The two greatest Christian poets in Western Civilization were disillusioned politicians. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and John Milton (1608-1674) gave the prime of their lives to the political causes of their days but ended up on the losing side. For Dante, this meant permanent exile from his homeland under threat of being burned at the stake should he return. For Milton, it almost meant the loss of his head, but because he had become blind by the time of the trial, it was concluded that God had already struck him with sufficient punishment. One wonders how Milton could say “Thanks” to such a verdict. But let us be grateful that rejection freed up the busy schedules of these two bright minds to whisper words into the ears of future generations.
Both had a vision for a better society than the ones they lived in. Both pushed all their chips to the center of the table to make those visions happen. Both paid dearly for their gamble: they were branded as public enemies the rest of their lives.
So what do you do when your vision for a better society fails? What do you do when you receive the hot branding iron of persona non grata? Worse yet, what do you do when you had faith that your lost cause was a godly one?
You loved your country, but now you are called a hater. You made alliances that turned on you. You bet the farm and ended up with straw.
Dante and Milton responded to this in a way we can learn from.
They poured their sorrows into their faith
until they were comforted
by God’s faithfulness
They turned to the original narrative of the scriptures and indeed the whole history of mankind, seeing the story of God and people as if it were a keel of a great ship with their own story being merely a rib dependent on and stemming out from that keel.
“Let me re-trace the original tale God wrote me into,” each said. “Let me pour my sorrows into it. If I explore the whole story, I will see where my own story fits, and I will not only be comforted, but strengthened in faith that You, O God, are working my own story together for good.”
Dante, a devoted Catholic, rehearsed it in the form of a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven (The Divine Comedy). Milton, a devoted Protestant, rehearsed the whole narrative of Genesis through Revelation by asking the “heavenly muse” of the Holy Spirit to recount it to him (Paradise Lost; he paired this with another work called Paradise Regained).
To this day the depth of these poems, fashioned in the corollary depth of the poets’ disappointments, provide a waterfall of comfort and courage to any reader who humbly ponders their verses long enough to discover the streams that flow among the rocky crags of the words .
Dante and Milton were drawing from the ancient practice of the Hebrew prophets, a poetical exercise epitomized in Habbakuk’s lament over the invasion of Israel and Jeremiah’s lament over Jerusalem’s fall. Here, where each worst-case scenario becomes the prophet’s reality, there remains faith — but only after having re-traced their steps through all they are going through and all God has “gone through” to remain true to an untrue people. Habakkuk writes:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail, and
the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold,
and there be no herd in the stalls,
I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
~ Hab 3:17-19 (ESV)
And Jeremiah writes words that could very well be our own at times:
My soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the LORD.”
Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it and
is bowed down within me.
Yet this I call to mind, and
therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
~ Lamentations 3:17-22 (ESV, paraphrase)
The prophets, like Dante and Milton long after them, poured out their hearts until:
the “yet” of faith
in God’s faithfulness
framing all human failure
So take heart when the worst-case scenario becomes your reality. You have stumbled upon an ancient tradition. You have come out of the tangled woods and discovered a long sandy road where the footprints of Dante, Milton, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and a host of others have walked.
And here is the epiphany: if you linger over the footprints long enough — those men and women who had nothing left but the “yet” of faith — you will see the footprints of Another who has walked with them. Another whose footprints are accompanied by the furrow of the cross He carried, absorbing their grief. Yes, those footprints and their furrow turn out to be of the one constant Traveler who has walked with every pilgrim in every age.
Even you, even now, in your very own “yet.”
N.B. For Dante, the Esolen translation is best. For Milton, the David Kastan edition is the best. We are so far removed from both of these poets that sometimes the reading can be quite difficult. Both of the editions I’ve suggested provide plenty of footnotes and endnotes to make the journey a well-equipped one.Tagged as: culture, dante, faith, government, milton