How Dante Saved My Life
What is a midlife crisis? The pop-culture notion is something like Kevin Spacey’s folly in the film “American Beauty”: a period in the middle of a man’s life in which he finds himself mired in an “Is that all there is?” malaise. He seeks to regain his mojo by acquiring mistresses, fast cars, or other totems of youth. Pathetic, right? What kind of chump has a mid-life crisis?
Well, for one, a 46-year-old chump like me—and I didn’t see it coming. Happy marriage? Check. Great kids? Check. Good job, good church, good health? Check, check, and (mostly) check. True, my only sibling died in 2011, but that event turned into an occasion of grace, one that brought me the unexpected blessing of returning to my hometown after a lifetime of wandering. And the book I wrote about that journey had for the first time given me financial security. What’s not to like?
Yet last summer I was mired in despair. The cause was the failure of the expectation I had over my return home—a happily-ever-after hope that grace would forever bridge the fault lines between my family and me that had driven me to leave as a young man. It had not happened, even though I had done everything in my power to make it so. The disappointment was crushing, especially because I believed that the path to my own inner peace depended on taking the road back to my father’s house—not as a prodigal but as a son all the same.
No matter how far I had strayed from home, I never felt the pain of exile as I did last year—a pain exacerbated by my felt inability to steel my mind and marshal my will to master it.
I was lost, but lost in a familiar way. When I was 17, as a restless, anxious teenager, I wandered unawares into the Gothic cathedral at Chartres. The wonder and beauty of that medieval masterpiece made me realize that life was far more filled with joy, with possibility, with adventure and romance than I had imagined. I did not walk out of the cathedral that day a Christian, but I did leave as a pilgrim who was onto something.
“I need to see Chartres again,” I recently wrote to a friend. What I meant was that I needed my vision renewed, my spirit revived, my world re-enchanted by what I perceived there in 1984 as a world-weary American teenager who thought he had seen it all, but who in truth had no idea how blind he was until he beheld the most beautiful church in the world.
And then, killing time in a Barnes & Noble one hot south Louisiana afternoon, I opened a copy of Dante’s Inferno, the first of his Divine Comedy trilogy, and read these words (the translation I cite in this essay is by Robert and Jean Hollander):
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost.
I read on in that first canto, or chapter, and stood with Dante the pilgrim as wild beasts—allegories of sin—cut off all routes out of the terrifying wood. Then, to the frightened Dante’s aid, comes the Roman poet Virgil:
‘It is another path that you must follow,’
he answered, when he saw me weeping,
‘if you would flee this wild and savage place.’
So Dante follows Virgil—and I followed Dante. I did not know it in that moment, but those were the first steps of a journey that would lead me through this incomparable 14th-century poem—all 14,233 lines in 100 cantos—through the pits of Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, beyond space and time to the zenith of Paradise—and out of my own dark wood of depression.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was a Florentine citizen who had been a soldier, a statesman, a diplomat, and, of course, a poet. He had been caught up in the political intrigue and violence of his times, which, given the role of the medieval papacy in worldly politics, meant enmeshment in religious controversy and strife as well. Around 1301, Florentine authorities aligned with the corrupt Pope Boniface VIII exiled the poet from his beloved city. He would never return.
The trauma of this sentence, and the sins and failings that had brought about such injustice into his world, provoked a personal crisis in the middle-aged poet. He began writing the Commedia, his epic account of an imaginative journey from darkness to the ultimate light: theosis, or unity with God. Steeped in Scholasticism and church-state politics of the High Middle Ages, the Commedia is theologically deep and politically pungent, saturated in historical detail. It is impossible to understand the Commedia without a good set of translator’s notes.
In their excellent audio course on the Commedia, the contemporary Dantists Bill Cook and Ron Herzman say that different audiences they’ve taught have responded to different aspects of the poem. Undergraduates tend to prefer the cinematic vividness of the Inferno, inmates respond to the Purgatorio’s stress on moral reform, and monks love the contemplative nature of the Paradiso. Dante’s poem is so accessible because it speaks profoundly to the human condition on several levels. It is a portrait of the cosmos that is at once an adventure story, a moral discourse, an allegory, and a means to stimulate the reader to reflection on higher theological and metaphysical realities.
It is also, as the Dante scholar Prue Shaw puts it in her forthcoming book Reading Dante: From Here To Eternity, “the story of a profound psychological crisis—and how that crisis was resolved.” It all begins with a realization that one is in a “dark wood”—an awareness of one’s own lostness and confusion. Dante the pilgrim—that is, the protagonist of the poem, not its author—starts his journey to enlightenment by walking through the chaos of his own soul.
The Inferno is not an exhaustive taxonomy of sins (though it sometimes feels like it), but rather an allegory of the condition of sinfulness. For Dante, the worst sins are not those of the appetite—Lust and Gluttony, for example—but sins against the things that make us most human. In Dante’s spiritual geography, Hell is like a vast pit mine, with least corrupt sins punished near the top, the middling sins—sins of Violence and sins of Fraud—punished in the central regions—and the foulest sin of all—Treason—punished at the bottom, where Lucifer dwells.
Dante uses this categorization as a method of exploring the nature of sin as a perversion of the Good. To give oneself over wholly to lust, gluttony, or greed is damnable, but not as damnable as the higher—or rather, lower—sins, which involve not only the disordered bodily passions but also disordered passions of the mind.
The pilgrim Dante comes slowly to recognize elements of each sinner’s fault in his own character. The purpose of this tour of the infernal regions is to awaken the pilgrim to the reality of sin—how it separates men from God, from their better natures, and from each other—and of his own responsibility for the disorder in the world and in his own soul.
This is an examination of conscience that often catches one by surprise. Early in the Inferno, Dante has one of the most memorable encounters of the entire Commedia. Dante finds the Lustful punished for eternity by being blown around endlessly, like leaves in a gale. In both Inferno and Purgatorio, the punishments disclose the nature of the sin. The Lustful spent their mortal lives carried uncontrollably on the gusts of passion, so now they must spend eternity in perpetual turmoil.
After asking to speak to one of the damned, Dante encounters Paolo and Francesca, who had been real-life lovers caught by Francesca’s husband and murdered. They are yoked together forever now, but only Francesca speaks. She tells the pilgrim that they read romantic literature together, and allowed themselves to be carried away by the narrative and seduced into playing the parts of the adulterous Lancelot and Guinevere. In Francesca’s account, given the natural laws of Love, she and Paolo couldn’t help themselves.
The pilgrim reacts:
While the one spirit said this
The other wept, so that for pity
I swooned as if in death.
And down I fell as a dead body falls.
What neither Dante nor the reader yet understands is that even though the damned concede that they belong in Hell, they all refuse blame for their downfall. As the pilgrim and his guide move through Hell, Dante must learn not to fall for the self-justifying stories of the condemned because to do so is to minimize in his own understanding the seriousness of sin. Francesca’s explanation of her fate is self-serving and self-deceiving.
Yet for me as a writer, this canto had particular bite. In the previous one, the pilgrim found himself in Limbo, among the company of the Virtuous Pagans, including the great poets of antiquity, who count Dante as one of their own. He leaves feeling good about his status as a writer—until meeting Francesca, whose damnation came about in part through reading the vernacular love poetry of her day. “One of the poets whose words her words echo is Dante himself,” writes Shaw. “He is implicated in her fate. Small wonder that he faints dead away as she finishes her story.”
The moral point is that the poet cannot divorce himself from the social consequences of his art. To create is a sacred gift, and it must not be abused. One’s writing, Dante teaches, must be undertaken with a higher sense of responsibility.
He addresses the writer’s vocation more forcefully in a later Inferno canto, in the flame-lashed desert where the Sodomites dwell. According to his Catholic understanding, Dante punishes Sodomites in a part of Hell reserved for sins of Violence—sodomy, in this reckoning, is violence against nature. That the Sodomites live running forever in a scorched desert discloses the nature of the sin: all that passionate heat, resulting in sterility.
By this, almost the midpoint in the Inferno, the discerning reader has learned that Dante is no simple-minded Christian moralist. Here, among the Sodomites, the pilgrim has one of his most moving encounters. He meets his old teacher Brunetto Latini, a contemporary writer of distinction. Dante is shocked to find Brunetto in Hell and treats him with great courtesy, even honor. They don’t speak of sex, except for Brunetto to disclose cattily that all the sinners he’s condemned to travel with were scholars or clerics. Instead, they talk of writing.
The pilgrim tells his old master, the man who had taught him to write, that he finds himself passing through Hell because in life he had lost his way. Brunetto responds with encouragement, telling Dante that he’s bound for fame:
And he [said] to me: ‘By following your star
you cannot fail to reach a glorious port,
if I saw clearly in the happy life.’
The pilgrim, deeply moved by these words, responds:
‘If all my prayers were answered,’
I said to him, ‘You would not yet
Be banished from mankind.
‘For I remember well and now lament
the cherished, kind, paternal image of You
when, there in the world, from time to time,
‘You taught me how man makes himself immortal.
And how much gratitude I owe for that
My tongue, while I still live, must give report.’
Here we see the trap old Brunetto has unwittingly laid for his prize pupil. In the Commedia, the stars symbolize God’s watchful presence. And travelers navigate by the stars. Brunetto, a teacher who was like a father to Dante, misleads him in two crucial ways: by counseling that the purpose of writing is to win worldly fame and by instructing the pilgrim that he should plot his course through life not by following the divine plan but by seeking his own interests.
This is what landed Brunetto in Hell and rendered his writing sterile. As the pilgrim will learn by the end of his journey, the only way a true artist can be fruitful is by seeking to set his course by the divine plan and making his art serve truth and virtue, not the almighty self.
Notice that in neither canto did Dante the poet set out teachings about art and moral responsibility. Rather, he leads the reader to reflect on each encounter and come to an awareness of higher truths embedded beneath the surface. Scholars call this method anagogical, meaning that it teaches by leading one to arrive at truth on one’s own. Dante does this throughout the Commedia, which helps account for the poem’s affective power.
It did not occur to me until a week after I finished the Commedia why Dante’s anagogical strategy had been so effective in helping me resolve my own psychological crisis. Early last autumn, my doctor, suspicious that my chronic fatigue had its roots in lingering anxiety after the 2011 death of my sister, ordered me to see a therapist. This I was reluctant to do; therapy is what people who can’t handle life turn to. I’m not that guy.
But I was that guy, and had to humble myself enough to admit it. When I began seeing the therapist, I expected him to tell me what my problem was and what I needed to do to fix it. “That’s not how therapy works,” my wife counseled. “He’s never going to tell you directly what you should do. He’s going to help you see for yourself what you should do.”
I was skeptical; this sounded like something you heard about on “Oprah.” Once I started, I would sometimes leave these sessions wondering if I had more or less wasted an hour shooting the breeze with my therapist. But then, after a few of my routine post-session phone calls to my wife, I noticed that the true therapeutic work was happening in those conversations. I was leading myself toward a solution, which made it feel like it was my own; in truth, the therapist knew what he was doing all along. He was teaching and healing me anagogically. So was Dante.
I have singled out two of the pilgrim’s infernal encounters because they helped me gain a renewed sense of purpose and seriousness about my vocation. There was a third: Canto XXVI, Dante’s encounter with Ulysses, condemned as a Fraudulent Counselor for leading—in Dante’s version of the myth—himself and his old and weary sailing crew to their doom by using his legendary gift of persuasion. Ulysses in Hell recalls the pitch he made to his men:
‘Consider how your souls were sown:
you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,
but to pursue virtue and knowledge.’
This is a noble truth, and a stirring one. But Ulysses marshaled it for an ignoble cause. He wanted knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The sun into which he led his faithful followers, past the known edge of the world, was a false god of his own ego—and it led to their deaths. For using life-giving truths to mislead those under his command, using them to serve his own insatiable craving for knowledge, Ulysses earned Hell. Again, the reader who is also a writer is compelled to examine the limits of how he uses his own God-given gift.
For obvious reasons, these encounters held particular interest for me as a writer in midlife and mid-career, not sure where to turn next. The more subtle and profound truth is that there are few readers who, if they are honest with themselves, will not see a reflection, however hazy, of themselves in virtually every sinner and every canto. And if they do not see themselves, they will undoubtedly see people they know and love, desire, hate, or fear. The Inferno teaches us what sin is, how sin works, how we allow ourselves to be seduced by it, and how we deaden our perception of its working within others. It is an encyclopedia of human failure.
The Purgatorio, however, is an atlas showing the way out of the pit—literally. This procession up the seven-story mountain is the pilgrim’s purification through ascesis. This is his wandering in the desert to purge his memory of Egypt and its slavery. This is his journey toward cleansing the heart to will one thing: what God desires.
The penitents in Purgatory are assured of salvation, but because their repentance on Earth was imperfect, they must undergo more purification to be made strong enough to bear the intense brilliance of God’s love in Paradise. Unlike the souls in Hell, who have permanently lost all ability to perceive God and themselves in relation to Him, the penitents of Purgatory know that they are bound for glory. They suffer, but because they know their pain is temporary and a necessary prelude to eternal bliss, they suffer happily.
In Dante’s scheme, the vice for which the penitents are being punished is highlighted by a commensurate virtue, experienced ascetically. For example, the Slothful, whose sin was a failure to love with appropriate zeal, train their deficient consciences through constant motion. Unlike the restless Sodomites, who walk endlessly through the blasted plain, going nowhere, the repentant Slothful are marching toward Paradise.
I saw myself in their number. I, who love food and comfort inordinately, also saw myself on the 6th terrace, among the Gluttons, who are emaciated by hunger and thirst. There the pilgrim meets Forese Donati, a friend from back home now turned into a withered husk of himself—but happy and singing hymns on the pilgrimage up the holy mountain. Donati explains:
‘All these people who weep while they are singing
followed their appetites beyond all measure,
and here regain, in thirst and hunger, holiness.’
Later the repentant Gluttons approach a fruit-bearing tree “like headlong, foolish children,” but cheerily retreat “as if enlightened.” The tree is an offshoot of the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. As hungry as they are to eat from it, the Gluttonous accept that the time of their release is not yet here. (Compare this to Ulysses in Hell and his unbounded hunger for knowledge.) Reading this, I reflected deeply on my own impatience and resolved to accept the unwished-for ascesis as necessary to my own inner healing. It would abate in God’s good time; my task was to see the blessing in the suffering.
Curiously, Dante never discloses the precise nature of his crisis. It’s not particularly important. By the time he has reached the summit of the mountain of purgation, the troubled but discerning reader will have gained insight into his own personal crisis—and a reasonably clear idea of the changes he has to make within himself to resolve it. One penitent, Marco the Lombard, counsels the pilgrim that it is a mistake to seek to blame others or fate (“the heavens”) for one’s own situation. “Brother,” Marco says, “the world is blind and indeed you come from it.”
‘Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations.
I don’t say all of them, but, even if I did,
You still possess a light to winnow good from evil,
‘and you have free will. Should it bear the strain
in its first struggles with the heavens,
then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.
‘To a greater power and a better nature you, free,
are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.
‘Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.’
Or, to paraphrase another great poet who wrote three centuries later, “The fault, dear Dante, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”
Hadn’t my therapist been telling me from the beginning that it was not within my power to change the circumstances of my frustration and sorrow, but it was within my power to change my inner reaction to it? Yes—but for some reason, I was only able to make this truth my own when Dante revealed it to me.
At the summit of the mountain, in the Garden of Eden, Dante comes face to face with Beatrice, his muse, his rescuer—it was she who sent Virgil—and his future guide through Paradise. But first she compels him to face his own fault in allowing himself to lose the straight way. Ashamed, the pilgrim confesses:
In tears, I said: ‘Things set in front of me,
with their false delights, turned back my steps
The moment that Your countenance was hidden.’
Beatrice, a Florentine woman young Dante had loved from afar, and who died early, serves as a representation of Divine Revelation. What the poet says here is that on Earth she represented to him a theophany, a disclosure of the divine. When she died, Dante forgot about the vision of divine reality she stood for. He allowed his eyes to be turned from faith—the hope in “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” as Scripture says—to a misdirected love for the transitory and worldly.
This is how Dante ended up in the dark and savage wood. This is how I did, too. This is how many of us find ourselves there in the middle of the journey of our life. Dante’s pilgrimage, and the one we readers have taken with him, teaches us to see the world and ourselves as they really are and to cleanse through repentance and ascesis our own darkened vision through reordering the will. By learning to want for ourselves and for others what God wants, we become more like Him, and we come to see all things as He does.
The ascent through Paradise will be about learning to see the brightness of God shining through all reality. The most metaphysical of the Commedia’s three books, Paradiso is also the most difficult and the least read. But it is impossible to grasp the greatness of Inferno and Purgatorio without it because it tells of the pilgrim’s arrival at his true and only home.
The key to Paradiso—indeed, the key to life—is revealed in the first canto. Dante likens the transformative experience of God to a myth from Ovid in which a fisherman tastes a magic plant and becomes a sea god. This is what theosis means: to know God fully, with the heart and the mind, is to be taken into His being, to be made like Him by filling oneself with Him. This experience is what the Commedia’s final 33 cantos will describe.
It is heady, often confusing stuff, especially for Western Christians for whom the concept of theosis has been downplayed or forgotten over the centuries. (It is still central to Eastern Orthodox piety.) Suffice to say that this extremely mystical part of Dante’s trilogy teaches the reader how the love of God pervades all of reality. To know Him is to love Him and to love Him is to know Him. Put that way, it sounds trite, but in exploring these mysterious truths, Dante has produced some of the most powerful, penetrating poetry that has ever been written.
Paradiso is a portrait of the Promised Land, a place where there is perfect love and perfect justice. When Dante the pilgrim asks Piccarda, a nun and one of the blessed, why she consents to dwell in one of the lower ranks of Heaven, she explains that the law of Love rules all. God wills unity, not uniformity. He has made a many-splendored cosmos, one that is meant to live in harmony. In one of the most well known lines of the poem, the blissful Piccarda says, “In His will is our peace.”
When all are united in God, and therefore in Love, we have no envy of what others have been given by Him. Perfection consists not in a kind of divine egalitarianism but rather in allowing the divine light to pass through us, refracted according to our God-given natures. Furthermore, when the blessed consider sin, they don’t grieve, because there can be no mourning in heaven; rather, they smile, remembering, as the literary scholar Charles Williams put it, “sin as the occasion of love’s potency.”
This is not sentimental piety. It is as hard and as clear as a diamond, the precious gem at the philosophical heart of the epic. Perfect love casts out fear, as Scripture says; where there is torment, there is a deficiency of love. “For Dante in the Commedia love is the mainspring of all human action, whether good or bad, praiseworthy or damnable,” Prue Shaw writes. “Desire is seen as a fundamental category of human experience, the driving force behind all human interaction with the world. It is the engine of moral agency.”
These concepts and many others in Paradiso are difficult to grasp. But this is part of Dante’s point: the dazzling realities of Divine Love are too intense for us to bear directly. The journey from the dark wood, through Hell, Purgatory, and now through the overpowering immensities of Paradise, is about the blind regaining the power of vision. First we see sin for what it is; then we see ourselves for who we are; and finally, we see reality for what it is. At the cusp of the highest heaven, Beatrice turns to Dante, who has now been entirely purified, and commands: “Look at me as I am.”
The pilgrim has been with his guide for some time now, but only when his inner vision has been purified by love can he bear the sight of her glory. And then Dante begins the final steps toward the Beatific Vision.
For Dante—like all of us, a pilgrim, an exile, a wayfarer on this earth—this is the proper goal of all men’s lives: to be united to God, who is Love. In perfect communion with the Divine, we will and perceive all things as they really are and harmonize our wills with, as the Commedia’s final line has it, “the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.”
As my own pilgrimage came to its end last month, I met with my priest and told him that I was free. All the help my counselor had given me, and all the spiritual direction my priest had provided—especially the demanding prayer rule he had imposed—had played their part in my healing. But above all, it was Dante.
How had a medieval Florentine appeared to me in my fear and confusion and led me out of the dark forest and back onto the straight way? It’s not like Dante told me anything I didn’t already know. I am a voracious reader of philosophy and theology but have always been immune to the powers of poetry and fiction. From where does the power of this poem come? Charles Williams answers best: “A thousand preachers have said all that Dante says and left their hearers discontented; why does Dante content? Because an image of profundity is there.”
“An image of profundity”—in words and images, Dante’s poem illuminates what theologian David Bentley Hart calls “the fullness of reality.” In art, Hart explains, “the mysterious boundary between transcendental truth and the particularities of finite material form is at once fruitfully preserved and fruitfully transgressed.”
Here is the final mystery the Divine Comedy revealed to me. In its very form, the Commedia teaches the attentive Christian reader a fundamental truth about reality. Christians believe that God is three-in-one—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—united by a bond of love. The basis of all reality, then, is relational—and that divine relation, the Trinity, pervades all reality.
So, consider: the Commedia consists of three books, each containing 33 cantos, except Inferno, which contains one extra—signifying the unity and perfection of God. Dante invented a new form of verse, terza rima, consisting of three lines in each verse, with 11 syllables in each line, for 33 syllables per verse. Terza rima follows a pattern in which each verse, or tercet, connects with the following verse through an unfailing rhyme. In total, 4,744 verses of sublime poetry, linked as a golden chain of unsurpassed finery.
The point of this? Dante manifests the medieval conviction that the Creator has ordered His creation, and His intelligence—that is to say, Himself—is everywhere present, fills all things, and can be discerned by those with eyes to see.
In this way, Dante helped me gain the ability to see the world iconographically, as a window into the divine. My Orthodox Christian faith teaches me that this is how things are, as does traditional metaphysics and philosophy. Somehow, I hadn’t grasped that as I should have until I read the Divine Comedy.
That’s not true—I had indeed grasped that before, the first time I beheld an image of profundity that so overwhelmed me, abruptly infused my deracinated 20th-century American cosmos with mystery and enchantment, and put me on the trail of God, resulting in my conversion as a young man. But with the passage of time, and the loss of idealism, I had forgotten what it was like to look upon Chartres Cathedral and really see it as it is.
And then Dante came to me, and he showed me another medieval masterpiece every bit Chartres’s equal, one he built himself. That man, a stranger from a distant time and place, yet a friend who knew what it meant to lose one’s way on the journey of life, met a confused, anxious, and false-stepping pilgrim on the road. Dante Alighieri made my footsteps firm, he led me back to the wonder, and he reminded me to turn my gaze heavenward and see the stars.
Modern people who are lost in the cosmos pick up all kinds of self-help manuals in search of guidance, or, if they are Christian, buy books bubbling over with godly therapeutic psychobabble. Don’t do it. Take up and read Dante, because Dante is deep, and Dante is right.
Rod Dreher blogs at www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.