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Try these 3 tricks from Dante to get more out of Lent


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Casey Chalk - published on 03/04/18

You might find the first one incredibly hard, but without it, nothing further can be accomplished.

This Lent as we seek tools to help us fight sin and temptation, consider the treasure provided for us in the literary traditions of the Catholic Church. One of the most beautiful, insightful, and convicting is the timeless wisdom found within Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Here are three themes found in Dante’s poetic trilogy that will aid both the novice and seasoned veteran in the trenches of spiritual warfare.

Recognize we are the problem

One of the most important first steps in defeating sin in our lives is to recognize that we ourselves, not anyone else, bear responsibility for our own misbehavior. This recognition is central to Dante’s own understanding of sin. Dante writes in Purgatorio XVI, 76-84:

And your Free Will, which, though it may grow faint In its first struggles with the heavens, can still Surmount all obstacles if nurtured well. You are free subjects of a greater power, A nobler nature that creates your mind, And over this the spheres have no control. So, if the world today has gone astray, The cause lies in yourselves and only there! Now I shall carefully explain that cause.

Read more:
Pope: Before judging others, we must remember we are sinners

Fundamentally, it is our own will, weakened by sin, that leads us into trouble. That guilt can hurt, and acknowledging our errors can be humiliating — but it is also freeing. Through God’s grace we can find not only restoration, but renewed strength to combat sin. This all requires humility, especially frequenting the sacrament of confession. Yet, as Dante exhorts us in Purgatorio XI, 100-102, 115-117, seeking our own glory is silly and short sighted:

Your earthly fame is but a gust of wind That blows about, shifting this way and that, And as it changes quarter, changes name. Your earthly game is like the green in grass: It comes and goes, and He who makes it grow Green from the earth will make it fade again.


Read more:
Why we should detach from the good world God made (Cantalamessa’s 1st Lent homily)

Replace what is tempting with the true good

The things that tempt us in this world often have the allure of something good and satisfying — the fruit that tempted Adam and Eve was “pleasing to the eye.” The problem with temptation is not that the object of our desire isn’t good — it’s that we want that object in the wrong way. Only in light of God’s truth can we properly orient our desires. We have to seek the higher-order goods, and find pleasure in them. Even if that pleasure seems less than the sin we desire, the more we love the good, the more we will be transformed (Philippians 4:8). Dante for example describes seeing the pure and holy Beatrice, his guide in heaven (Paradiso, XXVII 91-96):

And all that art and nature can contrive To lure the eye and thus possess the mind, Be it in living flesh or portraiture Combined, would seem like nothing when compared To the Divine delight with which I glowed When once more I beheld the smiling face.

What is truly beautiful and good will make everything else dim by comparison. Like St. Peter when he beheld Jesus transfigured, we will desire that glory stay with us (Matthew 17:1-13). The more we replace our desires for the fleeting and frivolous with that reminiscent of the eternal, beatific vision of God (e.g. Holy Scripture, the Mass, beautiful music, sacred art), the more capable we will be to resist temptation. As Dante says of heaven in Paradiso I, 55-57,

In that place first created for mankind Much more is granted to the human senses Than ever was allowed them here on earth.

Put others (including God) above ourselves

Many of Dante’s warnings are focused on those all-too-human tendencies to put our own desires above those of others. In Purgatorio XV, 49-57 he writes:

Because you make things of this world your goal, Which are diminished as each shares in them, Envy pumps hard the bellows for your sights. But if your love were for the lofty sphere, Your cravings would aspire for the heights, And fear of loss would not oppress your heart; The more there are up there who speak of ‘ours,’ The more each one possesses and the more Charity burns intensely in that realm.

We are envious of others — their possessions, but also their character traits and accomplishments. Yet if we desired God above the material, the more we would seek not only heavenly goods, but the goods of others, as well. Dante highlights one person in particular who exemplified this disinterest in the self: Mary our Mother. He writes in Purgatorio XXII, 142-144:

Then the voice said: “Mary was more intent On gracing the wedding feast with plenitude Than on her own mouth, which now pleads for you!”

At Cana, Mary’s concern for the honor and wellbeing of the bride and groom demonstrated true charity. It also — perhaps unintentionally! — initiated the first of Jesus’ public miracles. Moreover, in Mary’s deep compassion for others, her words were recorded for all subsequent generations: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). In seeking the good of God and neighbor, Mary provides us with the ultimate human template for how to resist and overcome sin. Through her intercession (and Dante’s inspiration), we can overcome sin this Lent.

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If you’re not motivated about Lent, try this

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