My office in the parish isn't cluttered; rather I would like to think of it as an overwhelming, eclectic experience for visitors. Over twenty icons of the saints occupy space near the window and on walls, there are some stretched canvas prints of famous paintings, crucifixes on shelves, photos of saints and a selection of Tomics’s wallpapers on cork noticeboards, a couple of statues of Our Lady, a Groot flowerpot on the desk and a gifted Detective Pikachu placed between a picture of Archbishop Daniel Mannix and King George V at St Patrick’s, next to boxes of The Catholic Card Game.
However, the one item that invariably starts conversations is a large bust of the great poet Dante Alighieri on my desk, staring judgementally at me. His attire changes over the course of the month. Some days he is wearing a biretta, other days a top-hat, sunglasses, or during the lockdown, a facemask. Nevertheless, he continues to stare, unimpressed. I assume that at the Judgement Seat of God or in Purgatory, I will have to answer for how I dressed this bust of one of the greatest poets who ever lived.
2020 marked the 700th anniversary of the completion of The Divine Comedy, one of the greatest works of world literature and the pre-eminent work of Italian literature. T.S. Eliot put it bluntly: ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.’ One cannot underestimate the importance of Dante in the world of literature and many who are prematurely compared to the Master Poet never truly live up to his influence.
Born around 1265, little is known about much of Dante’s personal life. What is known about him comes through his work and literary influence. The poet chose to write in the vernacular so that all could read his poetry. In doing so, he helped establish modern standardised Italian.
Dante found welcome in the courts and states of various Italian rulers who saw him as a great scholar, diplomat and poet. His death occurred in Ravenna in 1321, outside his beloved home of Florence. The anniversary of his death in 2021 will most likely see another attempt to bring him back. Florence has long desired to have her exiled son returned. There’s an empty tomb waiting for him in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. But in all likelihood, it will remain empty for the foreseeable future.
The Divine Comedy, and in particular the Inferno, did me much good.
I first encountered the Inferno when I was 21. I was filled with existential questions turned to the old exiled Florentine poet at the suggestion of a friend.
Later on, I realised he meant the video game Dante’s Inferno, where the poet’s Inferno is (extremely loosely) adapted in order to give a Hack-and-Slash RPG adventure video game some semblance of a narrative. I tried the game once, and was glad I went for the book.
What I found in the circling depths of Hell as I walked along with Dante and Virgil was the realisation that my choices in life do matter. That God so loves me that He will respect my freedom to choose what I want and not override it, even if I choose that which will make me unhappy ultimately.
Sin wasn’t something naughty that sent God into an emotional snit because I wouldn’t be good as He demanded, but what led me to cave into myself and stopped me from being fully alive.
I found that sin makes snake-oil promises of finding the happiness I wanted deep in my soul, but in those passing things that can never satisfy, simply because they are not God.
I found that by wrapping myself in the deadly sins, I wasn’t finding security, personal fulfillment and fullness of life, but instead indulging in personal insecurity and hollow selfishness.
As you stand with Virgil and Dante in the deepest depths of Hell, looking at Satan sunk in ice, weeping and frozen, you realise that sin paints a façade of a life of confident elitism, infinite pleasures and self-reliant egotism.
Behind that is the anticlimactic reality that sin is nothing more than howling winds of emptiness, boredom and unhappiness endlessly self-perpetuated by our refusal to love others before ourselves.
Our own misery made all the worse by our addiction to this folly, just as Satan only makes his misery worse as he flaps his bat wings, freezing himself all the more.
The 13th century Florentine has much to say to modern men and women. As we persevere through this time of global pandemic and beyond, Dante helps us remember that ultimately, we are made for ‘the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars’ and nothing else will satisfy our restless hearts.
Given that 2020 was such a difficult time for many, for his summer reading recommendations Fr Nathan Rawlins lists books seasoned with hope and joy.
There are plenty of translations of Dante, but what attracted me to this particular edition is the inclusion of the amazing illustrations of the great Gustave Doré, whose work on the Divine Comedy has continued to be borrowed by popular culture. This way you can read Dante and also see him through the eyes of Doré.
Many recognise that the Divine Comedy is full of historical and political insight but can sometimes miss that it is also a masterpiece of Spiritual Writing. Oratorian Father Paul Pearson takes you in the book through each Canto and shows the great lessons we can gain from Dante for our spiritual lives.
I find from most of the many funerals that I have done, that most Catholics have no idea how to approach death and burial due to our unwillingness to talk about such things until we are forced to organise a funeral. Scott Hahn, in his characteristically beautiful and easily readable work, addresses this need in a way that both brings mystery down to our minds and also raises minds to heaven in wonder and awe.
Well, the Psalmist did say after all, ‘The Lord brought forth bread from the Earth, and Wine to cheer man’s heart’. It’s like a cross between Butler’s Lives of Saints and Regan’s Joy of Mixology. You learn about the saints, learn about some new drinks to try at your next party to impress your friends and get a sense of the cycle of our Liturgical Year with its days of fasting and feasting. A fun book.
Christian Bergmann17 January 2023
Pope Benedict XVI01 January 2023