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Divine Inspiration: From Dante to the Ivy League

May 19, 2016 | By Charlotte Jusinski

Peerawat Chiaranunt (SF17) is heading to Yale Divinity School.
Peerawat Chiaranunt (SF17) is heading to Yale Divinity School in the fall.

For Peerawat Chiaranunt (SF17), questions about theology are best brought to life through narratives—of a journey through Hell or stories from a life lived passionately.

Chiaranunt, who graduates May 20 from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, will be taking this passion for theology to Yale Divinity School in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in religion and literature. He will be receiving a full tuition scholarship from the Institute of Sacred Music, an academic unit at Yale which funds and brings together students from the Divinity School and the School of Music who are interested in religion and the arts.

When Chiaranunt first read Dante’s Divine Comedy as a sophomore at St. John’s, he was struck by the book as a formidable piece of literature. He appreciated its complexity and expertly crafted storytelling. When he approached the text again as a Global Pathways Fellow in Rome, Italy, last year, his focus shifted and intensified.

“I went in already a lover of the Divine Comedy,” he says, “and I felt like I began to develop a different relationship with the text, one which felt more morally urgent.”

That urgency informed his experience of sacred sites in Rome and the Vatican, and made him question how he, and the world at large, experiences religious art. While studying at the Rome Institute of Liberal Arts, taking a course called “Beauty and the Sacred,” he found himself struck by the way people approach religious art, religion and theology at large.

“There were many moments in Rome where I felt like the divine was being tarnished,” he says, “by the way in which tourists, myself included, were there in search of mere aesthetic satiation.”

When Chiaranunt returned to his apartment in Rome to read Dante, he was challenged by the immersion the text required. “I felt like I was constantly engaging with that dissonance, which I would typically feel at these religious sites,” he says. “Dante, to a great degree, was very critical of the religious political climate of his time, and I felt that that bled into his more poignant literary narratives when the sinners in the Inferno give their stories. There was a similar dissonance inherent in personal or private existence that he wanted to bring to light.”

The introspection that Dante offered Chiaranunt led the student down a path toward serious theological consideration. While reading through certain Program books, beginning with the Book of Job and later with St. Augustine’s Confessions, he felt more sensitive to the questions about God.

“It’s not so much this abstract exercise where you sit at a desk and ask, ‘Does God exist? Do we need God?’” he says. “But for someone like Augustine, it seemed to come out of passionate lived experiences like desire, frustration, suffering. Somehow, these aspects of moral life seem to lead directly to theological questions for him.”

This desire to explore the Divine Comedy more, as well as theology as an immersive experience, has led Chiaranunt to a Global Pathways Fellowship this summer. He will study Italian for 12 weeks at the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci in Siena, Italy. He wants to have a working knowledge in Italian to aid his study of Dante, and is excited to pursue the text further at Yale, where the Italian department is vibrant and a particular professor is deeply immersed in the Divine Comedy.

Chiaranunt was inspired to pursue graduate work in part by the process of writing his senior essay on the Inferno.

“The whole idea of spending time just focused on one text, writing an essay on it—I want to do that all the time,” he says. “In a way, there was a lot of freedom in it. I had a lot of fun with it.”

When it comes to getting his master’s degree, he is optimistic. “I know that my plans to keep on studying Dante may be challenged or complicated in an environment primarily designed to train preachers and ministers,” Chiaranunt says of his upcoming studies at Yale, “but I nevertheless look forward to my time there.”