Dante in Lent: A sermon for the second Sunday of Lent

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I don’t know how you are with the liturgical calendar.  I’m afraid I’m one of those people who feels the joy and purpose of it deeply, but is not terribly good at remembering dates, or connecting the liturgical colours with the particular Sundays. I don’t say this with a shrug – I think the Church’s year is a wonderful invitation to enter into the tempo of God’s time, rather than our own, and it’s something I’m working on getting better at.

All of which brings me to an unfortunate fact for you today.  By sheer coincidence this year, a fortnight before Lent started, I was reading Dante’s Inferno.  The week before Lent started, I was reading Dante’s Purgatorio.  It’s going to be a very cheerful Lent in this church, I can tell you.

The two books I mentioned are part of a Christian epic called The Divine Comedy, by the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri.  In them, the poet has a dream in which he loses his way in a wood,  and – guided by various people – he descends into the depths of hell, in the Inferno, before ascending through Purgatory in the Purgatorio, and eventually being taken up into heaven in the book called the Paradiso.

Along the way he meets people who are enduring the punishments or enjoying the blessings which their lives on earth have caused.  For the modern reader, this causes quite a lot of looking up names in the footnotes, because Dante famously puts real people in hell, purgatory and heaven.  Which particular Ferdinand is this one, I mutter as I flick the pages over.  Which Ghibelline nobleman did he have killed, or was he killed by.  And Dante has a somewhat Italian-centric view of the cosmos.  It comes as no surprise at the depth of hell to find Judas Iscariot in the lowest circle of torment, but next to him is Brutus, the killer of Caesar, because apparently if you’re a medieval Florentine, those were roughly equivalent betrayals.

These poems might seem rather irrelevant and unpleasant today.  They could appear remote from our concerns, and depressing and morbid, far from the Christianity we practice.  Indeed, when I mentioned I was reading them, a friend said they had given him some of the most graphic nightmares of his life.  We might like to think we had moved on from the world of medieval faith.

But I think Dante’s medieval epic has something to say to us today.  Certainly if you read it, as I did, in the version translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, with her notes and commentary.  As you may know, I have a great reverence for this particular detective novelist and lay theologian.  As I mentioned, it was sheer coincidence that I was reading this as Lent arrived, but it has affected how I approach Lent.  In hell, for example, the lost are shown as suffering appallingly.  Some wallow in mud, some are hurting each other, some are buried.

But, famously, in Dante, each punishment “fits” the crime somehow.  Th gluttonous are in a damp, rainy marsh.  The lustful are whirled around restlessly on a wind.  I must admit I didn’t understand the connection here until I read Sayers’ notes.  She pointed out that in the Inferno, these souls have no punishment except the experience of their own sin.  But it is experienced truly, without the illusion and self-deception we practice upon ourselves in this life.

So the people who abandoned themselves to lust, who told themselves it was a vital life force and was being true to their desires, are blown around in a howling gale which strips them of their sense of self, and of their individuality.  The gluttonous, who told themselves they were warm and hearty and everyone’s friend, find themselves out in the cold, wallowing alone, detached from others by their concern for themselves and their appetites.

This struck me as a remarkable insight.  Because it showed me that Dante’s Christian universe isn’t a place of retribution and settling scores.  It was a vision of humans doing what they do, separating themselves from each other, and from God.  Hollowing themselves out, turning themselves inward, harming themselves by the illusions they cling to.  But because of that, it can be a vision of hope.  Because if we protect our sin and our unhappiness by illusion, there is the possibility of seeing clearly at times.

I wondered whether Lent might be that kind of time.  A time when we give up things, not in order to punish ourselves or strive to be better, slimmer, faster, more worthy.  But a time when we try to shed things which bolster our illusions, which keep us from seeing things in the light of God.  The quietness of Lent, the sparseness and silence.  When we leave out some things in our lives, and leave out some things in church.  Like the words we won’t say or sing, like the deeply disconcerting silence as Clint walked back from reading the gospel.  The austere elements of this season, seen through Dante, are not ways of punishing ourselves, or denying ourselves good things because we’re bad, but an attempt to quiet the illusions we have built up around ourselves.  To see things as they really are, despite how we might shrink from that sometimes.

And what then?  In Dante, then our pilgrim climbs up into Purgatory, a sunlit mountain, hard but bright.  And he climbs through those who are purging their sins – the wrathful, the envious, the proud, the lustful.  And, as Sayers’ notes tell me, they are taught to love better.  Again, I didn’t see the connection.  But for Dante, all these human failings, all these sins, are love gone wrong.  Wrath, the love of justice soured into pleasure in revenge and denouncing; lust, the love of another perverted into selfishness and use; envy, the love of good things twisted into a wish that others shouldn’t have them.

This is why the Purgatorio, this medieval vision, struck me as so profound.  It shows the whole of human life as suffused with love – and human failure as a failure of loving rightly.  The sins that those in the Inferno cling to are shown here as potentially virtues.  If only they can learn to participate in love more truly.  When the illusions of the pit are dispersed, what is left?  What do the souls begin to glimpse as they let go of the lies which they cling to?  The great truth of love.

They do not earn their way out, or suffer their way out of purgatory.  They come to understand more and more the unfailing and indestructible love on which reality is founded.  And as they learn, they discover how they have used it, or turned it aside, and they become more able to participate in that love truly and freely.

I think this vision of the world can be seen in our Bible readings today.  Abraham’s relinquishing of so many things – his home, his accustomed ways of life, the respect and place he had in society – in order to set out towards God.  Physically, on that journey, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually, turning himself towards God in that extraordinary act of faith.  Paul grounds his understanding of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection on this idea, the acceptance of God as sufficient.  And at the end of the Gospel, we hear that “God sent not the Son into the world to condemn the world”.

Odd words for Lent, perhaps, a season sometimes stereotyped as miserable and self-flagellating.  Odd words, maybe for the medieval Christian world of Dante, often assumed to be about punishment and retribution.  But in these words – God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world” – we see the principle which works through both of them.  “But that through him the world might be saved”.

At times over the last week, I have tried to use Dante to live out my Lent.  You might try the same thing. I don’t mean that I have considered invading Florence, or got very worked up about Julius Caesar.  I mean I have been trying to use the quiet and sparseness of Lent to have fewer illusions about what I do each day, and why I do it.  Trying to discern what false images of myself and others are keeping me from acting righteously.  What habits am I building to let me keep doing this, what ways of feeling, or looking at others, encourage me in it.

And not to stop there, to rest in pointing it out to myself, or even to build another illusion by allowing in self-reproach.  But then, when I think I see where I have not acted or spoken as I should, to try to see where love has gone astray – to ask myself what seeds of love are here even in my wrongness, and how I can participate better in God’s love, to align myself with his will and let his love work in me and through me to others.  Because it isn’t my efforts which can do this- if I’ve learned anything from Paul and Abraham and Dante today I’ve learned that – but it is the unfailing, unflagging, unsearchable and inescapable love of God which can do it.  God so loved the world.  I must spend all Lent, and more time than that, in trying to understand that.  God so loved the world.  Amen.

This sermon was preached at Beeston parish church, on the 8th of March 2020.