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How Dante Saved His Life

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A reader sends this beautiful letter in. He gave me permission to post it, provided I make several slight changes to protect his identity. He has approved this version:

I write to you as if I am writing to a friend, because I feel that I know you. I read your blog quite frequently.

I’ll quickly give you my background. I was raised in a conservative Evangelical home. We weren’t just religious, we were Christians. I know a lot of “Sunday morning Christians,” but I am very thankful that my parents weren’t. I have loved the Lord as long as I can remember, and had a conversion experience when I was 8. I’ve tried to read the Word of God and conform my life to it. I participated fully in the life of our church. It was the center of my life, although in high school the school began to take away from church’s centrality.

When I hit puberty, I began to experience attraction to other boys. I explained it away or ignored it for years, but eventually in college I came to accept that I was bisexual or gay (I do not believe in modern concepts of sexual orientation. Through studying ancient history I’ve come to firmly believe that orientation is a social construct, one which the devil works through. Nevertheless, however you want to deal with it semantically, I experience sexual and romantic attraction towards both men and women, but probably more towards men than women). In high school and junior high, I didn’t deal with these attractions correctly. I bottled them up and didn’t talk to any spiritual leaders about them. To be fair to myself, I had no reason to believe that any spiritual mentors would have been good to talk to about this. Fire and brimstone sermons about gays who would corrupt our country didn’t exactly make me feel like I could find pastoral support for what I was experiencing.

I should speed up. I came to college and had a crisis of faith. I went to a top secular university because I wanted to be an emissary for Christianity. Instead, I found my faith shaken because of my struggles with my sexuality. I eventually opened up to a campus minister and my church’s pastor, who were gracious and loving and have supported me for years now. I also have many Christian friends who pray for me and encourage me. However, it has still been a tremendous struggle, and I wish that I had gone to a mental health professional (preferably Christian) when I was having my darkest days. It would get to the point where I would lay in bed and not want to do anything, paralyzed by the conflict between my intellect (to follow a Christian sexual ethic) and the desires of my heart (to give in and live like almost everyone at my university would have me to: being “true” to who I “really was”). It has been a slow, slow battle, but God is my portion and my strength and has been changing the desires of my heart.

Once again, I should speed up. Last year, I wanted to take a class on one of the great books. I signed up for a class on Dante. I was interested in the Inferno, but had trouble getting into it. I became ill for a month, and found it hard to focus on anything. When we started reading Purgatorio , I became much more engrossed in the Divine Comedy.

About this time, I met a young man my age with a very similar background. Unfortunately, I fell in love. I justified my actions in growing close to this person (I’ll call him Scott) because there was no sexual sin. I rationalized my sin by considering the relationship a best friendship. Then sexual sin happened (over a month into what I told myself was a friendship), and I admitted to myself that things had gone wrong. I also conveniently happened to read the cantos about lust in Purgatorio. Fortunately, Thanksgiving Break happened and I had some time to talk to God (and read Dante!). I finished Purgatorio and read Paradiso. I saw what was wrong, the desires of my heart were all out of whack. I wanted what our culture told me I should want rather than what God has actually made me to want. I already knew I had to get out of my situation with Scott, I just didn’t know if I had the strength. It just felt so right (there’s some moralistic therapeutic deism for you! It’s funny how I can revile MTD in my head but still have it working in my heart). I felt that strength I needed when I read Piccarda’s oft-quoted words about God’s will being our peace. She is so right!

Immediately after finishing Paradiso, I bought How Dante Can Save Your Life and devoured it. Quite frankly, I should not have. I had a lot of schoolwork I should have been doing instead of pleasure reading. I suppose one’s soul is more important than one’s GPA, however. Your book helped me to synthesize my thoughts about the Divine Comedy, and gave me the last bit of strength I needed. It was really, really important for helping me to synthesize all my thoughts. The Divine Comedy is not an easy work! These words of yours were particularly enlightening to me:

“Sin is not, at heart, a violation of a legalistic code, but rather a distortion of love. In Dante, sinners–and we are all sinners–are those who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way.”

The desires of my heart were twisted. Once I broke the “legalistic code” it was too late.

“The pilgrim Dante’s journey teaches him that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If everyone, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they loved themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome our passions and our ego, to make room for the transforming love of God.”

That was what I needed the strength to do, to overcome my passions enough to make room for the transforming love of God.

When I returned to my university, after about a week of getting my courage up, I broke things off with Scott. I probably sound like a weak person since that was so hard, but it simply was, and I am a weak person whose only strength comes from the grace of God. It was interesting, because it was a sort of ultimate choice. On the one hand, I had Scott and everything that a successful relationship in the modern university is supposed to be. On the other hand, I had Christ and what could turn out to be a lifetime of emotional hardship. I chose Christ because I am convinced that one day I will experience the Beatific Vision, and it will be glorious. I do worry because I was so close to choosing Scott over God. That would have been tragic. It was by God’s grace that I read Dante for the first time in parallel to some of the most lethal temptation I’ve experienced.

I thank you from the depths of my heart for reading this. Thank you for being open about the struggles that lead you to write How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dante also saved my life. And I managed to get an A in the class 🙂

I am so humbled by this letter, and the courage of this young man. His sins are not my sins, and they may not be your sins, but every one of us has sins. The power of Dante to lead us back to the clear path is remarkable! It is a narrow path, and at times a very difficult one, but it is the way of life.

Men (and women) like this man should not have to walk it alone. If you are a Christian who would condemn him, or stay away from him because he is same-sex attracted, you are very, very wrong. He is struggling to do the right thing, same as you and I are with our own sins. If we cannot accompany him on the pilgrimage, then what kind of Christians are we? One of the greatest things about the Commedia is how, on the long pilgrim’s road up the Seven Storey Mountain, the broken but forgiven and healing sinners help bear each other’s burdens. This is how we are meant to live!

By the way, I found out on Wednesday that the publisher is going to re-issue How Dante in paperback (it is only available in Kindle form now, but you can get it for 99 cents). The paperback should be out by late March.

You don’t have to have read Dante before reading How Dante, but I hope my little book will inspire you to take on the Commedia. Lent is a great time to try. Be sure you get a good modern translation, with great notes. The ones I recommend to beginners are Mark Musa’s (here’s his Inferno) and Anthony Esolen’s (here’s his Inferno). Don’t make a mistake and buy Musa’s translation packaged as The Portable Dante; it does not have Musa’s complete notes. You really need the notes.

Dear readers, I am about to leave for the airport. I’ll be in Paris all next week, except for an overnight on Tuesday in Tours. Each night I will be giving a Benedict Option talk somewhere (see my French website leparibenedictin.fr for details) — except for Wednesday night, Valentine’s Day. My wife Julie is coming with me on this trip, for our first vacation together without kids since we started having chirren 18 years ago. We already have reservations at a nice restaurant. A good friend is house-sitting for us and looking after the kids. God is good. I’ll be back in touch soon.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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