In an earlier post, I proposed that:
“Dante’s Divine Comedy is a wonderful work of poetry and a reflection upon the philosophy and theology of the Church in the High Middle Ages. But, like the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, often missed is its value as a spiritual exercise. Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and St. Francis de Sale’s Introduction to the Devout Life, the Purgatorio especially functions as a spiritual exercise that, approached with prayer, is a great aid toward removing vices and instilling virtues so that one may more easily cooperate with the grace of God.”
In a comment as a rebuttal of a negative review of the Divine Comedy via Amazon.com, the following was stated:
“Read it for the symbolism behind the characters, and the problems, political and otherwise that Italy was having at the time. Read it to appreciate the genius that one must posses to write a story in such a fashion, ie terza rima, try looking at the Italian Version, and the way that it is written. Religion is the last thing that should be on one’s mind when reading this book.”
Certainly much of what is said here is correct. But far be it from me to approve the final sentence. Dante certainly, in his genius, fit into the story the situation, both personal and political, of his time. What good author ignores it? But Dante understands that time, place, (and all the other accidents of reality) have their existence in the One Who Is. In a way we would be correct to say that religion should be kept in mind in everything we read (or hear, or do, or otherwise). In the Commedia, the primary point is that of the soul seeking God; what else is religion, properly defined, than man’s attitude towards his Creator?
The great poem speaks of politics in the Italian Peninsula, of Beatrice, or Virgil, and, as I stated, of ‘the philosophy and theology of the Church in the High Middle Ages.’ But what it is “about” is God, and man’s seeking God. It certainly is just as much about God seeking man, by way of calling Him with His grace.
In fact, what the Comedy is about is that one point, that one fixed point from where all else comes.
“I saw within Its depth how It conceives all things in a single volume bound by Love, of which the universe is the scattered leaves; substance, accident, and relation so fused that all I say could do no more than yield a glimpse of that bright revelation.” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII)
I chose the project because the Middle Ages are too often represented as a time when religious thought was simply vain argument about needless distinctions and pointless debates. Certainly, there was some of this, and Dante himself complains of it. Because there is truth mixed with error, so much of the truth gets missed (is not this so often the case in many things?).
Followers, for instance, of the method used by Peter Lombard, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventura, and St. Thomas Aquinas, often used the scholastic method to useless ends. In doing so, in fact, did they not ignore the teachings of such writers? St. Thomas himself states in the beginning of his Summa Theologica that one of his purposes in writing it is so that students would not be “hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments…”
The Summa Theologica, rather, is not only a great manual of instruction on the truths of the faith, but it is at least as much a work of profound spiritual depth. What else, for one, do we call “spiritual” except that which the spirit does: seek truth? But even so, the Summa Theologica should be prayed, not just read.
I stated in my thesis that “like the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, often missed is its [the Divine Comedy] value as a spiritual exercise.” Even the above quoted rebuttal of a poor review of the Comedy missed this, in fact, rejected it.
Yes, “Read it for the symbolism behind the characters, and the problems, political and otherwise” as the reviewer says. But these and all the many other elements of the story are bound up in one; rather, bound up in the One:
“Consider then how lofty and how wide is the excellence of the Eternal Worth which in so many mirrors can divide Its power and majesty forevermore, Itself remaining One, as It was before.” (Paradiso, Canto XXIX)
“Religion is the last thing that should be on one’s mind when reading this book”? On the contrary, our relation with God is what is primary, and it is what makes everything else in the Divine Comedy (or in anything else in the universe) truly great.