Throughout Christian history, two ways of living, praying, meditating have co-existed, generally peacefully. One of these ways is the Way of Negation, the way of denial, of asceticism, of apophatic theology (to describe God only by what He isn’t). The other is the Way of Affirmation (or something — apologies if I’m wrong; correct me in the comments!), the way of joyful living, of cataphatic theology (to describe God by the attributes revealed in Scripture & reasoned from the universe). Both are needed, I believe, and most of us fall a little bit in each.
The latter type of believer includes such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, the other has St. Antony and Dionysius the Areopagite. In his masterful history of the Spirit at work in the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams places Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321) amongst those who tread the Way of Affirmation.
Dante lived bountifully. In La Vita Nuova we do see a little bit more swooning than would be appropriate in our culture or even in actual 13th-century Florence. However, this swooning was because he was grasping life so fully, not denying what was there in Beatrice and thus living the earthly life given by Almighty God to its very fullest extent.
He is best known, however, not for swooning over Beatrice, but for La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy, a work in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.* The first volume is the only I have yet to read; we begin with Dante’s journeys in Hell, right to Satan’s belly, with Virgil as guide. Thence Virgil takes him to Purgatory; my friend Andrew finds Purgatory quite amusing — it is rumoured to be the most original of the three. And Beatrice leads him through Paradise.
I know people who are obsessed with being lame, so they say things like, “Dante’s Inferno is just a really long version of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.“** Yes, Dante reworks a lot of Virgil’s material. But he does it in a thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Mediaeval way (since neither the Renaissance nor Florentine Renaissance actually happened [along with the “Dark Ages”], Dante is pure Mediaeval awesomeness). Dante’s Hell is not simply the place where the wicked are punished in various curious ways.
It is you.
Yes, you are Dante’s Hell. Don’t worry — you’re also Purgatory and Paradise. A Christian story is not simply beautiful, but beauty that points to Truth. And the Truth we see in Hell is the embodiment of all of our sins, from pettiness to treason. The Inferno is an unveiling of the messy, unpleasant business we call “fallenness.” Do what you will with Genesis 2-3 — there may be funnier, more “life-affirming” creation stories out there*** — but it relates a basic truth about our lives. We are all screwed up. We all have Hell within.
If all Dante did was moan about Hell and how to avoid it, then he would fall firmly in the category of “The Way of Negation.” But he moves on from Hell, to Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise. We have these places in us as well. Made in the Image of the Living God, there is glory and beauty in the human race. We are not designed to wallow in the filth of our own sin. We are designed for the glory and beauty of Paradise, accessed through the work of Purgatory.
Thus, the Divine Comedy. If this were all Dante Alighieri had written, he would deserve an account in every Church History textbook. However, he was also a great scholar and populariser of the vernacular, as in De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin here). He also got entangled in local politics, getting himself exiled. Finally, he was a Third Order Franciscan (and we all know my love for St. Francis) — indeed, if we count Dante among the Great Franciscans, St. Francis died in 1226, St. Bonaventure lived from 1221 to 1274, and Dante was born in 1265. They all overlapped and all have had a powerful impact upon the thoughtlife of the Christian world.
So read a little Dante today, for there you will find a man plugged into the Fountain of Life. There you will find a man thoroughly engrossed in the world of his day — political, intellectual, poetic — yet who did not lose sight of the one God worthy of praise.
**This is the lame sort of person who can see nothing but political propaganda in the Aeneid.
***The Blackfoot one related by Tomson Highway in “Why Cree is the Funniest of All Languages,” (in Me Funny ed. Drew Hayden Taylor) is certainly funnier.