Dante Alighieri: Medieval (1265–1321)

Canto I

While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”

He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.

‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.

A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.

But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb’st thou not the Mount Delectable,
Which is the source and cause of every joy?”

“Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?”
I made response to him with bashful forehead.

“O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!

Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.

Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,
For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”

“Thee it behoves to take another road,”
Responded he, when he beheld me weeping,
“If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;

Because this beast, at which thou criest out,
Suffers not any one to pass her way,
But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;

And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.

Many the animals with whom she weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.

He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue;
’Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;

Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;

Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.

Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,

Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death;

And thou shalt see those who contented are
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
Whene’er it may be, to the blessed people;

To whom, then, if thou wishest to ascend,
A soul shall be for that than I more worthy;
With her at my departure I will leave thee;

Because that Emperor, who reigns above,
In that I was rebellious to his law,
Wills that through me none come into his city.

He governs everywhere, and there he reigns;
There is his city and his lofty throne;
O happy he whom thereto he elects!”

And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,

Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolate.”

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has so permeated literature and theology that much of what he wrote about the afterlife is though by many to come from the Bible.  T.S. Eliot said “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.”

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

The best advice I can give is to read quickly the first time. You will know you’re missing more than you’re gaining, but get what you can and then read the selection again. This time, look up some of the unfamiliar people and works. Third time, try reading the lines aloud and let the sound move you. Focus on a single line you want to understand the fourth time through, and read until you understand.

The Comedy is an entire Christian worldview. It isn’t the only possible Christian worldview, because no human book could contain that whole, but it’s a very good one. It combines the best science, theology, poetry, politics, and psychology from the age in which it was written. That means parts of it are wrong, but even where wrong, it stimulated in others the thinking that produced modernity.

The Divine Comedy portrays Dante’s vision of heaven and hell.  What is yours?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.


D I G  D E E P E R

 On Anguish and Beauty

Anthony Esolen

How does one begin to praise the greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy?
It is as wildly various as the flora and fauna that sport across the capitals of an illuminated manuscript.

It is as theologically ordered and precise, in its own way, as the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s leading light in matters of the intellect, the virtues, the church, and the nature of God.

It is as delightful as a romance with Lancelot and Guenevere, as terrifying as the apocalypse of John, and as wondrous as the seraphic vision that came to Saint Francis and marked him with the marks of Christ.

What moment in all of literature can surpass the profound anguish of an Ugolino who looks into the faces of his children, all prisoners on his account, and all, with him, about to starve to death, and who says, in a few stunning words, “I did not weep, I had so turned to stone”?

But then, what moment can surpass the wonder of Piccarda, who has become more human precisely because she has immersed herself in the divine Love? “In His will is our peace,” says she.

If we say it’s hard to find a single human moment, or a single one of the wonders of God as made manifest to man, that does not find its place in Dante’s poem, we say no more than the truth, and yet we still fail to grasp the excellence here. For it’s one thing to find these moments—to find, in the excerpt above, the grim blasphemy of sinners who wish, far more than that they had never been born, that their parents and the whole human race and the time and place of their begetting had never existed; a universal curse. Or to find the paradox that love, that sweetest of desires, had brought disaster and condemnation—as Francesca the gentle-spoken adulteress says, “Love led us to one death.”

What astonishes more than all is to find all these things ordered in an artistic, philosophical, and theological whole, so that Virgil’s encounter with Beatrice is meant to anticipate Dante’s encounter with Francesca, and then with other lovers and indeed other writers of love poetry in the Purgatory, before the pilgrim poet finally meets Beatrice herself; she in turn leads him to Paradise, where he will enjoy at the last a vision of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Such an achievement in poetry had no precedent.

Dante could have done as Milton would do, centuries later, and adapt the meter, narrative techniques, and epic apparatus of Virgil’s Aeneid to his own language. He did not.

He could have written in the style of the romancers of his own day, like the prodigious and remarkably original Chrétien de Troyes. He did not.
The Divine Comedy is of its own kind, even as it gathers to itself all the Christian and classical learning Dante had inherited. It’s as if a man should study all the paintings of the dramatic Caravaggio and the brooding Rembrandt, and then, inspired by them, compose the Saint Matthew Passion—when, to boot, nothing of that sort had ever been composed before, and nothing quite of that sort would ever be composed again.


All of this is to insist that when we read Dante, even in the few cantos above, we bring to our reading more than the habits we have acquired in reading other poets. We must read as composers, as sculptors, as architects, as theologians.

Take, for example, the appearance of Beatrice to Virgil. We understand the necessity of the conversation. Dante the pilgrim is having second thoughts about entering hell—naturally. But instead of giving him an eminently practical reason for trusting him, as, for instance, that if Dante remains in the dark wilderness he will be lost for certain, but if he accompanies Virgil he at least has a chance, the Roman poet becomes for him and for us a courtly lover, swept into obedient service by a vision of a beautiful woman such as had no counterpart in anything he had ever written.

Now, if we conclude that this is just a fine quirk of poetic adaptation, we miss the deep humanity and theology both. Dante expects us to think—that is the object of reason—and to begin to see—that is the object of the intellect. This is, after all, the same Virgil who has just revealed to Dante that he will never enjoy the sight of God, and who has burst into an exclamation of longing and hopelessness: “Happy the man He chooses for His house!” That is the man who now tells Dante he has seen Beatrice, and, even before she gives her name, indeed before she speaks a word, “begged her for the grace of a command.” The ancient pagan is a man like all men, made to be fulfilled only by the vision of holiness itself, the vision of God.

I hope, then, dear reader, that you will not approach this poem as if it were a mere artistic artifact. Such would be to sin against any work of truly great art, but it would be all the more disordered in the case of Dante. That is because Dante himself summons us to a deeper engagement with the world of man and the being and goodness of God.

If we were present on that dread day, under the blank staring of the Mediterranean sun, when, amid those who loved Him and those who plotted His destruction, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, would we confine our thoughts to the picturesque scene, or to the eloquence of the Master? No, we would long to look upon the reality itself. The only human thing to do, the only rational thing, would be to press beyond the human, in love. We would—or at least we should—take upon ourselves the ultimate task of our poet: to seek the face of God.

Anthony Esolen, PhD, is a professor of Literature at Providence College and a senior editor of Touchstone magazine. In addition to authoring several books, he is well-known for his translations of classical works of literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

A Wild, Wondrous Journey

Christ in the Wilderness
Ivan Kramskoy
Original Title: Христос в пустыне
Date: 1872

Little Gidding
T.S. Eliot

Every phrase and every sentence
is an end and a beginning,
Every poem is an epitaph – epitaph, as on a gravestone.

Any action is a step to the block, to the fire,
down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Matthew 4:1–11
Temptation In The Wilderness

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ”
5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:
‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’
‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ ”
8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”
10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ”
11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

We live in an age that plays loose with facts.  It’s the devil’s playground.  From Genesis forward, the modus operandi of evil is to question the veracity of God, and the results can be devastating.  If Truth does certainly set us free, Truth untethered leaves us in bondage.  We see this interwoven throughout creation, and the coup de gras is always leveled at the imago Dei – the image of God which is the essence of man.

Speaking of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Ken Kovacs said in his book Out of the Depths:

The temptation is real in this story—and it’s serious. These are not trivial amusements trying to lull Jesus away from his work. He’s being tempted by desire, materialism, tempted by power, tempted by influence and glory, tempted by religion. He’s being tempted with an alternative narrative for his life, “If you are the Son of God….” If… Does Jesus know that he’s the Son of God? Is this what he’s really wrestling with in the wilderness? And if he consents, if he claims this identity, accepts this power, what then? How does one then live with such an identity, how does one make use of such power?

Who did God create you to be?  Has you journey to that discovery taken you through a wilderness?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

D I G  D E E P E R

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

(1888–1965), poet and critic. Born in St Louis, Missouri, he was educated at the Smith Academy, St Louis, Harvard (1906–9 and again 1911–13), the *Sorbonne (1910–11), and Merton College, Oxford (1914–15). He taught for a short time in Highgate Grammar School, London, and worked for Lloyds Bank; from this period his main interests appear to have been literary. Assistant editor of The Egoist from 1917 to 1919 and a frequent contributor to The Athenaeum, in 1922 he became the first editor of The Criterion, which he made a leading organ of literary expression until it ceased in 1939. In 1925 he joined the board of Faber, the publisher. He received many honours, including the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for literature (both in 1948).

Brought up in the American *Unitarian tradition, Eliot passed through a period of agnosticism reflected in his earlier poetry, e.g. Prufrock (1917) and Poems 1920 (1920). The expression of his sense of the emptiness of life reached its climax in The Waste Land (1922) and is also seen in The Hollow Men (1925). These early poems rejected the poetical tradition as it had developed in England since the 18th cent. and found inspiration in the 17th-cent. *Metaphysical poets and the 19th-cent. French symbolists. In 1927 Eliot was baptized in the parish church at Finstock, Oxon, and in 1928 he declared his viewpoint to be ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and *anglo-catholic in religion’ (Preface to For Lancelot Andrewes). Henceforth much of his poetry, culminating in Four Quartets (1935–42), expressed his religious search, his struggle with faith and doubt, and his attempt to find fresh meaning in tradition; here he turned notably to *Dante, as well as to such mystics as St *John of the Cross and *Julian of Norwich. His influence as a poet was immense. His attempts at poetical drama were less successful, but also sought to communicate something of the dilemmas of faith, explicitly in Murder in the Cathedral (1935; written for the *Canterbury Festival of that year), but no less genuinely in his later plays, The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman (1959). He was also influential as a critic; many of his early essays were published in Selected Essays (1932; 3rd edn., enlarged, 1951), and his later essays collected in On Poetry and Poets (1957) and To Criticize the Critic (1965). He was deeply interested in the social implications of Christianity and discussed these in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes towards a Definition of Culture (1948).

For more on his work Four Quartets see HERE


Desert Fathers and Mothers

This was a third- and fourth-century movement of Egyptian and Syrian Christians who left cities and villages to live in the desert. They were inspired by the wilderness formation of such biblical exemplars as Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus, and also of contemporaries such as Antony, whose fame helped spread this populist movement. While some individuals were drawn to self-glorification through excesses in self-denial, most participated in shared mentoring and worship, and some joined nascent monastic communities.

The movement was partly a reaction to the perceived decadence of the age and the moral laxness of the church after becoming the religion of the Roman Empire. Their response was a radical (from Lat. radix, meaning “root”) call for a return to the core fundamentals of Christian faith: repentance, prayer, fasting, silence, and compassion. In going to the desert, many felt they followed Christ’s command to “go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.… Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).

The appeal of this austere countercultural movement swept across all levels of society, attracting men and women, rich and poor alike, scholars and illiterate, young and old. By AD 346 there were choices in the desert: one might opt for the eremitic life (to live alone as a hermit) or the cenobitic life (to live in community). The vast majority of the desert fathers and mothers were laity, not clergy. Living in caves or simple handmade huts, they soon attracted others, like John Cassian from Scythia, who observed the lives of the desert teachers and their disciples and wrote of their experience. This resulted in a new literary genre: the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum) and the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Vitae Patrum). While sections of the Vitae Patrum are hagiographical, the Apophthegmata Patrum are probably very close to the actual wisdom of the desert as shared at the time—simple aphorisms and stories that have retained a freshness and wisdom throughout the centuries.

The movement may appear similar in its practices to Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, in which disciples gathered for spiritual guidance at the feet of a guru or Zen master. Yet it is not entirely so. While these Christian disciples would approach an abba (old man) or amma (old woman) to ask for “a word,” there was never any hidden, esoteric teaching imparted to a chosen few. Often the healing ministry of Christ was continued as the hungry, the poor, and the possessed came to the desert for help and intercessory prayer. Sometimes scholars might approach an illiterate monk for “a word,” or the sick reach out for a healing touch; a mayor might approach a woman of poverty for “a word,” and so on. The characteristic dynamic was one person seeking God’s presence, speaking to another person seeking the same.

The movement cohered in a shared commitment to the discipline and purity of leaving all to follow Jesus, rather than around any one elaborate doctrinal system. Nevertheless, the movement was thoroughly Nicene in its beliefs, the great Antony himself on occasion leaving solitude to publicly defend orthodoxy. It was a lean spirituality of the one thing; asceticism helped strip away all that was superficial without sacrificing orthodoxy itself.

Hesychia (silence) was practiced in order to hear God’s voice, in the spirit of the biblical exhortation to “be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). This was not to be simply a stubborn clamping shut of one’s lips, but rather expectant waiting and humble watching. As John Chryssavgis has explained, such “silence is fullness, not emptiness; it is not an absence, but the awareness of a presence.” Sleeplessness also helped one watch for Jesus. Fasting allowed one to be fed by every word that proceeds from God. Prayer was not scheduled activity, but continual striving toward God. Like the spiritual journey itself, it was that toward which one should always strive; though not always easy, it was always worth the sacrifice. As Amma Syncletica noted, “In the beginning, there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result.” Yet common sense was the byword, preventing pride in one’s own accomplishments: “If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up to heaven, take him by the foot, and throw him to the ground, because what he is doing is not good for him” (Chryssavgis).

The desert fathers and mothers recognized the natural ebb and flow of the spiritual life. There is a social dimension, a time for mentoring and guidance, but there is a necessary time for solitude and discipline too. The Sayings show the teachers conferring among themselves, growing through dialogue and discussion, and then withdrawing into solitude and silence. The metaphor of withdrawing “into the desert” to be with Jesus has been crucial in the history of spiritual formation. The sayings and lives of the Fathers show how these Christians tried to live the Christian life with integrity and radical simplicity without being compromised by their culture, nor forgetting their commitment to care for one another. They continue to influence many diverse writers, from Roman Catholics Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen to Orthodox John Chryssavgis to evangelical Shane Claiborne.

For Further Reading:

D. Chitty, The Desert a City (1966); J. Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert (2003); T. Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (1970); Y. Nomura and H. Nouwen, Desert Wisdom (2000); B. Ward, The Lives of the Desert Fathers (1981); idem, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (1975).  Kelby Cotton, “Desert Fathers and Mothers,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 395–397.