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Dante for Real People

Prof. Vittorio Montemaggi (R), with Area Man

I just spent a wonderful hour drinking coffee with Prof. Vittorio Montemaggi, a Dantist here at Notre Dame. We talked about You Know Who. Vittorio said that he’s been reading Dante since he was twelve years old, and was introduced to the Commedia by his father. To have grown up with Dante — what a privilege. I felt that we only scratched the surface in the hour we had, but I especially liked what the professor had to say about the importance of coming to Dante not as an analyst — though of course that’s precisely what scholars like him must do — but as a fellow pilgrim. You must walk through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in Dante’s shoes to understand what the poet is trying to say.

Vittorio also said that one of the most important things Dante teaches is that religion is not so much about doctrine but rather about what we do — and also about the encounter with God. I told him how much I had learned about this point from living and practicing as an Orthodox Christian, which heavily emphasizes the mystical encounter with God, resulting in achieving metaphysical union with Him, which we call theosis. It was shocking to me, I told Vittorio, to begin reading Paradiso and to see Dante speaking openly about theosis as the ultimate goal of the Christian pilgrimage.

“I spent 13 years as a highly engaged Catholic, and I never knew this was in the Catholic tradition,” I told him.

Vittorio, who is Catholic, said that theosis was very much in the writings and thoughts of the Church Fathers, but that it’s sadly true that the West has lost the ability to understand the faith and the Christian journey in this way. It’s my hope that reading How Dante Can Save Your Life will help Western Christians — Catholics and Protestants — rediscover this older, patristic understanding of holiness. [UPDATE: I’m saying here that this is buried within the general historical Christian tradition, and it is possible that non-Orthodox Christians, especially, of course, Catholics, can profit from learning more about it. — RD]

I was disappointed not to be able to meet on this trip Notre Dame professor Christian Moevs, who is one of the top Dantists in the country, and a friend and colleague of Vittorio’s. He is out of town today. But Prof. Moevs e-mailed this morning about How Dante:

It is indeed very beautiful! It’s deeply engaging reading as well.  A page turner on Dante! A real one! You do exactly what must be done with Dante to make him come alive, and show this is not outdated dogma and abstractions but living practical reality.  I love the way you interweave the key elements, mirroring in the book how they work together and came together for you: reading Dante, relating to family and others, spiritual counsel, and psychotherapy. All that has to go together, and Dante is a way of putting it all together. It’s all about coming to ever deeper and truer self-awareness, which is the same as growing in wisdom and love.

(A non-academic friend also wrote today to say he had just finished reading the book. His judgment: “Fresh, I guess, is the word. I figured something about Dante would be morose and dusty and stale – my general impression of anything from Gilgamesh up to and including The Scarlet Letter.” Nope, not How Dante; it’s a book written for people who are disinclined to read Dante, because they think the Commedia is morose and dusty and stale.)

I’m so humbled by and grateful for both critical opinions, especially Prof. Moevs’ particularly because his book about Dante’s metaphysics was a tremendous help to me in writing How Dante Can Save Your Life. Unfortunately, he’s out of town tonight and won’t be at the lecture, but some of his students will be.

Are you in South Bend? Come here me talk at 5pm — just over an hour from now. Books will be on sale there, and I’ll hang out signing them:


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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