"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." Isaiah 43.2
Dante might seem like an eccentric travelling companion but that is what we are offered in his Divine Comedy, where he invites us on a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. For the first two Dante himself is accompanied - by Virgil, whom he regards as the greatest of the classical poets. Virgil, also, is on a mission, sent by Beatrice, who epitomises grace (the pure love of God), whose companions take pity on the hapless Dante. Why? Because he has been unfairly exiled from his beloved Florence.
All this happened in the year 1302 when, according to Cambridge theologian Janet Martin Soskice, Dante was 36. We are not told what the crime that he denies amounted to. But, from the pit of despair, he embarks on a journey towards redemption prompted, he believes, by the grace of God. On the way he witnesses the miserable fate awaiting those who are so locked in their sin that they cannot receive that grace and so remain locked in an icy hell of their own making. Others remain "works in progress", learning what they must in purgatory so that they can attain to paradise which remains in prospect, despite their earlier mistakes.
What makes Dante's epic so compelling is that he populates it with real people, whose destiny he assigns according to his experience of them on earth. It is an account of Dante's own spiritual pilgrimage, as he journeys towards the mountain of paradise. We may not share all of his theological doctrines but going along for the ride promises a lot of fun, with much to be gained at a deeper level as we learn to appreciate Dante's "wicked" sense of humour...