Spiritual Direction From Dante

Avoiding the Inferno

By Father Paul Pearson

TAN Books, 2019

372 pages, $24.95

To order: tanbooks.com or (800) 437-5876

 

 

“When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray …”

So opens the 14th-century poem Divina Comedia (The Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri.

The blurb on the back cover of a new book, Spiritual Direction From Dante: Avoiding the Inferno by Oratorian Father Paul Pearson, tells its readers that no prior knowledge of the celebrated text is necessary to appreciate or enjoy its riches: “Reading Dante not required!” That is because Father Pearson gives an excellent explanation of the poem, and both its cultural and spiritual significance, in just over 300 pages.

Fusing practical advice about how to live one’s Christian vocation with a piece of high art from the Middle Ages is not an easy thing to do. Father Pearson carries it off superbly, and while doing so, he gives the reader a fresh appreciation of Divina Comedia.

The structure of the book is a straightforward journey through the 34 cantos that make up the first part of the poem, namely, Inferno (hell). For anyone unfamiliar with Divina Comedia, this epic poem recounts how Dante, accompanied by the pagan poet Virgil, journeys through the many circles of hell, purgatory and then heaven.

In Inferno Dante meets those whom the world considered famous and infamous figures who have been placed in hell and assigned their various punishments. According to the poem, some of the damned are real contemporaries of Dante. The poet was embroiled in the politics of his day; and, as politicians have done ever since, he took the opportunity of writing Divina Comedia to consign his political opponents to hell. As an aside, just recently in the U.K.’s interminable debate on Brexit, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, spoke of sending British Brexiteers to “a special place in hell.” This statement was pure Dante in its imagery and intent.

A Toronto-based Catholic convert, Father Pearson has a history of teaching seminary students about Dante’s epic poem and its relevance to their spiritual quest. So, road-tested with a live audience, Spiritual Direction From Dante is as lively a text as the 21st-century priest who wrote it and the 14th-century mind who inspired him.

Just like Dante before him, Father Pearson understands that hell is a great casting down of thrones, a place where the mighty are laid low. And how low they are cast! Dante has a genius for thinking up punishments for various vices and sins. For example, fortunetellers are for all eternity left with their heads turned backward so they cannot even see what is in front of them, never mind pretend to foretell the future.

Father Pearson’s take on the punishment of thieves in Canto 25 is decidedly modern: “Thieves reject the boundary between what is mine and what is yours and, as a result, reject identity itself. This same lack of human respect that they displayed on earth is now their punishment. And so they have to watch as what belongs most intimately to them — their very appearance — is passed around from soul to soul in a macabre game of ‘keep-away.’ Here we have the hellish version of identity theft.”

To modern readers, it will be clear to all and sobering to some to find that the medieval mind has no problem casting into hell certain activities or lifestyles that today are lauded as “morally neutral” or even “virtuous.” Needless to say, in Inferno all those who were not chaste before marriage and who did not remain so once married are consigned to hell. That said, when it comes to the sins of the flesh, Dante is a more sympathetic listener to those sinners’ moans and groans than, for example, he is to those who used public office to enrich themselves and corrupt others in the process. In Inferno high officials are named and shamed in whatever circle of hell Dante deposits them. Justice — and, at times, a sense of revenge on the part of Dante — pervades Inferno.

Spiritual Direction From Dante is enhanced greatly by the use of Gustave Doré’s celebrated engravings of Dante’s Inferno from 1857. These add a certain comic-book air to proceedings, which strangely seems apt, given the hyperreality on display. But, be under no illusion: Inferno is not merely a literary take on an imaginary world.

Instead, it is a profound meditation on an all-too-concrete spiritual reality, namely, hell.

But, as Father Pearson says, if Divina Comedia is indeed “a comedy, it is less about hell itself than about the wonderful escape that God has planned for each of us.” He goes on to say: “The mess of our lives need not be permanent. We are not doomed to life without joy. But for the comedy to unfold properly, we need to step enthusiastically into our role.” And for this to happen, Father Pearson concludes that we must accept “God’s offer of forgiveness and turn away from disordered attachments that stand in the way of our happiness, both here and forever.” 

K.V. Turley writes from London.