Reflections on the Divine Comedy
by Heidi White
This summer I am reading The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. From the first lines (“Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood..”), I was transfixed. I had expected a scholarly theological work disguised as a poem; instead, I found a rich allegory of the soul’s journey to God. The Divine Comedy is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. The story follows Dante the Pilgrim, guided through Hell by the soul of the poet Virgil. They emerge into Purgatory, where souls are purged of sins before attaining heaven. Virgil leaves when Dante enters Paradise, which I have only just begun to read.
I loved Purgatory. I think that is because in my journey to God, I am a Pilgrim who desires to be cleansed from my sins. In Purgatory, I recognized myself as Dante the Pilgrim and, to my immense surprise, as Virgil the Guide. In my inner life, I am Dante. In my daily life, I am Virgil. As a homeschooling mother, I lead little souls to God. I read Purgatory through the eyes of Virgil to discern ways he led Dante into truth. I found that in addition to the allegory of the soul’s ascent to God, Dante’s Purgatory also embodies the ideal of a classical educator. Virgil does not purge Dante of his sin; the journey up the mountain does that. But Virgil’s role was crucial to Dante’s sanctification. Just as Virgil does, classical educators lead students to love rightly through surrounding them with stories that exemplify wisdom and virtue.
The first principle I encountered is that the pilgrimage of The Divine Comedy is Dante’s, not Virgil’s. This may seem obvious, but unfortunately, I often forget that I am not the Pilgrim in my children’s education. After all, I am the one doing the research, planning the lessons, attending the conferences and writing the articles. It is far too easy for me to hijack their pilgrimage and make it my own. In Purgatory, Virgil merely leads the way. He reminds Dante to stay focused on his task. He identifies the path. He assuages Dante’s fears, informs him of fleeting time, oversees edifying conversations, explains what mysteries he can. Dante is lost without Virgil. So it is with our children. We lead them up the mountain with our counsel, accountability, and guidance…but it is their pilgrimage.
Another lesson of Purgatory is found in the structure of the mountain itself. Purgatory is a mountain that leads to God. Like Hell, it is arranged in circles, but instead of spiraling downward, the circles lead Dante and Virgil up to heaven. As they make their way up, they discover a structured system for purging sins. Each circle is a ledge where souls are purged of deadly sin. The sins are arranged according to severity. First, souls are purged of pride, which is the worst sin because it indicates a soul that loves itself above God, followed by envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. All of the purging is focused on one goal – properly ordering the love of the soul. Virgil tells Dante,
“So, you can understand how love must be
the seed of every virtue growing in you,
and every deed that merits punishment.”
(Canto 17, lines 103-105)
The proud souls love themselves above God. The envious and wrathful souls love themselves above their neighbors. The slothful souls do not love goodness enough. The greedy, gluttonous and lustful souls love good things, but more than virtue allows. So all the sins are either a defect, a deficit or an excess of love. (Canto 17, lines 85-139). The goal is to purify the faulty love to make the soul ready for God.
If we combine the principle of purifying love with the principle of the educator as guide, we conclude that the proper role of an educator is to guide students to rightly love what is good. The obvious next step is to ask, “how do I do that?” It is a tall order, but here is where Purgatory gets really inspiring…
The souls are purged on each level of Purgatory through punishments that fit the crimes. The prideful carry enormous stones. They stagger around the ledge, bent under the weight of pride. They look at the ground, where angels have carved…wait for it…stories. The outer walls of the ledge depict stories of humility (Mary’s Annunciation, David dancing before the Lord, Trajan receiving correction from a poor widow), while the ground has been carved with depictions of pride upon which the souls symbolically trample (Lucifer falling from heaven, Arachne challenging Athena, Saul disobeying God). The stories provide the antidote to sin’s poison. As the souls are purged of defective love, their redeemed love is shaped by the stories that surround them. On every level of the mountain of Purgatory, the souls are purged through self-discipline, then restored through stories. It is a beautiful metaphor of the story-formed classical education.
In classical education, we often say, “we become what we behold.” Stories orient our love to its proper object. In Purgatory, souls were made fit for heaven by the stories that permeated their season of purging. Therefore, it matters what stories we tell. I have heard people say, “It doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they are reading.” This is a dangerous fallacy. We must treat the power of stories with discernment. The souls in purgatory did not choose their stories; the stories were given to them. Wise teachers remove vulgar, ugly, worldly and foolish stories from their homes and classrooms, and ignite the moral imagination with enduring and beautiful stories of wisdom and virtue. The Bible is the cornerstone. The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, The Wind in the Willows, The Lord of the Rings, The Secret Garden, The Book of Virtues, Aesop’s Fables and tales of King Arthur are all wonderful stories. Look for beautifully illustrated children’s literature as well as oral stories, songs, poetry, audiobooks and mythology.
In Purgatory, stories were drawn, told, sung and written. They can be silly or serious, short or long, fact or fiction. Whether you play an audiobook in the car, tell childhood memories around the campfire, attend an opera, or read a Great Book, the stories you tell in your home will form the souls of your children.
If you will forgive a moment of frivolity, I often think of this as a cheerleading chant: “Who are we? GUIDES! What do we do? SHAPE LOVE! How do we do it? STORIES!” Purgatory provides a memorable embodiment of this pedagogical framework.
Virgil often stood on the sidelines and watched Dante encounter stories beyond his understanding or control. He knew that this was Dante’s pilgrimage, but Dante needed his wisdom. Sometimes Dante wept, raged or despaired, but Virgil led him on, always up the mountain, always closer to the presence of God, always to the end all wise teachers yearn for, the moment when the student steps into paradise after we place the crown of laurels on his brow and exclaim,
“Expect no longer words nor signs from me.
Now is your will upright, wholesome and free,
and not to heed its pleasure would be wrong:
I crown and miter you lord of yourself.”
(Canto 27, lines 139-142)
Heidi White is a classical homeschooler with two young children. She teaches Literature and History at a cooperative classical school in Colorado Springs called The Journey School. Heidi also writes fiction and is currently working on a writing project about shaping what children love through education and discipleship.