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BY Elias Crim
Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy,
by Robert Royal
Crossroad Publishing Co., 1999
118 pages, $16.95
Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the great Russian poet who disappeared into the Soviet gulag in 1938, recorded her husband's fatalistic advice to his friends living in that terrible period: Always carry your most precious belongings on your person. That way, when you are arrested, you won't regret not being able to retrieve them from home. Upon his arrest, Osip Mandelstam was carrying a copy of Dante's Commedia (the Divine Comedy).
Evidently, the modern Russian felt a spiritual kinship with the medieval Italian, and he seemed especially drawn to his physical meanderings. In his remarkable essay “Talking about Dante,” Mandelstam wrote: “The question occurs to me … how many sandals did Alighieri wear out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy?”
Not everyone can follow Dante's lead quite so literally, but anyone who can read can make a spiritual pilgrimage through the Commedia. In this book, Robert Royal proves himself a worthy Virgil to guide you along.
“In the entire history of Christianity,” Royal notes, “no poet has written a more complete vision of Christian life.” If you have read only selected cantos of the Inferno (which is just one section of the larger work), or it's been awhile since you sat with one of the most seminal entries in the Western literary oeuvre, you will find great spiritual riches in exploring the “universe of love” described in the entire Commedia. In a more focused and accessible way than any other modern commentary I know of, Royal's book reveals Dante as a spiritual master, teaching us how to make our own pilgrimage to God.
Dante Alighieri takes the form of a canto-by-canto commentary, with a longish but interesting biographical introduction. Here Royal points out that, just as Thomas Aquinas blended Aristotelian metaphysics with the theological currents of his day, so Dante took the prior century's courtly love poetry and troubadour songs, and transformed them with the same period's spiritual and theological thought.
In the case of Dante, we encounter the extraordinary role of his beloved Beatrice, who inspired much of his writing before dying in the year 1290 (ten years before the fictional date of the Commedia's vision) at age 24. Royal comments, “The idea that the love between a man and a woman can be the entry point into a deep encounter with divine love is, of course, perfectly compatible with Christian theology, though it remains a sort of minority position” — the more celebrated path identifying Christian love with asceticism and denial of earthly desires.
God leads us not by abstract ideas but by particular people.
Dante's way may be more accessible for most people. In terms of later spiritual schools, Royal suggests that Dante would probably have been more at home in the Marian affirmations of a St. Louis de Montfort than, say, the strict asceticism of a St. John of the Cross.
As Dante makes his way through a landscape of sinners, penitents and saved souls, we soon realize that his pilgrimage is our own as well. Moreover, we do not choose this journey; it chooses us.
As we meet not only the emperors and popes of Dante's time but his own neighbors, friends and enemies, we begin to grasp one of the key spiritual principles that Royal derives from this great work: God leads us not by an abstract set of ideas but by a particular group of people.
As the Inferno is undoubtedly the best-known section of the Commedia, the pair of otherworldly figures most familiar to readers are probably the fifth canto's Paolo and Francesca, whose brief story of disordered love so moves Dante that he actually faints away at hearing it. Typically, Royal's excellent comments underline the true spiritual lesson of this couple's self-deception. This flows from their efforts, expressed as beautifully and persuasively here as the greatest love poetry itself can be, to put their adulterous love above Love itself.
Once we traverse the infernal world, we begin to ascend the purgatorial mountain, where we and Dante must learn new humility and patience as we struggle to achieve purification. We are no longer “tourists,” but true pilgrims. (Is it a coincidence that one of the most compelling Christian visions offered to the world today comes from one who has scaled many literal and figurative mountains, one Karol Wojtyla?)
Our final joy is the paradisiacal vision, the end of our pilgrimage with Dante and a kind of Marian shrine in itself. A good guidebook makes us appreciate places where we had little sense of the pleasures and joys awaiting us. Royal's book does exactly that for this, the most difficult and surely least-appreciated section of the Commedia, the Paradiso. Heaven is notoriously hard to imagine unless we strive to understand the nature of its eternal joy and its reality. As Royal shows, this masterpiece of Christian vision, unsurpassed except for the Bible, leads us to know more of that reality, and all things, in our faith in God.
Elias Crim writes from Chicago.