“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.”
These, the opening lines of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (Anthony Esolen translation) speak to the inner journey of the soul. They confront us with the voice of a man who knows himself and who knows us, travelers who too have wandered from the straight path.
The Divine Comedy is about our life, not Dante’s alone. Where will he take us?
If you’ve ever ventured intoThe Divine Comedy, it’s likely you stopped at the end of Inferno, its first volume. I confess to having read Inferno twice and stopping. It was years later when I finally got around to treating myself to a complete journey from the dark wood to the luminous “love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
That’s a little like dining out and stopping after the salad because you don’t think the entrée and dessert will be different. But the Commedia isn’t an easy read and I wasn’t sure I was up to going further. I needed a guide.
Years later, when Mars Hill Audio Journal host Ken Meyers interviewed Rod Dreher about How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-giving Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem, I let Dreher lure me out of the grim permanence of Inferno’s capital sins and into Purgatory‘s reordering of love and finally to the light of Paradise with its beauty, contemplation and grace.
Dreher’s layering of soul-searching memoir with literary insight opened my first true door into Dante.
I’ll forever be an amateur, but now I’m an amateur on a journey.
Who hasn’t wandered off the straight path without recognizing it until “midway along the journey of our life”? The Divine Comedy can read our souls as we slowly walk with the exiled Florentine, the great bard Virgil, the radiant Beatrice and the holy St. Bernard of Clairvaux directing him ever higher into “eternal love opened up into new loves.”
The pages of this epic poem reveal the corrosive consequences of pride, the pitfalls of politics and the freedom found only in love. They help us yearn for goodness, truth and beauty.
If you’ve ever thought to read this soul-searching poem and put it off, now is the perfect time to begin. This year marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, and resources to support new readers abound.
I’m beginning here, with the “world’s largest Dante reading group”:
Baylor University’s Honors College, collaborating with five other major universities, has created the perfect way into this beloved, but complex poem. Four days ago the project had 15,000 readers and more are signing on every day.
It’s the most user-friendly approach to Dante I’ve ever seen.
When you subscribe here (it’s free) you’ll be updated about the release of each short video (three per week, one per canto). Teachers with rich experience in leading students through this poem deliver these brief video talks.
What makes them special, for my money, is that they love the Commedia deeply and are keen to the spiritual insights that make this poem so impactful.
Read the corresponding canto after watching the video, and poetry that seemed impenetrable finally comes alive. With less than 15 minutes of reading plus 20 or so minutes of watching each week, this plan is something you can catch up with quickly. Whether you join now or later, they’ll be there to help you savor the poem at your own pace.
The 100 Days of Dante group read started on September 8 and ends on Easter 2022, so now is a wonderful time to choose The Divine Comedy and stick with it, slowly. View Gustave Doré’s stirring illustrations alongside the Esolen translation of the poem by clicking the arrow at the bottom of the subscriber page (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here“) and let the journey begin.
More Dante discoveries to enrich your travel from the fire-flaked Inferno to the shimmering Heavens:
The Divine Company: Inferno · Purgatorio · Paradiso, a BBC radio production, is a beautiful recording available at Audible. Orient yourself to the tale with the actors’ powerful voices and your reading will be richer.
I absolutely loved the three deep conversations with Azusa Pacific University Professor Matthew Rohaus Moser on Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso (Episodes 31, 33 and 34 respectively) on Dr. Jennifer Frey’s podcast Sacred and Profane Love.
Dr. Moser also discussed Dante and Creation: Encountering God in Eden on Rachel Sherlock’s podcast Risking Enchantment. He’s a gifted Dante interpreter who helped me see that although I’ll never see it all, I can let these lines touch me for the rest of my life.
Dreher recommends the Great Courses lectures on Dante, and I found them very helpful.
Dante translator Anthony Esolen’s passionate lectures are also available on Audible.
Why should we read Dante? This TED Ed video makes the case in five minutes.
And I really can’t wait for this:
I’ve been a member of the Word on Fire Institute since its inception three years ago, and in an upcoming course, Bishop Robert Barron will teach on Dante! Free trial memberships to the Institute are being offered this month, which will allow the curious to explore the incredible content the Institute offers. More than that, the Institute is a great place for discussion and connection; it’s the most un-internety digital social space I know.
Anyone familiar with Bishop Barron’s work knows how frequently he references the Italian master. In the current issue of the Institute’s lavish journal, Evangelization and Culture, Barron says The Divine Comedy is “a spiritual program for lost people.”
Who doesn’t recognize the condition of “lostness” in this wayfaring life?
Don’t stop in the Inferno. Dante charts an upward path.
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Thank you for reading! You might also enjoy Sparrowfare’s The Tao or the Wow: How Ancient Texts Rehumanize the Heart.
Love the idea of joining 100 Days of Dante? I’d love to hear from you!