Dee and I are about to wrap up Paradise. It’s been a long journey, through Hell, Purgatory, and now, The Ultimate: in these last few cantos we are about to meet God. That in itself will make this 18-month endeavor worthwhile, but, boy, am I walking away from this project with a lot more than a little imaginary face-time with the Creator of All Things, a lot more than I expected, and Dee is too.
I’d been wanting to reread the poems for a while, ever since a friend who taught a kind of spiritual-inquiry course based on The Divine Comedy gave me a copy of the text he used for the course. It sounded intriguing. Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy, written by Helen Luke, a Jungian psychologist, follows Dante’s travels and encounters as an archetypical journey that humans on the path toward “individuation” – Jung’s term for self-actualization or wholeness – take. It seemed so intriguing, in fact, that I grouped the book along with the various translations of The Comedy that I’d read in college and sat them on a special shelf, just waiting for the project to begin. That was in 1996. The books sat on that shelf for about 15 years.
At last, in the summer of 2011, the time was right. I was beginning to suspect after these 15 years that I wasn’t going to undertake the project on my own, and so I took a leap and asked Dee. She is intelligent, well-read, open to new ideas. Would she be game? No timeline, no agenda, just read and discuss, just the two of us, flying blind through the afterlife with no one but the unknown Helen Luke to guide us. Yes, she’d be game.
After leafing through multiple translations, we settled on Dorothy Sayers’s. What a treat! She cleaves to the original terza rima, and her poetry is a delight. Most importantly, as it turned out for our reading, she has a clear sense of the “divine” in The Divine Comedy. One gets the sense from comparing her translation and notes to others such as John Ciardi, Mark Musa, or John Sinclair, that she, like Helen Luke, was interested in the application of Dante’s journey to living souls, and that one could read the poems as guides to living well in this life as opposed to reading them merely as a narrative of who Dante saw, where, and why in the afterlife. Dante, after all, will return to his life on earth with a clear directive to tell the story of what he experienced on his journey. The poems are meant to be more than a strong and illustrative warning to those whose fate hangs in the balance. It’s clear the poems are meant as a guide for good living and right thinking in the here and now.
It’s especially easy to miss that point if you stop with the Inferno, which, unfortunately, not only a lot of readers but so many translators do. Hell is action packed and grizzly with scenes of mayhem and violence. It makes for great reading, and one gets the real sense that everyone there deserves what he got. Purgatory seems lightweight in comparison, with souls not so much eternally suffering for their sins as being sorry for them. It’s a little namby-pamby, not the stuff of 21st century thrills at all. Interestingly enough, though, the sins and sinners in Purgatory are almost identical to those in Hell, with one important difference: in Purgatory, the souls are on the road to Heaven; in Hell, they are damned for all eternity. What differentiates the two groups of sinners is that the souls in Purgatory are able to purge the weight and shackle of their sins because they take responsibility for their previous wrong-thinking and wrong-action. They see their part in the error of their ways and are willing to clean up their side of the street. In Hell, the sinners take great glee in blaming others for their downfall, and that blame will keep them stuck in their misery for all time. In one of the loveliest tropes of the book, just before the final cantos of Purgatory, Dante finds himself wandering alone through a Sacred Wood. It is, in a very real way, the same wood he was in when he began the poem, though that was dark and terrifying. Dark is transformed to Sacred here because of the gleeful and willing shift of the burden of responsibility, just as the souls in Purgatory are transformed in comparison to those in Hell.
Part of the joy of reading through all three books of The Comedy is witnessing the pilgrim Dante develop and transform as he moves along the circles of the afterlife. He is able to walk alone in the Sacred Wood – no longer dark and terrifying – because he has absorbed the lessons and information that have been shown to him along the way. He’s not only seen the condemnation of others for their acts, he’s come to understand these tendencies toward evil are also his own. After all, the opening lines of the poem are a confession that somehow, somewhere, he’d lost the right way in his life’s path. His guide Virgil tells him his path up and out must go down through hell first because Dante has to see how bad things can get before he can transform himself.
And transform he does. He eventually comes to admit his pride; his short-sighted love of things, people, power; his placing of intellect over matters of the spirit. He has changed and grown in his insight and understanding of what is truly enduring and important as being human is concerned. And though Dante’s personal ultimate sight is set on being closer to a Christian God, the lessons are broad and roomy enough for all of us, including me and Dee.
In Paradise, Dante sees the souls who’ve made it to their final, joyful destination. These are the souls who’ve learned to love the whole fabric of life. There is no jealousy, there is no regret, there is no sorrow. There is only the happy understanding that they have lived their lives the best they could, putting spiritual principles first as often as was possible. And as Dante gets closer to meeting God, he encounters a wonderful paradox: as his understanding of right living blossoms into understanding divine love, he comes to realize that, no matter how close to God he becomes, he’ll never know it all. In fact, part of getting closer to the Divine is accepting the ineffable. The Divine is a mystery, and the more one accepts the mystery, the closer one is to the Divine.
I don’t know that Dee and I can claim we’ve come closer to the Divine, but, I admit unashamedly, it sure feels like it. As a non-Christian, I hadn’t expected the poems to resonate with me on the level they did. Dee, who is a practicing Catholic, says her faith and understanding of the journey to God has been deepened. Certainly, our friendship has deepened, as we spent week after week parsing the poetry together and following Helen Luke’s lead in seeking the application for The Comedy’s lessons in our own lives. By the way, the poem is called a comedy because it has a happy ending. It’s worth reading all ninety-nine cantos to come to it.
Dee and I are planning to expand our two-some to include a few others for our next book. Anyone care to join us in Troy?