I spent the waning hours of Maundy Thursday in Hell. To be more specific, in Dante's Inferno.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine played host to its 16th annual reading of Dante's Inferno by poets, writers, and Dante translators from 9pm to just after midnight on Maundy Thursday, significant because that's when the poem takes place. I hadn't been in the Cathedral since the summer, so seeing the results of the 7-year renovation of the massive 248-foot long, 124-foot high nave was a breathtaking experience in itself. It was the perfect environment to accompany Dante Alighieri and poet Vigil through Hell.
Incense still hung in the air from the Maundy Thursday service and the stripping of the altar. Cathedrals can be spooky, even in broad daylight, but this night - with the crosses covered and no glint of brass, gold, or silver to catch what tiny bit of light might be there - was eerier than usual. More than a hundred people, by my estimate, started the journey with Dante, though fewer stayed to the glorious end.
Of course, three hours is not enough time to read all 34 cantos. Fifteen of them were selected and read by folks who seemed to know their Infernos. Most readers were published poets and New Yorkers, with the occasional outsider from Boston or Atlanta cropping up. A variety of professions were represented, including university professor, architect, film agent, musician, local tour guide, and pharmaceutical executive.
Most of the cantos were long enough to require two readers, each taking half. This gave two voices, two expressive interpretations to a single segment. One canto was read entirely in the original Italian. The first half of Canto XXXIV was read in English, the end in Italian. Very powerful. Since there are innumerable English translations of Dante's work, the readers were free to choose their particular version, announcing it before they read ("I'm reading the first half of Canto XXII using the Longfellow - or Palma, or whoever - translation.")
The story stands on its own. The poetry infuses it with meter and images that bring it to life. And, shoot, any time somebody wants to read to me, I am a willing audience. I just wish I'd had my pillow and blankie (those chairs are hard and that cathedral is cold). It's easy to get caught up in the story and language, so it didn't seem like a 3-hour event to me.
After the last canto was read, the Great Organ let loose with an organ meditation that included bits of "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded." It started very quietly, then built to such crescendo that my heart was racing and the stone floors vibrating. When the music stopped I felt as though I'd been given a deep-tissue massage, all my muscles relaxed and stress relieved. Amazing!
Was it a nontraditional way to mark Maundy Thursday? I think not. Though I had participated in a Maundy Thursday Eucharist earlier in the day and had caught the end of the service at the Cathedral, this reading of Dante's Inferno opened me up to new ways of experiencing the back end of Holy Week.
That's what great art, divinely inspired, does.