Dante Sermon Series Introduction – The Chaplain

I was having dinner in Worcester, sometime last term, and the conversation came round to the subject of the sermon series this term. As some of you may know, it has been a recent tradition here to have a themed series of sermons in the Hilary term and some of you may also remember that last year we looked at the Cardinal and Theological virtues: justice, fortitude, prudence, temperance, faith, hope and love. So perhaps it would be a good idea to look at the darker side of life: the vices, or seven deadly sins. But it was Jennifer Rushworth, post-graduate in Italian and French, who came up with the idea of using the stages of Dante’s Purgatory from his Divine Comedy that has brought the idea alive. Therefore, as you will have noticed, the first reading on each Sunday will not be from the Bible, but will be from Dante’s work, as we delve into the murky world of our sin and explore the concepts of hell, purgatory and heaven. This is the challenge for all of our preachers this term and, although Lent and Easter fall very late this year, I hope that they will provide a good introduction to the Lenten season.
So who was Dante? Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265, died in Ravenna in 1321 and was a poet. In Italy he is known as Il Summo Poeta, the supreme poet and his masterpiece The Divine Comedy is one of the greatest works in the Italian language. The Commedia, nicknamed Divina by another Italian poet, Giovanni Boccaccio, was his allegory of life and God as revealed to a pilgrim, written in what Dante called Italian, which was an amalgamation of Latin and regional dialects from Tuscany. Like other medieval writers who broke away from wiring in Latin to write in the vernacular, like Chaucer in England, he established his national language, Italian, as being suitable for the highest forms of expression. Of course Dante has had a profound influence upon western literature ever since.
I won’t give a biography of Dante, but there is one important fact that will be important to remember: that, although he married a woman called Gemma di Manetto Donati, with whom he had, at least, four children; Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni and Antonia, years before his marriage, at the age of 9, it is said that Dante had fallen in love with a certain Beatrice Portinari (d.1290) the young woman in his autobiographical Vita nuova (c1293) (The New Life). The unattainable and distant Beatrice remained an essential part of Dante’s life and works and she is a feature of the Divine Comedy too, as we shall see.
The work, written when Dante was in exile between 1307 and 1321, describes the poets journey through the Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), guided by the Roman poet Virgil and then by his beloved Beatrice. The Comedy of the title refers to the classical tradition where works which reflected belief in an ordered universe, in which events not only tended towards a happy ending, but an ending influenced by a Providential will that orders all things to an ultimate good. By this meaning of the word Commedia, the progression of the pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise is the paradigmatic expression of comedy, since the work begins with the pilgrim’s moral confusion and ends with the vision of God.
Il Purgatorio, like the inferno, is, of course, concerned with souls who are suffering the penalty for sin. This may be a rather unfashionable concept these days: the idea of a place where our wrong deeds and habitual vices are purged away in preparation for a greater, sin-free eternity in paradise. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church itself has recently played down the concept, abolishing the idea of limbo only a couple of years ago, and making purgatory a non-essential part of the tenets of belief. But the Purgatory of Dante’s conception, as Dorothy L Sayers pointed out, is a place where freedom is secured for the pilgrim poet. If hell (inferno) is ‘the fleeing deeper into the iron-bound prison of the self … Purgatory is the resolute breaking down, at whatever cost, of the prison walls, so that soul may emerge at last into liberty and endure unscathed the unveiled light of reality.’ For Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century, purgatory was ‘imagined as a region bordering on Hell and rather like it.’ But for Dante, Purgatory is a much more positive place and ‘is as remote from Hell as the surface of the Earth is from its centre.’ Purgatory is not a place of probation from which souls may go either to heaven or to hell; it is not a second chance for those who die unrepentant; and in Dante’s work, repentance at the moment of death is always accepted and souls ‘which have so persevered in virtue till the moment of death as to accomplish their whole purgation in this life, are not detained in purgatory, but pass immediately into the presence of God. These are the Saints.’
This is all rather different to a picture of purgatory that many of us will be familiar with from Shakespeare: the Ghost of Hamlet’s father walking the earth until his murder is avenged. Dante’s purgatory is a place of ‘systematic discipline’. In his journey, the poet joins Virgil in ascending a mountain (Mount Purgatory) with seven terraces, cornices or circles as markers along the way, devoted to purging of the Seven Capital Sins. To each of the cornices is allotted a Penance, a Meditation, a Prayer, a Guardian Angel and a Benediction and the ascent from one to another is accompanied, often, by a discourse on some scientific or philosophical subject. At the very top of the mountain the Earthly Paradise is reached, whereas the 7 circles are preceded, at the foot of the mountain, by the 2 terraces of ante-purgatory. Ante Purgatory is for those who died unprepared and are forced to wait for a fixed period of time before they can begin to ascend the cleansing mount purgatory.
Between Ante-purgatory and Purgatory is Peter’s Gate, through which every soul must pass in order to enter purgatory. This is approached through the three steps of Penitence: Confession, Contrition and Satisfaction. The Seven P’s, which we heard mentioned at the end of our reading, standing for the seven Capital Sins (peccata) are inscribed upon their foreheads, and are erased, one by one, as the soul ascends by the Pass of Pardon, as the exit from each circle, or terrace. It is at Peter’s Gate that our sermon series begins tonight. At that gate the poet begs the Angel to be admitted:
‘Devoutly falling at the holy feet
I prayed him let me in for mercy’s sake,
But first upon my breast three times I beat.
Then did he write with his sword’s point, and make
Upon my brow the mark of seven P.s;
‘Wash thou these wounds within here’, he spake.’
But is this relevant to us now? Haven’t we abolished the whole concept? And isn’t this all about being punished for our wicked deeds so that we can go on and get pie in the sky when we die? Well, No. This story is not about the act of sin at all. It is about cleansing the stain of sin in ourselves, not individual acts as such, but those habits of mind from which bad deeds come: the very roots of sinfulness. Again Dorothy L Sayers is helpful with the example of cruelty. Why is cruelty not a capital or deadly sin? Because cruelty, although a wicked act, has its roots in selfish feelings towards others: pride, from jealousy, resentment or fear (envy), from ill-temper or vindictiveness (anger) and so on.
It is our habits of mind that change who we are as people and direct what actions we take. Of course, this idea was not new to Dante, or to Aquinas or to the Church Fathers, such as Origen who developed the idea of purgatory. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, exhorts them to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Chapter 12:2). Likewise in this evening’s reading from the second letter of Peter, he encourages his readers to make every effort to support their faith with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love. It is in the habits of these practices that goodness flows, not a single act, but a daily, hourly, renewing of one’s mind with regard to the roots of our selfishness, deliberately conquering imperfections and temptations with intentional acts of virtue and kindness. The place to start if you want to create a giving, loving and kind heart is with your mind. If you think about the practice of goodness, then you are on your way to achieving it. May we look to be transformed by the renewal of our minds and hearts this term. Amen.

Rev’d Dr Jonathan Arnold
16th January 2011

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