My new book How Dante Can Save Your Life is about working through the profound brokenness within myself and my family after I moved back to Louisiana and wrote The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. One of the major issues I struggled with was a deep sense of injustice after my sister’s family rejected me (because that’s what Mama would have wanted) and my own parents tended to side with them. That shattered me, sent me into depression, made me physically ill.
And then I discovered Dante, and he — along with my therapist and my priest — led me out of the dark wood that trapped me, and into the light of healing.
One of the big things I had to overcome was a deep-seated anger at the injustice of it all. After I read the canto in Purgatorio in which the pilgrim Dante is shown the blinding consequences of wrath, I made trying to uproot the wrath deep in my heart a focus of my spiritual struggle. It was very, very difficult. From the book (by the way, Orthodox priests usually call parishioners by their patron saint’s name, hence “Benedict”):
After vespers one warm october night, I took my spiteful passions to Father Matthew in confession.
“I know my anger is wrong, and that’s why I’m in confession,” I said. “I realized, reading Dante this week, that I resented all of them for being happy without us. I know it’s not right, but I can’t get out from under this anger.”
I explained that I felt like I was living the prodigal son parable, but in this telling, the father is not running out to welcome the long-lost son but rather taking the side of the bitter older brother and not letting the younger one come through the gate.
“That’s tough,” Father Matthew said. “So what do you want?”
“I want justice. It’s not fair, the way they do me.”
“You want justice?” he said, chuckling. “What is justice? You have no right to expect justice. It’s nice if you get it, but if you don’t, that doesn’t release you from the commandment to love. The elder brother in the prodigal son story stood on justice, but his father stood on love.”
“Okay, but I think that if I do that, they’re going to win.”
“Win? This is a contest, Benedict?” he said. “I don’t know about you, but from where I sit, it doesn’t look to me like you’re winning much of anything by hanging on to all of this.”
My priest was right. Dante was right. I didn’t know what it meant to walk the way of love over the way of justice, but I knew I had to do it.
You’ll see in the book how this all played out. The book has a happy ending, which I won’t reveal here. but not exactly the ending I hoped for.
On Good Friday, I got the ending I hoped for. The conversation I had with my father was too private, too intimate, too precious to write about here. But I can tell you that the conflict is now over. Really over. And the reason it ended, I now see, was because against my own nature, I walked the difficult way of love instead of justice. I took the path Dante told me to take, and that Father Matthew told me to take, even though it was a much harder and less familiar route. By God’s grace, it calmed my heart enough for me to do things I needed to do, and to say things I needed to say, at the right time. It moved my dad’s heart. We reconciled, in a profoundly moving way.
I’ll keep the details private. But just know this, and keep this in mind as you read How Dante: All is well with our souls.
None of this would have happened if not for Dante’s wisdom and witness, and the leadership of my priest and my therapist, who built on what I learned by reading the Divine Comedy and led me out of the dark wood of my own heart, and toward the light of God’s grace and love. As the nun Piccarda says in Paradiso: “In His will is our peace.” Father Matthew told me that He — God — wills for me to love even in the face of injustice. There is no other way. This is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and it’s something I will be working on for the rest of my life. But I plucked the sweetest imaginable fruit of this way on Good Friday.
And I have to say, the only thing I had to do with it was choose to be humble enough to submit to this direction, and let grace do its work. In his great book about the early church, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, historian Robert Louis Wilken writes that St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) pondered what it meant for Christians to be “perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” as Jesus instructs us to be. Writes Wilken:
If the perfection of God can never be ours, likeness to God, it would seem is beyond our reach. Some things about God can, however, be imitated. The one divine attribute Gregory singles out is the poverty mentioned by Jesus in the beatitude “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for their is the kingdom of heaven.” This poverty is found in “voluntary humility,” he says. Saint Paul directs our attention to God, “who being rich, for us became poor that we through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Even though everything else associated with the divine nature is beyond our capability, says Gregory, humility is within our grasp, indeed, it is the mark of true virtue. Only through humility can we free ourselves from the distinctively human sins of pride and arrogance. Therefore, says Gregory, we “imitate God” by being humble.
You never know what will happen when you do this. Hope is realistic. It’s like St. Thomas Aquinas tells Dante in Paradiso:
“For I have seen the briar first look dry and thorny
right through all the winter’s cold,
then later wear the bloom of roses at its tip…”
You never know. You cast a line, you trust, you pray, you hope, and you try to be humble — even though your nature is prideful — and you choose love over justice, whether you want to or not.
And then sometimes, grace moves.
This is real. I cannot wait for this book to publish, and to go out on the road talking about it. Next week is Easter for me, as an Orthodox Christian, but this weekend, I am feeling the joy of Resurrection. If you live in the Baton Rouge area and would like to come be part of our worship on Orthodox Holy Week, and hear Father Matthew Harrington preach, here’s a link to the St. John the Theologian mission.
I see now that the Amazon pre-order link for How Dante Can Save Your Life has a “look inside” feature on it. Take a look to read more of the book. Maybe it’s something for you.
UPDATE: Look at this post from reader Lulu, who last year said that reading Dante with this blog’s readers during Lent, and encountering what the poet had to say about the passions and asceticism, inspired her to quit smoking. This morning she writes:
I’ve been saving this up to tell you at the appropriate time, and Easter Sunday, or even Palm Sunday, seems appropriate. It is over one year since I quit smoking thanks to the confluence of you, Dante, and Lent.
I had some breathing troubles this winter, so I went to the doctor who told me I’d already done the hard work of quitting and asked me how. I told her what I’ve told you. She smiled but I could see she didn’t take it too seriously. But this is serious for me, a now former smoker (of 30+ years), to be able to report that my breathing troubles are after effects of smoking, but that actually my lung function is good.
Saving lives indeed.