A poet’s guide to avoiding the fires of hell

Domenico di Michelino’s depiction of Dante standing at the gates of hell

Spiritual Direction from Dante
By Fr Paul Pearson,
Tan Books, 372pp, £20/$25

In the 700 years since the publication of Dante Alighieri’s three-volume Divine Comedy, there has been a vast array of books, plays and films (and even a theme park) dedicated to its retelling. Against this backdrop, an authentic and original view of one of the great works of the Renaissance is difficult to come by. However, in the first instalment of an expected trilogy on the spiritual lessons of the Divine Comedy, the Oratorian Fr Paul Pearson has provided just that.

Rather than reading the Divine Comedy purely as an example of great literature, Fr Pearson emphasises Dante’s original purpose: to serve as a spiritual guide in acknowledging the reality and consequences of sin, and to convince the reader to strive harder for heaven as a result.

Given the focus of the opening verses on the suffering and punishments of hell and its inhabitants, this is a riveting yet disturbing exegesis. As Fr Pearson recognises, hell remains a controversial subject among Christians, with many preferring to view it only as a metaphor of personal anguish. The current cultural perception and understanding of evil contrasts starkly with that of Dante’s original audience, for whom, as another Christian author says, hell was a reality which existed “under their very feet”, a real and potentially imminent threat.

The author’s stated aim is therefore to restore a sense of this danger in the modern reader – to confront the full consequences of sin at their ugliest and most destructive – in order to produce a visceral reaction that goes as deep as our attachment to sin.

Such an instinctive disgust towards sin, he counsels, is essential in avoiding the pitfalls of the Inferno. Pious thoughts about obeying God’s commandments or contemplating the wonders of heaven are “not nearly enough”. After all, as St Philip Neri warned his own disciples, “He who does not go down into hell when he is alive runs a great risk of going there after he is dead.”

Dante’s Divine Comedy begins in a “dark wood”, with the poet unable to escape from three terrible beasts, which allude to the sins with which he most struggled: pride, lust and wrath. The representation of Virgil as a guide to hell is a fitting one, as the Roman poet personifies human reason, which, as the author points out, is exactly what sin destroys.

Dante’s beloved, Beatrice, in contrast, represents divine knowledge. Her ability to enter heaven testifies both to the limits of man’s own understanding compared to that of God and the abundance of grace given to those who accept the divine will.

Both Virgil and Beatrice exemplify the intercessory assistance which is always available from the saints and angels in heaven. As the author challenges us: “If we could live with an abiding sense of their loving concern, how different would our lives feel?”

Entering into the first of nine circles of hell, the reader is introduced to the images of the damned and their various sufferings. Dante, while initially moved by pity at the state of many of these tortured souls, eventually recognises God’s justice at work. However, the author reminds us, these tortures are not to be viewed solely as punishments from God, but rather the natural consequence of obstinately persisting in sin throughout life – consequences to which we, the living, must be alert.

As another Oratorian has remarked, the instruction from a watchmaker to keep a new watch away from water is not to stop the wearer from having fun, but to warn him of the damage caused by getting it wet. In the same way, the pain and turmoil suffered by those now confined to hell are the inevitable results of their sinful actions while they were alive.

While Dante, for his part, has exhibited his fear of sin, he is yet to understand both its nature and be truly repulsed by it. A vital (“and much neglected”) step in his spiritual conversion therefore is the development of a true hatred for sin through recognition of the damage sin causes.

Like Dante’s original Inferno, this first volume of Spiritual Direction ends on a cliffhanger. The poet, renewed in faith, is now determined to make the steep and narrow climb up the tower of purgatory towards heaven. He, like the author, “hopes the reader is ready as well, because this journey is one that every human soul must make. Life, eternal life, depends on it.” A sobering prospect.

While the book is billed as a standalone guide to Dante’s first volume, it would certainly be worth reading alongside a good translation of the Divine Comedy in order to gain the entirety of the poet’s meditative prose. However, the extracts and context provided by Fr Pearson make this book simultaneously entertaining, informative and disturbing.

While it is unquestionably an excellent literary contribution, its analysis of the nature and effects of sin upon the sinner, and its advice in recognising and avoiding sin, make this book an even more valuable spiritual tool.