You might like to join me in marking today 700 years since the Italian poet Dante Alighieri died.
In many ways we could say that Dante is to Italy and the Italian language what Shakespeare is to English. But there is more to Dante than this. While Shakespeare is a master at communicating the complexities of human earthly experience, interactions and relationships, Dante in his Divine Comedy leads us to and through transcendent and eternal realities in a way that throws light on our earthly human experience.
We need that.
Without the light, heat and energy of the sun there would be no life on earth. Without the perspective of faith our time on earth is reduced to an exhausting existence.
This is why it is a happy coincidence that we can turn to Dante on today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. While our instinct is to run from the cross and to avoid suffering, Dante reminds us of the Paschal Mystery: for us the cross of Jesus is not an end or an obstacle but THE pathway.
This year on the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, Pope Francis published Splendour of Light Eternal, a letter highlighting 2021 as the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. (In Dante’s Florence the feast of the Annunciation was understood to be New Year’s Day since it was (in the mind of the time as in ours) the beginning of LIFE.
In the tradition of popes of the past century Francis uses this Dante anniversary to encourage us all to see Dante as our companion, one who can lead us to and through our fears to the ultimate hope.
“Dante today – if we can presume to speak for him – does not wish merely to be read, commented on, studied and analysed. Rather, he asks to be heard and even imitated; he invites us to become his companions on the journey. Today, too, he wants to show us the route to happiness, the right path to live a fully human life, emerging from the dark forest in which we lose our bearings and the sense of our true worth. Dante’s journey and his vision of life beyond death are not just a story to be told; they are more than the account of a personal experience, however exceptional. Par 9
Dante understands sin to be a grasping at fleeting satisfaction instead of matching our desire with that for which the desire is created and given. As Pope Francis explains:
Dante, pondering his life of exile, radical uncertainty, fragility, and constant moving from place to place, sublimated and transformed his personal experience, making it a paradigm of the human condition, viewed as a journey – spiritual and physical – that continues until it reaches its goal. Here two fundamental themes of Dante’s entire work come to the fore, namely, that every existential journey begins with an innate desire in the human heart and that this desire attains fulfilment in the happiness bestowed by the vision of the Love who is God.
For all the tragic, sorrowful and distressing events he experienced, the great poet never surrendered or succumbed, He refused to repress his heart’s yearning for fulfilment and happiness or to resign himself to injustice, hypocrisy, the arrogance of the powerful or the selfishness that turns our world into “the threshing-floor that maketh us so proud.” (Par, XXII, 151)
On this week’s Homily Studio which we will record today and publish tomorrow, John Kinder, Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Western Australia (and a NZer in exile), will join us to consider the readings of this Sunday – with a bit of a Dante insight.
If you have time today you might like to take an hour to get to know Dante in this Australian ABC podcast production. Click on the image below (or this link) to listen.
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