the more spectacular surface elements of the first third of the Commedia, one loses the real sense of what Dante was trying to achieve.
At root, the Divine Comedy is about the spiritual progress of the soul, from attachment to sin, through repentance and purgation, to virtue and salvation. At the beginning of the Inferno, Dante finds himself "midway through life's journey" in a gloomy wood. He is lost, and beset by threatening creatures who represent the different categories of vice by which he finds his progress towards the East hindered: lust, pride and greed.
Unable to make further progress on his own, Dante is sent help at the request of Beatrice (a good and saintly woman, now in heaven, for whom he had, while she was alive, had great love) in the form of the poet Virgil. Virgil will lead him back onto the road towards heaven, but only by first confronting vice and going through purgation via a guided trip through Hell and Purgatory.
Down they go into the underworld, where sinners of various descriptions suffer in concentric circles designed for the punishment of different sins, with the worst sins (betrayal) lurking in the deepest circles of hell near where Satan himself is sunk waist-deep in a frozen lake, eternally chewing on the souls of the three most notorious traitors: Judas, Brutus and Cassius.
As he descends hell, Dante at first finds himself, with his attachment to sin, entirely sympathetic to the suffering souls. How could the sins of these people merit sufferings so great? As he goes deeper, though, and interacts with the damned, Dante begins to see how these punishments merely make visible the ugliness of the sins to which these souls remain attached in death as they were in life. For instance, as the violent boil in a rive of blood, it is as much their own constant fighting and pulling each other under that keeps them in torment as their demonic overseers.
Reaching the bottom of the pit of hell, Dante and Virgil pass through the center of the earth and climb upwards to Mount Purgatory, a gigantic mountain standing on the opposite side of the globe from the known world. Here, coming into the light again, the begin to meet the souls of those who are destined for heaven, yet have much work to do in order to purge themselves of the sins to which they are attached. On the shores of the mountain they meet the late repentant, including some who died unshriven or in excommunication, who in the last moments of their lives reconciled themselves with God, yet must now through strenuous effort make up for the many years in which they refused to take advantage of the time that was given them to repent.
Right away we see a great difference between the souls of Purgatory and those of Hell. The damned were greatly turned in on themselves and on their sin, while these souls in waiting have a powerful sense of purpose, one which at first seems overwhelming to Dante, who himself is not yet strong enough in his drive away from vice and towards virtue.
Beginning to climb the mountain, Dante and Virgil come upon the proud, bent double under heavy burdens. At first, Dante is shocked by the sight, but he finds the souls cheerful in the knowledge of their progress towards salvation. He marvels at the fame of some of those he meets, but they correct him with reminders that earthly fame is fleeting.
The story of the Commedia is, thus, an allegory of spiritual progress. In the Inferno, Dante learns the nature of sin, while in the Purgatory he learns to strive to replace each sin with its opposing virtue. The Paradiso is, in turn, an allegory of prayer and the spiritual life culminating in the beatific vision of God surrounded by a "celestial rose" made of the angels and the ever-rejoicing saints.
In this sense, a prayerful reading of the Divine Comedy is most appropriate for Lent, when we seek to assure that we are on the long road that winds Eastward, and making progress towards our Maker.