Book Reviews – January 2022

When Breath Becomes Air. By Paul Kalanithi. Reviewed by Richard J. Janet. (skip to review)

St. Clare of Assisi: Light From the Cloister. By Bret Thoman. Reviewed by Lawrence Montz. (skip to review)

America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. By Robert Reilly. Reviewed by John Tuttle. (skip to review)

True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. By John Cuddeback. Reviewed by Mark McCann. (skip to review)

The English Cantos: Volume I: HellWard. By James Sale. Reviewed by Francis Etheredge. (skip to review)

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air. New York, NY: Random House, 2016. 228 pages.

Reviewed by Richard J. Janet.

Sometimes a book surprises us. How did I miss that one, we wonder. Or, I never thought a book like that would interest me. Or, now I get it — it just took time for the import of this book to strike home to me. Or even, I misjudged that one; there is more to it than I thought. When Breath Becomes Air is such a book for me. Though it was published to great acclaim in 2016, I am only now discovering it and realizing its significance. Perhaps you have already read the book and are puzzled by my surprise. If so, bear with me as I explore its timeless appeal and meaning, especially for people of faith.

In the first section of his acclaimed memoirs, the late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi described a personal epiphany in his pursuit of a fulfilling life. Driven by a passion to uncover the “intertwining of brain and consciousness” as well as that between life and death, the young resident physician “observed a lot of suffering, worse, I became inured to it” (81). Fearing that he was becoming “Tolstoy’s stereotype of a doctor [Kalanithi is a supremely literate clinician], preoccupied with empty formalism, focused on the rote treatment of disease — and utterly missing the larger human significance,” Kalanithi determined to connect with his patients, to help them cope with both the physical and the broader emotional effects of their pathologies. As he put it, “Had I been more religious in my youth, I might have become a pastor, for it was the pastoral role I’d sought” (88).

That determination changed Kalanithi as both a physician and a human being. It also prepared him for the tragic events to come as he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 36, just when the promise of his brilliant mind and skills seemed to reach fruition. When Breath Becomes Air, published after his death in 2015, less than two years after his initial diagnosis, chronicles Dr. Kalanithi’s early striving for academic and professional excellence and his reconciliation with imminent death in the last months of his life. For the talented and ambitious Kalanithi, the transformation from doctor to patient, from shepherd to sheep, from pastor to layman completed his search for meaning and a deeper understanding of the reality of human suffering and death.

Paul Kalanithi was born in New York to Christian Indian parents in 1977. When he was ten years old, his family moved to Kingman, Arizona, where his father established a cardiology practice and his mother inspired a drive for academic excellence in her high-achieving three sons. Paul’s literary bent and academic accomplishments led him to Stanford University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in English and biology and a master’s degree in English literature. After a master’s degree in the history and philosophy of medicine at Cambridge University, Kalanithi entered medical school at Yale University, where he met his wife, Lucy Goddard. The pair returned to Stanford for their residency programs and Paul completed a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience, engaging in cutting-edge research and publishing well-received articles in medical journals. Kalathini was in the sixth year of his residency at Stanford when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. In the first half of When Breath Becomes Air, we learn of his unique combination of scientific and humanistic curiosity and his ambitious and promising career trajectory.

Kalanithi’s cancer diagnosis proved shattering, given his relative youth and unbroken list of personal accomplishments. As a physician himself, Paul understood fully the severity of his disease and its probable prognosis, which his oncologist refused to acknowledge, challenging Paul with questions about how he would use whatever time remained to him rather than indulging his desire for scientific certainty. Kalanithi acknowledged the stages of his struggle with both the physical and emotional effects of cancer. Is my life over, he wondered. Will I ever perform surgery again? Should I abandon medicine and write? Should Lucy and I have a child?

Eventually, he came to the realization, partly through his love of literature (Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Kafka, Woolf, Beckett, Frost, Hemingway — an eclectic mix of perspectives), that “even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am living” (150). So he returned to surgery despite his physical limitations, fathered a child, enjoyed his family, and wrote this book. Along the way, he balanced emotions of fear, hope (his cancer briefly went into remission), and pragmatism.

At a key point in the narrative, Kalanithi reflected on spirituality and his return to Christian faith. “On a crystalline spring morning on the third Sunday of Lent,” he wrote, “Lucy and I went to church with my parents . . . . During the pastor’s Scripture reading, I suddenly found myself chuckling” (167). The reading told the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). The allegorical nature of the story and Jesus’s word play with the woman appealed to Kalanithi’s literary bent and, interestingly, brought him “back around to Christianity after a long stretch, following college, when my notions of God and Jesus had grown, to put it gently, tenuous” (168). Years of scientific study had reinforced “a material conception of reality” in Paul and led him to a belief in a “scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outdated concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes” (168–69).

Now, however, he came to realize the limits of that worldview. “The problem, however, eventually became evident,” he wrote, “to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning — to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.” Kalanithi recognized that, while the “evident” problem may not lead directly to religious belief (“if you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God”), it does lead inescapably to the belief that if science “provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge” (169).

And given the limits of scientific knowledge, which depends on sometimes flawed human insights and “cannot reach some permanent truth,” science cannot fully comprehend “the unique and subjective and unpredictable. . . central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.” Since “no system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience,” he wrote, “the realm of metaphysics remains the province of revelation” (170). Even atheism is grounded in “a revelation of the absence of God.” Kalanithi, the gifted scientist who sought meaning in the physical nature (and healing) of the human brain, came to appreciate the “central values of Christianity” revealed in the Biblical tension “between justice and mercy,” and especially the New Testament gospel of love and redemption (171). Armed with his literary and religious insights and the comfort of family and friends, Paul Kalanithi gracefully faced imminent death, the details of which are described so movingly by his wife Lucy in the epilogue of the book.

As I read When Breath Becomes Air, I was struck by Paul Kalanithi’s intellect, obviously, but also his “both/and” sensibilities that resonate so neatly with a Catholic Christian worldview. His unique experiences led him to reflect on the relationship between reason and faith, mind and body, doctor and patient, shepherd and sheep, life and death. As human beings, we all face what Paul faced, but often without his keen understanding of the body, abiding curiosity about ideas, and overriding determination to be honest in facing the reality of death without surrendering a deep love of life and living. Death is a part of life, of course, but how do we face that fact? Paul’s wife concluded that his “decision not to avert his eyes from death” while still pursuing all that life has to offer and his recognition, after a lifetime of achievement, that some things were outside his control and understanding, defined a life well lived and a love that persists beyond death (225).

On a purely personal note, the book reminded me of my friend Oscar Lukefahr, the Vincentian priest and Catholic apologist who, on being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2015, told me simply, “I have preached about death and redemption for many years. Now it’s time that I model what I preached.” Like Paul Kalanithi, Oscar Lukefahr probed the relationship between science and faith in his apologetics. Rest in peace, Dr. Kalanithi and Fr. Lukefahr.  

Richard J. Janet is professor of history at Rockhurst University and former director of Rockhurst’s Thomas More Center for the Study of Catholic Thought and Culture.

St. Clare of Assisi – Bret Thoman

Thoman, Bret. St Clare of Assisi: Light From the Cloister. Gastonia, NC: TAN Books, 2017. 264 pages.

Reviewed by Lawrence Montz.

Mr. Bret Thoman’s website states that he is “a professional translator, pilgrimage/travel organizer, pilot, husband, and father of two.” “He created and runs St. Francis Pilgrimages, where he organizes and accompanies pilgrimages to Italy and elsewhere in the Catholic tradition.” Mr. Thoman “announced the election of Pope Francis live on CNN while translating from Vatican TV; he also translated Pope Francis’s Inaugural Mass.” The author is a Third Order Franciscan and writes on Franciscan and Catholic topics.” His story, St. Clare of Assisi – Light From The Cloister, is a natural follow-up of his first book about St. Francis of Assisi, and in effect they almost reflect a unified effort to tell us not only the legends of these great Saints, but their personal stories, beliefs, and impacts on the Church.

Unquestionably the holy man Francis had a major influence on Clare’s faith, but it was the person of Christ that truly inspired her to forsake her family and old way of life and to strive for perfection in the cloister of San Damiano. This was not a “simple” renunciation of her past. During that period in Church history, few, particularly women, lived such austere, Gospel-driven lives. Clare had to struggle with not only her family but the Church itself to accomplish her goal to be perfect by living the Gospel admonition to sell “what you possess and give to the poor.” Her embracement of radical poverty, as she understood Christ’s command to require, not only led to her to being considered a saint in her lifetime but to being canonized in the amazingly quick time frame of two years after her death in 1253.

St. Clare’s tale is familiar to many Catholics, but her personal story is less well known. Records from the Middle Ages were limited in large part because they were written by hand. They also had a different purpose as their aim was not biographical precision. Often they revolved around extolling personal attributes of holy men and women for the glory of God and inspiration of the reader.

The two primary sources used by Mr. Thoman were the Legend of St. Clare and Vitae (lives). The latter was thought to have been authored by a contemporary of St. Francis. These were in the form of hagiography that told reverent stories in such a way that they made the person and their actions seem more blessed by God, a flattering and romanticized life story, not in an attempt not to deceive but an effort to extol their virtues. More historical sources such as the Papal Decree of Canonization and Clare’s actual letters were consulted when available. Mr. Thoman weaves these stories into a tapestry that depicts Clare as a very loving and Christ centered human, a true disciple of St. Francis, but much more in her own right.

Like St. Francis, St. Clare was not shut off from the world as a contemplative, although she undoubtedly experienced the deep mystical experiences described by St. John of the Cross. Her relationship with Christ would not allow her to remain in a mystical state because her desire was first and foremost to imitate Christ by sacrificing self for others. She considered herself a mirror of Christ and any light she received she reflected on others. She embraced holy poverty not to divest herself from creatures but solely to rejoice in the Creator.

Legend has it that her mother named her Clara (light) knowing she would be a light to the world. The Papal Degree of Canonization opened with the phrase, “O how great is the vibrancy of this light.” It recognized her miracles and the graces she channeled, but it emphasized Clare’s special gift, that her denial of self was not based on her personal desire to live an ascetic life, but to glorify God. St. Clare can serve as a light to our paths as we come to know her better through this book that teaches how she sacrificed self for the love of God and her brethren.

Lawrence Montz is a Benedictine Oblate of St. Gregory Abbey, past Serran District Governor of Dallas, and serves as his Knights of Columbus council’s Vocations Program Director. He resides in the Dallas Diocese.

America on Trial – Robert Reilly

Reilly, Robert. America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020. 384 pages.

Reviewed by John Tuttle.

For more than two centuries now, politicians and scholars and the general public have discussed the basis of the American founding, its key documents, and its lead proponents. This conversation often gets caught up in today’s polarization and the widespread knowledge of some of the founders’ secret immorality.

What Robert R. Reilly strives to do in America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, however, is to look at the thought process and belief system underlying the original American ideals. He does not go into the personal lives, flawed though they often were, of its founders. Rather, he explores the cultural, philosophical, and theological background that went into making the United States the country it was meant to be.

For him, this means taking us all the way back before Christ to pick up the trail of natural law theory at its origins: this same line that would grow and develop through history (with major Catholic contributors such as St. Thomas Aquinas) and, as Reilly says, be applied to unifying the English colonies and establishing a new country.

In writing this book, Reilly seeks to dispute and disprove critics of the founding such as Patrick Deneen, who see such an establishment of government as catering to every random desire a person may encounter. This is not Reilly’s take. What is more, his thinking suggests that there are not numerous interpretations of the founding and its documents, but only one: what the founders themselves actually intended.

In an effort to recover the meaning behind the founding, its atmosphere, and its historic background, the author explores numerous contributions to natural law — and breaking points from it — down through the ages. Reilly dedicates time to a wide scope of relevant issues, noting the need for consent from the people being governed. He addresses this and other principles of true freedom and happiness. For anyone interested in philosophy or the morality of politics, this book makes for a fascinating read.

Ultimately, America on Trial argues that the American founders saw the nation they had engendered as a society that was conducive to the pursuit of one’s individual faith and that of man’s natural end. In other words, the government itself could not be the source of peoples’ happiness and contentment. That was left up to the individual. The government was merely intended to provide a culture that fostered righteousness among civilians. The significance of this is drawn up concisely when Reilly writes, “Philosophy limits the range of politics by pointing to a higher truth, which is not within the polis’ power to determine or reach, but only to reflect in its own order if properly constituted” (33).

The government for a civilization ought to reflect the order of the higher truth. Based on this kind of blueprint, rooted in Greek philosophy, the U.S. Constitution was meant to reflect the truth of Christianity (understood over a broad spectrum of denominations). But there is a catch: this political structure is meant to be maintained in virtue. This is one of the most significant lessons that can be extrapolated from this book and applied to our own lives. Namely, that virtue is integral to social order, in fact, all order.

The reason we see such turmoil and upheaval throughout modern America is that so many of us have abandoned virtue. Recovering from polarization and disorder means making a return to virtue. For Reilly, the founding did not set us up for failure. Instead, it wanted to hold society to higher moral standards.

John Tuttle is a Catholic writer and journalist whose publications have appeared in The Wanderer, The University Bookman, and other outlets, such as film essays for Culture Wars magazine.

True Friendship – John Cuddeback

Cuddeback, John. True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. Denver, CO: Epic Publishing, 2010. 135 pages.

Reviewed by Mark McCann.

Human beings can say that they need friends and that they know what true friendship is. Believers in Christ, however, are called to a knowledge of friendship that seeks a higher standard. In his book, True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness, John Cuddeback digs deeply and brilliantly into this subject, taking us on both an intellectual and spiritual journey toward a true understanding of our call to the virtue of friendship.

Using a philosophical approach to understanding the nature of friendship, Cuddeback reveals how human friendship both enhances our understanding of, and prepares us for, our eternal friendship with God. He begins with the idea that happiness and friendship are intimately connected. As true friends, we reach excellence in our connection to each other as we seek to move beyond relationships of pleasure or utility and into the realm of virtue.

To someone not versed in philosophy, it may seem unusual for believers to look to Socrates or Aristotle as a way to understand friendship in a Christian context. However, Cuddeback, with his extensive background in philosophy, is able to unpack his thesis well, tying the wisdom of the ancients with the inspired words of men like Thomas Aquinas, who understood how grace moves us beyond the limits of simple human friendship.

Friendship is virtue, both in an intellectual and moral sense. True friendship values the other for who he or she is, and understands how sharing life together in the unity of friendship helps us to have a more complete image of ourselves, as together we strive to be the best of who we are.

After exploring the basics of human friendship, Cuddeback examines how friendship and society are linked together, with individual friendships shaping society, and society forming the foundation upon which we may grow in perfection. As we form an ordered society, considering our place within the community of humanity through the microcosm of family and individual friendships, society provides the laws and order to give us not only our personal freedom, but our grounding in what is truly good. In this way we may grow in virtue.

Cuddeback then weaves into his work the wisdom of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian abbot in twelfth-century England, showing how human friendship has its origin and goal in divine friendship. We are called to test our friendships to see if they hold the four qualities of loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. In other words, through our mutual knowledge of each other, we foster growth in friendship, enduring each other’s struggles, seeking the good, and holding each other accountable as we offer and receive correction well. It is a difficult but rewarding journey from cautious testing to full acceptance and growth, nurtured always by prayer.

In the next two sections Cuddeback focuses on friendship in the context of dating and marriage, as well as in relationships with parents, teachers, and mentors. His advice for couples can perhaps be summed up in the idea that dating is meant to prepare the man and woman for marriage, as we focus on the Savior, whose relationship with his bride calls us to mutual self-giving for the greatest good of the other. This includes showing charity through chastity and loving each other within a larger community of support. Similarly, in our relationships with those who hold positions above us, we can grow into a friendship as we move experientially to a place where our emerging sense of sameness helps us to understand and appreciate the other’s role, while allowing us to maintain our love for their specific role in our lives.

After we have taken in all this wisdom, only then, does Cuddeback speak more directly about friendship with God, and, in turn, friendship with neighbor. This friendship is possible only because Jesus, the Son of God, shared his life with us, laying down that same life as his greatest act of love. This is charity, the love that allows us to share friendship with the divine. Though we never lose sight of the perfection and majesty of God, we are enabled through Christ’s charity to enter into that wonderful conversation with the One who has made us for friendship with himself. We experience this most beautifully through prayer and liturgy, which allows us to participate sacramentally in the sacrifice of Jesus, raising us up to a supernatural hope which will last for all eternity.

This divine friendship allows us to extend that same charity to our neighbor, allowing us to look upon even our enemies as persons called to friendship with God. In Christ, our human friendships are raised up to the heavens, as his divine grace enables us to love others in a supernatural way. The glory of all this is that, while we do not need the friendships of others to enjoy friendship with God in heaven, we will nonetheless be blessed, because of Christ’s friendship with us, to share communion with others as we share an eternal friendship with God.

The book ends with a beautiful Gospel meditation, taken from John 1:35–39, where the disciples ask Jesus where he resides and he calls them to “Come and see!” We are called to come and live where our God is, through the gift of the virtue of friendship, made perfect by Christ.

Mark C. McCann is an author and ministry consultant in Connecticut.

The English Cantos: Volume I – James Sale

Sale, James. The English Cantos: Volume I: HellWard. Amazon KDP, 2019. 146 pages.

Reviewed by Francis Etheredge.

Read! Repent! And Rejoice! Even the contemplation of Hell is a message of mercy in that it is the will of God that no one go there. As James Sale says in an interview at the end of his book: “It’s not so much that God puts us there, but that we end up where we want to be” (HellWard, p. 143). Therefore, it is a mercy to see and stop where we have seen we could be going and to beg, if we are willing, as beggars for the help of God to get us to heaven.

In part three of Pope Francis’ letter on Dante, Cantor Lucis Aeternae, Francis says: “By poetry, the art of the word which, by speaking to all, has the power to change the life of each” (3). Thus we discover that the goal is to depict the reality of sin and redemption so that all appeal to the mercy of God so generously expressed in Christ’s forgiveness of sins (cf. Lk 23:34) and receive the Spirit of the Resurrection (cf. Jn 20:19–23). Thus, adapting the English translation of Dante to bring out its personal welcome of the sinner, this Lent and Easter, indeed every Lent and Easter and in every “in-between,” let us turn and turn again to what Dante describes as God’s “ample arms/ That . . . receive whoever turns to him” (Purg. III, 118–123).

If you, then, like me, need various helps into these great works read around, as I have done, and begin to see the almost palpable sense of discovering, through James Sale’s near-death experience, the reality of our life: here and hereafter. So, whether you read his autobiographical introduction or the interview at the end of his book, read what helps you enter this prose that strips what shows to show the glow of grace (cf. Sale, HellWard, p. 58) or its heinous absence!

Christ, Sale himself, and Dante: Although it is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, and various reference’s to Dante’s work abound, I confess to scarcely knowing very much about this poet and the first part of the Divine Comedy, Dante’s Inferno or Hell. I recall, however, that a comedy is not what we think it is, somewhat carelessly, a piece of light humor. Rather, a Comedy is an account of life which includes tragedy as well as triumph, where triumph, in this case, is not triumphalism but the victory of Love within us. Thus “The Divine Comedy” is not only the scope or scape of human life opening upon eternity, where Love triumphs; but, in ghastly detail, it includes what it looks like when we reject the inner work of God which would turn us to confession and to salvation.

As you might detect, then, from my opening words, the beginning of Sale’s epic modernization of Dante’s ancient account of life and death and all that ranges hence, from hell to purgatory to heaven, is a shocking depiction of what raw vice looks like. Indeed, to those, like me, unprepared for what is to come, the shock is somewhat akin to coming to the edge of a concentration camp on a beautifully lit summer’s day, bearing marks of what is still unclearly seen but is suggested, in ways that railway tracks and high barbed wire fencing might make you start to think about what is happening and still to come. And then the shock — not unlike the shock of seeing pictures of the aftermath of an atomic bomb; but not, as you might imagine, of how it impacts people we do not know but, rather, how it implicates those close to us and our relationship to them: my mother; my pupil; my boss; and so on to others in my life.

Imagine, then, like Christ says in the Gospel, between Lazarus and the rich man who did not help him there is a fixed divide which, even if we wanted to, we could not cross (cf. Lk 16: 19–31) and then, as I say, imagine that there is one whom we loved on the far side of this impossible divide and the anguish we go through as we cannot help, but can only pass on — and you will begin to experience what is depicted.

To take, then, but one of many examples, but one more compelling in that the poet tries to save his mother who, while he tries to lift her off her bed, and console her, discovers in the attempt the impossibility of freeing her from what, hiddenly, holds her fast:

To see her passive and in love with fate,

And those sheet folds around still clinging tight

Like coiling snakes who’d not discharge their freight

So much she loved them, and their toxic bite, 190

That God Himself — but then the plaster fell,

Showered our heads with dust and shattered bits —

Could not undo the hell of her free will (Sale, HellWard, pp. 14–15).

On the other hand, however, each of these people, some more widely known and named, either by name and deed or neither, may also be real in order to be rebuked lest they be lost; but then, again, they may be sufficiently imagined to stand for all who have power over the lives of others and waste, indescribably, the opportunity to love.

Dante as companion: So Sale, the man who began to enter the blue beauty of a HeavenWard thermal from the operating table and who yet returns, from glimpsing God, finds that he has not died and is no longer alone but is sent a companion, Dante himself, to accompany our modern poet on a downward journey — going HellWard all the more dramatically because of the prior brightness to which he rose, albeit so briefly, and on the basis of which the poet begins to see more clearly the possible realities of people he has loved but who are now unveiled from what, it seems, had hidden what they were really like. Thus hell, as the place of un-masked human hearts bares, now bluntly, the corrupt attitudes and actions that a person has really brought to exist is all too clearly described and defined “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4: 2).

Thus Sale gives us many striking instances of a strongly pulsed way of pitting words against our hardness of heart (cf. Ps 94) and, hopefully, piercing any complacency we may possess that Lent may enter in and unfold through Easter through the Resurrection of our Redeemer! So, on entering the room of what the poet had once thought to be a friend, and we are prepared for something disturbing in the preceding verses, we find that the wall is alive with embedded faces, expressing what we will discover as the verses continue beyond this excerpt, that his friend had fathered children without being a father to them:

“I knew you’d find me; knew you’d like my work.”

What work? I thought. Then heard some sullen sobs:

The walls themselves had faces in, each hurt —

Each face half-formed, deformed, and like a yob’s

Made so through lack of love and fatherhood,

But each one spoke, as one collective, mob (19).

So what if this Lent we really ponder the possibility that we are that person we once thought we knew but are now nakedly evident for what we really are but, having hidden ourselves instead of availing ourselves of the sacrament of repentance and confession, we are now “stuck” with our unrepentant reality as we had rejected both our reality and its remedy of God’s mercy — will it help us as this work is meant to do, to go to the physician for healing (cf. Lk 5: 31) before the complaint is set in an eternal, unreachable, fixity?

Just, however, as the descent seems to be unmitigated in its enfleshing of what is vicious within us, we come upon the sudden change in Sale, as he descends, in such a wise as to intimate and then to announce a further, future brightening:

Thus Dante turned, to see me, who had died

Almost, but now the corridor was lit

Ahead from light my own being supplied.

 

“Know,” Dante said, “the grace is all of it;

To waver one moment is to quench this flame

Which out of you now flickers but a bit” (58).

And later, when Sale slumps, there is a good strong image of Dante jumpstarting Sale again. Again, it is the contrast between both the various attempts to ruin Sale’s life, and the overwhelming presence of an almost sweet word which spelled death for so many, that gives the one genuine friendship of his companion, Dante, reason to be there, it seems, to kickstart Sale into life again:

To horrors here as was this fading gulf.

And thinking so, as my whole weight went slump

Against my teacher, I found his soul’s stern proof

 

Could hold me up, and its energy jump-

Started my body with a vital power —

As null and dull myself, and he the lamp (95).

Conclusion: Altogether, we have many turns of phrase and stunning images which both help us now, in HellWard, to grasp the reality of our lives and, at the same time, press us forward with intimations of what is to come as Sale goes on to Purgatory and, eventually, to Heaven in the two volumes of this modernization of Dante’s Divine Comedy which are to follow.

From Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on Dante, Cantor Lucis Aeternae, we have Dante’s words with which to take us to our conclusion, both for James Sale and for us, words which tell us what rekindling the work of a great poet is about (5):

 “After I had my body lacerated

By these two mortal stabs, I gave myself

Weeping to Him, who willingly doth pardon.

Horrible my iniquities had been;

But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms

That it receives whatever turns to it” (Purg. III, 118–123).

Thus we can see that even the contemplation of Hell is a message of mercy in that it is the will of God that no one go there! Thus all poets who express this can say, adapting the words of Dante: “by poetry, the art of the word which, by speaking to all, has the power to change the life of each” (Cantor Lucis Aeternae, 3) — to the good if graced by God! Still further, we can widen the word of witness to announce, in any way by which the grace of God becomes visible, a word of salvation that, in saving us, hopes in the divine hope of saving others.

Editor’s note: For those who want to know more about James Sale, his work and “The Wider Circle,” go to: “The English Cantos: Journeys with Dante”: englishcantos.home.blog/the-wider-circle/.

Francis Etheredge is a freelance author and speaker. He and his wife have eight children, plus three in heaven.

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Comments

  1. I’d like to thank Francis for such a thoughtful and insightful review of my work; poets always love to find someone who genuinely responds to what they have to offer. There is currently a 100 Days of Dante poetry competition which I am a co-judge of, and which may be of interest to anyone who loves Dante and who writes: https://bit.ly/31NojLi

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