Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Tuesday 03 August |
Saint of the Day: St. Martin
home iconLifestyle
line break icon

How to think like Dante


Public Domain

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 04/18/21

The great poet can help us face some of life's toughest trials.

I regularly quote Dante during homilies. I’m sure by this point my parishioners are tired of it, but they’re a patient bunch, willing to put up with an eccentric priest like me. I know that when a name like Dante comes up, there are many who stop listening because they’ve been convinced at some point in their lives that they cannot understand his poetry. Only pipe-smoking professors who wear tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows are allowed to talk about the Divine Comedy. When I talk about Dante, though, it isn’t to talk over the heads of my parishioners. It’s to introduce them to the beauty of his poetry, which is for everyone.

When Dante wrote his Divine Comedy, he did so with the intention that every single person would be able to understand it. This is why he wrote in Italian instead of the more academic language of Latin. To this day, his work has a wide-ranging appeal because it is concerned not with obscure intellectual questions, but rather with the experiences that you and I have in our everyday lives.

Recently, the Catholic Church celebrated the 700 year anniversary of Dante’s death by releasing an Apostolic Letter. In it, Pope Francis writes that Dante’s life and work are timeless. I agree. If we all think more like Dante, we’ll be far better equipped to tackle modern-day challenges.

Because of warfare in his home city of Florence, Dante spent much of his life in exile, unable to return home. He writes about how difficult this was for him:

Thou shalt have proof how savoureth of salt

The bread of others, and how hard a road

The going down and up another’s stairs

Which of us hasn’t felt this sense of exile? Which of us hasn’t felt homesick or as though we aren’t in quite the right place in our lives?

There’s a reason that so many people are dissatisfied and endlessly searching for some sort of meaning to their existence. Not only are there places we love that must be left behind – a childhood home sold and gone, a difficult move to a new city, a college town that never feels the same again – but there are also people who travel on, like a parent who has died, a friendship that falters, children who grow up before we’re ready for it. There’s a reason these experiences leave us deeply affected, sometimes to the point that we are restless and unsure of exactly how we fit into this world. This world is not our true home, so we’re constantly plagued by a feeling of homesickness.

How do we grapple with these feelings? Pope Francis points out that Dante admits his melancholy and doesn’t pretend life is perfect. For instance, in the eighth canto of the Purgatorio, he writes,

Twas now the hour that turneth back desire

In those who sail the sea, and melts the heart,

The day they’ve said to their sweet friends farewell.

Dante, pondering his exile, the friends he has lost, and the fragility of life, doesn’t ignore the pain of it. He does something much better. He acknowledges his suffering and transforms it. He understands that life is a journey, and by definition a journey involves leaving pieces of ourselves behind on the road. This struggle for personal and spiritual growth is like picking up a heavy weight and climbing a mountain, but it’s the key to happiness. Instead of wallowing in self-pity or accepting mediocrity, Dante teaches us to think of life as a heroic pilgrimage in which we transform our suffering, our past, and our desires, to purify them by striving for the ultimate goal, which is to come to the end of journey and see love himself, who is God. This is the vision of a perfect home that keeps us moving forward and imparts our lives with meaning.

In my life, I’ve dealt with depression, sadness, and feelings of rejection. I’ve had a full-blown mid-life crisis. I’ve been so frustrated I’ve felt like quitting my job. I’ve felt the pain of desires that are impossible to fulfill. Dante has helped me through all of this (and so has Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life). He’s helped me place these setbacks and unfulfilled desires at the feet of God. In the end, it is God alone who takes them up and brings healing. Dante writes of his own journey,

And I, who to the end of all desires

Was now approaching, even as I ought

The ardor of desire within me ended

For him, learning to trust God was a long and difficult path. It’s the same for all of us. That doesn’t mean we should give up, because if there’s one thing Dante has taught me, it’s that there’s always more. Look for that next level. Take that next step. Eventually, we all arrive at the source of desire, God himself, and then we will know true love and find an everlasting home.

Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Saint Mary of the Angels
Bret Thoman, OFS
All your sins will be forgiven if you go to a Franciscan church o...
Ignacio María Doñoro
Francisco Veneto
The military chaplain who pretended to be a criminal to rescue a ...
Theresa Civantos Barber
The one thing we all should do before this summer ends
Violeta Tejera
Carlo Acutis’ first stained glass window in jeans and sneak...
Cerith Gardiner
Gold-winning Filipina Olympian shares her Miraculous Medal for th...
Ary Waldir Ramos Diaz
1st Feast of Our Lady of Silence is August 1
Cerith Gardiner
Simone Biles leaves the Olympics with an important lesson for her...
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.