Why did you decide to read Dante’s The Divine Comedy? What about the text intrigued you?
It was an accident—or, as I see it, providence. I read constantly, but fiction, not often. Poetry? Almost never. In the summer of 2013, I was in the depths of a spiritual, emotional, and medical crisis. According to the rheumatologist who diagnosed me, it was brought on by intense stress related to my failed attempt to reconcile fully with my Louisiana family in the wake of my sister’s 2011 death. Nothing I did or could do was good enough for them, and I was left shattered. The doctor said I had to leave Louisiana or sacrifice my health. I told him I couldn’t make my wife and kids uproot ourselves again. He said that the only hope I had was to find inner peace.
Shortly after that, I found myself in a bookstore one day, browsing in the poetry section—unusual for me. For some reason, I opened a translation of the Commedia, a book I had never studied, and read the first two cantos. I thought, “This sounds like a midlife crisis.” And: “This sounds like what I’ve been going through.”
I re-shelved the book, but I could not get Dante off my mind. Maybe the way out of my own dark wood was to be found in the Commedia. Maybe God sent the poet Dante to me just as, in the poem, he sends the poet Virgil to the lost pilgrim Dante. I ordered a translation of the Commedia, and began my own journey through its pages. When I came out the other side, months later, I was a new man.
To answer the question, though, what intrigued me was that I was lost and in pain, and could not find a way out. Reading the beginning of the poem in the bookstore that day made me think that it might be a message in a bottle that I, a castaway on a desert island, needed to read to return to the land of the living. And I was right.
What should we expect to learn from Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise? How can reading about Dante’s journey help us during our own sojourn on earth?
The Commedia is so subtle and complex. I think everyone will take something different from it. Yet there are some basic life lessons that everyone will get.
First, you learn that you cannot find your way out of the dark wood on your own. You need the help of what Alcoholics Anonymous calls a “Higher Power”—and what Christians call the grace of God. The first step on the road to recovery is being humble enough to admit this.
Second, you learn that sin is not simply a matter of breaking the moral law, but rather is about loving in a disordered way. We love the wrong things, or we love good things too much or too little, or otherwise wrongly. This is a subtle but profound point, because it helps us to appreciate the nuances of sin, and how it works its way down into our character, often by masquerading as good.
Third, you learn that you are responsible for your own condition. I don’t mean this in the crude, masochistic sense that you have brought all your sorrows upon yourself, though that may be true to a certain extent. To be responsible is simply to recognize that you cannot change the world, but you can change your own heart. That is, you can’t always conquer the injustice and suffering that you are made to endure—that is the human condition—but you can use your God-given free will to control your reaction to it.
Fourth, there is no way to get to heaven without dying to yourself. We contemporary Christians say this, but we don’t often live it. We expect faith to take away our pain, but dying to self is bound to hurt somewhat. In Purgatorio, Dante shows us what the ancient and medieval church knew to be true: the value of ascetic practices to train our hearts to depend on God alone. These teach us to transform suffering into the seedbed of new life in Christ.
Fifth, so much of our individual suffering comes from not understanding the difference between icons and idols – that is, worshiping the created instead of the Creator. In Dante, everything in creation, if seen rightly, is something through which the glory of God shines. But only God is God. Our error comes when we treat conditional goods – romantic love, family, the church, professional success, the pursuit of justice—as idols. That is, when we regard serving those ends as the kind of thing in which we will find perfect happiness and fulfillment. In fact, only God can give us this. This, the pilgrim Dante learned, was how he lost the straight path through life. It’s how we all fail.
Sixth, you learn that knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God. In the end, God wants your heart more than he wants your mind. It’s so easy for intellectual types like me to approach God through argument and apologetics, and those are important. But they are not God. The human mind cannot possibly fathom all the mysteries of the infinite and all-holy Creator. But the human heart can establish a saving relationship with Him. Reason is a gift from God and can take us far along the road back to Him. But He is a god not of perfect thought, but perfect love, and He has made us to know Him best with our hearts.
Why do you think this medieval epic remains relevant—and widely read—today?
I’m not sure that it is widely read as much as it is widely admired. That is a shame, and it’s a problem that I hope my new book, “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” will reverse. And I hope to do that precisely by showing how amazingly relevant this 700-year-old poem is. Believe it or not, Dante wrote it as a self-help book, telling one of his patrons that the purpose of the Commedia was to bring readers from a state of misery to one of joy. He does this by taking us on a fantastical imaginative journey through the realms of the afterlife, where the people we meet—many of them actual personages from history, or friends of Dante’s – bring to life the entire panoply of human emotions. All of life is in the Commedia, in vivid color. A Jewish friend of mine told me that she was knocked flat by how real the Commedia seemed; even though she is not a Christian, she recognized in its pages and in its characters something deeply human. All great literature is like that: using particulars to speak to what is universal in our natures. I felt that when I read the Odyssey for the first time, and certainly I felt that when reading the Commedia. What is different about the Commedia, and unlike anything in my experience, is that it really is a guidebook to saving your life, in part because the journey the reader takes with Dante is really a journey inside his own heart.
You’ve mentioned that The Divine Comedy had a profound impact on your own life—what did you find so influential, and why?
This was the first book I ever read that read me back. That is, I was stunned, repeatedly, to watch Dante the pilgrim encounter various sinners, penitents, and saints on his journey, and think, “That’s me,” or “I have made the same mistake,” or “yes, I need to do this.” Morally and spiritually, there was very little in the Commedia that I didn’t already know from the Bible, or from my past reading and training. What made it so powerful, though, was encountering these truths in the form of a beautiful story. It all flew above and below my radar, compromising the defenses I had unconsciously built up against having to change my life. As I learned when I was researching my book on Dante, neuroscientists have recently found evidence that when we encounter information embedded in a story or work of art, we absorb it more thoroughly than if we encounter it in the form of a proposition.
I can tell you from my own experience that this is exactly what happened to me. My own Dante journey occurred at the same time as I was receiving counseling from my pastor and from a psychotherapist. It was amazing to me how so much of what they were telling me was mirrored in the Commedia, which I was reading simultaneously. Somehow, the life-saving lessons became far more real when I received them in the form of this miraculous poem. God used poetry, prayer, and counseling together to work a healing within me—but the greatest of these was the poetry.
Dante was appointed two guides during his journey: the poet Virgil and his first love, Beatrice. Why do you think he needed guides? How did Dante act as your guide?
He needed guides because he was incapable of finding the way out of the dark wood, and ultimately to God, on his own. Dante was not a fool, but his own sins and limitations overwhelmed him. He required the assistance of those he trusted, who were wiser and more experienced than he. This meant Virgil, the ancient Roman poet whose work had influenced him like no other, and Beatrice, the woman he loved, who was now a saint living in heaven, united with God.
Augustine taught that we inevitably depended on authority to know most anything in life worth knowing. We usually approach God, he said, through authority and reason. “Authority invites belief and prepares man for reason,” he wrote. But first, we have to know which authority, or authorities, to believe. We do this by looking at the lives of those whose examples inspire us to trust their judgment.
For the pilgrim Dante, this was Virgil, and this was Beatrice. Within the framework of the Commedia, both testify to the reality of the living God, and both lead him to know the One that they know (though in Virgil’s tragic case, only imperfectly). Dante’s own vision was not clear enough to see God and to love Him, but he could see and love Virgil and Beatrice.
This is how it is with all of us. I came to Christ as an adult not so much because of argument, but because of the authority of the men and women I knew in my life, and from history, whose lives and works testified to the reality of Jesus. I found that I loved them, and wanted to be like them. That’s how Dante came to me two summers ago. I did not know his work, but I knew that he was worth loving and respecting—and following. Months after my own healing, I made a pilgrimage to Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, Italy, bowed down and gave thanks to God for sending Dante to me, and to Dante for coming to me to lead me to safety when I desperately needed it. My pilgrimage was an act of love for this medieval stranger who could not have imagined that the gift of his verse, written out of his own suffering in exile 700 years earlier, could transform the life of a writer living in a small town in Louisiana.
But God knew. With my book, I hope to point others to Dante, who, in turn, will point them to Christ in ways they cannot yet imagine. And this is another lesson of the Commedia: everything is connected. God uses everything to bring us back to Himself. Even a poem written by a failed Tuscan politician who lose everything but gained eternal life. Even, I hope, a memoir by a shipwrecked middle-aged journalist who had no idea when he opened that book in the Barnes & Noble that summer afternoon that he had opened the door to a world of adventure, and to a new life.
Rod Dreher is a journalist and writer who focuses on the intersection of faith and culture. His new book, How Dante Can Save Your Life (April 2015), explores how a chance encounter with The Divine Comedy brought him out of a dark wood of depression and illness. Dreher's work as an opinion journalist includes stints at National Review, the New York Post and the Dallas Morning News. He is currently a senior editor at the American Conservative. Dreher lives in Starhill, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three homeschooled children.