In the weeks since the election I have been engaged in two activities—reading about Donald Trump’s appointments and studying Dante’s Divine Comedy for a class I am teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary in February. Surprisingly reading Dante has enabled me to keep a creeping despair a safe distance away as I read the political news. When I look at some of President Elect Trump’s appointments, I feel as if I am in that dark wood Dante confronted and, like him, the straight way seems lost. While I won’t say that the next four years look like hell, I will say that Dante offers me some much-needed advice for this time.
So just a short Dante refresher. Because of political warfare and upheaval in his day, Dante was exiled from Florence, his birth city, when he was 37 and never returned. His imagined future was taken away. He had to make a home in exile and find a way not merely to rail against his political enemies, nor to define himself by his past, but to find a way to move from hell to heaven by write a poem that became a map for all men and women who feel lost to find the way once more.
What I remembered in my study, is that to move from darkness to light requires a larger vision. You can’t build anything lasting from negativity. Dante’s love for Beatrice and her love for him pull him through his journey from hell through purgatory into heaven. It’s not enough to fight against what we dislike because the negative energy will overcome and mislead us. We must remember what it is we stand for and move towards it regardless of what is around us—even when it feels like hell. As William Sloan Coffin said, “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” What is it we love and how can we move towards it? What is the truth that is worth our life? Let’s remember that the Israelites in Babylon had to learn to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land because the song led them home.
It’s the light and not the dark that will guide us. The secret of moving up the holy mountain of Purgatory is not by fighting our enemies but by shedding the sins that bind us. Thus, when the pilgrims come around a circle leading upward, an angel takes a sin off their foreheads and they float up the next level because they are lighter. That’s a vision worth holding onto for these four years. What if by walking together and shedding what binds us, we found a path to become lighter instead of angrier or deeper in despair? What if we remembered what is right and then took the steps we can take in that direction? Because it’s not an either/or world. It’s a world that gets lost and forgets how to get found.
Let’s remember the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
During this Advent, let us discard our desire to map the world of good and evil and instead change our gaze to look to the stars and then walk towards that distant light undaunted by the detours or obstacles in our way—even if we feel as if we are in exile. For we are looking for the birth of the one who will bring salvation and hope and God’s reign for all people. He is our hope and our faith—his love will pull us from a dark wood into heaven.