A Divine Comedy in 2021

Pope Francis has proclaimed 2021 as the Year of St. Joseph, which involves a host of good things, including plenary indulgences. He has also designated this year to be specially focused on the family, including special study of Amoris Laetitia on its fifth anniversary. We’ll see how that works out. (The Vatican is mistaken if it has calculated that the controversy has diminished, let alone gone away, about that document’s hints that couples living in what is objectively adultery may subjectively be in a state to receive Communion.)

I have no authority to proclaim anything about anything. But if someone were to ask me, I’d suggest that 2021 also be a Year of Dante, who died 700 years ago on September 13, 1321 of malaria, which was the COVID of his time. I looked into the question and see that Italy has already done that. But many people outside Italy need what Dante can give. We’re all sick and tired of the daily grind of viruses, Twitterized politics, and Church controversies at the moment and could use something that will ground us in something both deeper and quite different. And something to lift us up a bit.

Dante has been a personal passion of mine since I was a teenager. But I’d recommend studying him (I’ll propose how we might do that together below) because in his work you find a comprehensive synthesis of the Biblical, classical, and medieval worlds – which is to say most of what went into the foundations of our Western civilization – the civilization that’s undergoing demolition on several fronts just now. And all presented in a brilliant poem, maybe the greatest poem ever written, culminating in what few poets would dare attempt: a presentation of the Beatific Vision.

Dante himself says that “heaven and earth put a hand” (ha posto mano e cielo e terra) to his poema sacro. And he means that. Besides the large intellectual and spiritual territory that The Divine Comedy covers, it also engages a wide swath of sacred and secular history, including many individuals, great and not, living or dead in his day. This is not some airy, insubstantial poet’s tale; it encompasses the lowest, the highest, and everything in between in “our life’s journey” (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita), as he says in the very first verse of the Comedy.

And yet there’s a single golden thread that is woven into the tapestry, which unifies everything: Love, real love, the authentic and foundational love that created everything and variously manifests itself in human life, nature, and supernature. “The love that moves the sun and other stars” (L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle), as he writes in the very last line of Paradiso.

All this may seem quite daunting – and it is, but also inspiring, uplifting, illuminating, disturbing, challenging, satisfying, and somewhere to turn for a quite different – i.e., Catholic – perspective on sin, virtue, history, politics, spirituality, mysticism, truth, and beauty. Which is to say many things missing from our life and thought today.

Just one sign of how wide the scope is can be glimpsed where Dante began this journey to that final love. It got its start – as he explained in his earliest work Vita Nova (“The New Life”) a kind of autobiography in prose and verse – when he saw and fell in love with Beatrice, a young woman in Florence, who inspired him to great things. Indeed, after she dies young, he concludes his account with this:

[A] marvelous vision appeared to me, in which I saw things that made me decide not to say anything more about this blessed lady until I was capable of writing about her more worthily. To achieve this I am doing all that I can, as surely she knows. So that, if it be pleasing to Him who is that for which all things live, and if my life is long enough, I hope to say things about her that have never been said about any woman.

What he will eventually say is how what we usually call “romantic love” for a particular individual is one of the ways that human love is an image of the divine love – which has been part of the tradition at least since the Song of Songs. And he traces its full expression as no one before or since.

We have been saying since the founding of this site that the Catholic tradition is broader and richer than any other tradition on earth. It’s simply a fact that can be confirmed; if you try to find something else comparable, you won’t. At a time like the present, when we’re losing touch with our tradition and even the best in our secular culture – suffering in fact from the ravages of a deliberate cultural amnesia and an anti-culture – the way forward is, partly, the way back. Dante says himself in Inferno that he got off the true path because he’d been sleepwalking. Like him, we need to wake ourselves up and get back on the trail.

So here’s my modest proposal. I’m willing to lead an online class on Dante’s Divine Comedy if we can assemble enough people to make it worthwhile. I’ve taught Dante online to adults before and it’s been a very valuable experience both for them and me. I’ve found that adults in particular are eager to understand what he’s up to, to talk seriously about the text from their years of experience, and to see how the core of our Catholic culture varies widely at several points from what currently passes for the Faith.

There are three parts to the Divine Comedy. It’s best to take them in three separate courses of about eight weeks each. This means that if you enroll, you’re committing to read about four cantos of the poem, about 500 lines of poetry each week, a true pleasure and not heavy lifting. Most people who’ve read Dante in college or at some other point in the past usually stop with Inferno. There’s so much more about freeing ourselves from sin and developing virtues in Purgatorio, and then the unparalleled splendors of Heaven in Paradiso, that you’d be doing yourself a favor to commit to experiencing the whole thing.

I want to offer this course at a manageable tuition for TCT readers. I’ll throw in a copy of my book on Dante as part of the package. If you’re interested, contact us at courses@frinstitute.org for enrollment information. Tuition (for the Inferno part of the three-part course) is $120. Space is limited so act soon if you want to be included. We’ll send you information about how to logon and further details shortly. Classes start February 24th and will meet Wednesday evenings for eight weeks for about 90 minutes each.

You need, we all need, to reconnect with our deepest roots just now to prepare ourselves for what’s to come. Hope to see you there.

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as the St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at Thomas More College. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.

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