Dante in the Chaco


The poet Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy in the 14th century. The Comedy’s three parts – the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise – chronicle the poet’s mystical journey among the spirits. There is an introspective element of the Comedy as Dante examines his past and future, questions conventional truths, and explores mysteries of the faith.

I studied the Comedy during my final year of seminary with Professor Peter Hawkins, and was fortunate to have as peers a group of dedicated and accomplished literary scholars. Then, I came down to South America to serve as a missionary. Dante was waiting for me.


This bust of Dante sits in front of the Italian-Argentinian society on the next block. I pass by it most mornings.

One of the most engaging elements of the comedy is the emphasis on teaching and accompaniment. As Dante journeys through the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, he has a series of guides. Then, our reading of Dante’s experience is, in a sense, guided by Dante himself, as he catalogs what he saw and reflects on it. I have felt the importance of being guided as I’ve arrived in a new place with new customs, and have had things explained to me; and then I have sought to share what I’ve learned with people in the United States.


Here he is in Buenos Aires’ delightful Rosedal (Rose Garden).

A second resonance has been the foreignness of a new place. Dante spent the last 20 years of his life in exile on account of political struggle in his home town of Florence. He refers to this period in his Comedy: “You are to know the bitter taste 
of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know 
how hard a path it is for one who goes
 descending and ascending others’ stairs” (Mandelbaum translation). I have enjoyed the bread here (especially the Christmas sweet bread) but the gist of being in a land not my own rings true. There have been many terrific opportunities to learn and share here, but all of this has come with the price of leaving the familiar.


A Gargoyle in Buenos Aires’ Palacio Barolo. The Palacio, built in 1923, was inspired by the Comedy. It was the tallest building in South America at the time of its construction, with 100 meters – 1 meter for each of the chapters of the Comedy.

Finally, Dante often draws contrasts between the sorry state of the world and the radically different way of being that God desires. As a consultant for mission development, I have thought a lot about how the church engages with society, where we can connect, and where we must confront. Although each of us can only review our own spiritual commitment in a personal way, this commitment is ultimately lived out in how we treat other people and in what we are doing for the broader community.


Upside-down Buenos Aires, as seen in the mirror of the lighthouse in the tower of the Palacio Barolo.

I have appreciated all the more my time with Dante since it has served me well while I have been here. I also greatly appreciate the warmth and love of our sisters and brothers in Argentina and Paraguay, who, in their welcome of us and care for one another, embody God’s (and Dante’s) hopes for humanity.


Here we are with friends after our farewell worship service with the Disciples of Christ of Paraguay, wearing the new Paraguayan-style shirts that they gave us as a gift!

May 2013 be a year filled with learning, service, and good company. ¡Qué Dios les bendiga! God Bless!

3 Responses to “Dante in the Chaco”

  1. I seem to recall going to a class on Dante at Yale Divinity School. I don’t know how that happened. LOL. It is good that you are using the knowledge you gained from those classes.

    • 2 James deBoer

      Dear Charlie,
      How are you doing? I hope you have an excellent new year!
      All the best wishes,

      • James,
        I am doing fine. Still working at NAMI and advocating for SOS. Are you about to come back to the states? Where will you go and what will you do? I believe Marian is already back.
        Happy New Year 2U2!
        Love, Charlie

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