V. Stanley Benfell
The Apostle Paul defined the Christian life in terms of newness: “We are buried with [Christ] by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Indeed, throughout Christian history writers have described the new life that comes when we turn our lives to Christ. For much of my professional career, I have studied one of these writers: the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri.
Dante talks a good deal about “the new life,” entitling his earliest book La Vita Nuova (The New Life). Dante’s vita nuova began upon seeing a girl named Beatrice for the first time when he was 9 years old. The new life for him did not signify something like a new career or a new phase of life, but rather he sensed in the arrival of Beatrice something more significant, more vital than anything he had known before. She came to symbolize for him that which exceeded the mundane experiences of his life—a flash of higher meaning, even of the divine—and so he sought her, even after she died at a relatively young age. My own experience with the new life came, like Dante’s, with a spiritual turning, but it was also tied with an intellectual awakening.
When I was in high school I was lazy— slothful at performing my chores, late and lackluster in completing schoolwork, and reluctant to accept assignments at church. Fortunately for me, I applied to BYU when it was a good deal easier to get admitted than it is now. The summer after I graduated from high school, I had an epiphany: I realized that I could not continue as I had done if I wanted to make something of my life. So when I came to BYU as a freshman, I was determined to study and to get good grades. This simple determination to succeed in school bore unexpected fruit: I became thoroughly engrossed in my classes and experienced sustained intellectual engagement.
When I was called to serve a mission in Paris, France, I found myself not only more devoted and more alive spiritually than I had ever been before but also alive to the richness and beauty of the French language and insatiably curious about the fascinating history and culture of the country in which I was living. When I returned from my mission, I found myself not only reading the material required for my courses but also seeking out new books, looking for a quiet moment when I could read something that deepened what I had studied in one of my classes or opened up something new. This was for me a new life—one of excitement, engagement, and meaning where before I had found only drudgery in school.
As I went on to graduate school, a family, and a career, I assumed that my new life of spiritual and intellectual engagement would continue, not realizing how difficult it would prove to sustain this new life. Dante wrote his work on the new life when he was in his mid-20s. But he began his greatest and best- known work—his Divine Comedy—when he was in middle age, and he begins that work by describing his own sense of midlife crisis: “Midway through the journey of our life,” he wrote, “I came to myself in a dark wood, / for the straight road had been lost” (Inferno, 1.1–3). He found that he needed to undertake a new journey, through hell, purgatory, and eventually paradise, to recover Beatrice and the new life she represented. When I headed out to the world, I found it more difficult than I expected to keep on the straight road, to keep that higher meaning—the truth and beauty I love—in my sights. Too often I have found myself lost in a dark wood, wondering how I came there. As I consider this life of seeking, a few lessons stand out.
First, we live in an age in which we increasingly isolate one area of our lives from the others. I may, that is, assume that my spiritual life is one thing, my intellectual life something else, my professional life a third thing, and my family life yet another thing. This I take to be a disastrous error. Since my intellectual awakening coincided with a spiritual conversion, I have always found that my intellectual and spiritual pursuits are inseparable. The Lord tells us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), which I take to mean that we must engage both our spirits and our minds. We are properly suspicious in the Church of intellectuals who dismiss revelation and the authority of spiritual understanding, but should we not be equally wary of those who tell us that they rely solely on spiritual knowledge, that they do not need to do intellectual heavy lifting?
Second, the world is full of beautiful and remarkable things that are worthy of our attention, many of which are found outside of the Utah LDS culture. I have found insight and inspiration from my study of a medieval Catholic poet, and there are countless other books, psalms, works of art, musical compositions, and so on that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy”; we should “seek after these things” (A of F 1:13).
Third, we are frequently distracted in our increasingly fragmented digital world, and it is difficult to devote sustained attention to great works of literature or to interactions with friends, family, and neighbors. We need to find time to unplug ourselves from the world and to devote sustained, careful attention to things that matter most.
While Dante did lose track of the straight road, he never forgot that first sight of Beatrice and the new life she represented for him. For each of us, as BYU humanities graduates pursuing the “new life” of intellectual and spiritual engagement, we also must never forget that first glimpse of Beatrice. As the cares of life threaten to overwhelm us, I hope that a sense of the wonder, the excitement, and the beauty of all truth will continue to beckon and inspire.