Fr. Chase Pepper writes about sharing Dante’s Inferno with a group of prisoners:
I always thought that the first circle of Hell was the most boring of the nine…
…until I read the fourth canto of the Inferno out loud with the inmates of the State Correctional Institute in Dallas, PA.
The Comedy is poetry written out of an experience of exile. Maybe it can be understood in a uniquely insightful way by people who also know something of exile, or as Dante says, who “knows how salt is the taste of another man’s bread” (Paradiso 17.58-9). With the launching of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, then, I thought, “Let’s see what these men can do with this poem, and let’s see what this poem can do with these men.”
…Dante doesn’t just encounter the souls of the damned and the saved along his journey. He encounters his readers, too. He finds us (or helps us “awake to ourselves” [cf. Inferno 1.2]) in whatever “woods” or “ditches” we might have gotten ourselves into, and he offers us a way out. He offers a way up, by following in his footsteps. As Denys Turner writes in his book Julian of Norwich, Theologian the souls of the Inferno are stuck there without hope because they insist on telling their stories their own way (emphasis added). To allow another to make “our” story part of the larger story of God’s providence and mercy (as Virgil does with Dante in Inferno 2 and as Dante can do with us), though, is to let go of the weight that drags us down among the blind and to discover the path that leads to our truest and most authentic happiness. Dante breaks the first law of hell by entering not with abandoned hope but with abandoned fear, which means that hope enters into every abandoned corner of human experience and finds a way through.
That’s the trick of reading Dante with a group of men in prison… To take a person’s story and to frame it in terms of “the love that moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso 33.145). To allow our own stories to be taken up into the just-mercy that governs the universe. To smile and to rest in the awareness that happy endings are not just for fairy tales. Happy endings makes the story true.