A treasured teacher puts Dante in focus

The Catholic Register, 12 September 2019

In a few weeks, his many admirers will celebrate the 30th priestly anniversary of Fr. Paul Pearson of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto.

It’s an occasion for gratitude, for this American immigrant has become a treasure of the Church in Canada, if a largely hidden one. That’s suitable enough for a son of St. Philip; part of their charism is amare nesceri — a love of being unknown or hidden.

Pearson has taught at St. Philip’s Seminary his entire priesthood, which is one reason for that hiddenness. It’s where I studied philosophy back when Pearson was not even 10 years ordained, and so I and my fellow seminarians over these many years know well his gifts as a teacher of Catholic philosophy and theology. Yet we only number in the hundreds, as opposed to, say, the thousands who might be a large Toronto parish on a typical Sunday. 

Now those gifts are available to a wider audience, for he  has published what really is an extraordinary book. Spiritual Direction from Dante: Avoiding the Inferno (TAN Books) is the fruit of Pearson’s many years leading a seminar on the Divine Comedy for his seminarian students.

The book is extraordinary not only in the sense that it is very well done, but because it is not the usual treatment of Dante as a work of literary magnificence, or even philosophical and theological depth. Pearson treats the Inferno — volumes on the Purgatorio and Paradiso are forthcoming — as a repository of spiritual wisdom for the life of disciples. Dante’s guided tour of hell is meant to help his readers avoid it. 

“He who does not go down into hell while he is alive, runs a great risk of going there after he is dead,” Pearson quotes St. Philip. The 16th-century founder and spiritual master likely read Dante, the principal adornment of Italian literature, and perhaps got that insight from the Inferno.

For Pearson, Dante’s key insight is that sin is its own punishment, namely that sin not only damages our relationship with God, but diminishes us. The punishments that Dante conjures for sinners in hell are a visible manifestation of the damage that sin has already done to them. 

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