Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered one of the greatest works of literature ever written. The poem not only imagines the three parts of the afterlife, but serves as an allegory for the spiritual journey of the human soul.
Here to take us on a tour of the journey Dante describes is Robert Barron, a bishop in the Catholic Church. Today on the show, Bishop Barron offers a bit of background on the Divine Comedy and how it resonates as a story of the search for greater meaning that commonly arises in your mid-thirties. We then delve into Dante’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. We discuss why Dante can’t initially climb the redemptive mountain of purgatory and has to go through hell first, the importance of having a tough-but-encouraging guide for any spiritual journey, why hell is an inverted cone that gets narrower and colder at the bottom, and why traitors inhabit its lowest layer. We then get into what it takes to climb Mount Purgatory, why heaven in the Divine Comedy doesn’t get much attention, and what Dante finds when he gets there. Along the way, Bishop Barron describes the meaning behind the religious imagery Dante used in his poem, as well as insights that can be applied to any spiritual journey.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Divine Comedy translated by Mark Musa (Bishop Barron’s favorite translation)
- Word on Fire course on Dante and the Divine Comedy
- AoM Podcast #527: Father Wounds, Male Spirituality, and the Journey to the Second Half of Life With Fr. Richard Rohr
- AoM Podcast #598: Journeying From the First to the Second Half of Life With James Hollis
- AoM Podcast #518: The Second Mountain With David Brooks
- AoM Article: Lessons in Manliness from Dante
- The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered one of the greatest works of literature ever written. The poem not only imagines the three parts of the afterlife but serves as an allegory for the spiritual journey of the human soul. Here to take us on a tour of the journey Dante describes is Robert Barron, a bishop in the Catholic Church.
Today on the show, Bishop Barron offers a bit of background on ‘The Divine Comedy’ and how it resonates as a story of the search for greater meaning that commonly arises in your mid-30s. We then delve into Dante’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. We discuss why Dante can initially climb the redemptive mountain of Purgatory and has to through Hell first, the importance of having a tough but encouraging guide for any spiritual journey, why Hell is an inverted cone that gets narrower and colder at the bottom and why traitors inhabit the lowest layer. We then get into what it takes to climb Mt. Purgatory, why heaven in ‘The Divine Comedy’ doesn’t get much attention and what Dante finds when he gets there. Along the way, Bishop Barron describes the meaning behind the religious imagery Dante used in this poem, as well as insights that can be applied to any spiritual journey. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/dante.
Alright. Bishop Robert Barron, welcome to the show.
Bishop Robert Barron: Thank you, great to be with you. Thanks.
Brett McKay: So you are a Catholic bishop, but you’re also a really busy man. You’ve done all sorts of stuff. You found an organization called Word on Fire, where you’re putting out tons of content, interviews with public figures. You did a documentary on Catholicism for PBS; you’re a religion correspondent for NBC; you speak to corporations around the world about religion. The reason I brought you on, ’cause you put out a course on Word on Fire about one of my favorite books of all time, and that’s Dante’s “‘The Divine Comedy’.” Most of us, if you live in America or in the West, you probably read excerpts of ‘The Inferno’, maybe in a high school English class. I’m curious, when did you discover Dante’s Divine Comedy, and how did it change you?
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, I could tell you exactly when it was. It was the summer of 1990, and I was in Germany. I was doing my doctoral work over in Europe, and that summer I went to Germany to study German. And so all day long I was just reading, writing, speaking and listening to German. So I brought with me from Paris where I lived, I think it was just ‘The Inferno’, just the volume one of Dante; I had never read Dante at that point. I thought, “Yeah, I’m just gonna… I’m just gonna read this.” So after a long day of German study, I remember going back to my little… It was like a little crummy college dorm room they had me living in, and I had the small paperback of ‘The Inferno’. And I started reading it, and it was, to me at that point in my life, I don’t know why exactly, but yeah, I read it like a novel. It was just so engaging and the notes in the edition I had were so good that it just drew me in to the narrative and everything, so I loved it from that moment. And then you’re right in suggesting that it had a big impact on my life.
I think almost every book I’ve written has some reference to Dante in it; maybe not every talk I give, but a lot of them would have a reference to Dante. He’s one of those people that, at the same time a great literary master, obviously, but he’s a spiritual master. And TS Eliot said Western literature is basically divided between two people, Shakespeare and Dante. If that’s true, that one of the two greatest writers in the Western tradition wrote basically about the Christian spiritual life. So I think that’s rather extraordinary, and I found them to be, indeed, one of the great masters. So that’s how I found them, and that’s kind of, in general, what he’s meant to me.
Brett McKay: Yeah, for me, I remember reading a bit of it in high school English, in excerpt, but then when I was around, I think I was like 35-years-old, which is interesting, so we’ll talk about this ’cause this has an important reference in ‘The Inferno’, I read the whole thing, and I remember just being just like, “This is great; I can’t believe a medieval guy wrote this.” And I’m constantly thinking about things. I’ll have an experience in my life and like, “Oh, that reminds me of something from Dante.”
Bishop Robert Barron: Oh, absolutely. It’s archetypal. And once you get into that story, you recognize yourself in it. And as you suggested there, it’s for people going through a mid-life crisis, and all of us do to some degree. [chuckle] Dante, in many ways, is the man to read. It’s how to handle yourself during that time of crisis. What do you do? What don’t you do? What’s the right spiritual program or psychological program? Dante illumines all of that.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk a bit about Dante and his life, because I think it shapes… It helps us understand what he was trying to do with ‘The Divine Comedy’. So tell the Dante. When it was he alive? What was his life like?
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah. Well, he was born in 1265, so he’s born kind of at the height of the High Middle Ages. So when he’s born, Thomas Aquinas is writing, Bonaventure is writing, the great cathedrals were going up. So he’s there at the height of the best of medieval culture. And I would put him in that mix. When people ask about the Middle Ages, I’ll say, “Look at Chartres Cathedral, read The Summa of Aquinas and read the Commedia of Dante, and you’ll see what that culture was about.” So he was kind of born into the best of that period. Born 1265 in Florence, and he’s a Florentine in his bones. Some people are just identified with the city of their birth, and he was like that. He gets involved… He’s an intellectual, obviously. He’s trained in philosophy and poetry and so on, but he’s also a practical man of politics, and he gets involved in the very rough and tumble politics of that time. Roughly speaking, the Italian city-states like Florence were kind of divided between pressure from the North, from the German emperor, and then from the South, the Pope, and they were siding with one or the other, and that’s kind of where the politics broke.
Well, Dante finds himself around mid-life on the wrong side of one of these fights. And without going into every detail, he gets exiled from his hometown, and it just broke his heart into a thousand pieces. He was a man of Florence, and to be told, “You can never come back,” practically destroyed him. And it’s true, he never came back. He never returned home. He begins to write ‘The Divine Comedy’, his great masterpiece, during those years of… Those early years of exile. So it’s a book written by an exile for people who often feel themselves in a kind of spiritual exile. Anyway, he wanders those latter decades of his life around different Italian cities. He dies in Ravenna, and that’s where he’s buried. There was a move to have his body brought back to Florence and his people said, “No, no, no. You rejected him in life; you won’t get him in death.” So he’s still there. And I remember, oh, this was maybe 10 years ago, we were filming in Ravenna and we made a pilgrimage to Dante’s grave, which I found very moving. So he died, and I believe it was 1321 or ’23, one of the two. So early 14th century, he died. And what’s interesting, of course, is he’s born 1265, so when he’s 35, which would have been seen as mid-life in the Middle Ages, that the year 1300, and that’s when ‘The Divine Comedy’ is set.
Brett McKay: In addition to getting exiled from Florence, and that had basically caused him to write ‘The Inferno’ or ‘The Divine Comedy’, another… There’s another person in his life who was actually a character in the book, and it’s this character named Beatrice. Tell us about Beatrice. Who was she?
Bishop Robert Barron: Well, it’s fascinating. Not his wife; he was married to a woman named Gemma and had a number of children with her, but he makes almost no reference to his wife in his writings. But when he was just a kid, this kid roughly his age, Beatrice, he sees her and it’s typical of the middle ages in that kind of chivalric context that he just was smitten. He was struck by her beauty but also by her personality, her spirit. And then many years later, he sees her again and exchanged a glance in a couple of words, but that’s enough to make him say, “I’m going to write the most beautiful poem ever written about you.” So, and of course he did, that’s this amazing thing, is, you know, I could say that, you could say that, but we don’t have the creative power to do it. He did. And he said, “I’m gonna write the most beautiful poem ever written.” And that’s The Commedia, that’s ‘The Divine Comedy’, is in a way all about her. But because it’s about her whom he loved with the deepest part of his soul, it’s by the same token about God, and that tells you a lot about his mentality and the mentality of the Middle Ages, that through a beautiful creature I can come to knowledge of the ever more beautiful creator. So that’s the role that Beatrice plays in the writing of it. She’s also, as you say, a character in the poem, and that’s a very interesting role she plays there.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this idea that romantic love can lead to love of God, and that’s a Platonic idea, right? Like that…
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah.
Brett McKay: [0:09:30.1] ____ about in The Symposium, right? Erotic love can eventually lead you to loving the good.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, it’s called the Diotima Speech. There’s a woman around the table, as Socrates and his friends were talking about love and wisdom and so on, and she makes an observation that’s picked up by some of the greatest spirits in the West, namely by beginning with the particular beautiful thing or person or event, you can move by a steady series of steps, finally to the source of all goodness and the source of all beauty. You can see this echoed in Dante. You also see it echoed in James Joyce. Pick up ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, his great autobiographical novel, and there’s a scene out of that book that’s right out of the Diotima Speech and about Dante.
So let’s talk about the structure, big picture structure of ‘The Divine Comedy’, because the book is… It’s fantastical, it’s almost… It’s like a fantasy novel, but it’s highly organized and highly structured if you look at it the right way. And in fact, it’s been compared to a medieval cathedral. Why is that?
Brett McKay: Yeah. [chuckle] I think for several reasons. If you go to the medieval cathedrals, like the Chartres, Notre Dame in Paris, or Reims or Amiens, the great ones, there’s a kind of, “Here comes everybody” or “Here comes everything” quality about them. In the cathedrals you can find planets and plants and animals and people, obviously, and angels and God and the Blessed Mother and… The whole universe, gargoyles, etcetera. The good, the bad, the ugly. It’s all there. There’s something of that in ‘The Divine Comedy’. There’s a line I remember from a hero of mine, Kenneth Clark, who was the great art historian that was behind that series called Civilization. And in the course of that at one point, he says in his plummy accent, “Is there sensuality in Dante?” And he says, “Of course, there is. There’s everything in Dante.” [chuckle] And it’s a good observation that like the cathedrals, there’s an everything quality. It’s all there.
Bishop Robert Barron: But secondly, as you suggest correctly, the architectonic structure of it is very much like a cathedral. So the cathedrals were balanced and symmetrical and ordered, and usually around the number three. You look at the three levels of say, of the facade of Notre Dame, the Three Portals, the Three Entrances, etcetera, the whole building is kind of predicated upon the number three and for obvious reasons, because God is three Person; the same with ‘The Divine Comedy’, three major sections, ‘The Inferno’, ‘The Purgatorio’, and ‘The Paradiso’, but then each of those are sub-divided into 33 Cantos or divisions. And then the Cantos are displayed according to what is called “terza rima” or third rhyme; it’s a particular rhyming pattern. The point there is in the architecture of the poem, the number three is consistently ingredient, and for obvious reasons, because if you wanna get out of the dark night that he’s in, you gotta be Trinitized, you gotta be brought into the life of the Trinity. So the order and the harmony of the internal integrity of the poem is very much like a cathedral.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s dig into ‘The Divine Comedy’. And what I’d like to do to sort of organize this, I think Dante… We’re gonna make Dante our guide for our spiritual journey in life. He goes through a spiritual journey, and I think we can look to him on how, what we can learn about that. So the poem starts off with ‘The Inferno’, so this trip to Hell. And the opening lines, we kind of alluded to them or this. He said, “Midway in the journey of our life.” That’s funny, he didn’t say “My life.” He said “Our life.” “I found myself in the midst of a dark wood, and the true way was lost.” Why does Dante begin his poem like this?
Bishop Robert Barron: It’s so important, isn’t it? Many people at mid-life go through a time like that. First half of life, when you’re seeking relationship and marriage and your kids and your career and your house and you’re on a certain path and you’re finding great joy and that accomplishment, something tends to happen at mid-life. And, you know, Jung, the psychologist who loved Dante, just took 35 as the mid-life number. It’s not 50; it’s more like 35. What often happens is, the things that got you going in the first half of your life, the things that gave you joy and purpose are suddenly kinda taken away from you, and you feel lost and arid and depressed and, “What am I about? What am I supposed to do?” So that’s where the story begins, midway. And it’s the journey of his life, ’cause, as I say, in the year 1300 he’s 35, but by saying “Our,” you’re right; he’s trying to draw everybody into it, to say “My story, I do think is your story too.”
So midway on our life’s journey, we tend to find ourselves kind of lost. I bet a lot of people listening to the two of us right now will identify with that. I found in my years doing pastoral ministry is, very often people at that age, like 35 or so, would come with difficulties and problems and depressions and… Do you remember… I just saw it recently, that old movie with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance, the City Slickers. Remember that?
Brett McKay: Right, yeah.
Bishop Robert Barron: They’re out there and Billy’s going through a mid-life crisis, and Jack Palance is kind of his wisdom, like his Virgil figure. And at one point he got, “How old are you?” And he said, “I’m 38,” I think he said. And he goes, “Yeah, yeah, they all come at the same time.” And that’s just old spiritual wisdom that often at that age… See, what’s happening is the first half of your life, you found success and Dante did. He had his family and his wife and his career and all that. But then, see, were not meant just for that, and so it’s… You have to be sort of weaned off of the things that have obsessed you in the first half of life to get now into a deeper place. But that’s painful invariably, and that’s how the story begins.
Brett McKay: And he talks about, how he got lost was he fell asleep. And he’s talking and he says, “The true way was lost,” so he’s insinuating that he had the true way at one point, but he fell asleep and then he lost it. I think that had… I mean, if I look at my own life, I just turned 40 not too long ago, and part of that, I read my old journals from the first 20 years of my adulthood. And as I read those journal entries when I was 19, 20, in my early 20s, I was struck by how earnest and idealistic I was, and I’ve got these ideals I’m aiming for. And then as I got older, my journal sort of shifted to complaining about, carping about the day-to-day of life, and maybe that’s what happened. He maybe… I think all of us have those ideas, but then just because of the day-to-day, we forget what’s really important in life.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, I think that’s a legitimate way to get at it. And maybe it was Dante being so caught up in the politics of his home town that he lost… His love for philosophy and theology and all that, maybe it was compromised by all those battles he was in. And then he saw that he had a terrible pain of his exile, which never went away and… But I think he would say that opened him to a deeper desire, a deeper place, and that’s how the story commences. If you miss that, you’re gonna miss a lot of what’s going on, I think, of ‘The Divine Comedy’. It begins with a man in crisis. It’s like… I always compare it to the beginning of Moby Dick, you know, when, “Call me Ishmael and… ” When it’s a “dreary November in your soul.” That’s how that story begins. And he knows, “I’ve gotta go on a journey.” He’s gotta go on this wailing ship and then the story unfolds. It’s similar with Dante in a way, that he begins in crisis and he knows implicitly he’s gotta go on a journey.
Brett McKay: Alright, so he’s scared, he’s lost, he knows he needs to go on a journey. So he looks around and he sees a mountain, and he’s suddenly filled with hope and he’s like, “Oh, I see the path. I’m gonna start walking towards that mountain.” What was that mountain, and why did it give him hope? And then how come he couldn’t climb up the mountain?
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, it’s the Mountain of Purgatory, which he eventually will climb, but he has a lot of work to do before he gets there. And it’s not a bad thing when you intuit during a time of crisis, “Oh, there actually is a way out of this. There is a path and at the top of it there’s light, and I’m not in an impossible situation.” But the mistake he made at that point was to think he could just race up the mountain, like, “Okay, no problem. I’m going through a rough patch, but just give me a quick little burst of energy and I’ll be fine.” But what he needs to do is go on a very long and very arduous journey, eventually going up that mountain, that’s right, and coming to salvation, but it’s gonna cost him. It’s not a cheap grace kind of story.
Brett McKay: And there’s… What happens is, there’s three animals that block him, and they, basically they represent the different types of sin he will encounter when he finally goes to Hell.
Bishop Robert Barron: Right. The different degrees of sin and the people that read them in different ways, how to interpret the animals, but the main point is, you can’t climb the mountain, you can’t just raise up the mountain, you gotta come to terms with these kind of ravenous forces that are in you that are blocking your access to truth and goodness and beauty. There’s something the matter with your own soul that you’ve gotta deal with, otherwise, you get to the top of the mountain and you’ll still be the same person, so you’ll be blocked to just might be in a higher physical place, but you won’t be higher spiritually until you deal with these animals. And so these different levels of sin will correspond to levels of hell that he has to go down. How wonderful that even we’re talking about hell, there’s that medieval sense of hierarchy and order and symmetry, so even hell is laid out a bit like a well-ordered building.
Brett McKay: You make the point in your own ministry and working with counseling individuals that before they can make that change, they might have that inkling of hope like, yeah, I need to do something and there’s something that will help me. You say they gotta go through a deep moral inventory, similar to what you might see in a 12-step program, and that’s what these animals were saying, like, hey no, you can’t do this; you’re gonna have to go to hell and kind of face your inner demons to see what’s going on in you.
Bishop Robert Barron: Right. And I use that on purpose, of course, that language from the 12-step process. Do a connection there. The 12-step was recognized by Jung, a psychologist, as a very powerful psychological spiritual tool, and it’s found resonance with a lot of religious people because the principles of it are close to our principles. I’ll just give you a couple of examples. Someone’s got to hit bottom, right? If you’re addicted to sex or to drugs or to whatever it is, you won’t really make progress until you’ve hit bottom, until you say, okay, I know I’m lost, I know I can’t solve this problem on my own, right? At which point you gotta hand your life over to a higher power. Well, look how ‘The Divine Comedy’ unfolds. It opens with a guy kind of having hit bottom; he knows he’s lost. He first tries on his own, oh, I can get up this mountain, no problem. No, no, no, no, you can’t. And then what happens is, his life will be handed over to these higher spiritual powers, and only under their direction will he now, another term from the 12-step, be able to do a searching moral inventory.
So some of this going through AA or something, you have to do an inventory. Not only of the things that you’ve done to other people, ways that you’re drinking or whatever has hurt other people, but you gotta go deep down inside and look at the roots and sources of this dysfunction. Well, that’s exactly what happens here; hits bottom, turns his life over to a higher power and then has walked through a searching moral inventory, so it’s very much along the lines of the 12-step, and mind you too, under the guidance of a mentor. So the 12-step, you have a sponsor, right? You have an elder or someone that’s been through the same journey, and so Dante that too. There’s a tremendous resonance there.
Brett McKay: Dante hits bottom, but then he learns to go up; he’s gonna have to just keep going down. He has to go up down to go up, so he has to go to hell. And you mentioned he has a guide, his mentor, it’s Virgil, which is a weird pick for a Catholic Italian guy. His mentor through hell and purgatory is this Pagan poet. Why Virgil?
Bishop Robert Barron: Well, several reasons. One is he’s another self. When you’re first getting going in this process, you need someone that has a kind of authority over you, but at the same time it’s better to begin with someone kinda like you. Well, who was Dante? An Italian epic poet? Who is Virgil? An Italian epic poet. Virgil represents, in Dante’s vision, human reason. So precisely as a Pagan, he doesn’t have the benefit of revelation, so he represents what humanity can come up with on its own, a human reason. Now, this is a good Catholic instinct He’s writing at the same time as Thomas Aquinas, who said, Faith and Reason, who used classical philosophy in his articulation of the Christian faith, so something very parallel;s going on here, where Dante is using pagan wisdom to get him going in the spiritual process. And see, I find that, as a Catholic, as kind of wonderful, is use whatever works in a way. If someone comes to you and they’ve really been struggling in the spiritual order or the psychological order, well, okay, start with a philosopher, psychologist, start with a wisdom figure from the world, maybe that’s better; the person can get that more easily. So that’s why Virgil represents.
He’s like Dante, and he’s human reason, and it leads him a long way; Virgil will lead him all the way down through hell and all the way up mount purgatory. It’s only when he’s ready for heaven that Virgil has to hand him off because human reason can’t go that far. But I think if people listening right now are going through a crisis, you gotta find a mentor, you gotta find a spiritual guide, and maybe begin with someone who’s kinda like you. That’s a lesson here.
Brett McKay: And also the thing about Virgil, he doesn’t use kid gloves with Dante.
Bishop Robert Barron: No.
Brett McKay: He’s constantly just [0:24:07.3] ____. Dante, he’s going through hell and he’s naturally terrified of what he’s seeing, and Virgil is always, like a stern… He reminds me of like a stern football coach.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Buck up. You gotta be brave, man, and don’t hide your eyes; you gotta look at what’s going on here.
Bishop Robert Barron: So you’re 40, so I’m a bit older that you are. When we were going through school, so I was coming off age in the Catholic Church, right after Vatican II, so ’60s into the ’70s. Everything was kind of soft in those days; we were emphasizing the love of God, the mercy of God, forgiveness and get up and you’ll be okay, but there was something weird about that, because if you look at the great spiritual tradition from the very beginning to, right through, it’s marked by these tough people. Spiritual direction is not like a little soft, here’s a pillow and relax; on the contrary, real spiritual direction is tough work, because it involves precisely this coming to terms with what’s negative in you, and you do need a football coach. And I bet this is true, for you, it’s true, I think most men that I know, who are the teachers and coaches, we remember? They were the ones who were tough on us, the ones who made a lot of demands on us, that didn’t say, you’re fine, everything’s great. The coaches and teachers that we remember are the ones that demanded a lot of us. That’s a lost art, I think.
I’ll tell you story from a couple of years ago; a priest friend of mine, younger than I am, but went through some of the same kind of training, he said, you know what our generation missed? We missed Yoda on our shoulders. And the reference was in Star Wars, remember when Luke Skywalker has to go through his sort of initiation as a Jedi, and there’s Yoda, Yoda was not easy on them and was barking orders at them and making demands and literally riding him to get him to do what he wanted. This priest friend of mine said we didn’t have that growing up; we didn’t have Yoda on our shoulders. Well, that’s Virgil. You need Virgil to say, okay, we gotta go through hell; you’re not gonna hide. If you start swooning on me, pal, you better wake up. So I think that’s a much, much needed thing today.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from my sponsors.
And now back to the show. So Transformation requires courage, and it requires just being open, like seeing things as they really are, and that takes courage to do that.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the topography of hell. So as you start making their way down hell, it’s described as this, an inverted cone, so it starts out wide, and as you get deeper and deeper in hell it gets narrower and narrower. What does that represent?
Bishop Robert Barron: He’s so good; he’s such a great poet, and so all those are symbolic values. So see, in Aquinas and the great medieval figures, the soul is meant for expansion. The soul is meant for union with God, and it’s meant to go out from itself, first of the beauties and goodness of the world, but then ultimately is to fly into the fullness of goodness that God is. So it’s like wings. It’s flight, it’s mobility, it’s spaciousness. So hell is the opposite of that. Saint Augustine described sin as being “incurvatus in se”, which means “caved in on oneself”, which always struck me as a really good definition. Those times in life when you’re so self-absorbed and self-preoccupied, self-pitting that you wanna retreat into the recesses of your own self.
Well, that’s hell. So as hell gets lower and lower, it gets narrower and narrower, so that’s the small space of the Fallen Soul, but Dante’s gotta go down all the way to find the source of that narrowing in him. Of course, the other thing, so the narrowness of hell, is also the cold of hell, and that’s a marvelous intuition of Dante’s, because we always associate hell with heat, with fire. He doesn’t, it’s the opposite; the deeper you get, the colder it gets, much better symbol, I think, because sin is a cold state of affairs, and I make the world around me colder when I’m in sin. Cold causes me to grasp my own sides to warm myself up and it narrows and constricts me. So it corresponds to the narrowing of the physical space of hell, and I think to me, that’s always been a marvelous symbol; not fire but ice.
Brett McKay: No, I think it’s a great representation, a great description. ‘Cause I know in my own life when I’m in those periods where I’m not, I’m just, I’m self-absorbed and I don’t feel good, and you feel cold, and I think we all can relate to that. And what’s interesting too is Dante is going down hell, he’s talking to the souls in hell. And what’s interesting, the way, the impression I got, is that they all continue to be self-absorbed; they’re just still talking about whatever happened to them in life, or they just talk about, well, the reason I’m here is ’cause God put me here or it’s my parents or just ’cause the time I was born. Again, that self-absorption is still going on there.
Bishop Robert Barron: Well, and look, if you’re dealing pastorally with people, like going through a 12-step type process, that’s often what you gotta overcome, is maybe before someone’s hit bottom, they’re playing all those games all the time of, oh no, this is not really my problem, that someone else did this to me, and it’s because of that that I have these old resentments, and if only things were different, then I would feel better about myself, and you have to get beyond that. And everyone in hell is reflecting everybody else but in this very negative way; they’re reinforcing their own constriction and coldness and negativity.
It’ll be the opposite, of course, in Heaven when everyone reflects everyone else in a positive way, or in a beautiful world, you and I would be enhancing each other; as I would appreciate your goodness, you appreciate my goodness and we wouldn’t be in a rivalry, but we’d be in a relationship of mutual enhancement. Well, hell is the opposite where there’s… And the thing is, we all live in hell in the measure that we’re sinners; we know what that’s like. When I find myself in this cold narrow space full of self-pity, blaming others, making the world around me colder, filling other people with resentment, I know what that’s like. And Dante expresses that in his very fine poetry.
Brett McKay: What’s interesting about Dante too in the way he depicted hell, the bottom layer of hell, the closest to Satan, that’s where the fraudsters go. It’s not the murderer, it’s not people who do violence, it’s people who lie and people who commit fraud, who are traitor’s. What’s going on there? Why did Dante think that was worse than killing somebody?
Bishop Robert Barron: For a very simple reason, because it’s more spiritually pure. So sins of lust and when your passions get the better of you, their sins, don’t get me wrong, Dante sees them as very serious things, but he also can find room in his heart to forgive, you know, when someone’s passions or bodily passions get the better of them. But see when you’re, you’ve betrayed a friend, well, that’s not just your bodily passion getting the better of you, that’s a very coldly calculating move that participates much more in the soul than it does in the body, if it makes sense. Someone who’s caught in some kind of a sexual addiction, a lot of that is the body or the desires of the body kind of run amok.
He’s much more sympathetic with that than he is with the cold-blooded calculating traitor, and that’s why, I think, quite rightly puts them at a lower place in hell. If you look at the deadly sins, and we’ll get there when we get to purgatory, but probably most people today, you mentioned sin or vice, they would think right away of sexual sin. Well, Dante reverses that. Sexual sinfulness is the least of the deadly sins. Well of course, pride is the most serious, but I wonder how many people, if you say, boy, that guy is really a sinner or that guy really is cold and vice, would they think of pride, first of all? I rather doubt it. But Dante is right in line, by the way, with the great spiritual teachers too. Aquinas would certainly say that, that the greatest of the sins is pride not lust.
Brett McKay: So he gets down to the bottom of hell and he sees Satan, and Satan is kind of pathetic figure; he’s this giant with wings and he’s covered, he’s… And ice to his chest and he’s crying, he’s got three faces, sort of this inverted trinity going on; he’s chewing up the great traitor’s, Judas, and then the guys who betrayed, Caesar. And Virgil says, alright, we gotta hop on Satan here, ’cause we gotta keep going on a trip, and what’s funny, Satan doesn’t do anything, that’s kind of that sole idea that when you’re in a place of sin you’re just self-absorbed and you’re cold. What’s interesting, you talked about this in the course, what Virgil says to Dante’s is like, alright, hold on here, we gotta keep going down; that’s the only way we can get up to purgatory.
Bishop Robert Barron: There’s so much that’s fascinating there. I think one of the great literary inventions in the whole tradition is Dante’s invention of Satan at the pit of hell. As you say it’s the very lowest place, so the coldest place, and it’s the iciest place. He has wings, as Dante imagined him, because he’s an angel, right? Well, angels are meant to fly, their spiritual creature is meant to fly into the beauty of God, but Satan is a perverted Angel, so the wings then become like bat wings, and now that he’s stuck… It’s a beautiful, beautiful perception here. He is stuck, so as he beats his angel wings, which are meant to make Him fly, all they do is make the world around him colder. See, it’s the use of a positive spiritual power but in a sinful way. That’s the Christian idea of sin, by the way, it’s not like… There’s no such thing as pure corruption; corruption has to be a corruption of something good, by definition, so evil is only a privation of the good that we say. So the wings represent what’s good in Satan, his spiritual powers, but they become corroded and corrupt and so all they succeed in doing is making the world around you colder. How many of us sinners use what’s good in us, our minds, our wills or powers or whatever, but to harm people, what should be instruments of love become instruments of hostility.
Well, that’s the wings of Satan beating over the ice and making the world around him colder. And then as you say beautifully, he’s got three phases; God as three persons, and that’s a way of expressing the fact that God is love, by the way, right? That in God there’s a lover, the Father, a beloved, the Son, and the love they share the Holy Spirit, so that’s beautiful. The Trinity is an expression of the love that God is. What’s every sinner? Every sinner is a sort of perverse similar acronym of God. In the measure that you’re a sinner you think you’re God, you think you’re the center of the universe, the world revolves around you, the world exists to serve you. So all of us sinners have these three phases; we’re perverse inversions of the Trinity. And then as you also suggest, he’s chewing, in each of his mouths, on a sinner in Dante’s mind, the three greatest traitor’s, Judas who betrayed Jesus, and then Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar.
So there’s our thing too about, that’s the most refined kind of sin, betrayal. But he chews on them without devouring them, and then he weeps from all six eyes, so stuck coldly in place, making the world around you colder, chewing on past resentments and weeping in your sadness; that to me is such a beautiful depiction of what sin looks like, what sin feels like. In other words, he’s not a glamorous figure. The devil is often portrayed in literature as a glamorous figure, he’s not in Dante at all, and he’s effectively powerless because they jump on to his sides, and he barely even notices them because he’s so stuck in the sort of hopeless self-regard. That’s a beautiful picture of what goes wrong with us, and notice, he finds it at the bottom of hell, which means it’s the source of all the negativity of hell. So…
So when you go on that spiritual inventory and you go all the way down into yourself and find this wound or this pain or this sin that’s generating all that’s wrong in you, that’s a very important spiritual moment.
Brett McKay: So they meet at the bottom, and as you said, to go up, you have to go down; you have to kind of fall upwards. I think Richard Rohr talks about that.
Bishop Robert Barron: Right.
Brett McKay: You gotta fall upwards. So they continued their trip. Basically, they’re going through the earth, right?
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Out to the other side of the earth, and there they see Mount Purgatory. This is where the refinement is gonna start happening. So Dante got to see sin, what it was like, now, he’s in the process where he can refine himself. “Purgatory,” is where you get to purge yourself of this…
Bishop Robert Barron: Right. And remember, he tried that early on. “Oh, I’ll just climb this mountain,” but he wasn’t ready at all for that. And even that move, “Oh, no problem, I’ll climb the mountain,” you see, all the pride that was in him and the sort of spiritual superficiality. So what he needed was the experience of hell; he had to go all the way down and get all the soot on him and all of the smell and the stink and the ugliness of hell. He had to see all of that. That’s true in any spiritual adventure. If you think, “Oh, no problem, I’ll just purge a few little problems that I have,” then ipso facto you’re in a bad [chuckle] spiritual space. So having made that awful journey, he’s now ready for purgation.
Brett McKay: So he gets to purgatory. Tell us about the topography of Mount Purgatory. What does it look like? And there’s also, there’s a daily rhythm that goes on there that didn’t happen in hell.
Bishop Robert Barron: It’s arranged according to seven levels, and they correspond to the seven deadly sins. I don’t know if any of your listeners are aware of Thomas Merton, the great Trappist spiritual writer from the last century. His autobiography is called “The Seven Storey Mountain”, and it’s taken from Dante, The Purgatory. Because Merton saw his life as a Trappist as a kind of purgatorial exercise, to walk up the seven storey mountain. So that’s the discipline. He has to go from level to level and there’s a rhythm, as you say, of day and night, of work and then rest and so on. There’s an orderliness and a purposefulness about purgatory that you don’t find in hell. Hell is sort of cacophonous and hopeless and the way… That’s what it feels like to be stuck in sin. But when you’re ready for this purgative move, it corresponds to a discipline and order in the spiritual life.
Brett McKay: And what you see too is you see the souls in purgatory starting to help each other. But in hell they were just yelling at each other and carping. In purgatory they’re actually, they’re starting to come together. They’re starting to turn outwards in purgatory.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yes, yes, and that’s the right way to do it. And you see, anyone that’s done counseling or spiritual direction with people, is you see that… It’s lovely when that moment happens. People who are caught in hell, they’re just the way Dante describes them: Resentful, blaming others, suspicious of everyone around them, looking for the worst not the best. But when you make that transition and you say, “Okay, look, I know I’m a sinner; I’m a terrible sinner and I’m now doing my purgative work,” well, then your instinct shifts and you start seeing other people not as rivals to you but as companions on the way, and you know that in helping them you’re helping yourself and vice versa. So, right, that’s a major spiritual shift.
Brett McKay: So I think that’s a good point there. So for spiritual transformation, you need a guide, you need to do that deep, that searching moral inventory, see who you are, and then eventually you gotta get to a point where you’re trying to get better but you gotta do it with other people.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, right, that’s exactly right; a communitarian enterprise. The spiritual life is never just “me and Jesus” or “me and God” trying to work it out. God wants to draw us into a family. So the Church, and I’m speaking as a Catholic, the Church is essential to the spiritual progress. It happens with other members of the mystical body. And that’s a beautiful dimension of it. And mind you, Virgil is still guiding him at this point, so he has not handed him off yet. Still human reason. And that’s an interesting thing. So if there was someone who’s maybe outside the formal Church but they’re trying to follow this program, okay. You can do a lot under the guidance of human wisdom.
Brett McKay: So in purgatory people are working together like, “Hey, you got this. We can make this happen. You’re doing a great job.” What does the purgation process look like? How do they get rid of their sins?
Bishop Robert Barron: It’s usually by a process that Jung referred to as “enantiodromia,” which is kind of… Or St. Ignatius would call it the “agere contra,” you act against. So pride, which is the elevation of the self, the lifting up, the prideful people have to walk around under the weight of terrible boulders, so their self-elevation is met by a self-denigration. Let’s see, the envious people that kept looking around at other people and how they’re doing, their eyes are sewn shut the way a falcon’s eyes would have been sown shut in the Middle Ages. So in every case… And then the gluttonous, of course, are deprived of food, the slothful have to get up and run. [chuckle] So on every level it’s the opposite of your problem, and that’s a very deep spiritual intuition too, though simple but very profound. It’s like, “Okay, what’s your problem? What’s your poison?” You got a agere contra. You have to act against whatever that is. Still very wise advice.
Brett McKay: And as the souls go up the mountain and start taking off their sin, purging themselves of their sins, they get lighter. That’s another thing Dante notices. They’re gonna get… They get lighter and lighter and it’s that… It’s the opposite of hell where it’s inward and heavy and cold. Now, you’re turning outward and becoming lighter and lighter.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, I think it’s funny. Ever since I read the… Whenever I’m walking uphill… I like to walk and hike. It’s a steep uphill climb like, “Ugh, it’s such a pain, this uphill climb.” I always think, “Yeah, yeah, and Heaven will be the opposite”, is that as I’m climbing upward, it’s getting lighter. It’s a great image. The lightness of being means I’m not weighed down by my ego. I don’t have that monkey on my back anymore. That’s what weighs you down, is you’re preoccupied with, how am I doing? How do I appear? Am I successful? Do they like me? And all of that is just a weight on my back. The best moments in life are when you transcend that, when you can set that monkey aside and then you move with such a lightness of step. Well, that’s the idea. Now, as you’re getting rid of your sins… Like what if you really can get through a day without pride, that you never once thought about, “Do they like me? Am I doing better than that guy? Why does he have something I don’t have?” What if I could set all of that aside? The lightness of being is what we all really want, but we’re burdened by all seven of the deadly sins.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I can relate. There’s been those moments in my life where I just feel that, I think, I just completely just don’t care, but not in a nihilistic way, but in a way I just, hey, I just… I’m gonna just be focused on that, and then it feels great. But then you just have a tendency to start turning inwards again, and it’s annoying.
Bishop Robert Barron: Right. Well, that’s the mysterium iniquitatis, as the spiritual masters say, “The mystery of evil.” Because as you say… And we all know that. Everyone listening to us knows that those moments in life when you’re least aware of yourself are the best moments in life, but they’re like a firework that goes off and then it disappears.
Brett McKay: So he makes it to Mount Purgatory, and then we just enter into ‘Paradisio’. And I’ll admit, when I read ‘Paradisio’, it didn’t grab me as much as ‘Purgatorio’ or ‘The Inferno’. I know other people have complained about the same thing. It’s like, “Well… ” I mean, people don’t talk about… When they talk about ‘The Divine Comedy’, they’re usually talking about ‘Inferno’, maybe ‘Purgatory’. People always, there’s a ‘Paradisio’. Why do you think Heaven doesn’t get a lot of attention?
Bishop Robert Barron: ‘Cause we don’t know what it’s like. And you see, sin, we’re all over that. I know all about sin. I’ve practiced all seven deadly sins. I know what that feels like. And so the imagery that Dante reaches for were like, “Yep, mm-hmm, yep, got it. Remember, yep, I experienced that.” And the ‘Purgatorio’ tried to deal with all of this. Yes, I’ve been there. And so I think we just readily identify with those parts. You get to the ‘Paradisio’ and now you’re in a place that’s beyond the deadly sins, that’s beyond self-absorption. You’re not lost, you’re journeying into the light and love that God is. Well, see, most of us don’t have a lot of experience of that. In those great moments we were just alluding to, maybe in the liturgy, maybe in a splendid work of art, we have little fleeting hints of what that’s like. It’s like a… You know in the Scriptures how the angels… The angels come and they go. The never stick around, right? [chuckle] There’s no example in the Scripture where the angels came and then they moved in next door and they were there for a few months, I got to know them. No, the angels come and they go. And that’s, I think, a very deep spiritual point, that these moments of breakthrough are moments and they pass. Now, my point here is when you’re trying now in a sustained way to depict Heaven, we have a much harder time. Even a sublime poet like Dante has a harder time grabbing our sinful imagination.
Brett McKay: And also what goes on in Heaven, what’s interesting, as you said, there’s a lot of movement, there’s a lot of music. Dante also describes it, soldiers sitting around playing games and singing. And you described Heaven, you do useless things in Heaven, but as we learn from CS Lewis, sometimes the most valuable things in life are the useless things.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, they always are, by definition, because if it’s useful, it’s subordinated to an end outside of itself. So I’ve got a car, it’s useful to me to get me places I wanna go. Once I get there… Some things I do are useful to higher ends, but sometimes the car takes me, let’s say, to the Mass, and now I’m doing the most useless thing I can on earth. The Mass is the most useless thing you can do, which means it’s the best thing, that it’s not subordinated to an end outside of itself. Or I go to a baseball game. Baseball game is supremely useless. It’s a waste of time, but that means it’s the very best thing we have. And so I think play or game language is appropriate to Heaven.
That’s why playing a harp, which always sounds so dull to me, I mean, harp music, if you have like a cool guitar or something, but playing a harp… But the idea there is both music and it’s play, and both of those are evocative of the sheer useless splendor of Heaven. Also, what I like about play is, let’s say you’re not just strumming a harp by yourself, you’re part of an orchestra because now you’re sharing music with others. People who have ever been in a band, there are those ecstatic moments when the band really comes together and you’re not just playing the song but you’ve reached a new level of cooperation and a kind of “one in the other” quality, or in sports, same thing. If you’re bringing the ball up court and, boy, that play just worked or that fast break, we all communicated appropriately, and we… You know? Those are the moments that are kind of like Heaven, and Dante is hinting at all that for sure.
Brett McKay: So when he gets to Heaven, he looks to the side and Virgil is not there anymore, but it’s Beatrice, this love of his life. And it’s funny, you think this would be like a great moment, but Beatrice kinda just yells at him, Dante, it’s like… And basically yelled like, “What took you so long? Why did I have to do this for you to get here?” But why is it Beatrice at Heaven that’s his guide and not Virgil?
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, ’cause she stands for theology and Virgil’s for natural reason. It’s more masculine, it’s more mind-oriented and purpose-oriented. Theology, I mean, Aquinas, those people, it’s certainly a rigorous intellectual discipline, but it’s predicated upon something more like love because it’s a response to revelation. And revelation is always the act of a person revealing him or herself, right? Stay with that image for a bit. I could learn a little bit about you by looking you up and Google, and I can read about you, and I’m learning a little tiny bit in our conversation today. But if you and I went on to become friends and so on and then at a certain point, maybe deep into our companionship, you decided to reveal something about yourself that I would never have known otherwise, right? Well, at that moment, something like love or trust has to be paramount because I can’t analyze that and just take it in on my own terms; I have to love you enough and trust you enough to believe what you’ve told me, if that makes sense. That to me, is a very exact comparison to what faith, religious faith, is like, is, I can know a lot about God through reason, and I can work my way up the ladder to a degree, but finally, it’s a person who has spoken to me. And so it’s in love and trust that I have to say, “Okay, I believe that.”
That’s why it’s appropriate that… I mean, Dante didn’t love Virgil. He admired him and he followed him, but he loved Beatrice, and so she’s a more appropriate symbol for theology, which is what’s needed for the journey into Heaven.
Brett McKay: So he begins his journey and what he sees, we said the people playing games, they’re singing, there’s music. Sometimes Dante can’t hear the music, and he’s told, “Well, your ears are these mortal ears and you can’t hear it, but you only get remnants of it.” And the other… The big change too is the souls, the souls in Heaven, they’ve completed that outward turning. They’re completely… They’re interested in this communitarian, everyone’s just reaching out towards each other. And I think we’ve all had those moments where people we have differences with, we somehow, just as you said, like that baseball game where you do a great play, everyone is just synching up and playing their part. And so Dante describes Heaven as there’s individuals, you don’t lose your individuality, in fact, your individuality gets enhanced in Heaven, but it’s enhanced to be a part of this larger circle of community.
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, and it’s a circle of community that includes not just human beings but the angels too, and there’s that Gothic cathedral quality. The Cathedrals have human figures in them to be sure and natural realities like plants and animals, but they also have angels. They have these beings that exist at a higher pitch of existence and who are loving and knowing at a higher pitch, and Heaven shows our communion, yes, even with them, even with the angels. How come we can’t hear the angels? Well, you can say, “Well, in our sin, we’re just not tuned in; we’re not attuned to that level of reality.”
Brett McKay: So he makes it to the top layer of Heaven and a new guide takes Beatrice’s place, and St. Bernard… Why did St. Bernard become Dante’s guide to the up-most reaches of Heaven?
Bishop Robert Barron: Because he was a mystic. Bernard was an extraordinary figure who died early 12th century, a fascinating figure, intellectual, to be sure, a religious founder, but what he’s best known for is his mysticism. And when I say “mysticism,” I mean that sense of union with God that has become visceral and direct and experiential. So the philosopher can know something about God based on human reason, the theologian can know at a higher level based on love and trust in revelation; the mystic is someone who’s been invited to the table and is eating at the banquet. A mystic is someone who’s beyond philosophy, beyond theology, beyond language and conceptuality and has reached the highest pitch of perception. So even theology has to give way to mysticism at the end of the process.
Brett McKay: And he’s the one that ushers him in to… Dante gets to see the face of God, basically. The beatific vision, is that what it’s called?
Bishop Robert Barron: Yeah, yeah. It’s a lovely description of, visio beatifica, so vision. A lot of ‘The Divine Comedy’ is about vision, coming to vision, coming to see. Well, what’s the culminating point of all of human experience, would be this visio beatifica, the vision that finally makes us happy. Beatus just means happy. What’s the happy vision? It’s the vision of God, because God is the supreme good, and all the goods that we experience are reflections of that supreme good, participations in it. So at the end of all of our striving, when we let go of our reason, we let go even of theology, we come to a vision that’s only a gift of God. And that’s what Dante receives at the end of this long journey.
Brett McKay: Well, Bishop Barron, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Bishop Robert Barron: Well, go to wordonfire.org, all one word, wordonfire.org, and you can find lots of sermons and books and articles and podcasts and lots of things.
Brett McKay: Fantastical. Bishop Robert Barron, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Bishop Robert Barron: God bless you. Thanks for having me today.
Brett McKay: My guest is Bishop Robert Barron; he’s the founder of Word on Fire. You can find out more information about that at wordonfire.org. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/dante, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And while you’re there, make sure to sign-up for our newsletter. It’s free. There’s a [0:55:38.2] ____ weekly option. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up and use code “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify; it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.