A unique book shares the personal story of its author’s journey from misery to bliss — with a 14th-century literary legend leading the way
While you may remember Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” from high school English class, it’s likely you didn’t approach it as a guide to spiritual well-being.
But in his new book, “How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem (Reagan Arts, $30), Rod Dreher explains how Dante’s masterpiece guided him out of “a dark wood” and into new life.
Following is an excerpt from my conversation with Dreher.
Kris McGregor: This is a Dante book like no other. It made me want to pick up that beautiful book again.
Rod Dreher: My intention was to make Dante accessible to people like me, who have never read the “Divine Comedy” before. Dante wanted to reach ordinary people who were suffering, as he himself had once suffered.
McGregor: I was expecting to encounter Dante right away, and you started telling your story. I became more involved in the storytelling you’re doing of your own life, and when you did get to Dante, I wasn’t ready for the transition!
Dreher: Most people don’t realize that the poem was written in exile. Dante was the most popular poet of his time in Florence, but he got on the wrong side of politics.
He lost everything, and he realized that he had abandoned God, so he wrote this poem to talk about how he himself came back to God, in a condition of exile, and to help other people do it as well.
In my case, I had come back to my small town in Louisiana, where I had left as a teenager after going into exile myself.
I always longed to go home, and when my sister Ruthie Leming died of cancer in 2011, I saw so much beauty, so much holiness, so much love in my town and in my family, and I wanted to be a part of that.
As it turned out, that didn’t work for me. My sister’s kids would not accept me, my sister’s widower would not accept me, and my mom and dad stood by them. I knew then that I am never going to be able to come home again. I am in exile, even though I’m right here at my father’s doorstep.
I fell into a deep depression. I became physically ill with a chronic mononucleosis. My life was really on the line, and my doctor said, “Brother, you better find inner peace some kind of way.”
I was in a bookstore in Baton Rouge in the poetry section, and there on the shelf I saw the “Divine Comedy,” and I thought, I’ve always wanted to read that, but it’s not for me.
For whatever reason, I pulled the book off the shelf and read the first lines: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the straight path.”
Instantly I thought, that is me. That is where I’m standing now. What do I do? So I kept reading, and I thought, maybe this is for me.
In the first cantos, God sends Virgil, the great Roman poet, to help Dante, and Virgil says, I know the way out. I can lead you out. It’s going to be a long road, it’s going to be a hard road, but if you stay here, you’re going to die. Dante the pilgrim had no choice but to follow him. So they leave, and go out, and I thought, is Dante the poet my Virgil, right here in the bookstore?
I put the book back on the shelf, but I couldn’t forget it. Eventually I ordered it and started reading. Five months later, I came out the other side. I was healed by the grace of God and the art of Dante Alighieri.
McGregor: How did you use Dante as a road map?
Dreher: Dante believed that what we love determines what we think and who we are. The whole experience of the “Divine Comedy” is about reordering our loves, so that the love of Christ pulls us through the inferno, up the mountain of purgatory, and ultimately face-to-face with God. That is the whole purpose of life.
I had no idea, until I started reading, how deep this is, and how the “Inferno” really is a journey into your own heart. It was Dante’s journey into his heart, so he could become reawakened to the horrors of sin.
McGregor: God wants to reveal himself in us, but sometimes we put up walls, and we have to let go. But once you do that, there’s a beautiful rebuilding, isn’t there?
Dreher: That’s what the “Purgatorio” is about — how do we let go, how do we sever the chains that bind us to our own sin?
By the time Dante gets to the pit of hell, he is convicted of his own sin. He knows what he’s done wrong, but he still has to walk up the seven-story mountain, to prepare himself to be received into heaven.
For me, this really came home when I got to the circle where the sin of anger is purged. I was struggling so much with anger at my dead sister, at my mom and dad, at my family, because I thought it was so unjust, what they had done in turning their backs on me.
When Dante the pilgrim gets here, the whole level of the mountain is covered with hot, thick, black smoke, with sparks going around.
This is what anger does to us, it blinds us. We can’t see. He meets a man named Marco the Lombard, who’s suffering temporarily. Dante says, I’ve just come from the world, and everybody’s fighting everybody else. Families are breaking apart, there’s war, the Church is corrupt, etc., etc. Where did people go wrong?
And Marco says, brother, the world is blind, and you too come from it. He goes on to say that there’s part of our nature that inclines toward sin, but God also gave us free will, and if we use our free will to refuse sin, we will not be captive to it.
He ends by telling Dante, if you want to know what’s wrong with the world, look inside your own heart. There the answer lies.
When I read that, boom! It just knocked me flat. I realized the truth — I can’t change my family. But it is within my power, aided by the Holy Spirit, to change my heart.
McGregor: When you spoke of your own healing, it was going and receiving that incredible offering of grace that God gives us, in the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.
Dreher: What people need to realize as they read my book is that it’s not about the sins of my parents, and the sins of other people. It always comes back to my sins. My priest told me at one point in the confessional — I was complaining about my dad this, my dad that — he said, wait, wait, wait. You’re not here to talk about your dad’s sin. You’re here to talk about your sins. And he was right.
I had to discover through this journey that there is no way to healing without humility. I had to constantly go into the confessional to face my own sins.
It was a continual walk through the inferno, and a climb up the mountain to purgatory. But it was the only way for me to purify my own vision so I could not only see the blessing God had for me, but that I could receive it.
McGregor: When we look at the character of Beatrice, as the perfection of what love is, do we realize that we all have a Beatrice in our lives?
Dreher: Beatrice is one of the great figures in all literature. Dante idealized her. When she died, he threw himself into all these pursuits of power that ultimately got him off the straight path to God.
So when he meets Beatrice, you think it’s going to be this beautiful, warm, loving meeting of two old friends, but it doesn’t happen that way. She rebukes him, and says, why did you abandon the straight path?
Dante confesses that he had not seen her as an icon of God, but as an idol. So she had him repent of that. She basically tells him, don’t you know that I have been trying to bring you to God? That’s what I was there for, that’s what we’re all there for. She rebukes him in love, so he can snap out of it and get straight.
My wife has done this so many times in life. She’s my Beatrice. She felt sorry for me, but she also knew I could not rest in that. I had to get better, and because she loved me, she had to make me go through hell, and climb up the mountain, so I could know peace.
McGregor: Is Dante your Virgil?
Dreher: Absolutely. I made a trip last fall to Florence, to see all the places where Dante had lived, and I went to his grave in Ravenna, where he died in exile. I knelt there and I thanked God for sending Dante to me, to rescue me from the dark wood. And I said, “Dante, please pray for me, that I will write well of you.” And I hope I have.
Click here to listen to the full interview.
Kris McGregor is the founder of Discerninghearts.com, an online resource for the best in contemporary Catholic spirituality.
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