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Dante & the Gift of a Broken Heart

That is so, so gratifying to hear. From How Dante Can Save Your Life [3]:

In a real sense, my sister, and the love she lived and shared with the world, gave us our church. She could not give me the love I wanted, nor could she receive the love I wanted to give. But because Ruthie lived and died radiant with love, she was able to give me priceless gifts.

She gave me the gift of homecoming. She gave me the gift of a church. And she (and others in the family) shattered my illusions and gave me the gift of exiling me into a dark wood.

It was indeed a gift. Had it not been for my fortunate fall, I never would have prayed like I did, and I never would have made my prideful self so vulnerable to Father Matthew. I never would have humbled myself enough to sit down on Mike Holmes’s therapy couch. I never would have read past the first tercet in the Commedia and never would have experienced the power of great art to change one’s life.

Without those things, I would still be in exile from God the Father, who was there all along, though I could not and would not let him see me. “You came home expecting to find something else, but what you really found was God,” Julie told me.

As I said repeatedly to Father Matthew as we walked side by side, heart to heart, on this journey, I never would have chosen this pilgrimage had I known how hard it would be. But I am so thankful for it, because it has taken me closer to God the Father than I have ever been. This brokenness has been a gift and a mercy.

Dante taught me to embrace my broken heart, and all the pain of it, and not only to bear the pain but to let the love of God transform that pain into the source of new life. It had all been theory before, but circumstances made it real. Like the real-life poet Dante, I had done everything right, but still ended up in miserable exile — and I couldn’t see past the panther blocking my path to freedom and wholeness.

An old friend, an Evangelical who lives in suburban Dallas, and who has lived through more tragedy, betrayal, and suffering than most people ever will see, wrote me last night from the depths of How Dante to say:

So far, I want the ENTIRE PROTESTANT CHURCH to read this. Oh, my lands, THIS is…Rod, the church isn’t teaching this and people are going to hell because they are buying into the “grace cloud”, and they are living in hell  because they don’t know salvation is as here and now as it is then and there. Holiness is not about performance. It’s about wholeness. We are killing ourselves trying to fill this emptiness inside us, and the answer is holiness, not because of what the rules do, because that is where love leads us. In loving God, our love leads us to holy living, which is oneness with Him. Oh, Rod, if only people would cling to this like we cling to our rights to “live in grace”…

That rocked me. I can assure my friend that there are any number of Catholics and Orthodox Christians who need to encounter the life-giving truths in The Divine Comedy as much as any Protestant. We Americans are all so used to thinking that the Christian life is about following the rules so we can be rewarded one day by being allowed into heaven. Maybe we know better, but we don’t live that way. I knew better, but I didn’t live that way, until I received my wake-up call in the pages of this medieval poem, full of grace.

tinyhowdante [4]How Dante Can Save Your Life is not a Catholic book, an Orthodox book, or a Protestant book. It is a Christian book, primarily, but also a book for the “spiritual but not religious” seeker who thinks he knows all there is to know about Christianity, and has rejected it. Dante invites a second look, for believers and unbelievers both. There is a depth of Christian knowledge, experience, and tradition that goes far, far beyond what most of us encounter in our ordinary experience. Dante’s great poem, his cathedral in verse written in the 14th century, opened my eyes, and transformed my heart.

If you have read How Dante Can Save Your Life [3], I would appreciate hearing from you in the comments section of this thread. Please be honest. I have written this book with a mission in mind: helping people who are in the same bad place that I was in when I found Dante — or rather, Dante found me, because I don’t believe in chance. If I have succeeded, please tell me about it, because it will make me grateful, and it will encourage others to open themselves to the wisdom of Dante. If I have failed, I want to know about that too, because I’m going to be doing a lot of talking about Dante in the near future, and I want to make up in my talks what I missed in my book.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Dante & the Gift of a Broken Heart"

#1 Comment By Nathan Gates On April 15, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

Any plans on recording it as an audiobook?

[NFR: Not now. — RD]

#2 Comment By Darth Thulhu On April 15, 2015 @ 3:50 pm

Got home last night and read the book through in one sitting. Finally got to bed around 4a. Good, deep, powerful, yet also simple and straightforward work. I’m eager to advocate for it.

How Dante was significantly more autobiographical than I was expecting as it kept going deeper into Hell and Purgatory (my expectation had been autobiography as Prelude, rather than autobiography as Through-Line), but it works strongly, having the same “life mirror” spiraling that characterized Little Way, this time mirroring and echoing the catastrophic life of Dante rather than contrasting and reverse-orbitting the saintly life of Ruthie.

The Rod/Dante life-path mirroring works so strongly because it echoes and reinforces the many Damned vs. Saved life-path mirrorings of Hell versus Purgatory. The intense editing has a lot to do with that: this is not an obsessive theological exploration of each circle and tier and heaven; instead, it hooks each relevant story directly to something meaningful in Dante’s and/or Rod’s journey, expounding on the ones that resonate intensely and gliding over the ones that don’t.

In particular, I think it was inspired to leave Limbo and the majority of Heaven on the cutting room floor. Neither Rod nor Dante was ever a non-Christian spiritual philosopher, nor has either successfully experienced and reported back the nature of Paradise, so digging into the theology and history of those two more deeply would have directly distracted from the internal Hell/Purgatory struggle in a real “More is Less” fashion. Good call to cut them so starkly.

I look forward to a slower and more thorough reread over the weekend. But this was a real joy to experience. A work with real Beauty in it, amply magnified by the publisher’s artwork choices.

[NFR: I especially appreciate this generous commentary, not least because you are not a Christian, and testify by your comments that this is a book that you don’t have to be a believer to benefit from. Thanks. — RD]

#3 Comment By Jonathan On April 15, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

Thus far I am into Il Paradiso, Longfellow translation and will obtain your book when I get back. Hopefully it is in my mailbox waiting for me.

This opening of the heart, what does it require? There appears no formula, no way, and no found method for attaining this — just the ripening at the right moment in life. And the love that appears is boundless and strong and never wavering though our hearts quiver vacillating between momentary states of forgetfulness and remembrance as we obsess about our daily cares and hopes. We are only moments plotted upon an invisible line whose unknown trajectory traces individual lives in the face of the One who always awake resides not along these broken courses but gently and, yes, firmly caresses them.

#4 Comment By Nora Whitten On April 15, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

I wasn’t going to buy the book, because I figured the audience was small enough that I could get a great discount later. But Dante (and Rod) made me ask whether I was serving God or myself. So I ordered the book. I feel like I’m being turned inside out. It’s horribly painful, yet I know it’s right. God, I’ve been self-important and self-righteous. Save me from that Hell.

#5 Comment By Darth Thulhu On April 15, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

(Trying again. Wonky robot-verification issues.)

Rod wrote:

I especially appreciate this generous commentary, not least because you are not a Christian

My pleasure. My tradition respects Christianity as one of the major revelations of God, one of very few perfect Lights shining in a darkness grown shrouded with time. It is entirely appropriate to joyfully acknowledge one of the greatest spiritual heights achieved within that revelation, one of the most fulsome reflections of that perfect Light achieved in any age. Respecting and reflecting that beacon into the present day is holy work.

testify by your comments that this is a book that you don’t have to be a believer to benefit from.

That’s more complicated, and I believe partially inaccurate.

My Faith is monotheist and accepting of the Christian dispensation (including the status of Son-ship), though less accepting of the full lists of the particulars of the Creeds. While it’s entirely appropriate to say that I’m not affiliated as a Christian, it’s as inappropriate to say I am not “a believer” in the God adored by Christ as it is to say that a Jew, a Sunni, a Houthi, and a Mormon are not “believers” in the God adored by Christ.

While I don’t think one needs to be “a believer” to get good things out of How Dante, I do think it is a book most properly shelved in Christian Life. I think Theists are going to get more from the book than Non-Theists, who will in turn get more from it than Anti-Theists. Within Theists, I expect mono-Theists to get more from it than poly-Theists. Within mono-Theists, I expect (o)rthodox Christians will resonate more with it than followers of other traditions, who will in turn resonate more with it than Therapeutic Theists.

In the best possible sense of the term, How Dante is (o)rthodox Christian Witness to the non-(o)rthodox. It is a testimony and an exploration of why and how (o)rthodox Christianity can be a meaningful and valid and healing spiritual road for people today and tomorrow and forever, with a firm grip on real Truths about the Eternal.


You are most welcome. Again: the pleasure is mine. God is God, and acknowledging a powerful Witness of the gift of radiant grace is always a joy.

#6 Comment By Pastor Thomas Pietsch On April 15, 2015 @ 9:37 pm

This reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol:
Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

#7 Comment By Isidore The Farmer On April 15, 2015 @ 9:45 pm

I’m planning on starting it the next week or so – I’m finishing something else already started. I can say the artwork really is stunning.

I’ve avoided the excerpts as much as possible since I knew I’d be reading it so soon.

Good luck with sales, but know it’s worthwhile regardless….

#8 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 15, 2015 @ 9:50 pm

Congrats on getting another book published.

#9 Comment By Michelle On April 15, 2015 @ 11:49 pm

My copy arrived in the mail today. I likely won’t get to it for a couple of days, but it is a physically beautiful book, which is why I ordered the hard copy as opposed to downloading it to Kindle. I’m glad I did.

Again, congratulations!

#10 Comment By Cheryl On April 16, 2015 @ 8:31 am

We have a trip to Tuscany planned this summer, so my husband, oldest son and I agreed to read Dante to “get ready.” Downloaded the Great Courses lectures (on sale!) yesterday. Musa’s translation, two Italy travel guides and your book are scheduled to be delivered today. I am so looking forward to all of them.

Thank you in advance for your generosity of heart, to share your experience. We are Lutheran and our kids go to a Baptist-leaning Christian private school. I am looking forward to learning more about Catholicism through Dante, and Orthodoxy in your book. I think it will be like getting to see a sculpture in real life, rather than a flat photo of the work. What a joy!

#11 Comment By sigaliris On April 16, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

My copy arrived yesterday. I have resisted an instant binge-read because I want to read it with Mr. Sig so I’ll have someone to talk to about it. I just wanted to say that as a physical object, it’s every bit as beautiful as Rod claimed. The cover and dust jacket are elegant. It will look nice on the shelf next to my slipcased hardcover version of the Commedia and my treasured Oxford University Press copy of Charles Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice. The color-printed endpapers are delightful. The paper is nice quality, and the layout is inviting, with interior illustrations and epigraphs at the head of each chapter. Another interesting feature is a “How To” reflection in a box at the end of each chapter, inviting self-examination and discussion. This would be very helpful to use if reading the book with others.

I highly recommend that readers buy a hard copy if possible. Doesn’t incarnational spirituality incline one to love the physical object, not just the digital representation of its contents?

How’s that for a favorable review of a book I haven’t read yet? Consideration of the contents will follow when I’ve read it.

[NFR: Thank you! — RD]

#12 Comment By Adam On April 16, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

Rod, is there a site or link that lists all of the places you’ll be giving your talks? I’d love to attend one.

[NFR: I posted them on this site the other day. In the coming days, I’ll be in South Bend, Houston, Boston, Dallas, and Phoenix. Any of these near you? — RD]