Dante's InfernoBy Ernest Rubinstein, Ph.D., Theological Librarian

I have in common with the medieval poet, Dante Alighieri, that I spent a span of three days in Hell. To be sure, I speak allegorically. During January Term 2011, I was one of three discussion leaders, or mentors, in the Theo School class, “Ministry and the Imagination,” taught by professors Heather Elkins, Lynne Westfield, and Charlie Behm.

The theme of the class borrowed from a line of the Apostles’ Creed, “And he descended into Hell,” which focused the lectures, discussions, projects, viewings, and enactments in which we all participated.

The class, which met for three days at a retreat center run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace, explored a family of interrelated ideas: justice, freedom, mercy, sin, suffering, hope, and pardon. Pedagogically, the class mixed traditional modes of learning with movement, ritual performance, and role play. Two discussion sections, or studios, were explorations in choreography and martial arts. My studio was on Dante’s Inferno, which we approached in the time-worn way of reading and discussion. The three studios supplemented larger group work of critical speaking, listening, writing, creating.

It was a time for allegory. When, at the start of one lecture, Professor Elkins asked, “What time is it?” I checked my watch. Only gradually did I realize that this question intended a range of queries, like the multiple meanings the medievals found in a single Bible verse, or that Dante projected into his poem, including one that turned on time itself, to doubt its reality. Hell allegorized is harrowed by hope, which lights a way upward and out, as Dante found, despite the false admonition over the infernal gates to “Abandon Hope.”

Readers of Visions will like to know that even Hell has a library, which seats seven, precisely the number of our Dante studio. Whether the number seven functions here in ironic mimicry of the sacred seven, which completed creation, others more learned in infernal symbolism can judge. The small but substantive library held a copy of Dante’s Paradise, but not his Inferno, as though no one actually in Hell would have time or will to read about it. Undaunted, I had brought the four pound weight, Dante Encyclopedia, from Drew’s library, so as not to miss even a hellish occasion to promote our own bibliographic resources. Dante’s poem dramatized a key theme of the class, Descent. One of our dantisti drew particular attention to the memorable descent of Virgil and the fear-struck Dante on the back of the monster, Geryon, who bore the pilgrims down to the circles of fraud. A Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that wove through Professor Elkins’ lectures, called “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf,” told of descent to the bottom of a swamp, and later rise. We even enacted descent, with the help of the convent’s basement boiler room, which doubled as Hell, and to which all were sent for a sojourn. The basement obliged, not simply by housing a furnace, but by sporting a sign on the only doorway to it that read “Danger: High Voltage.” Indeed!

And then I had my own descent. On our last night together, as all twenty plus of us were gathered, after two glasses of wine, I fainted. Recovering from my daze, I found myself in the literal embrace of my companions who were either holding, touching, or addressing me with solicitous words and looks. The EMS was called and, with Professor Lynne Westfield by my side, I was whisked by ambulance to the hospital. My diagnosis? Dehydration exacerbated by wine. This was an  embarrassment, since at the start of the class we were expressly warned to hydrate, though less embarrassing than if I’d fainted from drunkenness. I blamed Dante. He modeled my mishap when, on his own downward descent, he several times “swooned” over the sufferings of the damned.

Later I learned that course participants gathered in prayer for my recovery while I was away, and that a quickreflexed student in the martial arts studio had eased my fall by catching me. Over time, my awe over the solicitudes I received overcame my embarrassment, and my gratitude to my companions in the class, my shame. Lately I seem to experience more often the places of passage from this world to the next. How fine the line between them. I only hope that the next time I find myself on such a bridge, my experience of the other side is, as Dante would have it be, more in the province of allegory.


Originally published in Visions, Spring 2011