17 March 2012

On Pilgrimage

In the upcoming days I'm going to be on a pilgrimage to Paradise with my companion, Dante, and my guide, Virgil. I've taken the pilgrimage before, but this time around I'm going to be focusing on the moral lessons that can be learned from the journey as a devotional time.

Dante Alighieri wrote his great master work, The Divine Comedy such that it could be interpreted on different levels, following the fourfold interpretation scheme for Scripture popular in the Middle Ages. First the poem can be read literally as a tour of the afterlife. It is important to note that Dante did not actually believe that Hell was a giant pit in the earth under Jerusalem or that Purgatory was a corresponding mountain in the other hemisphere. Nor did he believe that the punishments in Hell, the purgations in Purgatory, or the rewards in Paradise exist literally as he wrote them. In this sense the story is fiction. In another sense, however, the story is the story of Dante's spiritual journey through the Christian life. C. S. Lewis did something very similar with his own life in The Pilgrim's Regress. On a secondary level, the book may be read allegorically for truths we are meant to see about the world around us. Just as the apostles allegorically/typologically interpreted the Old Testament to apply it in their day, so we can read Dante's journey as an allegory of human civilization and understand what Dante's civilization and, by extension, our civilization need to repent of in order to become a good society. Third, the book can be read on a moral level, applying the lessons Dante learns to our own lives and teaching us how to live as Christians. Finally, the book can be read on what was called an anagogical level. An anagogical reading looks to the chief and ultimate end of man and how we are to arrive at it.

In explaining how to interpret his work, Dante used the example of the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. "For if we regard the letter alone, what is set before us is the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt in the days of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, we are shown the conversion of the soul from the grief and wretchedness of sin to the state of grace; if the anagogical, we are shown the departure of the holy soul from the thraldom of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory."

This is why it is important to see The Divine Comedy, first of all, as a whole work. Colleges and schools requiring students to read only Inferno would be like requiring students to read The Fellowship of the Ring and never proceed to The Two Towers or The Return of the King. The story is incomplete and incomprehensible. This is also why it is important to make the pilgrimmage of The Divine Comedy several times. The first time around, there are so many historical and classical allusions that the reader has a hard enough time keeping up with the merely literal sense of the story. Subsequent readings make the reader familiar with the story on this level and leave room to benefit from the book in the other three ways mentioned.

This time around, I'm focusing primary on the moral sense of the story: a.k.a. reading it as a devotional. As I travel with Dante on my journey over the next week or so, I'll be posting things that come to my attention as especially interesting or helpful.

No comments: