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Dante, Cacciaguida, and Truth-Tellling

Why the hunt for healing only succeeds with hard honesty

Last week,  Prof. Louis Markos, a Dantist at Houston Baptist University, was kind enough to share the stage at HBU with me for an evening of Dante. Lou is a wonderworker of a lecturer, an ebullient evangelist for scholarship. It was more than an honor to be with him that night; it was sheer pleasure. And by the way, here’s a link to an HBU podcast interview I did for the book, in which several of us talked about Dante, art, and faith.

I’m grateful to Prof. Markos for his generous take on How Dante Can Save Your Life. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

Given his life experiences, it would have been easy for Dreher to paint himself as a victim and blame everyone else for his woes. But neither God nor Dante allows him to do so. Rather, as he descends the levels of the inferno and then ascends the cornices of purgatory alongside the Florentine poet, he comes face to face with his own propensity to make golden calves out of his family and his tradition: in a word, southern ancestral worship. Yes, his father and sister must bear some guilt, but Dreher alone allows himself to become bound to these false idols.

Just as Dante, standing before the Gate of Dis (lower hell), is nearly turned to stone by the face of the Medusa, so Dreher’s memories of his childhood paralyze him and impede his spiritual progress. “My sins,” he comes to realize in a moment of Dantean enlightenment, “always emerged from anger at the unjust way I had been treated and impotent rage at my inability to change my family’s minds or to overcome the power of these memories over my emotions.”

On the Amazon reader reviews of my book, one reviewer, apparently thinking that she’s being sympathetic to me, says unkind and untrue things about my family. Another reader says that I blame them for everything. Neither of these points is accurate, and I appreciate that this passage from the Markos review gives me the chance to address them.

One of the key points about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and even stronger in How Dante, is how even the best among us can sin profoundly, whether we intend to or not — and that that sinfulness can occur not in spite of our virtues, but because of those virtues. And my sister’s virtues, as I have testified in my previous book, were very great. My father’s virtues are indeed great. It’s a complex point, but it’s the way human nature is. My sister, my father, and I were caught up in a sinful relationship not because we didn’t love each other, but because our love, on all three sides, was disordered by a distorted view of Family and Place. For me, Dante’s understanding of sin not as lawbreaking but as a damaged form of love was important to understanding my crisis situation, and how to break out of it.

How Dante makes it clear that all of us involved in this situation are guilty of failing to love properly. As I say in the book, every time I saw a family member in a character of the Commedia, I also saw myself. A core lesson brought home to me by this Dante journey is that I am not responsible for the sins of others; I am only responsible for my own. And holding on to anger at others for how they have treated me is sin. There is no getting around it. Even if, on paper, my case is solidly just, for Christians, justice — the right ordering of things — can only occur in harmony with the will of God. God, who is love itself, commands us to love. Justice is not fairness according to my standard, but conformity with God’s will — and God wills me to love, even if not loved, or loved rightly, in return.

This is incredibly difficult to do. As hard as climbing a mountain, you might say. But we have no choice. I didn’t. Neither do you. Over and over in my book, I bring the story back to my own sins and failings, which are real, and certainly the only thing over which I have any control. But I wrote about real people and real events for a reason that Dante discusses in Canto XVII of Paradiso, in the pilgrim’s meeting with Cacciaguida, his ancestor.

In that canto, Dante (the pilgrim) learns that he will never return home to Florence, that his exile will be permanent. But he also discovers from his sainted ancestor that his task is to write about all the things he has seen. He must not hate those who have done him wrong, Cacciaguida counsels, for he will live to see them suffer. Dante learns that in speaking his mind, he must not be “a timid friend to the truth,” and that he must speak of real people.

“Because the mind that hears won’t set one foot

of faith in an example that presents

a never-heard-of or a hidden root,

Nor in all but the clearest evidence.”

I have told a true story, even the weird parts (the ghost chapter), because it is a story of brokenness and redemption. I am starting to receive e-mails from people who say they see their own lives in the story I have written, and that they are being moved by it — moved to act to change. That is what I hope for. Even though Dante the poet suffered injustice, the journey of his fictional avatar through the Commedia is a pilgrimage of inwardness in which he learns to accept healing by owning his own sins.

A reader who came out to one of my talks last week writes:

I’ve only read your writings for years–never seen the animated Rod. But even so it struck me immediately that this Dante journey has left you a transformed man. Really exalting to the One who has overseen (and graced!) the hard work.

That is so gratifying to hear. And it’s true. Though it is also the case that people who come to see me have long been startled to see how lighthearted I am in person; they assume from my writing that I am very gloomy and heavy-laden. Not true at all! Even so, it is also the case that the Dante journey really has transformed me. And taking the Dante journey can transform you, too. I feel deeply evangelical about that. After all, as Charles Cosimano said, a book that both he and Archbishop Chaput can rave about has to be dangerous. 😉

I encourage you to re-read my long post from a year or so back in which I discussed Dante, Cacciaguida, and my relationship to my own father. Excerpt:

“Cacciaguida” means “guide of the hunt,” which leads Herzman to conclude: “What Cacciaguida has to teach Dante is how to become the hunter rather than the hunted.”

How? He must stand outside of his pain and suffering, create art from the experience, and through it show the world the way to overcome the brokenness that led to his own exile, and, metaphorically, to the sense we all have of being alienated from God, others, and ourselves. Though Cacciaguida’s portrait of old Florence as utopia cannot possibly be true, the Dante scholar Giuseppe Mazzotta says the myth is important because it gives us an ideal by which to measure our descent, and to aspire to for our restoration:

Of course, this myth of a Florence of the past literally disintegrates when seen in contrast with the reality of Dante’s life as an exile, which is going to await him in the future. So, it’s exile that offers a realistic perspective of his being in history. It’s not a punishment, though it induces suffering. It becomes a virtue. Furthermore, in effect, it will become a paradigm in which we can all recognize ourselves.

What does he mean? That in some sense, each one of us lives in exile from the life we would like to have, or perhaps that we think we deserve. In fact, exile is the human condition. Man is a wayfarer and a pilgrim in this world. If you think about it, to desire what one doesn’t have is to be in exile, because you feel the distance between what you want and what you have. To live in time is to be an exile, because nothing lasts; permanence is an illusion. How can we find true peace within ourselves and among others? This is what Dante is learning on his pilgrimage through the afterlife, and this is what he must go back and tell others.

It just occurred to me, re-reading that, that the deepest break between my father and me came over hunting. My father wanted to make me a hunter, but I couldn’t do it, because I was too tender-hearted towards animals. There’s an extremely painful moment that occurs while hunting — something I tell in How Dante.  And there is a healing dream I have, 30 years later, while reading Dante, involving my father and a hunt. I won’t reveal it here, but just now, re-reading the Cacciaguida material, I marvel at how it was old Cacciaguida, a Crusader knight, a father figure to Dante, and the Guide of the Hunt, who gave me the courage to tell the truth, no matter what.

So, listen, if you live in north Texas, come out to see me and let me sign your book on Wednesday night at the Barnes & Noble near North Park, at 7pm. 

And on Thursday night, I and my fellow TAC editors, including the Mighty, Mighty Daniel Larison, would love to see you at a private reception benefiting this magazine. Tickets and other info here.