Strangely enough, Dante loved the church's teaching--his Divine Comedy follows just about everything he'd learned; but the church itself, in the Comedy, is a wretched den of thieves. Seems odd. The path he himself takes to salvation--his epic poem is something of a memoir--is the very same path the church laid out as the road to redemption.
But priests and friars?--by Dante's measure, they were philanderers, cheats and crooks. That his Divine Comedy was not blacklisted when finally it appeared in 1472 (once the printing press was rolling) can only be attributed to the likelihood that his distaste for corrupt clergy was not a minority view. Most everyone must have agreed.
Dante had been banished from his beloved Florence, but not for heresy--for politics. He'd sided with the losers a steamy power grab, lost his station, and ended up dying far away from the city of his birth, the city he so greatly loved. That today his statue is in Florence is a blessing he would have treasured--and still may.
There's confidence in his face, don't you think? But then, Dante was not just some obscure Tuscan scribbler. People knew him, knew his work; and when he died, this face might well have made the cover of Time.
He considered himself a channel of God almighty, was greatly confident that in the process of writing the Divine Comedy, he'd been in touch with the voice of God, a "sacred poem," he calls his work. He may not have thought of what he wrote as scripture, but there seems little doubt of his conviction that God had pushed that quill along the parchment when he described in poetic detail the path to Glory.
What he tried to do, what he wanted to do, and what he did is to explain almost everything known in the late Middle Ages. It's all there on the path to heavenly glory: the horror of Hell, the irresolution of Purgatory, the sublimity of Heaven. Dante himself is both narrator and protagonist. The Divine Comedy is his and, as he would have it, ours as well.
In his book Dante: A Brief History, Peter S. Hawkins claims that, at the end of the Comedy Dante can't help but mention his very personal longing to return to Florence:
If it should happen. . .If this sacred poem--
this work so shared by heaven and by earth
that it has made me lean through these long years --
can ever overcome the cruelty
that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,
a lamb opposed to wolves on it,
by then with other voice, with other fleece
I shall return as poet and put on,
at my baptismal font, the laurel crown;
for there I first found entry to that faith
which makes souls welcome unto God, . . .
Little more than a week ago, for two nights I slept right there, across one of Florence's own cavernous streets from Dante's little church, and, presumably, that very font where he was baptized as a child, the spot he locates as his entry to the faith that propelled his pilgrimage through the afterlife.
It doesn't look the same exactly. He was born in a house, a little one, something of a hovel. Today, four and five story buildings stand all around, as they have for centuries.
But the church is still right there where it was a thousand years ago.
It was a joy to think that somewhere near that very spot, that Algihieri boy ("you know--the one who became the poet"), that little boy began to learn what he needed to know to write that long, long poem about life and death and all of what comes after.
I'd like to think he still haunts the place, smiling, very much at home. For two days and three nights, I slept less than a stone's throw from where he was born, just across the street from his church where he was baptized.
You shouldn't consider all of fuss to be worship, but if you want to think of me right there, you certainly may imagine me in the silence of sheer awe.