I read Rod Dreher’s blog regularly. He’s an Orthodox Christian and, consequently, conservative on issues of morality, but more liberal on economic issues. I rarely disagree with him and I frequently find myself applauding him for saying things that are not at all popular – especially in the circles people like him (writers and journalists) move in – and yet are true and urgent.
I read his book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and found it fascinating and encouraging. Donald Miller says that everyone has a story and it is not the story they’re telling. Well, in How Dante, I think Rod gets pretty close to telling his real story. Close enough to make the read worthwhile. One of the neat aspects of that book is that it dramatizes the power of literature to affect life. In Jane Austen’s novels it’s common for one character to say of another that they would profit from “more varied society,” by which they mean more exposure to the higher classes – the educated and refined. I think that’s right in many cases, although that opinion, in and of itself, is also not a popular one in this day and age. The same thing is true, I think, of good literature: we may actually be improved – our lives deepened and widened – through exposure to great written works.
Dreher says, more or less, that Dante’s great poem, the Divine Comedy or the Commedia, in effect, and with the help of a both a pastoral and a secular counselor (who happened to be a Baptist) saved him – drew him out of – a debilitating depression. Ahem. Let’s hear it for literature and “more varied society.”
Of course, throughout the book Dreher continues to recommend that his readers go themselves directly to the source and read the poem. I am thus reminded of another one of my literary mentors, C. S. Lewis, who complained that the undergraduates he taught read about Plato and Aristotle – read what others had to say about them – but never actually read the great masters themselves.
And so I found a translation and downloaded it and began to read. Along the way I looked for works that might aid me in understanding as I read the poem. I found a book by Giuseppe Mazzotta: Reading Dante. Mazzotta is a professor at Yale and an expert on Dante’s life and works. I soon came to understand that The Divine Comedy is a bit like Don McClean’s famous song, “American Pie.” That is, if you are going to understand the work at all, then you must understand much of what came before and what was more or less in the wind at the time the work was written. To understand American Pie, you have to know the history and culture of rock and roll. To understand Dante, you have to know the classics, mythology, the Bible, and the history of the Christian Church. I do know the Bible pretty well, but the other stuff – well, I’d be lost without Mazzotta’s explanations
All of that just to explain to you how I got to where I am. I am not the sort of guy who reads academic works by Yale professors, day in and day out, just for kicks or to be able to impress the girls.
A few days ago Jenny and I were taking care of a family errand and I was in the back seat of our car, reading Mazzotta. He was expounding on scenes in The Paradisio (the third book of the poem, where the pilgrim enters heaven) and commenting on a conversation there between two early Saints – Francis and Dominic. It was my first exposure to the thought and work or either man (isn’t that typical of an Evangelical Protestant?). I came across this passage:
Both Francis and Dominic were called the “clowns of the Lord,” ioculatores domini in Latin, for a reason. They bring a perspective of play to the world. They make fun of the world. They challenge the values of the world, and in this sense they arrive at the most impressive aspect of their theology, ultimately a playful one: the notion that God plays, that creation itself is a spectacle.
Mazzotta goes on to talk about how the two saints looked at language, how they considered:
. . . the imponderable quality of language, the ambiguities of language, the force of language, and the power of language
But for Dominic, says Mazzotta, “language is at the forefront, and language is play.”
I will tell you that I read Mazzotta’s book as a rank outsider. I often go page after page without getting what he’s driving at. There are sentences, even paragraphs, that I can read seventeen times and still not have a clue about. But these snippets I just quoted made the whole investment – time and money – in this book worthwhile. You see, I know a guy just like this!
You may know him, too. He grew up in this church. We graduated from high school together, worked summers together in New Mexico during our college years and attended law school together. I am blessed with a few close and lifelong friendships, none of them closer or longer lived than my friendship with Stevie McClure.
Stevie was, and is, in many ways, a regular guy in the best sense of the term. He played football and caught for the high-school baseball team. Loved the outdoors. Would stand up to a bully. Drove a Chevy. Heck, he probably even drove it to the levy every now and then. But beneath it all there was something different, something unique about him. He loved languages. Took the hard courses in high school and continued in college and was always fascinated by language. He loved plays on words, loved the ambiguities in language and laughed and even rejoiced in the sometimes ridiculous results such ambiguities might produce. He always had a pun or funny twist of words to inject into any conversation.
He was and is one of the most serious, devout Christians I have ever met. But in the middle of his devotion, always, is this joyful, disarming, humble playfulness. It is not frivolity. It is born, I am sure, of the same kind of depth and understanding that marked the lives of these two Saints – Dominic and Francis.