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Final Exams, or A Few Things I Learned from Dante

It’s exam week here at Calvin College, and I’ve spent the day reading the final exams from my “Literature in a Global Context” course—a sophomore-level “core” class for non-majors. My class centered on the theme of “Journey, Testimony, Afterlife,” and we spent the semester together reading works from the classical and medieval world that examined the journeys we take and the way we talk about them, particularly those that ask us to come face to face with our own mortality in their imaginings of an “underworld.” That means we read big works such as Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Augustine’s Confessions. And since spring break, the entire Divine Comedy by Dante. Yup, the whole thing—nearly 600 pages. All 100 cantos.

It’s pretty unusual to teach the entire Commedia: most people only do the first canticle, Inferno, and even then, often not the whole thing. There are certainly a lot of memorable (read: engaging and teachable) parts in Inferno, and it’s a time issue, too, I realize. But of course, we give time to whatever we think is important in classes—and in life. The longer I teach, the more convinced I am that students are ill-served by only reading bits and bobs of texts. The “if it’s Tuesday it must be Homer” anthology approach. By contrast, important disciplines emerge from working through a long text together over time. College seems the right time to go deeply into a subject, rather than just skimming the surface. In a world where, as T.S. Eliot says, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction,” how refreshing to spend weeks focusing on one rich text. Call it the “slow text” method.

More than that, only reading Inferno means only telling 1/3 of Dante’s incredible story of Christian redemption. It makes sin the only word, and punishment the most interesting narrative element. But Dante’s story is one of God’s love bringing the pilgrim to a fuller vision of God and of the pilgrim himself. It’s about how we all wander off the path and into the dark wood, but more importantly about how God is continually seeking us out and restoring us. It’s about reforming not just the individual, but the Church itself.

So that final exam? Lots of material to cover—and cover it they did. But literature matters most when it speaks into our lives. I wanted students to have some place on the exam to reflect on the ways the Divine Comedy had connected with them, so the final question was this:

“What are 3 spiritual takeaways for you from reading the Divine Comedy?”

 I thought I might answer my own question with three of mine:

1.  Don’t be afraid.

Dante the Pilgrim is characterized throughout much of the poem by fear. He swoons, he hesitates, he is constantly looking to his guides (whether Virgil or Beatrice). But in Canto II of Inferno—in other words, at almost the poem’s very beginning—he is told the story of how Virgil was sent to rescue him from the dark wood where he, the Pilgrim, has gone astray. Turns out that Beatrice has left heaven to fetch Virgil to accompany him on the first part of his journey. Dante marvels the she “dared” to make the trip—how was she not afraid to travel through hell? Her reply:

I shall explain in simple words, she said,

just why I have no fear of coming here.

A man must stand in fear of just those things

that truly have the power to do us harm,

of nothing else, for nothing else is fearsome.

 In other words, Beatrice understands that the redeemed person can be bold because hell has no authority. Anxiety needn’t control us. And in the same way that, for Dante, sin is a reordering of love, so spiritual bravery comes as a result of reordered fear, rightly understood.

2.  Love in abundance.

As Dante moves through Purgatory, he asks many questions about how we can be made right with God. At one point, he muses about how the sufficiency of God’s love—how can there really be enough for all? In reply, Virgil provides a stunning image:

That infinite, ineffable true Good

that dwells in Heaven speeds instantly to love,

as light rays to a shining surface would;

just as much ardor as it finds, it gives:

the greater the proportion of our love,

the more eternal goodness we receive;

the more souls there above who are in love

the more there are worth loving; love grows more,

each soul a mirror mutually mirroring.

God’s love, then, is a great light—and all who love God are mirrors. As God’s light shines on us, that light bounces off our mirrors and amplifies God’s love. And in loving each other—in bouncing God’s light off our mirror into someone else’s—we help to increase the light overall.   What I love here, especially, is the idea that by reflecting God’s light, we help in God’s work of illuminating the darkness. We keep holding up our mirrors to each other to show not ourselves, but the light of God. In so doing, everything is brighter and clearer and lovelier.

3.  God’s got this.

Interestingly, in Paradise Dante wrestles with some of his most difficult theological questions. Indeed, the closer he gets to God, the more he engages with the mysteries of the faith: predestination, election, justice. (There’s a clear lesson in that, I think). In Dante’s systematically arranged universe, Paradise, too, has divisions (though Beatrice tries to explain that these are more metaphorical than anything). These levels of heaven bother Dante the Pilgrim profoundly—so much so that he asks Piccarda, a nun who broke her vows, if she isn’t a little resentful at not being in a different part of Paradise:

But tell me: all you souls so happy here,

do you yearn for a higher post in Heaven,

to see more, to become more loved by Him?

She gently smiled, as did the other shades;

then came her words so full of happiness,

she seemed to glow with the first fire of love:

Brother, the virtue of our heavenly love,

tempers our will and makes us want no more

than what we have—we thirst for this alone.

If we desired to be higher up,

then our desires would not be in accord

with His will Who assigns us to this sphere;

….in His will is our peace.

 “In his will is our peace.” What a profound statement of contentment. Piccarda knows that God’s love doesn’t depend on our location. There is no place where God isn’t. But even more than that, she rests in the knowledge that she has been put in the exact right place for her in God’s well-ordered world.

No wonder she smiles.








Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


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