Without my quite realizing what was happening, “The Divine Comedy” led me systematically to examine my own conscience and to reflect on how I too had pursued false images of the good.
I learned how I had been missing the mark in my vocation as a writer. My eagerness to chase after new ideas before I had mastered old ones was a form of intellectual gluttony. The workaholic tendencies I considered a sign of my strong professional ethic were, paradoxically, a cover for my laziness; the more time I spent writing, the less time I had for the mundane tasks necessary for an orderly life.
Most important of all, reading Dante uncovered the sin most responsible for my immediate crisis. Family and home ought to have been for me icons of the good—that is, windows into the divine—but without meaning to, I had loved them too much, seeing them as absolute goods, thereby rendering them into idols. They had to be cast down, or at least put in their proper place, if I was going to be free.
And “The Divine Comedy” persuaded me that I was not helplessly caught by my failings and circumstances. I had reason, I had free will, I had the assistance of good people—and I had the help of God, if only I would humble myself to ask.
Why did I need Dante to gain this knowledge? After all, my confessor had a lot to say about bondage to false idols and about how humility and prayer can unleash the power of God to help us overcome it. And at our first meeting, my therapist told me that I couldn’t control other people or events, but, by the exercise of my free will, I could control my response to them. None of the basic lessons of the Comedy was exactly new to me.
But when embodied in this brilliant poem, these truths inflamed my moral imagination as never before. For me, the Comedy became an icon through which the serene light of the divine pierced the turbulent darkness of my heart. As the Dante scholar Charles Williams wrote of the supreme poet’s art: “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.”
That image is what Christian theologians call a “theophany”—a manifestation of God. Standing in my little country church this past January on the Feast of the Theophany, the poet’s impact on my life became clear. Nothing external had changed, but everything in my heart had. I was settled. For the first time since returning to my hometown, I felt that I had come home.
Can Dante do this for others? Truth to tell, it is impossible for me, as a believing (non-Catholic) Christian, to separate my receptiveness to the poem from the core theological vision both Dante and I share.
But the Comedy wouldn’t have survived so long if it were just an elaborate exercise in morality and Scholastic theology. The Comedy pulses with life, and it bears witness in its luminous lines and vivid tableaux to the power of love, the deathlessness of hope and the promise of freedom for those who have the courage to take the first pilgrim step.
Over Lent, I led readers of my blog on a pilgrimage through “Purgatory,” one canto a day. To my delight, a number of them wrote afterward to say how much Dante had changed their lives. One reader wrote to say that she quit a three-decade smoking habit while reading “Purgatory” over Lent, saying that the poem helped her to think of her addiction as something that she could be free of, with God’s help.
“I’ve had the sensation of maddeningly stinging, prickling skin during the nicotine withdrawal phase when I’ve tried to quit before,” she said, “but reading Dante helped me to imagine the sensation as a cleansing fire.”
Michelle Togut, a Jewish reader in Greensboro, N.C., told me that she was surprised by how contemporary the medieval Italian poet seemed. “For a work about what supposedly happens after you die, Dante’s poem is very much about life and how we choose to live it,” she said. “It’s about spurning our idols and taking a long, hard look at ourselves in order to break out of the destructive behaviors that keep us from both G-d and the good life.”
The practical applications of Dante’s wisdom cannot be separated from the pleasure of reading his verse, and this accounts for much of the life-changing power of the Comedy. For Dante, beauty provides signposts on the seeker’s road to truth. The wandering Florentine’s experiences with beauty, especially that of the angelic Beatrice, taught him that our loves lead us to heaven or to hell, depending on whether we are able to satisfy them within the divine order.
This is why “The Divine Comedy” is an icon, not an idol: Its beauty belongs to heaven. But it may also be taken into the hearts and minds of those woebegone wayfarers who read it as a guidebook and hold it high as a lantern, sent across the centuries from one lost soul to another, illuminating the way out of the dark wood that, sooner or later, ensnares us all.
– The Ultimate Self-Help Book: Dante’s Divine Comedy (Wall Street Journal). Alternative version: How Dante Saved My Life (The American Conservative)