I’ve just finished How Dante, and what stands out for me is that word work. Grace is a labor, and it’s not one-sided. As Paul says in Philippians, God works in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Salvation is, says Dreher, “a matter of action.” God initiates, but we participate. He starts, and we join.
Dreher’s attention is focused on that participation, that joining of ours. What does it look like? One thing Dreher points out is that on our own we really don’t know. Not only does this come through the very premise of the book—that Dreher required Dante to show him the way—but it’s something Dante incorporated into the storyline of the Comedy itself.
Miller talks about how in the Commedia, the pilgrim Dante learns by observing others what to do, and what not to do, if he would gain salvation, which is to say, union with God. The pilgrim (mostly) learns not by direct instruction, but by being shown evil, and being shown goodness, and participating in the reality of these things in his body, for the sake of the purification of his soul. Sometimes the participation involves being absorbed so thoroughly in the artistic representation of a virtue or a vice that it converts his soul more deeply. Miller:
Discussing the power of these and other models to guide us, Dreher says this: “These weren’t principles, these weren’t arguments; these were people who displayed the whole panoply of human nature, from its most corrupt to its most pure.” And from them we learn to discard the impure and take on the righteous.
As far as I can tell, no reviewer yet has zeroed in on the “work” part of the salvation model Dante teaches. Protestant readers may recoil at the language, because it may sound to them like Dante says we can earn our salvation through good works. Fear not: he doesn’t. What Dante says, though, is that God’s saving grace is a free gift, but we have to respond to it, and respond to it every moment of every day. My priest Father Matthew once preached a sermon on the Gospel passage in which Jesus healed the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda. From John 5:
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.
Father Matthew’s point was that Jesus, by His power, could have raised the man on his own. But he required the man to assent to the healing offered him, and he required the man to do what He gave him the power to do: walk. And so it is with us. We cannot earn our salvation, which is a free gift of God’s grace. But if our salvation is to be confirmed, if it is to be made real, the work we have to do is a work of acceptance, of submission, and of obedience.
This is what happens to Dante the pilgrim in the Commedia. At the beginning, Virgil, serving as God’s agent, offers the lost Dante healing, but tells him he has to walk. It’s not a perfect analogy, because for the pilgrim Dante, healing comes not prior to the act of walking, but through the act of walking, of undertaking the pilgrimage.
When Joel Miller talks of the Commedia‘s focus on the work of our salvation, he makes me think of the Christian life as an apprenticeship. You can’t really learn what it means to be a Christian through books. You can get the theory there, but you only truly understand it through working at it, and working alongside those who are farther along in mastery and craftsmanship, and who can teach you, by example and otherwise, how to live the life. As Miller says, even Protestant Christians imitate the saints, though they may not concede it, or frame it that way. To use an example Miller brings up, the great Protestant missionary Elisabeth Elliot, who died the other day, was a model of holiness for countless Evangelicals. As I mentioned earlier today, the example of the children of one of the slain Charleston church members serves as an extraordinarily powerful witness to the holiness of their mother’s life, and the faith that formed her, and them. There’s nothing like seeing and hearing holiness — and for that matter, seeing and hearing evil, such as what Dylann Roof has done — to make spiritual truths real, in a way that changes your heart.
Reading Dante changed my life by drawing me into the imagination of this greatest of all poets, and allowing the world he created inhabit me, and reveal things to me about myself that I had hidden. The Commedia was a powerful vehicle of divine grace; I saw myself in the all-too-human wickedness of its damned, and I saw myself in the poem’s struggling penitents, and I saw glimmers of what I could be in its saints. I learned from reading the Commedia very little that I didn’t already know as a theoretical proposition. But theory only gets you so far. Because I got up and walked with Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, the healing God offered to me all along became real.
It can for you too. Read Joel Miller’s review for more on this topic. And try the book, and see for yourself. You can’t just sit there waiting for healing to happen to you. You have to get up and walk.
UPDATE: The Englewood Review of Books considers How Dante. Excerpt:
He does so by reading the Commedia, deeply and slowly, for its moral acuity, its knowledge of human nature, and the beauty of its theological vision. Beauty is the key here – Dreher may be our guide to Dante, but Dante is Dreher’s guide, leading him away from what Dreher calls the “idols of family and place” and toward the beauty of God’s love. The personal note sounded in Dreher’s book – how he conveys the sheer wisdom of the Commedia, and how it connects to both his own life and a larger Christian (and human) vision of flourishing – is what holds this book together.
For a lot of people who have difficult relationships with their family, with their hometown – for the people who, like Dante and Dreher, find themselves in spiritual exile – How Dante Can Save Your Life will not only resonate, but give hope. This book proclaims that the way home “out of the dark woods” can be indeed be found. And that makes it worth reading. If as a moral and spiritual writer Dreher is not yet the equal of, say, C. S. Lewis, parts of this book are as profound and moving as Lewis’s own memoir A Grief Observed. No mean feat, that.