A tradition on Maundy Thursday is to keep vigil through the night, meditating, praying, and remaining with Christ’s presence, as Peter, James, and John were asked to do in the Garden of Gethsemane. For many years at St. Philip’s, the all-night vigil took place in the Church. Parishioners were asked to sign up in one-hour blocks (“So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” —Matthew 26: 40 NRSV) to return to the Church and spend time in prayer. Eventually because of concerns for safety and staff expense, the vigil in the Church took place until 11 p.m. and resumed at 7 a.m., and between those hours, parishioners signed up for vigil times at their homes. Five years ago, while brainstorming new ideas at a staff meeting, Greg Foraker suggested taking inspiration from St. John the Divine in New York City and holding an all-night reading of Dante’s Inferno. As Rector John Kitagawa explains, “I have learned when one of my staff makes a suggestion, however surprising or unusual, not to immediately dismiss it.” The idea quickly gained momentum, with so much interest from the Parish and community that there were more volunteers than slots to fill. Five years later, the all-night reading of Dante’s Inferno has become a beloved St. Philip’s custom.
The all-night reading begins at 9 p.m. and continues until 10 a.m. on Good Friday. Selected Cantos are read by parishioners, distinguished poets, eminent translators, visiting scholars, and honored guests. Each half-hour segment begins with the tolling of the tower bells and includes silent meditation, atmospheric music, and the reading of one Canto. Attendees are welcome to stay for as much of the reading as they would like or to arrive or depart at any time. Other areas of the Church and Columbarium garden are available for prayer and to keep watch throughout the night.
Many St. Philippians participate as readers, hosts, and musicians. Guest readers for 2013 include Dr. Fabian Alfie, Head, Department of French and Italian, University of Arizona, who is a five-year veteran of the event, as well as the Rev. Dr. Lucas J. Mix, Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Arizona. This year the reader pool includes several students from the Department of Italian, as well as several students who participate in the Canterbury Club, the Episcopal campus group. Other special guests include Wendy Wiese-Cohon, Rebbetzin, Temple Emanu-El, playwright Patrick Baliani, Dr. Peter Foley, Director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture at UA, and David Alexander Johnston, a well-known local actor.
This annual tradition draws a wide and diverse community. It has become the custom of a United Methodist youth group from Phoenix to arrive in the wee hours of the night and keep watch until the break of dawn. About 140 attended last year’s Inferno reading at some point during the night, and “meaningful” was a common refrain among the varied reactions to the experience. One participant remarked “Observing the early light of Good Friday through the altar window is too moving to put into words.” Other comments included “It really brought my faith alive,” “I felt a kind of wonder on Maundy Thursday night,” “It was all rather ethereal. Although we were reading about hell, we were experiencing something of heaven,” and “It was an amazing experience.” The format of 30-minute segments enables attendees to participate in the experience on their own terms and find meaning in their own way. This event offers the opportunity to delve more deeply into meditation on the final days of Jesus’s life.
Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy is an allegorical account of Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead, during the last three days of Holy Week (which begins with Maundy Thursday) in 1300. The portion entitled the Inferno tells of the journey through Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Dante’s name is almost synonymous with hell. He begins his Inferno lost in a dark forest, which symbolizes his inability to distinguish between good and evil. Dante’s Inferno is not a gallery of rogues suffering in an eternal torture chamber. Dante’s trip through hell is an inward journey to the dark heart of the human soul. The poet populates his hell with actual historical individuals, giving the work a high degree of immediacy. Nor are the punishments mere exercises in cruelty. They are the metaphorical embodiment of the sin—each torment represents the true nature of the respective sin. Through his voyage he comes to understand the true nature of evil, and this comprehension represents the first step in a personal spiritual awakening.
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) was born in Florence to a family of the low nobility. Dante lived at a time when the Italian city-states were flourishing under the growing economics of trade and merchandising. With economic growth came numerous social problems, including criminality and an explosion in population. Dante participated in the Florentine literary community in the 1280s. In 1295, Florentine law changed, allowing nobles to engage in politics. Dante too became politically active, eventually becoming Prior in 1300. Throughout the thirteenth century, the popes tried to establish a theocratic form of government in Europe. The people who supported the popes were called “Guelfs,” while those who opposed them and supported the emperor were called “Ghibellines.” Dante was a member of the so-called “White” faction of the Guelfs. In 1303 Boniface VIII engineered a coup in support of the opposing faction, the “Black Guelfs.” The “White Guelfs” were exiled, and Dante would never again see his native city. He wandered from court to court, frequently a guest of the Ghibelline lords of Northern Italy, as he composed the Comedy. He died in Ravenna of malaria on September 16, 1321.
Dante composed the Comedy in terza rima, a poetic form he invented for the work. Terza rima consists of interlocking groups of three rhyme words. Terza rima is a continual reminder of the Trinity throughout the entire poem. Before Dante composed the Comedy, authors composed great works of literature in Latin and not in the vernacular. Dante demonstrated that the living languages could be used as a literary medium. The father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400), was very influenced by Dante. Chaucer translated portions of Dante’s Paradiso in his Troilus and Criseyde and composed the Complaint to his lady in terza rima. Thanks to Dante, the national languages became established.
Light comes to represent so much in our spiritual journeys, even more so now, as we frequently take light for granted as we flip a switch. Yet even now, one thinks of sparkling mosaics, flickering candles, and stained glass when imagining the feeling, the troubles, and the triumphs of the Christians who have preceded us. Abbot Suger of the 12th century immediately, in describing the doors of Saint Denis Abbey, wrote: “Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work should brighten the monds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, to the light where Christ is the true door … In what manner it be inherent is this world the golden door defines … The dull mond rises to truth through which is material, and, in seeing the light, is resurrected from its former submersion.”
Light plays a pivotal role in Dante’s Inferno, from the dimming of light at sunset and then the progressive disappearance of light as Dante progresses downward into hell, but then the glorious envelopment of light in the sunrise as Dante emerges from hell to continue his journey to the “True Light,” experiencing purgatory and then paradise.
At St. Philip’s the evening begins with the altar ablaze with light, symbolizing the day. The nine pillar candles represent the nine levels of hell. The small votive candles represent the cantos being read. As each canto is read a votive is extinguished, and after Dante passes through a level of hell, the pillar candle is extinguished. It gets progressively darker and darker as Dante descends into the anguished levels of hell, but then as Dante reaches the lowest levels and encounters Satan, there is hope. The few candles left are replaced by the sunrise, and as Dante emerges we are surrounded by the early morning light that is God’s promise. “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1)
—Adapted from notes by Dr. Fabian Alfie, Head, Department of French and Italian, and Associate Professor of Italian, University of Arizona, and parishioner and art historian Dr. Kevin Lane Justus