by John Stamps
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost
. . .
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.
Along with the rest of the Western World, I decided to join the 100 Day Journey of reading Dante. Yes, we’re reading the entire Divine Comedy. With Dante the pilgrim as our guide, Dante the poet leads us from the Inferno through Purgatory into Paradise. New videos are released every Mon-Wed-Fri and they only last about 10 or so minutes. You can read any translation you want—I’m using Anthony Esolen’s. The plan is to read three cantos per week, an eminently do-able practice as long as you don’t get bogged down in the notes. The 100 Days of Dante will end Easter 2022. Can you think of a better way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth than with Dante and Beatrice in Paradise? I sure can’t.
Reading Dante fulfills a number of personal bucket list goals. For starters, the dreadful Western Civilization class I took as an undergraduate at a fundamentalist college—wow, was it really back in 1973?—was the low point of my academic career. I’ve been remediating my invincible ignorance ever since.
The Canto One video was narrated by Ralph C. Wood, former Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. I know about Ralph Wood as a Flannery O’Connor scholar. I didn’t realize he knew so much about Dante as well. One remark he made really struck me. In fact, I copied it into the front page of my copy of the Inferno.
“We will not discover truth, goodness, happiness, and beauty until we know we have lost them.”
That observation might not be self-evident. But I think Dr Wood is correct. We sleep walk through life. Our careers or simple busy-ness consumes us. Who has the cycles to contemplate truth or beauty?
But we can start our pilgrimage simply by seriously ruminating why am I so unhappy? More money won’t make me happy. Self-medicating in all its various adult forms won’t make me happy. I don’t make enough money to be on permanent vacation.
But Dante isn’t writing about run-of-the-mill happiness such that you’d find from a trip to Maui or at the bottom of a bottle of a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. He wants us to ponder what constitutes our true beatitude, from the Latin word beātus, “happy, fortunate.”
As we descend into the inferno with Dante and Virgil as our guide, we can begin to cross off one vice after another that most certainly won’t make us happy. Canto Two warns us, you’ll never be happy if you’re a coward.