Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Orthodox Dante

Why does the greatest Catholic literary work seem so Orthodox to this modern reader?
The Orthodox Dante

I noticed as I reviewed the final text for my Dante book how remarkably Orthodox it is. I never would have predicted this from a book about the greatest Catholic poet who ever lived, certainly not when I started writing. Part of it has to do with the fact that the book’s exploration of Dante’s Commedia takes place within the context of my personal healing from depression and disease, a healing process that involved a kind of prayer specific to the Orthodox tradition, as well as involved the sacramental life of my church. Mostly what surprised me, though, is how well the content of the Commedia fit the religious imaginary of Orthodoxy.

For me, a novice and not particularly well educated reader (so please correct me, ye who know more about such things), this phenomenon manifested itself in three main ways:

1. The role of asceticism in the process of salvation. Purgatorio is all about overcoming the passions, or tendencies toward sin, through the rigorous practice of asceticism. Note well: this is not about paying for your sins; that was done by Christ. It’s about retraining your heart to quit desiring evil and to desire good, which is to say, God. Purgatorio is an allegory for the Christian life in this world, which is a constant struggle with the passions. Reading Purgatorio was startling to me as a former Catholic, now Orthodox. I never heard this teaching as a Catholic, but hear it all the time as an Orthodox.

2. Theosis. Theosis is a Greek term meaning “deification.” It is the ultimate goal of each Christian’s life: to be absorbed into God. Theosis doesn’t begin in heaven, but begins right now — that is, the path to theosis, which is a process. You can always refuse the path, but if you’re not going towards heaven, you’re moving towards hell. Time is an escalator on which it is impossible to stand still. I had never heard of salvation explained as theosis until I became Orthodox. Dante’s Paradiso is entirely about theosis, to a degree that I think will shock Orthodox readers who have never read it. It’s not even disguised.

3. The degree to which the Christian life demands transformation. In the Commedia, the whole point of the soul’s journey is to be transformed, particularly through its suffering. It is not to be made to find this world more bearable, except as a benefit of the pursuit of holiness. There’s a great passage in Purgatorio in which Dante chastises the Christian readers of the poem, saying that we look down to the earth so much that we forget we were made to rise to the stars. Most Christian churches preach, at least in theory, the Christian life as transformation, and I can’t say that every Orthodox church I’ve been in emphasizes this. But the rigor and emphasis with which this is taught in the Commedia strikes me, from my experience, as far more present in 21st century US Orthodoxy than in its Catholic counterpart. I say this generally; your mileage may vary.

Of course the Commedia is a deeply Catholic poem, which is to say, it is only an Orthodox poem incidentally. The philosophizing in parts of it are very Scholastic, for example; this poem could only have been written in the West in the High Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the imaginary (I still have Jamie Smith’s book about Charles Taylor on my mind) of the Commedia feels strikingly Orthodox to me. Let me put it this way: Danteworld feels less alien to me as an Orthodox Christian than it would have had I read it as a Catholic Christian. This could mean a couple of things:

1) That I rely a lot more on the Catholic imaginary to encounter the poem than I realize; and/or

2) That the Catholic Church has lost an enormous amount of its theological treasure since the High Middle Ages.

Both can be true, and probably are.

I post this not as a fight-starter — I really don’t care to argue about it — but only as an observation. I’m especially curious to know, in particular from Catholics who are theologically and historically better informed, how and why this happened. The obvious answer is: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, neither of which the East went through. OK, but what does that mean? Why should the Renaissance and the Enlightenment have taken away the ascetic qualities of Catholicism? When did theosis cease to be a part of common Catholic understanding of salvation? When and why did Catholicism begin to downplay or stop talking about transformation?

Why does the Commedia feel so Orthodox, when it is the pinnacle of Catholicism, at least of its era (it was written just shy of 300 years after the Great Schism, by the way)?Is this a post-Vatican II thing, or did it start before that? Serious questions.

Remember, readers, I’m traveling today, so will be in and out of this blog. Thanks for your patience.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here