Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Promise & the Peril of Home

A conversation with James K.A. Smith about Dante, the Little Way, and going home
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Earlier this year, on a visit to Grand Rapids, I talked for an hour with the philosopher James K.A. Smith about my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, my discovery of Dante, and the good and the bad things about being rooted in place. It was one of the quickest hours I’ve ever spent. Jamie is a great companion and conversationalist. Here’s an excerpt from our interview, which appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Comment magazine. In this excerpt from the excerpt, Jamie picks up on a remark I made about how the homecoming I wrote about in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming has been difficult, and through that difficulty I discovered help and healing through Dante’s Divine Comedy. Read on:

JKAS: Which is now the focus of your next book, How Dante Can Save Your Life.

RD: That’s right. I was in a bookstore, when all this was going on, and picked it up just by happenstance, and read the first tercet about how he came to himself in a dark wood in the middle of our life, for he had lost the straight path. I said “Me too.” I came home expecting homecoming and home turned out to be a dark wood. What do you do now?

By the time I worked through it, God had worked such a healing within me. It didn’t make my dad change his coverimagemind, but it helped me to be healed.
JKAS: Clearly an antidote to any romanticism about return or “place” or the small town idyll. While you recognize its virtues, you could never be suckered into Mayberry-izing it.

RD: No, no. You’re absolutely right. Even though I knew that I wasn’t moving back to Mayberry, I still had such ideals. I thought that my sister’s death . . . the graces that came forth there, the transformative graces that worked such a healing within my own heart of alienation from my home town and its culture, I thought that would be over and done, that was that, and it had worked the same healing within my family system.

It didn’t happen, and what I learned from Dante—who wrote the Commedia in exile—I learned how to depend on God. I learned how to forgive them and the importance of forgiving them. I learned about love and that sin as disordered love. I now understand when people tell me “Your sister loved you so much.” I couldn’t believe it because if she loved me, why wouldn’t she forgive me? Why did she harbour this grudge and poison her children’s minds against me? I came to see that she did love me, but for her, in her pride, in her blindness, she thought loving me meant she had to reject me for having betrayed the covenant.
JKAS: It’s funny: when I got to the end of your book, the book that came to mind, for me, was Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again. But I never thought that, actually, the book would be Dante’s Paradiso.

RD: We are all pilgrims. We’re all living in exile. We’ll only ever be home in the next life. So accept that there is no going home in this life. I see the error that my dad made. . . . And he confesses this, not in those terms, but it comes out in Little Way. He deified family and place and sacrificed his life to false gods. I realized when considering all this in the midst of my own crisis last fall, when it all came to a head, that I was looking for false security.

I realized that here I was, I’m still in pilgrimage in the desert. I was looking back to Egypt and the comfort of the idols of Egypt, and God was calling me: “No. You’ve got to keep moving forward. I have something for you.”

More here.