It’s always fun to revisit an old copy of a great book – the snarky notes and shaky underlines function sort of like a photo album or journal, providing interesting insight on a younger self’s heart and mind. It’s also interesting to ask, “how has this changed me?” As with friends and experiences, I have been changed by certain books.
Most recently, the great book that’s been on my mind is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Rod Dreher, one of my favorite contemporary writers, speak at my alma mater on the topic of his latest book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. Naturally, this got me in the mood to crack open my copy of the Divine Comedy, which I originally read as a freshman in college. I’ve been reading a couple of cantos before going to bed each night for the past week or so, and obviously I’m reading it through a much different lens than I did when I was in college. Eventually, there could be a blog post about that, but for now, I’d like to think about all of the ways that Dante has changed me, and the things in this text that have stuck these past five-ish years.
For me, one of the most interesting things about the Divine Comedy the first time around was Dante’s ranking of sin. The first leg of his journey, Inferno, consists of the descent through the seven circles of hell. Each circle contains a different population of sinners, each drifting farther from God and closer to Satan. So those in the seventh circle are the worst of the worst – but they aren’t the murderers or tyrants: they’re the betrayers (spoiler alert: Judas Iscariot is at the very bottom). In Dante’s imagination, things like fraud and hypocrisy outrank brutal violence. I find this fascinating and quite compelling, and it’s deeply affected how I think about what kind of person that I want to be. That is, if I can’t be 100% virtuous all the time (spoiler alert: I’m not), perhaps I ought to prioritize being loyal and trustworthy.
Stuffed inside my copy of Dante are several slips of paper with notes scribbled on them – one is a line a copied from Paradiso (for context, it’s Beatrice talking to Dante):
And now, mark well the path that I take up
to reach the truth you seek, so that henceforth
you will know how to take the ford alone.
(Paradiso, Canto II, 124-126)
Admittedly, I had forgotten about this line until the other night, but upon seeing it again I remembered how much it meant to me circa 2009. When I read this originally, I was an 18 years old, away from home for the first time ever, and learning to be an independent person who can make her own decisions and reach her own conclusions. This frightened me: I had all of the information in the world at my fingertips, and I was reading all of these important books, and hearing all of these unfamiliar ideas. And it was up to me to decide which of those ideas to invest in. So I found this line comforting. It helped me realize that intellectual adulthood isn’t some scary precipice that you jump into recklessly. I was able to “walk the ford alone” because my entire life – specifically the way I was raised and the education I had had thus far – was in preparation for this.
Moving right along (through Heaven, that is) I was also quite impacted by another interaction that Dante had shortly after he entered into Paradise. Paradiso is very hierarchical, and while in the lowest level, Dante chats up a woman who had been a nun. She explains why it’s okay that she is, as far as Paradise goes, at the very bottom. And in doing so, she also elegantly pinpoints the very nature of heaven itself:
If we desired to be higher up,
then our desires would not be in accord
with His will Who assigns us to this sphere…
In His will is our peace…
(Paradiso, Canto III, 78-81, 84, emphasis mine. For the full effect, read lines 34 – 87).
These words have been etched on my heart and ringing in my ears for years. This interaction changed the way that I think about hierarchy, that it needn’t be something to overcome but something to grow into. It taught me something about ambition, that I shouldn’t strive to be anything greater or less than I really am. But, most importantly, it taught me about the problems of this world and the great hope that we have in the coming Kingdom. The problem of sin is that our wills don’t align with God’s. When we pray “thy will be done,” we also ought to pray, “thy will be mine too.” It’s simultaneously strange and pleasant to try to imagine a place and time where everyone’s will is in perfect harmony with God’s – that’s what we have to look forward to.
Finally, let’s talk about the last line of the Divine Comedy – the part where Dante comes face-to-face with the Triune God. Unsurprisingly, this is a stunning passage, and this is how this blessed saga ends:
At this point power failed high fantasy
but, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,
I felt my will and my desire impelled
by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
(Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 142-144, emphasis still mine).
Somewhat embarrassingly, the first time I encountered this text I was a bit, for lack of a better word, disappointed. After finishing this famous, influential, great book, that everything came down to something as commonplace as love bothered me. But I was young and proud. I believed reason and truth to be the solution to everything, the heart of the universe. I was skeptical toward things like emotion and instinct. And I thought Dante and all of the other great writers would be too. Eventually I came to realize that Dante was on to something. Reality really is oriented around love. When people sin, it’s because they love poorly, or not enough, or too much. When things go right, it’s because love – the love that is God, and God is – is at the center of it all, moving everything. It’s because that love is so commonplace and accessible, that we may someday be free from sin and death.
So I’m excited to be reading this all again. I’ve already seen several ways that the Divine Comedy is affecting me differently now. And I’m thankful to be reminded of these words which have formed me, perhaps more than I realize.