The Divine Comedy is the most practical Great Book ever written.
by ROD DREHER
March 31, 2015
Dante and Virgil are beset by demons on their passage through the Inferno, in an 1861 illustration by Gustave Doré for The Divine Comedy.
In the graveyard, I saw two men arguing. One of them, a proud older man, stood inside a flaming open tomb, trying with his authoritative manner to put the younger man in his place. His opponent could have walked on, but he stood there arguing pointlessly about their families and the place they came from.
I couldn’t take my eyes off those two. The older man was dead, but didn’t seem to know it. The younger man was alive, but seemed to have forgotten it.
Suddenly it struck me: I am observing this scene from Dante’s Inferno, the book I’m holding in my hands, but in truth, I am watching my father and myself.
This unforgettable moment, in which the pilgrim Dante spars with Farinata, a damned Florentine aristocrat, revealed the hidden source of the anxiety that had plunged me into my own midlife crisis. Over 30 years of struggle between a father and a son is not exactly news, but this episode from the Inferno showed me something more profound: that both my dad and I had made false idols of Family and Place.
We were both professed Christians, but the true religion of our Southern culture is ancestor worship. Daddy, like Farinata, was not capable of recognizing that none of that really mattered. I, like the pilgrim Dante in the poem, had the power to turn away from the idol and walk on, toward the living God.
This was the first breakthrough in a spiritual, emotional, and physical healing that God worked in me, chiefly through this miraculous 14th-century poem called the Divine Comedy. It was by no means the last. The poet Dante Alighieri composed it while he was in exile from Florence, trying to reconcile his suffering with his belief in a loving God.
I knew that the Commedia, as it is called in Italian, was a great book, which for someone like me means a book destined to be admired, not read. What I didn’t know until I stumbled into the Commedia unawares, in the middle of a midlife crisis, was that Dante wrote it to help ordinary people repair their lives by identifying their sins, turning from them, and embracing the life-changing love of God.
Everybody has heard of the Inferno. Most people think of it as nothing more than a moralistic medieval horror show, but that is profoundly wrong. The Inferno is indeed grotesque, but its method is both to shock the reader into awareness of the reality of sin, and to explore the subtle ways sin binds us to our own egos, and blinds us to love.
Many fewer people, I would bet, know that the Commedia has two more books: the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. You can’t understand the Inferno apart from its companions, which illustrate how God’s love restores and perfects those who turn, in humility, to His mercy.
The Purgatorio begins on Easter morning, at the base of the holy mountain that penitents — all forgiven, all bound ultimately for heaven — must climb to be purified of their tendencies to sin. The ascent strengthens them to bear the glory of God. For the reader, the Purgatorio symbolizes our mortal lives, in which we struggle to rid ourselves of the desire to sin.
It is a place of suffering, but it is also a place of joy, of hope. The penitents of the Purgatorio know they are saved by God’s mercy, and they rest in the Paschal assurance that their suffering is only temporary, and that God permits it to draw them closer to Himself and to each other, in love. They help each other on the journey to the mountaintop.
The advice the pilgrim Dante gets on the holy mountain is remarkably practical. On the terrace where the Wrathful have their anger purged from them, the pilgrim meets in a cloud of hot smoke a man named Marco, who tells him that all the problems of the world are caused by the willful human heart and the blindness of people to their own complicity in suffering.
It’s in our nature to sin, Marco tells Dante, but we also have free will. If we will use our will to resist temptation, and to open ourselves to the grace of God, we can learn to see ourselves as we are — and to change for the better.
We can’t save the world from itself, counsels Marco, but we can change our own hearts — and that may be the beginning of the change we want to see in everyone.
Marco’s discourse struck me like a thunderbolt. My own wrath over the difficult situation in my family, and my own impotence in the face of it, had imprisoned me.
Anger was a big reason I stood at the graveside arguing with my own Farinata, and stayed mired in depression and stress-related autoimmune illness. I had the power to set my anger aside, Marco was explaining; in fact, I would have to if I wanted to move toward God.
I would also learn in the Paradiso, where Dante explores heaven and converses with the saints, that my ultimate happiness depended on accepting the often-mysterious will of God, and attempting to do as Christ did: to turn injustice and suffering into an opportunity to grow in love.
The funny thing is that very little of this was new to me. I’ve been a serious Christian for over two decades. Yet everydayness had numbed me to these spiritual realities. I had to encounter them embedded in a terrific adventure story, and some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, to revive my faith, and draw me out of the dark wood.
After I finished the Commedia, I was a different man. Nothing in my world had changed — but my heart had, and that made all the difference. I am convinced that just as God sent Virgil to lead the pilgrim Dante out of his dark wood, so too did He send Dante to lead me out of mine. And Dante can do the same for all of us.
This week, Christians are re-living the Passion of the Christ. Lent has been a time of self-searching and repentance, of a journey through the caverns of our own sepulchral hearts. We are about to emerge into the light of the Resurrection, just as Dante and Virgil did on leaving Hell. And like those two, we are not yet in Paradise. The world remains as glorious and as fallen as it ever was. But our hearts are reborn, and we move through creation with new faith, new hope, and new love.
I have believed these things all my life, and could articulate them as propositions. But until I read the Divine Comedy — a book that is surprisingly accessible, even to amateurs like me — I did not understand them, not really. Dante’s poem taught me to own my sins and own my responsibility for my own healing, and to open myself to God’s love in ways I had not contemplated.
The Commedia is an icon, a window into spiritual reality and a doorway through which lies new life. Yes, it is a Great Book, an artistic pinnacle of Western civilization — and that monumental status is what intimidates people like me from ever picking it up.
That’s a shame. The Commedia has to be the most practical Great Book ever written. Dante the poet wrote a letter to a friend in which he said he created the Commedia to help his readers understand why they suffer, and how they can be released from that suffering, because he too had been on that trail of tears, which God turned into a road that bound him for glory.
Dante’s method works, and it works because his extraordinary poem, seven centuries old, is not really the pilgrimage of an exiled Tuscan through the afterlife, but a journey for every reader into his or her own heart — as it is, and as it can be through the astounding grace of God.
— Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, is the author of the literary self-help book How Dante Can Save Your Life (Regan Arts), which will be published on April 14.