On a journey to Christ

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. . . crucified, dead and buried, he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he rose to heaven. . .

In one of the most succinct accounts of the Christ event in European literature, Dante, as a pilgrim poet and protagonist, has Beatrice explain in his poem why God decided to accept the flesh and live and die man for man.

Why did God choose this detour to do good? Wouldn't it have been easier to forgive people for their initial and persistent disobedience and to wipe the slate clean, or – if that doesn't work – to leave it to themselves? Just in case, Beatrice offers a wonderfully precise account of – how she understands – how God in and through Christ manages to do both.

But she precedes this account with a formula that touches the deep substance of Dante's entire meditation as a poet and Christian thinker. for there can be no understanding of God's purposes in Christ except through "maturity in the flame of love". That is, through a truly mature understanding of love as that in which the beloved is re-enabled in relation to new life – through a fresh start on the level of seeing, understanding, and desire.

Furthermore, she explains, Christ takes on the flesh and lives and dies man by man as a means by which every single man or woman can be said, in some sense and to some extent, to partake in his own resurrection.

Now of course we have to be clear about this; For as Dante Beatrice has it said, there can be no question of whether man is doing what God alone can do, since grace alone equates to the original and ongoing catastrophe of Eden.

But nevertheless, through the mutual abiding of nature and grace – human and divine initiative – in the niches of this or that example of a specifically human being, it is a question of participation, the life of man on his own account, the innermost and most permanent substance of Christ -Event. This is precisely his high calling as a creature modeled on its creator.


But with that we are still in the foothills; For in view of this sense in Dante that man (in a certain sense) makes the substance and meaning of the Christ event his own, what can it mean to speak of his "participation in his own resurrection": that is, a part to have to play in his own coming as a new creature?

For Dante this means that he, too, descends into the pit to rise again as a creature of moral, ontological and eschatological determination – as a creature authorized by grace to shape and justify his own fate.

So to take the first phase of what for Dante is synonymous with the real spiritual journey of man as a person – namely the moment of the argument in which he descended into hell – we can say the following: “Half of this life of our “, he, Dante Alighieri, is in a dark forest and is besieged by a lion, a leopard and a wolf (which means pride, lust and avarice and on the level of the real human being ensures something that is destructive comes close), knows himself only in the fear, confusion and almost despair of everything.

Since Dante sees no way out into the sunlit highlands beyond the forest and recognizes in the shadows the silent figure of Publius Vergilius Maro – the Virgil of the Aeneid – as a singer of important journeys, he is called to an alternative journey. This is a descent into the pit below Jerusalem to see that all of those have fallen victim to their misguided love in one way or another.

These are the moderate ones in their indiscriminate surrender to the joys of the sensitive soul; the violent in relation to God and man alike; and the deceivers in their use of reason as just a principle of deception, thereby breaking the love affair between one man and another.

And at the bottom of the pit? Not fire, but frozenness: a standstill of all life, light and all love – in short, the zero degree of existence.

And this – this dissolution of all life, light and all love in the wasteland of the pit – brings us to the deep and lasting tragedy (not to mention the deep and lasting sadness) of the inferno; for if this first cant of the poem is at first sight about divine retribution, and as Dante himself says, about the exquisite craftsmanship of it, it is a question of the self, as it is plagued by itself: the self living out the agony of his own leading decisions in a now unqualified way.

In other words, despite the richness of Dante's imagination as the quintessential poet of divine wrath, the Inferno is an essay in "self-presence" in all the fear that the soul knows itself in the depth and irretrievability of its guilt and as less to the divine than surrendered to the demonic.

For example, the case of Francesca among the immoderate in Canto V or Pier delle Vigne among the violent in Canto XIII or Ugolino among the fraudsters in Canto XXXIII. With all the more or less hectic self-relief as the only way to deal with the self in its hard-heartedness, it is about self-knowledge: to stand in the truth of the self, which arises forever, to torment the Leviathan as well as the impetuous spirit.

So this, in the sense of Dante, is the first phase of truly human travel in the form of a descent into oneself – there, to consider the now desolate substance of self in completeness as preliminary in relation to all that comes next as the resurrection of his betrayal. No self-presence understood in this way, no new life: simply the imprisonment of the guiding idea in all its power to produce nothing on the level of the truly human being.


But that is not all. What is true in the Inferno – through its invitation to look beneath the apparent substance of the text as an essay in divine retribution and there ponder the agony of recognition, to know the self in the unsolved guilt of the self – also applies. in the purgatorio.

Cornell University / PJ mode collectionOverview of the Divine Comedy by Michaelangelo Caetani (1855)

In spite of everything that concerns the concept of satisfaction, the point here is to retrospectively pay off the "guilt of punishment" that sin causes here and now, to reconfigure. This is the kind of love organization through which the love generated by the sights and sounds of the world is brought home to the soul's previous and instinctive longing for communion with its Creator as the beginning and end of all love.

But (this is what matters now) that it is not easy for us to bring one kind of love to another, to occasionally love the love of God that is given with existence itself. Thus the torment of the purgatorio as an essay for reconfiguration is no less than that of the inferno as an essay for recognition.

Only then, as far as the narrative of Purgatory is concerned, do those who, after having absorbed the guilt of self (this is the difference between Hell and Purgatory), get through in a moment of silence for the toil of Purgatory proper a meditation on the vastness of God's mercy: on his willingness to welcome the sad spirit at home anytime, anywhere.

Then come those who embark on the actual purgatory: the proud, arched double beneath the rocky load on their back (this is the way for them to think through themselves to a more sober self-assessment); the envious ones with their eyes cruelly stitched (this is the way for them to see more clearly); anger wrapped in a sharp smoke (for them this is the way of a sweeter humanity); the laziness with their now unaccustomed sportiness (for them this is the path of a now fresh sense of urgency); stinginess and clinging to dust (for them this is the way to limit the self to a higher finality); the voracious as cruelly emaciated (for them this is the way to a more orderly appetite); and the lustful as they are now being engulfed in the flames of their former passion (this is the way for them to remove unreason on the level of truly human love).

And so the pilgrim poet, who at the moment is only one who is passing through, knows himself in the gradual emancipation of the self. Virgil does everything possible to confirm his status as "King and Bishop over himself". This is an exquisite example of what Paul Tillich called the "Protestant Principle" throughout the niches of Christian sensibility that are properly understood.

So this is what it means to speak of the purgatorio – the beautiful purgatorio – as an essay on self-reconfiguration or gain in love; and as an essay that presupposes the agony of self-recognition, but regards that self-recognition as tentatively within the resurrection economy of the whole for a now more spacious and radiant humanity – for the kind of "transhumanity" as Dante puts it than just humanity itself in action.

When we come to Paradiso, the sublime song of the poem, we do not lose anything of the existential intensity of the inferno and purgatorios, of their activation of the structures of consciousness that are peculiar to the individual at the moment he or she loses and is on the level of truly human love.

For here at Paradiso it is a question that is not so much a reward for a life lived in accordance with one's innermost reasons as rather for the individual to know the self in the now ecstatic transcendence of the self: in one Opening out of the self to all that it could be and become, as a creature called from before to rejoice in the immediate presence of the One who is of the essence.

In the company of Beatrice as the second of his leaders in the commedia, Dante makes his way through the orbiting spheres of his geocentric universe to enjoy the company of all those – be they contemplatives, crusaders, rulers, or hermits – in unison the properties of personality live the now dissolved substance of their unique and uniquely precious presence in the world.

Of course, there is nothing left of problematic humanity; because this is not a fairytale report about what it should be heavenly. As Dante has it in one of his haunting images in this third chant, it is now an object of smile, a coruscation of the mind that now corresponds to its former aberration and all of its life in a regio dissimilitudinis or a region of inequality or exile.

So this is what it means to speak of Dante and the Easter story, and what in the commedia means a sense of human participation in their own resurrection through the events of that first Good Friday and Easter day, elevation as creatures of ultimate accountability .

To speak of Dante and the Easter story is to speak of an Easter route of the spirit, a journey into a new life consisting of: (a) recognizing the self in the surrender of the self to the self-consciously demonic possibility (hell); (b) the struggle to reassert the self at the level of truly human love (purgatory); and (c) the double peace and joy of an act of existence that ultimately rests in the "love that moves the sun and the other stars" as the abode of all lovers – and all of this by grace as the animation of human orderly operation.

At this point, Dante's discourse in Commedia gets into a conversation with all those who are closer to us in time and who are also preoccupied at the point where it ultimately matters: with Søren Kierkegaard in relation to the inwardness of everything; with Karl Jaspers regarding the call to transcendence; with Martin Heidegger in relation to the substance and psychology of man in the world; with Eric Fromm on the dialectic of having and being; with Martin Buber regarding the I-Thou structure of human consciousness; and with Paul Tillich, whose feeling that Dante enters "the deepest places of human destruction and despair as well as the highest places of courage and redemption" – and thus the Divine Comedy as the "greatest expression of the existentialist point of view in the Middle Ages" – is just as powerful how convincing.

History and hermeneutics clearly play a role here, since differences in education and temperament, as always, occur in equality as the basis and guarantee for the really useful encounter.

Even so, Dante's call remains a call from afar to the most intimate kind of fellowship, the most complete kind of camaraderie – in short, and as the terminology suggests (cum pane), that of another breadbreaker.

John Took is Professor Emeritus of Dante Studies at University College London. His most recent publications include Dante, published by Princeton University Press for £ 30 (CT Bookshop £ 27) and Why Dante Matters: A Guide to Smart People, published by Bloomsbury for £ 20 (CT Bookshop £ 18).

Read our interview with John Took in this week's Church Times

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