Journey through Lent with Dante as your guide

| March 3, 2011 | 0 Comments

Mary Reichardt, professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, will present a series of talks titled “The Divine Comedy and The Lenten Journey” on four consecutive Tuesdays, March 15 to April 5 at Hayden Hall in St. Paul. The Catholic Spirit recently interviewed Reichardt about the series being presented by the Cathedral of St. Paul.

Q: How do you see Dante’s “Divine Comedy” as a metaphor or guide for our journey during Lent?

A: Lent and Easter take us into the heart of the Catholic faith through the Paschal Mystery.

Through the Crucifixion we realize the extreme penalty God paid for our sins and the extent of his love and mercy. Through the Resurrection and Ascension we are reminded that our life is but a pilgrimage here on earth and our true home is in heaven.

The Lenten call to self-knowledge and penance is meant to “reorient” us to the things of God and to our true goal.  The “Divine Comedy” does exactly this. In describing the three areas of the afterlife — hell, purgatory, and heaven — Dante gives us visual images to help us imagine our goal.  The “Comedy” in effect asks us constantly: What destination are you now choosing?

Where are you on the road right now?

In order to understand what the choice for God means, we must first understand the consequences of turning away from God, of rejecting his will in favor of our own will.  That is Dante’s “Inferno.”

Once we make the decisive choice for God and repent of sin, there’s still a long climb ahead of us before we can stand before the all-pure God. That’s Dante’s “Purgatorio,” a realm that many readers note looks a lot like our life on earth because we are expected to be working here and now on putting off vice and putting on virtue.

Finally, to make progress on the spiritual road, we need to have some sense of where we are headed. Yet, heaven is for us often the hardest realm to conceive; our imaginations are terribly limited since we have no earthly experience of eternal and complete joy. Dante’s “Paradiso” fleshes out heaven in detail, providing ample food for the imagination.

We always need to keep in mind that Dante is writing an imaginary work but at the same time he uses real spiritual principles that are especially resonant with the Lenten journey.

Q: Many people may not think of this work as faith formation material. Has it had an impact on your own faith life? If so, how?

A: In “Paradiso,” when Dante has a discussion with one of his ancestors, we are told that the “Comedy” will be “vital nourishment” for readers disposed to its spiritual content.

It has also been said that serious readers of the “Comedy” always come face to face with themselves in reading the work: They see their own sins and failings, they realize their need for both effort and grace in purgation, and they start to get a glimpse of the goal — heaven — through the power of the imagination.

I remember well that these matters hit me forcefully when I first read the “Comedy” years ago, and they’ve only deepened as I’ve read and taught the work many times since then.

So I’d say yes, the spiritual impact of the work in my life has been profound: it indeed provides the “vital nourishment” of hope for anyone who may feel lost or alone, as Dante does at the beginning of the story and as we all do at times.

Q: Is it necessary for someone to read the entire work before coming to your presentations?

A: No, it is not necessary to read the work before attending the talks. But it will certainly help in getting the full experience out of the lectures.

I’ll be using Mark Musa’s translation of the work, and I’ll be quoting often from it. You can, of course, use any translation but to follow along fully you might want to purchase the Musa text. It is available at any book venue: Mark Musa, “The Portable Dante” (Penguin Classics, 1995).


If you go

» What: “The Divine Comedy and The Lenten Journey”

» Where: “The Cathedral of St. Paul”

» When: Tuesdays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Session 1: March 15, “Down Another Road:?Descending into Hell,” (Introduction and “Inferno.”)

Session 2: March 22, “Sin as Slavery and the Turning of Conversion,” (“Inferno” and “Purgatorio”)

Session 3: March 29, “Climbing the Seven Storey Mountain,” (“Purgatorio”)

Session 4: April 5, “Soaring Through the Heavens,” (“Paradiso”)

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Category: Arts and Culture