November 19, 2008
Last month I told you about the latest entry in my friend Ken Boa’s Great Books Audio CD Series, and that’s his discussion of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Ken calls it “the supreme literary work, not only of medieval Christendom, but of all Christian faith.”
Such an important work can’t be done justice to in one CD or one BreakPoint broadcast, which is why this month I want to tell you more about Dante’s work, with Ken as our guide.
As Ken describes so well, the Divine Comedy is a “drama of the soul’s choice” as it moves toward—or away from—the love of God. This lengthy epic poem is divided into three canticles. The first canticle is the one you’ve most likely heard of before: the Inferno, which is all about Hell—the abode of unrepentant souls who have willed to descend to their most degraded level, furthest away from the love of God.
In contrast, in the second canticle, called Purgatorio, Dante describes Mount Purgatory as a place where the “stain of sinfulness” is being cleansed from repentant souls. As a Roman Catholic, Dante saw purgatory as a place where the penitent soul sheds the imperfections that cling to it—imperfections that are, for the most part, distortions of love and other good things.
Thus, in both Hell and Purgatory, Dante witnesses souls getting what they really want. Hell is “the enjoyment of your own way forever,” and Purgatory is a state wherein those who ultimately desire the love of God endure the transient pains to make that joy possible.
Listening to Ken, Dante’s influence on C.S. Lewis becomes very clear. The obvious example is The Great Divorce, where Lewis borrows the concept of a literary guide and discusses the purging of souls. Lewis also writes, reflecting his Anglican or evangelical bent, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
In the third canticle, Paradiso, Dante shows us that the things we most loved in this world were only hints of a greater and deeper love. As Dante approaches Paradise, Virgil, his guide through Hell and Purgatory, is no longer with him. Instead, he is guided by his beloved Beatrice, who represents “idealized love.”
Seeing her causes Dante to experience a kind of ecstasy, but Beatrice tells him she is but a faint reflection of something far greater—the true object of his quest. Once you see the divine “Face,” what is called the “beatific vision,” you will understand that this is what you were really seeking after all your life.
But this vision requires more than the removal of the “stain of sinfulness”—it requires being perfected in virtues of justice, prudence, and, of course, faith, hope and love.
As Ken says, it’s easy to get lost in the “architecture” of Dante’s work, and that would be a shame. That’s why you need a guide like my friend Ken Boa. And not just for the Divine Comedy, but for reading and truly understanding all of the great books of Christendom. Visit our website, BreakPoint.org, to find out how you can subscribe to Ken Boa’s Great Books Audio CD Series.
Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
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