Reading The Divine Comedy as a non-Christian

Though Dante intended his magnum opus as primarily the story of his spiritual reformation and redemption, and presumed most of his readers would be Christians or future converts, you truly don’t have to share that religion to enjoy it. Many of the themes and lessons can be interpreted in alternate ways, just as Krishna famously tells Arjuna there are many different names and faces for God, and paths to her/him, but none are wrong, so long as one has a pure, devout heart and soul.

However, despite Dante treating righteous non-Christians very respectfully, struggling with his era’s teaching that only baptised Christians could attain Paradise, avoiding antisemitic tropes about Hell, and saving a few so-called pagans, there are certain things which are still a challenge to read. This isn’t a reflection on Dante, but rather my own background. Life gives all of us a different frame of reference based on so many things, religion included.

My family background and my own personal religious history are too complicated and private to get into here, but the most pertinent thing to know is that I’ve been living a Jewish life since I was eighteen, after years of longing to reclaim my spiritual birthright. The religions I feel closest to after my own are Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.

Theologically, Judaism is closest to Islam. They were even closer before Prophet Mohammad got pissed off that more Jews weren’t converting, and changed things like how many times a day one should pray (from three to five). Again theologically speaking, Judaism and Christianity are like oil and water. So many important things radically contradict one another; e.g., Jews don’t believe in Original Sin or the divinity of Jesus.

This is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say, interfaith relations weren’t very good until about 1950. At the heart of the antisemitism which culminated in the Shoah was the deicide charge. And while I’m really glad the only Jews depicted in Inferno are Judas and Caiaphas, thus avoiding grotesque stereotypes and slanders, it’s hard to not be bothered by the deicide charge in Paradiso VII. There’s also this tercet in Paradiso V:

“If evil covetousness cries out to you,
be men, and not foolish sheep,
so that the Jew among you does not laugh!”

YIKES!

Intellectually, I can explain and contextualise these statements to take some of the sting off. Dante cannot be divorced from his time and place, no matter how modern and relevant he feels in many ways. He also believed other things we now know to be false, like the Donation of Constantine and Prophet Mohammad originally being a Christian, since there was no widely-available information debunking these claims.

And compared to many other Medieval writings (e.g., the Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, the chilling end of The Song of Roland), this is really tame. Out of 14,233 lines, these comments are a tiny drop in the bucket. Dante also questions why, if Christian doctrine says the Crucifixion was necessary, the Second Temple then had to be destroyed and the Jewish people forced into Diaspora.

But emotionally and personally, it’s really hard to read that, knowing the deicide charge formed the basis of almost 2,000 years of horrific antisemitism in Europe, and that even those few seemingly off-handed comments were part of a much larger picture that really added up.

Judaism and Christianity also radically differ on the subject of the Pharisees, who are mentioned in a negative light in the Commedia. Though all evidence from multiple sources attests to Pharisaic beliefs and practices forming the basis of post-Temple Judaism, and indeed being the very reason we were able to survive the loss of the Second Temple, their reputation in Christianity is far different.

Long story short, each of the four Gospels is successively less Jewish and more Christian in character. As time progressed, the two faiths diverged more and more, and it became obvious there weren’t as many Jewish converts as hoped for. Thus, it was felt necessary to draw strong lines between the two traditions and seek converts from other populations.

Judaism has no concept of Limbo. While there are many conflicting views on the afterlife, who goes where, if very wicked souls stay forever in Hell, whether Gehenna or Sheol is the place for the worst sinners, and what exactly all these places are like, one thing everyone does agree one is that the righteous of all nations have a place in HaOlam HaBa, the World to Come. We don’t believe only our people can attain Paradise.

Dante heavily leans towards this view too, as he struggles all through the poem with the idea that only baptised Christians (plus the righteous people of the Bible) are worthy of Paradise. What about people who live in places like India, where Christianity had no presence, or who lived before Jesus, like his dear Virgil? Indeed, he saves a few so-called pagans (Cato, Trajan, Statius, Ripheus the Trojan), and depicts a few Muslims among the righteous in Limbo.

He also says many people of other faiths, or of no faith, are closer to God than actual baptised Christians.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer to Mary, which opens Paradiso XXXIII, is pure beauty, power, emotion, and devotion. Remembering back to Inferno II, Mary is the one who ultimately set Dante’s journey in motion. And given that Dante lost his mother when he was five or six years old, it’s easy to understand why he felt such devotion to Mary.

Despite not being Christian myself, I’m very moved by the image of Mary as a loving, universal mother figure. Many people who lost their mothers are particularly devoted to her for this very reason.

While specifically Christological beliefs do nothing for me and have no parallels in Judaism, most of the poem is a rich, fertile ground for inspiration. Dante intended his magnum opus as a spiritual guidebook, and despite his own strong Catholic faith, he frequently thinks of other kinds of people. Indeed, the penultimate word is l’altre, the other (in plural form). The Love he believes in, which powers everything in existence, includes a vast rainbow of perspectives and experiences, not just one.

Hell

Warning: Contains some images with artistic nudity.

The Hell depicted in The Divine Comedy is very complex and structured. Each circle contains a certain type of perceived sinners, and the lowest circles have multiple rings, for different manifestations of those sins. Canto III of Inferno famously opens:

Through me is the way to the City of Woe:
Through me the way into the eternal pain;
Through me the way among the lost below.
Righteousness did my maker on high constrain.
Me did divine Authority uprear;
Me supreme Wisdom and primal Love sustain.
Before I was, no things created were
Save the eternal, and I eternal abide.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Outside the gates of Hell are the souls of people who took no sides in life, only caring about themselves and their own interests instead of taking a moral stand, or even supporting evil and coming up with their own reasons for why they took such a stance.

Dante and Virgil then encounter a ferry across the river Acheron, piloted by Charon. Since Dante is a living person, Charon doesn’t want to let him aboard. Virgil forcefully tells Charon he has to let this mortal on the ferry, since Dante is on a Divinely-ordered journey.

This preview of Hell is so horrific, Dante faints and doesn’t come to till he’s crossed Acheron.

Charon’s Boat, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1808

The First Circle, Limbo, is for righteous non-Christians and babies who died unbaptised (which is no longer part of mainstream Catholic doctrine). Here reside all the lights of Antiquity and a few from the Golden Age of Islam—Julius Caesar, Cicero, Sultan Saladin, Plato, Socrates, Ptolemy, Euclid, Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, and many more. Given how many schools no longer teach classical history, the average modern reader will need to read all the explanatory footnotes to know who most of these people are.

The Second Circle is for the lustful, constantly blown around by an eternal windstorm. Dante judges them the least offensive of all sinners, since they didn’t really hurt anyone by their mutually consensual relationships. Their punishment is also the lightest.

Here Dante encounters the famous Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo Malatesta, who were murdered by Francesca’s husband and Paolo’s brother Giovanni when he discovered their affair. Other occupants include Dido, Cleopatra, Achilles, and Helen of Troy.

The Third Circle is for gluttons. Three-headed dog Cerberus guards these souls, who are stuck in freezing muck and mire kept fresh by endless icy, foul rain. To get past Cerberus, Virgil stuffs his mouths with mud.

Dante talks with Ciacco, a glutton who also appears in The Decameron, and has his exile from Florence foretold.

Cerberus, by William Blake

In the Fourth Circle are misers, hoarders, spendthrifts, and the greedy. Plutus, Greek god of wealth, guards this circle. The meaning of his lines at the start of Canto VII, Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!,” has always been uncertain. Many theories have been proposed, but there’s no consensus.

These sinners are punished with huge weights strapped to their chests.

The Fifth Circle is for the wrathful. Actively wrathful souls fight in the slimy River Styx, and passively wrathful souls are beneath the water. Phlegyas (mythological King of the Lapiths) reluctantly agrees to ferry Dante and Virgil across the river. During their journey, the soul of Filippo Argenti arises from the waters, quarrels with Dante, and tries to upturn the boat.

Filippo is set upon by other souls, and the boat continues on to the marsh-encircled City of Dis, the Sixth Circle. The three Furies violently threaten Dante outside the gates until an angel comes to the rescue.

Heretics are in flaming tombs in the Sixth Circle. This is the final region of Upper Hell. As Dante and Virgil descend into Lower Hell, it’s about 4:00 AM on Holy Saturday 1300.

The Seventh Circle contains the violent in three rings, for those who were violent against neighbours, self, and God, Nature, and art. Given the attitudes of the era, these rings unfortunately include suicides and gay men. So-called blasphemers are also here.

A waterfall cascades over a cliff leading down to the Eighth Circle. Dante and Virgil are transported on the back of Geryon, a giant monster with mostly human features.

Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1808

Malebolge (Evil Ditches), the Eighth Circle, contains ten circular trenches for, in order, seducers and panderers, flatterers, simoniacs (i.e., selling Church positions and indulgences), sorcerers, barrators (i.e., corrupt politicians), hypocrites, thieves, counsellors of fraud, sowers of discord (i.e., schismatics), and falsifiers.

Due to a Medieval misunderstanding of history and theology, Prophet Mohammad is included among the schismatics.

The Ninth Circle is for betrayers. Ring One, Caïna, punishes betrayers of kin; Ring Two, Antenora, punishes treason; Ring Three, Ptolomaea, punishes betrayers of guests; and Ring Four, Giudecca, punishes those who betrayed their masters. Giudecca, named for Judas, is eerily silent, as all the souls are trapped in ice.

In the centre of Hell resides Satan, a three-faced monster eternally chewing on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. Dante and Virgil have to climb down his fearsome body to exit Hell.

St. Francis Xavier Church and Xavier High School

In the summer of 1847, English-born Jesuit priest John Larkin was dispatched to create a church and school in New York City. He initially worked in Fordham, the Bronx, but Archbishop John Hughes thought he had what it took to survive that “rough, extraordinary city.”

It took an entire day to travel to downtown Manhattan, and Father Larkin only had fifty cents ($15.77 today).

The next day, Mass was offered for the success of this mission. In attendance was a newly-immigrated French muralist who wanted to thank God for his family’s safe journey. After Mass, he told Father Larkin he’d heard U.S. banks weren’t reliable, and asked how to keep his money safe.

This was no small sum of money, but $5,000 ($157,730.49 today).

Copyright Kwok-Chi Ng

Divine Providence continued shining for Father Larkin. A Protestant church between Bowery and Elizabeth Streets had just gone on sale for $18,000 ($567,829.76 today) after a big schism, and asked $5,000 as a down payment.

Father Larkin promised the good Frenchman security for his money in return for a mortgage on that church, and the church was dedicated in October. Sadly, it burnt to the ground in January, and Father Larkin was asked to return to Fordham.

Despite this tragedy, the congregation rallied behind him to rebuild their church. A surprising source of spiritual fortitude also came from a seemingly chance encounter in The Bowery.

Copyright Scry Photo

Shortly after the fire, a woman selling apples approached him and said, “Well, Father Larkin, so your church is burnt; the Lord be praised!”

Not quite sure what he was hearing, he said, “‘The Lord be praised!’ Are you then glad of it?”

“Oh, God forbid! But then we must give God glory for everything.”

Father Larkin realized she was right, as painful as this situation was, and resolved to take this lesson to heart. The apple seller then lamented being unable to donate any money, since she was a poor widow with five kids, but insisted he take her two finest apples.

And from that moment on, the congregation endeavoured to give God glory for everything, good things as well as bad.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Father Larkin refused to abandon his congregation, and held Mass in borrowed spaces till 1851, when a new church, designed by William Rodrigue, opened on West 16th St., next to the old church. During this time, Father Larkin declined an offer to become Bishop of Toronto.

Tragedy struck again on 8 March 1877. During a women’s mission, a fire erupted in the packed sanctuary, and panic broke out. Six women and one child died, and the church was gutted.

This happened in part because the church had become too small to comfortably accommodate the entire congregation, since so many people from Catholic countries were immigrating in that era. A new building was needed anyway.

Copyright Steven Bornholtz

In May 1878, the cornerstone for a new church was laid immediately to the west, with 5,000 in attendance. Famous architect Patrick Charles Keely designed it in Roman Basilica style, with a bluish-grey Neo-Baroque façade and gabled portico. His frequent collaborators the Morgan Brothers designed the stained-glass windows in Pre-Raphaelite style.

William Lamprecht, the country’s leading ecclesiastical painter of the era, made almost 50 murals. The beautiful marble, in a rainbow of colors, came from Italy; the onyx came from Mexico; Massachusetts provided granite; and New Hampshire gave the cornices and columns.

This new building could hold 2,000. The total cost was $600,000 ($15,216,352.94 today).

Archbishop Michael Corrigan dedicated the completed church on 3 December 1882.

Copyright Americasroof at English Wikipedia

Every Catholic church has a school, and St. Francis Xavier Church has Xavier High School, also founded by Father Larkin. When he founded what was originally called the College of St. Francis Xavier, he only had five cents left ($1.58 today).

At the time, Father Larkin was also a professor at St. John’s College in Rosehill Manor, now Fordham University in the Bronx. His two schools played the first collegiate baseball game in 1859. Fordham won 33-11.

In 1861, after Father Larkin’s death, the high school was chartered by the state.

Copyright Ajay Suresh

The National Guard began military training at Xavier High School in 1886, and membership became mandatory in 1892. In 1897, collegiate and secondary studies were separated into different departments. The former closed in 1912.

In 1935, the student regiment became Junior ROTC, and the school was declared a military institute in 1968. Not till 1971 did participation in ROTC become optional.

I’ve not used either school nor church in my writing to date, but now I’m quite eager to make St. Francis Xavier the church of my Novak family when they move to New York in 1952.

More information:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/27/realestate/a-sidestreet-surprise-a-monumental-church.html

http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/StFrancisXavier.html

http://www.sfxavier.org/

http://www.xavierhs.org/s/81/rd16/start.aspx

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/larkin_john_8E.html

St. Nicholas Park and St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church

St. Nicholas Park was created in the intersection of Harlem, Hamilton Heights, and Manhattanville in 1895. Its borders are 127th St. on the south, 141st St. on the north, St. Nicholas Avenue on the east, and St. Nicholas Terrace on the west.

The park was once the site of the Croton Aqueduct, which was built from 1837–42 and dramatically improved city sanitation and home plumbing. Prior to the aqueduct, there were many epidemics and a high mortality rate caused by tainted water. Wealthy people who lived in private houses were also able to start using bathtubs and sinks with running water, and public bathhouses for the masses came into being.

Less happily, many cellars were flooded due to a sharp decrease in usage of city wells and a subsequent rise in the water table. Sewers were then built on residential streets.

The New Croton Aqueduct, which is still in use, was built from 1885–90.

135th St. New Croton Aqueduct Gatehouse, Copyright Midmodsquad

More land was acquired from 1900–06, and creation of the park began in earnest in 1906. Parks Commissioner and landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. took charge of the design, saying, “[a] dominant note must be followed with a harmonious treatment, a high hill made higher, a rugged slope more rugged, a deep valley made deeper, thus invariably following nature’s lead.”

In 1909, the park expanded downward to 128th St. This new area included The Point of Rocks, where General Washington stood during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. The expansion increased the park’s size to 23 acres.

A playground was added in 1931, within which was a garden where farm produce was grown for educational purposes.

Since 2008, Hamilton Grange, the 1802 home of Alexander Hamilton, was moved 500 feet into the park. Prior, it stood on Convent Avenue on the north, facing 141st St. Its current location is within the borders of Hamilton’s original 32-acre estate.

Much of the City College campus is just across St. Nicholas Terrace to the west. Three churches also border the park—St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, St. James Presbyterian Church, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.

Hamilton Grange, Copyright Ajay Suresh

My character Nestor Ugolnikov, a former Marine who lost his leg at Iwo Jima, is walking through the park with two bags of groceries on the eve of Orthodox Easter 1949 when he has a tumble in a patch of mud. His prosthesis, which he forgot to fasten tightly enough, falls off and is soon stolen by three mean little boys. Even worse, it begins raining.

His future wife Yustina Yeltsina-Baronova comes to his rescue by rebagging his groceries and getting a cop to search for the leg and give him a ride home. That December, they break up in St. Nicholas Park, but are soon back together and engaged, when Nestor finally realizes Yustina loves him just as he is and doesn’t care he’s missing a leg.

More information:

http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/st-nicholas-park/history

http://stnicholasparknyc.org/

Copyright Beyond My Ken

St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church was built in 1859 on 266 Mulberry St. in Gingerbread Gothic style. It began life as the Chancery Office Building of the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and was designed by James Renwick, Jr. and William Rodrigue, who also designed the new St. Patrick’s.

In 1936, the building took on a new life as a Russian Catholic church under the leadership of Father Andrew Rogosh, who arrived in New York on Christmas Day 1935 in the hopes of establishing an émigré apostolate. New York was one of the largest White Russian enclaves.

Though the disgustingly-named “Emergency Immigration Act” of 1921 and its follow-up, even more ridiculously xenophobia quota of 1924 made it nearly impossible for people from Eastern Europe to come to the U.S., there were some lucky people allowed to immigrate despite the strict, fear-fueled red tape.

Father Rogosh provided spiritual guidance and comfort to these new immigrants who’d been driven from their homeland by the Russian Revolution, Civil War, and Stalin’s goons. He often travelled to DP camps in Europe as part of his ministry.

Over the years, many people of all faiths and ethnicities came to St. Michael’s to hear the beautiful Russian-style Byzantine Rite service.

Sadly, gentrifiers drove up the property values, and the community had to relocate to St. Catherine of Siena on East 68th St. in 2019.

My character Varya Koneva visits the church after work in May 1952 and speaks with Father Rogosh about her spiritual dilemma re: a looming interfaith marriage. She’s engaged to a Polish Catholic (from the family who saved her niece Darya’s life during the war), and they have to choose a church for their wedding. Varya isn’t particularly attached to Orthodoxy, but doesn’t want to be excommunicated for marrying in a Catholic church.

Father Rogosh says there are few significant differences between Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism, and encourages her to try out St. Michael’s as her new spiritual home.

More information:

http://www.saintmichaels.nyc/

http://sthughofcluny.org/2019/02/the-last-liturgy-at-st-michaels.html

http://66.39.99.22/history.php

http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/the_russians_are_here

http://www.nytimes.com/1964/03/15/archives/byzantine-mass-sung-at-st-patricks.html

The Bowery Mission

Copyright Beyond My Ken

The Bowery Mission, at 227 Bowery St., was founded 7 November 1879 by Rev. Albert Gleason Ruliffson and his wife Ellen, strong proponents of the Social Gospel movement. Theirs was the third rescue mission in the U.S., and the second in NYC.

The mission originally held services in a small room at 14 Bowery, and in 1880 moved to 36 Bowery In 1887, they moved to 105 Bowery. Sadly, this third location was destroyed by fire in 1898, and they moved to 55 Bowery (formerly Gombossy’s Music Hall). Eleven people perished in the fire.

Moving was necessitated a fourth time when it got in the way of approaches to the Manhattan Bridge. Instead of constructing the bridge elsewhere, the city demolished the mission and many other buildings (shades of the evil Robert Moses’s machinations in a later generation).

There have been no moves since the mission moved to 227 Bowery (which was once an undertaker’s business) in 1909. This final move was marked by a visit and speech from Pres. William Howard Taft.

Since 1980, they’ve also owned the building next door at 229 Bowery.

The mission added a summer camp in Nyack in 1894, using ample leftover money from a food drive. The children who arrived at Rev. Lawrence Jewett’s estate in horse-drawn carriages on 14 June were from families helped by said food drive, many new immigrants and very poor.

Initially, the estate was rented for $1 a month, but after Rev. Jewett’s passing a few years later, Christian Herald owner Dr. Louis Klopsch bought the property.

Dr. Klopsch also bought The Bowery Mission in 1895, to relieve severe financial distress which arose in the wake of its superintendent’s death.

Under the leadership of British-born John Greener Hallimond, the mission added services including a breadline, a women’s home in Brooklyn, and an employment agency.

This mission was created in The Bowery at that time in response to the very pressing need to help an increasing amount of impoverished people. Prior to the Upper East Side becoming the location of choice for blue-blood Manhattanites with lots of money, The Bowery was quite the fashionable, moneyed neighborhood.

All that changed by the Civil War, though. Gone were the stately mansions and upscale shops. In their place arose seedy beer gardens, burlesque theatres, brothels, dancehalls, flophouses, pawnshops, dive bars, saloons, and concert halls.

Even the remaining “normal” businesses, like clothing shops and diners, were cheap and run-down, for the poorest of the poor. There were also a plethora of violent gangs, pimps, and drunks roaming the streets. By the 1940s, The Bowery was the city’s Skid Row.

In contrast to many other churches, The Bowery Mission’s second-floor chapel’s stained glass window inscriptions are designed to be read by people outside, not inside, since people not already in church need reaching out to most.

From those early days, the mission has provided thousands of free breakfasts every day, yearly holiday meals, daily weekday worship services, five Sunday services, employment and education counselling, a place to sleep for the down and out, medical care, and help for people trying to quit drugs and alcohol. They also continue to operate summer camps.

For 140 years, countless people have turned their lives around thanks to these dedicated services. When many others considered them past redemption, The Bowery Mission treated them like beautiful human beings who just need some extra help.

The mission appears many times in my contemporary historical Bildungsroman Little Ragdoll, which is set from 1959–74. Protagonist Adicia Troy eats Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter meals at the mission every year with her four closest sisters and their exploited live-in nanny Sarah when they live in the Lower East Side.

Adicia’s parents and oldest brother Carlos are too proud to accept charity, and her upwardly mobile oldest sister Gemma always eats holiday meals with her bourgeois friends in the gentrified northern part of the neighborhood (which later rebranded itself the so-called East Village).

After the Troys’ tenement burns down in June 1962, Adicia goes to the mission at night with her little sister Justine and Gemma’s baby Giovanni, whom she left behind for adoption after escaping her unwanted, abusive marriage. They spend a wonderful night there and sleep in a real bed for the first time. Adicia’s one decent brother Allen also gets job counselling and a loan of $300.

More information:

http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2019/11/the-bowery-mission-in-new-yorks-once-gritty-neighborhood.html

http://www.boweryalliance.org/did-you-know-this-about-the-bowery/

http://www.bowery.org/

http://www.thevillager.com/2019/11/new-book-on-bowery-mission-explores-its-history-through-a-personal-lens/

http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2011/12/bowery-mission-no-227-bowery.html

Bowery Mission: Grit and Grace on Manhattan’s Oldest Street, Jason Storbakken, Plough Publishing House, Walden, NY, 2019.