Did you hear the one about the guy who was brought (back) to faith in God by thinking about a dead girl he once had a mad crush on? Bizarre, eh? He wrote about the experience; it’s called the Divine Comedy, and the author is Dante Alighieri.
Last night I spent a wonderful two hours with a group of teachers in Baton Rouge, whose group had read The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, and were talking about it. On the drive back to St. Francisville, I listened to the Teaching Company’s course on the Divine Comedy taught by Prof. William Cook and Prof. Ronald Herzman, loaned to me by a reader. It’s terrific, just terrific. It’s a shame I didn’t have hours to drive, and had to stop listening when I got home.
As I pulled into my driveway, I thought about how amazing it is to encounter a good teacher. There are kinds of people as valuable as a good teacher, but I can’t think of anybody more valuable than a good teacher. I mean that. Those guys, Cook and Herzman, illuminated aspects of the poem that I missed, or at least glossed over, when I read those sections — and I informed myself with the exhaustive notes of the Hollanders and John Ciardi. This is a testimony not only to Cook and Herzman’s skill as teachers, but to the inexhaustible riches of Dante. It was fitting that I had spent the evening in the company of teachers talking, in part, about the life-changing deeds my late sister performed as a teacher. As the teachers and I milled around talking after the event ended, I told one of them that I had named my daughter after an English teacher who had made an incalculable difference in my life. She seemed moved by that.
What I woke up this morning thinking about was the point Cook and Herzman made about the final section of the Purgatorio, in which the pilgrim Dante finally meets Beatrice, who arrives at the end of a spectacular pageant moving through Eden. The professors point out that the pageant symbolically represents the drama of salvation through history — God’s dealings with mankind, and the provision He has made for us to be reconciled to Him. We see in the pageant symbols of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the Evangelists, and so forth, and, of course, Jesus Christ, symbolized as a griffon pulling the train. And at the end of it all comes Beatrice.
This, the professors said, reveals both the general and the particular means of salvation. God provides the Church (= the pageant: Jesus, the Prophets, the Evangelists, the saints, et al.) for the general salvation of mankind, but He also provides particular means of reaching us individually. For Dante, that means was Beatrice, the Florentine woman who died an early death, and whom he had loved, but never possessed. It was Beatrice, remember, who saw Dante’s despair and lostness from heaven, and beseeched Virgil to help him find the path back to God. In fact, Virgil was too an agent of God in this way. You might say that God knew it would take a noble pagan and poet like Virgil, whom Dante idolized, to reach Dante where he was, lost in the woods. Virgil took Dante as far towards God as he could, then handed him off to Beatrice, with whom Dante will complete the journey.
When I read these cantos of Purgatorio, I was struck by how Beatrice’s first words to Dante are words of rebuke. She reads him the riot act for betraying her memory. What she means by this is that Dante saw in her face, when he encountered her on the streets of Florence, a window into divinity. It wasn’t that she was a saint, but rather there Dante, the artist, perceived something of God in her physical beauty. Here at the anteroom to Paradise, Beatrice reminds Dante that her beautiful body has turned to dust in the grave, as all physical things must. If Dante had responded correctly to what he perceived in her physical form, he would have set his heart on higher things. What he did instead, she said, was waste the graces God gave him, and pursued false goods instead of the things of God. He squandered his potential not so much in doing evil, but in not pursuing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful: in other words, God.
In Cook and Herzman’s exegesis, Dante has passed through Hell to see what happens to people who stray from the Way. All the damned blame others for their condition. It’s always somebody else’s fault that they are in Hell. Purgatory, through which Dante has just passed in Virgil’s company, is for souls who repented, and who are saved (though not yet ready for Paradise), and whose willingness to take responsibility for their own sinfulness spared them the Inferno. Paradise, of course, is for those saved souls who have been cleansed through suffering and repentance of the last vestiges of sin in their natures. Dante the pilgrim, having been so rebuked by Beatrice, and reflecting on what he has seen so far in his long journey from the dark woods, through Hell, and up the seven-story mountain of Purgatory, finally and humbly accepts that he is responsible for his own condition. Having completely acknowledged his own sinfulness, and repented, he is cleansed and ready to be in the presence of the All-Holy.
Now, the thing I was thinking about this morning is the professors’ point about salvation in the general and the particular. God used Beatrice to reach out to Dante and bring him back to Himself. To anyone else who saw her on the streets of Florence, she was likely no more than a beautiful young woman, perhaps admirable in her loveliness, but only that. To Dante, she was everything. In the Comedy, we see how God so loves Dante, His creation, that He condescended to Dante as he was, sending Beatrice (who in turn sent Virgil) to meet the poet and turn him into a pilgrim on his way to Heaven. Reflecting on this, I thought about the ways God has used to draw me away from my own follies, and back towards Him. As a matter of fact, over the past few months, He has used Dante. Many years ago, He used the beauty of a Gothic cathedral. I can think of times in my life in which the sorts of things that would have struck many others as indicative of God’s presence meant nothing to me. Yet things that others couldn’t care for, or couldn’t see, proved to be icons of God, and doorways to the Way, for those with the eyes to see and the will to step through them. Or to be more precise, doorways for me, if I dared to go through them.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much less willing to judge people’s paths to unity with God, only because I know how peculiar my own has been, and how God pursued me in my particularity. This is not to say that I’m a universalist, but it is to say that I’m far less inclined to say, “No, God does not work like that.” After all, what a scandal it is that the Most High condescended to become one of us, and not just one of us, but an itinerant preacher and healer in the far reaches of the Roman Empire. You never know. There are false goods, and false gods; not everyone who thinks he is pursuing God, or has found God, really has done so. This requires discernment. Still, reflecting on my own long and winding road, filled with false starts and detours and oddities, I can detect the signs directing me to Himself that God placed on the path, signs that others could not have read, or would have denied, but through which He revealed Himself to me, myself, and I.
Another point: Most of the kids who passed through my sister’s middle-school classes in her 19 years of teaching may not have given her a second thought after the school year finished. But for some, she made a lasting impression. For a few, she made an incalculable difference for the better in their lives. I have had the same experience with teachers. For me, and for many of us, a good teacher is a kind of Beatrice, reaching out to students in their particularity, and drawing them to the Way. Of course knowledge and wisdom is not the same as salvation — a kind of Beatrice is not Beatrice, I mean — but you see what I’m getting at. She is not only a teacher, but is an icon.
The world is iconographic. The Roman soldiers standing at the foot of the cross that day saw just another troublemaking Jew getting his just deserts. But a lone centurion, standing right in front of the crucified Jesus, watched him die, and in that moment saw something else.