Inspired by Pope Francis, the Institute for Church Life begins lecture series
“Dante is … a prophet of hope, a herald of humanity’s possible redemption and liberation, of profound change in every man and woman, of all of humanity. He invites us to regain the lost and obscured meaning of our human journey and to hope to see again the bright horizon which shines in the full dignity of the human person.”
Such were the words of Pope Francis on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the birth of Dante Alighieri on May 4, 2015. In response, the Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame has organized a lecture series called “Dante, Mercy, and the Beauty of the Human Person” that brings the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Lent, and Dante together. The lecture series consists of 10 lectures over five evenings from early February to early April, two back-to-back on each evening. It is accompanied by reading groups that include members from the community and a one-credit class for students.
The Comedy is a 100 canto, three-part poem in which Dante travels through Hell and Purgatory to reach Heaven under the guidance of Virgil, Beatrice, and Saint Bernard. To many people, this work may seem like an insurmountable challenge, but Leonard DeLorenzo—Professor of Theology, Director of Notre Dame Vision, and a lecturer in the series—shared a different perspective with the Rover.
“Though the experts know the intricacies of the cultures, the language, and the literary tradition that Dante assumes and develops, what they know most of all is that the journey Dante opens to us is a journey that is good for us, spiritually and otherwise. As a non-expert who has made this pilgrimage with Dante over the years, Pope Francis took the opportunity to recommend that we all venture through the dark wood with Dante and rediscover the goodness of God who draws us forward and up into the goodness of our own dignity, our communion with one another, and our share in divine Light-Love-Joy.”
DeLorenzo continued, “It is especially appropriate to take on this spiritual pilgrimage of reading, discussion, learning, and prayer during the liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter because Dante’s poem unfolds very intentionally in liturgical time: his journey begins on Good Friday, he spends the entirety of Holy Saturday in Hell, and he arrives in Purgatory on Easter morning so that everything from that point forward occurs in the Easter season.”
Everyone is encouraged to read two cantos a day during Lent to complete the entire Comedy.
The Comedy, popularly called the Divine Comedy, is almost 700 years old, and so many may question if it is still relevant to the twenty-first century. Christian Moevs, Associate Professor of Italian and a lecturer in the series, shared an answer with the Rover.
“The great dantist and theologian Peter Hawkins has said, ‘Readers of Dante have nothing to lose in coming to the Commedia—except, perhaps, life as they’ve known it thus far.’ Or at the very least, as the poet Charles Wright observed, ‘Dante makes you think seriously about your own life. He makes you want to have a life, and to do the best you can with it.’ Ezra Pound said, more succinctly, ‘Dante wrote his poems to MAKE PEOPLE THINK.’ It is a goal, and a breathtakingly profound and sublime vision of the human and its possibilities, that transcends time. That is why, in the words of Osip Mandelstam, Dante’s ‘contemporaneity is continuous, incalculable and inexhaustible.’”
Jennifer Martin, Assistant Professor in the Program of Liberal Studies and a contributor to the lecture series, added, “As a poet, he is such an attentive, perceptive student of human nature, the full complexity of which—love, desire, hope, fear, moral ambiguities, regret, anticipation, sorrow, and so on—is represented somewhere in the poem. … Human beings are fundamentally searchers and sojourners, and Dante gives a compelling literary and theological account of what is the true home and destination of human beings.”
Dante is not only relevant but also has the unique capacity to reach into people’s lives and effect change. Father Kevin Grove, CSC, Residential Fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, shared a personal story with the Rover.
“As a spring semester senior, I re-read the Divine Comedy along with a professor for a guide. I was also at that time weighing what to do with my own life after college. Walking with Dante helped me consider my own priorities and gave me the courage that same semester to apply to Moreau Seminary to be a Holy Cross priest.”
Now he will be addressing an audience later today in a talk entitled “Encountering Mercy: Dante on Forgetting, Remembering, and Learning to Speak.” Father Grove shared a preview of his talk with the Rover.
“Dante is a great poet and he knows it. Yet, he also portrays himself as a pilgrim who at different points completely loses his words. This is a humbling thing—for sure—but Dante shows that his turning to God is also his relearning how to speak, love, and be true. It is a wild moment that requires two rivers, his beloved Beatrice, a mythical creature, and a return to the Garden of Eden. But I will suggest that God’s mercy is literally making Dante new again—a most marvelous confession—which is a spiritual benefit a contemporary reader might seek along with the poet.”
Moevs also explained some ideas behind his talk, “Dante: Knowing Oneself, Knowing God”: “The journey of Dante’s Comedy is a journey toward the direct experience of (self as) God, or union with God. It begins from the experience of self as a finite, autonomous, self-subsistent, ephemeral, mortal thing in space and time, and ends with the experience of self as perfect love and awareness, encompassing all possible reality, and the entire universe of space and time, within itself. That is to realize the infinite freedom, immortality, bliss, love, sweetness, that constitutes our being, apart from which nothing is, and in which we participate as conscious beings capable of love.”
In her lecture “Geographics of Stars, Metaphysics of Light: Theological Aesthetics and the Form of Human Life in Dante’s Paradiso,” Martin “will attend primarily to Dante’s transcendent visions in the Paradiso, in which the narrative shuttles toward the nearly unbearable luminosity and the impossible distances of astronomical images. Though these dream-visions require a transformed way of seeing reality, even at its most imaginative the text arguably never abandons such aesthetic concepts as form or proportion. The talk explores what it might mean to envision the Gestalt of a human being’s life from such an unusual perspective, relying in part upon Balthasar’s densely theological and aesthetically aspirated reading of Dante.”
The first lecture is today, Thursday, February 11, at 6 p.m. by Vittorio Montemaggi, followed immediately at 7:15 p.m. by Fr. Grove. All talks are in the Eck Visitors Center. Please visit http://icl.nd.edu/events/dante-mercy-and-the-beauty-of-the-human-person/ for the full schedule.
John VanBerkum is a senior studying theology and philosophy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.