I hear from time to time from people who say they liked my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, but they didn’t pick up How Dante Can Save Your Life because they don’t really care about poetry or literary analysis.
Well, I’m not much on poetry or literary analysis either. And How Dante is not the book they think it is.
You might call it “literary self-help” for people who don’t buy self-help books. I was (am) that kind of person. And I rarely buy books of poetry. I consider that a character flaw, but that’s how I am. Yet I stumbled into The Divine Comedy when I was lost, depressed, and sick as a dog. I believe that God used that incomparable poem to heal me. Through it, the poet Dante systematically led me on an examination of conscience, and revealed to me sins, and patterns of sinfulness, that I had concealed from myself. Through prayer, confession, therapy, and plain old repentance (the hardest thing!), I slowly found my way back to the straight path, and was restored. Dante, in his poem, showed me the way out of the dark wood into which my own failures, disappointments, and passions had led me. How Dante is a story about hard-won victory.
With Lent almost upon the Christian West, it occurs to me this morning that some of you might want to take up How Dante as part of your Lenten reading. There’s a little bit of literary analysis in it, of course, but the overwhelming thrust of the book is about how to apply the insights in the poem to your own life struggles. In my own case, there wasn’t a lot I discovered in the Commedia that I didn’t already know at some level — that is, in terms of right and wrong — but because Dante embedded these moral and theological truths, and truths about human nature — in a fantastic story, that made all the difference in the world. In the book, I take Dante’s story and graft my own story onto it, and in so doing hope to inspire the reader to see his or her own life story, and struggles, in light of Dante’s adventure in the afterlife.
If you want a book that explores the literary qualities of the Commedia, mine is not a book for you. This is a book that shows you how to use the Commedia to achieve what the poet himself said he wanted his masterpiece to achieve: to bring the reader from a state of despair to a state of bliss.
There is no better time than Lent to read How Dante Can Save Your Life. You do not have to be Catholic, nor you do not have to have read the Commedia to get into the book. It is written for people who know the Commedia, and for people who have never cracked its covers. Dante’s Commedia, written in the early 14th century, is one of the greatest works ever produced by Western civilization. T.S. Eliot said, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.”
I never studied Dante in school, and you know, I’m glad of it, because I was able to first encounter him not as a Great Man Of Literature, and his poem as a cultural Mount Everest that I was too daunted to climb. I met him in a dark wood, when he came to me as an emissary from heaven, and said, “You are lost. I know the way out. Trust me — and follow me.” That’s what How Dante Can Save Your Life is about: introducing readers to the guide who can take them out of the darkness and into the light, because in his own life, he walked that treacherous path back to God, and wrote his poem to rescue others the way God rescued him. It’s a good book for Lent, and I hope you’ll give it a try.
Plus, the design of this book — man, it’s a real art object. Look at this endpaper below. I still can’t get over that a book so beautifully designed has my name on it: