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.