“At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out.”
– Dante Alighieri
And so would begin one of the best known epic poems ever written, Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. It had been years since I read extended excerpts assigned to us by Mrs. Holthaus in our 11th grade Humanities class. The poem is broken down into three sections, Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). Each section is further divided into thirty-four, thirty-three and thirty-three cantos (literally, Latin for “song”) respectively. Mrs. Holthaus was a smart teacher. When assigning a 14th century Italian epic to a rambunctious, inattentive class, she went straight to hell. Literally. Once we found ourselves oriented around the strangely named Italian poet, Dante, and his wise Roman poet guide, Virgil, we were mesmerized by the Horrors of Hell. With the damned plagued by wasps and maggots, lust-wracked souls violently blowing in the wind, violent sinners submerged in a boiling river of fire and blood, and traitors encased in ice in the deepest pit of hell, we were hooked.
But what I missed in Dante’s brilliant, vivid (and terrifying) vision of Hell was the vital lesson taught in poem’s very first Canto. And in reapproaching Dante (in my 40th year of life), I have to thank the eminent historian, Paul Johnson, who endorsed Clive James’ translation of The Divine Comedy and Rod Dreher who wrote a recent, captivating piece How Dante Saved My Life.
So what does the first Canto of The Divine Comedy have to teach us?
1) Dante is lost.
Halfway through life when we have moved beyond our youthful invulnerabilities and wide-eyed optimism, when we have seen failure in ourselves and others, and when, perhaps for the first time, we are glimpsing our mortality and the presence or absence of purpose in our lives, we, like Dante, can feel lost.
2) Dante recognizes that the path he prefers is dangerously blocked.
Were said to block the penitential climb
For sinners and for all society.”
In finding ourselves lost, panic sets in and we anxiously try to find another way. But the other way may be the wrong way. Yes, it alleviates our fears to be away from the insecurity which we left behind, but we must be cautious lest we thoughtlessly rush onto an even more ill-fated path. Dante’s path is blocked by the Leopard (Lechery), the Lion (Pride) and the Wolf (Avarice) – all stumbling blocks (or menacing beasts) on the way to the straight path. What is vital is Dante’s recognition that he once was on “the straight path”. Quite simply, this shows his recognition of a right way and a wrong way. Furthermore, he recognizes the extreme peril in pursuing this new path if it means that he will be ravaged by the vices of lust, pride and greed. Many others may disregard the danger of these beasts, march recklessly into their reach and find themselves mercilessly consumed. Ironically, while consumed by these vices, these people consider themselves “liberated”. Dante knows better, but he is not sure what to do next.
3) Dante needs help.
“Are you Virgil? Are you the spring, the well,
The fountain and the river in full flow
Of eloquence that sings like a seashell
Remembering the sea and the rainbow?
Of all who fashion verse the leading light?…
There’s nothing you don’t know,
My sage, so tell me how this mad attack
Can be called off.”
When struggling to find our way to the “straight path”, it is not always possible to find it by self-discipline and hard work. In realizing ourselves lost, we are often bereft of wisdom and need someone or something outside of ourselves to help us reclaim it. Whether it comes from prayer, Gospel reading, a wise friend or a sage priest, wisdom is there to be had. But we need to seek and be receptive to it. Dante found Virgil. And Virgil would guide him.
4) Virgil, the wise poet, will guide him, but Dante needs to accept.
“You need to choose another route…
This way there’s no way out. You’re bound to lose.”
While it is important for us to recognize that we are lost, that there is a straight path and that our initial chosen path may have unacceptable and self-defeating dangers on it, the wise guide may take us to where we don’t want to go even though it is where we need to go. Virgil will bring Dante to the lowest circle of Hell, through the Seven Terraced Mountain of Purgatory and pass him to the angelic Beatrice who will usher him into Heaven. However, on the way to the Beatific Vision of Heaven, Dante will see harsh things in Hell and Purgatory. Along the way, what will be most demanding of Dante is not the suffering and hopelessness surrounding him, but the searing reminder of his own sinfulness accompanied by a new resolve to genuinely reform. This reform can be more painful than the beastly fangs and claws of pride, lust and greed that Virgil led him away from. But the consequence of reform (bathed in the grace of God) is liberation from sin. Dante would accept with eyes wide open. And it would be a glorious victory, no doubt.
“Poet,” I said, “I ask you to effect,
In the name of that God you will never see,
An exit for me from this place of grief,
And then an entry to where I would be—
Beyond the purging flames of which you tell—
In sight of Peter’s Gate, though that relief
Demands for prelude that I go through Hell.”
And then he moved, and then I moved as well.
Dante was lost. He saw the pitfalls in his chosen path. He sought a wise guide and he accepted counsel that created some suffering even though it reformed. That is the price of pursuing and finding your way back to the straight path. And it was a price Dante was willing to pay.