It happened in a classroom rather than a Church and it was caused by a man who had consigned popes, including the pope of his own day, to hell.
It was the autumn of 1996 and I had enrolled in a course on Dante’s Inferno at a secular “great books” college. Little did I realize that within nine years I would be receiving the sacraments of reconciliation, first communion, and confirmation with my wife and children. Little did I know that Dante would lead me in taking the first steps.
Having been raised in a Christian home, my faith had been primarily that of personal experience—intense and authentic experience—animated by the Pentecostal faith of my grandparents. I had grown up reading the Bible and attending church services multiple times each week. As a young adult my faith encountered intellectual landmines and cultural riptides for which my upbringing left me unprepared. Though I was and continue to be deeply grateful for my Christian upbringing, I see now that it was the beginning of a much longer journey.
I arrived in class that day in 1996, carrying my copy of Dante’s Inferno, lost in my own dark wood and facing beasts that had cornered me and were driving me toward despair. Over the course of the next fifteen weeks, I would encounter three key ideas that were consistent with the faith of my youth, but that I had never encountered in a way that would change how I thought about reality.
Anthony Esolen, whom I have the pleasure of calling my colleague here at Magdalen College, observed in the introduction to his translation of the Inferno, that there are three things that are fundamental to the created order as Dante (and all classically minded people) understood it: “Things have an end or purpose; things have meaning, and things are connected.” These three ideas, among others, would find their way deep into the soil of my soul as I read the Inferno that autumn and would bear fruit over the decade to come.
Like most young adults shaped by the postmodern age, I had never encountered the idea that all—all—created things have purposes. And I had certainly not acquired the habit of thinking about what the purpose of a human life might be. Teleological thinking—or thinking in terms of telos or purpose—and the habits of mind associated with it would, over time, fundamentally change how I thought about my past, present, and future. With Dante as my guide, I could not help asking: what is my purpose and how might it be achieved?
Thinking in terms of purpose acted like a magnetic force that reordered the events of my life within a larger narrative. This reordering gave new meaning to people, places, and events that, up to that time, had existed in broken isolation. Just as Dante’s journey through hell was only fully comprehensible within a larger narrative ordered toward Paradiso—giving meaning to what came before and what would come after—so I found myself thinking of my own life and the lives of others in terms of a purposeful narrative. As time passed, I found myself picking up what had seemed like random occurrences and integrating them into “beginnings, middles, and ends.” It even began to occur to me—shocking though it was to the postmodern mind—that perhaps these stories were not simply imposed from outside by us, but might reside in the very fabric of creation. And then I was just one step away from the idea—believed at some level from my youth—that there was an Author writing the story of my life and the lives of those whom I loved. Dante’s story was becoming my story and the way he thought of his life began to inform how I thought about my own.
Thinking in terms of purpose and meaning brought me within reach of the third idea that Esolen reads in Dante and others formed from a classical perspective: the deep connectedness of things. I encountered in the Inferno—and later across the entire Divine Comedy—layers of relationships between people, places, and things, layers of relation that cut across the natural and supernatural. My new but more limited story-with-a-purpose—one encompassing purposes and meaning—spread out to include more and more of reality. Indeed, this relational dimension of reality—now seen within a broad story authored by a Creator—brought the realm of the supernatural much closer to that of nature. Though I didn’t realize it, the seeds of a sacramental imagination were being sown. Because of relations across time and space that elude the natural eye, water could not only mean so much more, it could accomplish so much more. Bread and wine could not only mean more, it could become more.
Reading Dante that autumn in 1996 introduced to my imagination and intellect three ideas—things have purposes, things have meaning, and things are connected—that are essential to the Catholic imagination and worldview. In winning not only my mind but also my imagination, his great poem led me on the first steps toward my spiritual home.
For this I will be eternally grateful. This spring we will be reading and discussing Dante’s poem with our students. I have no doubt that his poem will change their lives.