Dante, The Exile Who Leads Us Home
Only the exile can create a home where he cannot live, but where his people may find peace. Moses is the model: separated at birth from his people, raised an Egyptian, cast out to the desert, returns to lead the Children of Israel to a promised land he cannot himself enter. By God’s good grace, Moses created a people, but the father cannot be the children.
Good parents often make a better world for their children.
Florence honored Dante when he was dead, but his bones are in another city. He was too Italian to cater to city politics and too Florentine to forget his city. He was a man for a better time in a bad time. One way to read Dante (and there are many ways) is an exile defeated in politics, philosophy, and piety. There was no Emperor to unite Italy. The Papacy was weak and corrupt. Philosophers were interested in petty arguments and priests wanted profit much more than prophets.
Dante was no saint, but he wanted truth and not lies, so he managed to offend every party. He wrote in Italian, because he loved his nation, but his great work focused on the people of his city. Dante was a Christian and that meant that he was never quite at home anywhere in this life. Christians have, after all, a heavenly city–even sublime, glowingly beautiful Florence cannot be heaven.
And Dante was stuck in exile from Florence in lesser cities. He used the gap to fuse together in words everything that was flying apart. Italy had no unity, but he gave her a common tongue. Florence and her unique beauty was threatened by invaders from outside, but he immortalized her by painting a picture of her life in words so immortal that nobody could destroy the icon of Florence. Dante took the best science and fused it with the ideas of Christian mystics and philosophers. There was room in his writing for Bernard and Thomas Aquinas.
Politics were a mess so he damned the losers and held up the better examples like Saint Constantine. He could not save the politics of his day, so he showed them a better way. This image haunted Europe, pulled her back from many a brink. A man could look at Napoleon, read his Dante, and know the French Emperor was an antichrist.
Most of all Dante helped create a nation of Italy, even if he could never live in it. He left a heritage of holistic education that formed the modern university. Finally, Dante reminded us that this world is good, as far it goes, but it is not the ultimate. We love this land well, but not as the final resting place for our bones. We are exiles until the New Heaven and the New Earth.
Never take Dante for granted, because however bad things may have been in his day, he called out the worst offenders. He rebuked Popes and prelates and restrained their evil until this day. Sadly, we know what happens when the exiles do not come home with a divine comedy, but instead bring politics and a lust for power.
I once read that in the dying days of Old Russia a poet was walking home in the snow. All about him a revolution was destroying beauty, but he was cold and he just wanted to get home. As he trudged forward against the wind, a girl spoke to him: “Sir, can you help me? I am lost.” He stopped and asked her where she lived, but she did not know. He worried about her and turned to look for someone who might know who she was. When he turned back, she was gone. He walked the rest of the way home worried about the girl. He told his flatmate and he looked back at him stricken: “You should have brought her home. She was Russia.”
Perhaps this was so. We know this much: in 1917 the poets failed Russia worse than the politicians or the priests. There was no Dante to stitch together the past, science, the language, and the church. There were only speeches, rants, and young ideologues in a hurry to bring on Paradise. The exile from home–who returned in a sealed train, shipped like secret weapon by Russia’s enemy–was Lenin. The exile had a vision, but it was evil, ugly, and false. He sold them a vision of Heaven on earth and the result was an inferno that left tens of millions murdered.
May this God-blessed Republic do better in this confused time. May he send us exiles, people who do not quite fit into this age, to show us a better age to come. God send us leaders like Moses, poets like Dante, and deliver us from Utopian schemers like Lenin.
Send us prophets who show us a love that moves the heavens and the furthest stars.