In February of my senior year in high school, in English class, our teacher Theo Van Winkle gave us an assignment. Form into small groups, choose a great literary work, read it, and prepare a creative presentation for the class. My friends, Ken Tekell, Mac Greer, Paul Luther, Corey Guest, Dan Orfield, and I, having assembled, decided to make an epic movie of Dante Alghieri’s epic poem The Inferno.
Dante’s Inferno, as you probably know, is the first section of a three-part, 14th-century Italian masterpiece called The Divine Comedy in which Dante imagines a riveting journey through Hell, guided along by the Greek poet Virgil. The second part of the epic poem relates Dante’s trip through Purgatory in what’s called Purgatorio. Then, in the third section of the poem, entitled Paradiso, Dante finally reaches Heaven.
The Inferno, the part we were putting to film, depicts the underworld as a steep descent through nine circles, nine realms of torment and torture—each populated by historic figures who had yielded to their sinful natures and now reside there eternally unrepentant, separated from God.
Dante’s first circle is a kind of limbo, home to virtuous pagans like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. The second circle is home to the lustful—souls forever buffeted by tornado-like gusts, blown about by the winds of their desires as they were in their earthly lives. The third circle is for the gluttons, doomed forever to trudge through slushy sleet and icy rain. The fourth circle is for the greedy, condemned to fight endlessly over the valuables they most revered during their earthly lives. The fifth circle’s residents are the wrathful, where their angry souls battle eternally against the raging tide of the River Styx. In the sixth circle, the heretics are entombed in flaming crypts. The seventh circle is for the violent, mired forever in plains of burning sand. The penultimate eighth circle is subdivided into ten fetid trenches for the fraudulent, with the ninth and last circle being the place where we find the betrayers, Judas Iscariot and the assassins of Caesar, marooned for all time in a frozen lake with Satan himself.
As you might imagine, putting all this on film was an ambitious undertaking to say the least. I borrowed my dad’s Kodak movie camera, and we began to storyboard the film out—all nine circles. We then recruited classmates, mostly girls we had crushes on, to round out the cast, before scouting film locations along Buffalo Bayou. We made costumes, rehearsed scenes, and just a few weeks later, over-budget and with a running time of well over an hour, our movie was completed. Strangely, despite the magnificent cinematography, the low-budget yet innovative special effects, the harrowing stunts, and a number of surprisingly decent dramatic performances, the Oscars snubbed us that year. We did, however, all receive As from Mrs. Van Winkle.
And apart from discovering how cold Buffalo Bayou is in February, how to navigate the intricacies of the Hedwig Village fire code, and figuring out how to splice rolls and rolls of Super 8 film, what really stuck with me from more of an educational standpoint was that Dante called his full poem The Divine Comedy. The word “comedy” back then didn’t mean laughter-inducing but rather that the story would have a happy ending. That is, while The Inferno imagines a terrifying journey through the depths of Hell, it’s just a single section of a larger work which tells the story of how a human soul like Dante’s, like ours, might eventually reach the joys and glory of Heaven.
Maybe the most momentous question we take on during our days on earth is whether life is, in the end, a tragedy in which we sporadically experience moments of joy, or whether life is a comedy—a story, though peppered with moments and even seasons of tragedy, that ends happily.
The Lenten journey we’re about to embark upon over the next six weeks represents God’s answer to this big question. On Ash Wednesday, just as Dante urged us to do in The Inferno, we’ll consider our mortality and sin. Then just as Dante did in the second section of his poem, we’ll walk a kind of purgatorial wilderness together, but one which will eventually lead to glory and to Easter Sunday, when we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, the vanquishing of sin and the defeat of death for all time.
God is telling us that although our lives are marked inevitably by trial and tragedy, in the end, they are not tragic things, but divine. A divine comedy of epic proportions.
God—In this Lenten season, just as Dante wrote, may we rise repentant, return to a shining world, and thence come forth, to rebehold the stars. Amen.