Walker Percy—the novelist, philosopher, and Christian convert—once expressed his bemusement at those who read Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy merely for its “poetic structure.” Percy knew, of course, that the poet carefully constructed his three-part epic (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) around complex allegories. He also knew that readers can learn a great deal about the medieval mind by reading it. Yet Percy was mystified that anyone would follow Dante’s arduous journey without getting the real point: Dante wants to save our souls no less than his own.
Rod Dreher gets it. The popular blogger’s new book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem (Regan Arts), does more than retrace Dreher’s own Dante-driven recovery of life and faith. Just as the poet Virgil leads Dante into the pit of hell so that he might climb to the edge of paradise, Dreher hopes to lead readers out of their own “dark wood” toward heavenly delight.
Yet Dreher doesn’t turn Dante into a preacher. On the contrary, he attends to the Comedy’s poetic nuances, its rich characters and events, its stunning metaphors, and its piercing insights. Even so, this book is more about Dreher than Dante, and I don’t say this to damn with faint praise. By filtering his own personal struggle through the greatest of all Christian poems, Dreher strikes depths not otherwise possible.
Return to Roots
How Dante Can Save Your Life is, in effect, a sequel to Dreher’s 2013 best-selling memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. In that book, he narrated the marvelous life and crushing death, from cancer, of his schoolteacher sister. Unlike most tales of lives that end too soon, Ruthie’s story stood apart. It taught Dreher that he was wrong to regard his small-town upbringing as benighted and constricting; that he had been wrong to flee it for the bright lights and high times of big cities.
For the first time, Dreher discerned what a hard-driving, large-salaried, ambitious life of urban success couldn’t provide. It couldn’t offer what the local folks of Starhope, Louisiana, gave the Dreher family during Ruthie’s passage to death. Dreher’s mother and father had exhibited splendid moral and religious strength as they lost their daughter. In turn, they received unstinting care from the Starhope community, especially its church people.
The evangelical physician who had attended to Ruthie spoke stunning truth when Dreher asked him to declare the significance of her life and death:
He had rocked in his chair for a few seconds. “That the American dream is a lie,” he said at last. “The pursuit of happiness doesn’t create happiness. You can’t work hard enough to defeat cancer. You can’t make enough money to save your own life. When you understand that life is really about understanding what our true condition is—how much we need other people, and need a Savior—then you’ll be wise.”
So Dreher wised-up and determined to go home. He left his flourishing career as a journalist in the urban Northeast and returned with his wife, Julie, to raise their three children in the small town of St. Francisville, Louisiana.
Yet he soon learned the jarring truth of the adage birthed by Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Not all was well back where he began. His sister had died while harboring a deep distrust of her sophisticated brother, with his refined tastes in books, wine, and artisanal cuisine. Dreher had looked forward to helping raise his two nieces in their mother’s absence, but they kept him at bay, shaped by their late mother’s distrust. Neither had Dreher’s father forgiven his son for not becoming like him—a hunter and fisher, a man of the land rather than a man of culture. No matter what Dreher said or did, the father was always right and the son always wrong.
Dreher’s “return to roots” shriveled up. It did not sprout with the tree of life. He contracted the Epstein-Barr virus, an anxiety-induced fatigue that often confined him to his bed. He seethed with rage over the seeming ruin of his noble intentions. In short, he fell apart.
Yet he gradually made his way back. Now we have the story of his remarkable recovery, aided by a Baptist psychotherapist, an Orthodox priest, and, above all, a medieval poet.
Dreher rightly reads Dante as a 13th-century man whose life had also been shattered by his acts of pride, lust, and other deadly evils. Though he distinguishes between Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim, Dreher deftly links his own spiritual quest and Dante’s journey down to the depths of hellish sin, up the steep mountain of moral cleansing, and into the glorious precincts of paradise, of life with God.
One doesn’t need to be an expert on Dante to follow Dreher’s personalized reading of The Divine Comedy. He shows the awful relevance of the damned souls who populate the Inferno. He enables us to struggle with the sinners who are overcoming such deadly evils as sloth, envy, and gluttony.
Dreher highlights two overarching themes that serve to weave the complex strands together. They form the primal heartbeat of the Christian life: sin-and-grace, sin-and-grace.
The first theme derives from Dante’s teaching that we condemn ourselves, in Dreher’s words, not chiefly “because of what we hate but because of what we love and the way we love.” For Dante, almost all sins come from desiring the wrong things for the wrong reasons, to the wrong degree and in the wrong places.
The lure of the local, Dreher discovered, is not always redemptive. He came to discern that his rural Louisiana family and home—the people and place he loved most—had made an idol of themselves. In the name of love, they had created a closed world, sealing each other into rigid character types: the dominant father who was always right, the loyal daughter who stayed at home, the rebel son who threw it all over—with the mother caught in the middle. Having frozen each other in fixed images, they came also to embrace these distorted masks. The family realm, where life should be most productive, became most destructive.
A Magnificent Beginning
Dreher was freed from this strange hell by his second and far more transformative discovery: Dante’s insistence on the freedom that springs from a divinely enabled humility and love. Dante’s call to Dreher was akin to the one Virgil gives Dante. There is no detailed plan or guaranteed result—only the summons to descend into the dark before climbing to the light. Virgil asks only that Dante make a beginning, that he not remain calcified in his ruinous pattern of living, that he act upon his freedom to say yes rather than no. Dreher said yes to his psychotherapist, his pastor, and his poet. From them he learned that the life of grace is not mainly a matter of intellectual assent but of yielding the will in repeated acts of obedience.
A reviewer should avoid spoilers. But candor compels me to say that Dreher is healed but not cured. Not until the life beyond life is there a cure to all evils, what we call salvation. But Dreher has made a magnificent beginning. There are moments that will move all but the flint-hearted to tears. Especially compelling are the scenes where he helps prepare a friend’s body for burial in Orthodox fashion (Dreher left Catholicism for Orthodoxy in 2006), and where he asks forgiveness from the father who doesn’t really comprehend the blessing he grants his son.
Above all, Dreher dedicates the book to Julie as his own Beatrice, the earthly embodiment of divine love through whom Dante made his way to Paradise. Even though it may require a long by-path through hell to arrive there, the nearest way to the reign of God often lies closest at hand.
Ralph C. Wood teaches theology and literature at Baylor University. His books include Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God (Baylor University Press) and Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Eerdmans).
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