Dreher, Rod. 2015. How Dante can save your life: The life-changing wisdom of history’s greatest poem. NY: Regan Arts.
Dreher describes his epiphany as follows: “This medieval masterpiece…reached me when I thought I was unreachable, and lit the way out of a dark wood of depression, confusion, and a stress-related autoimmune disease that, had it persisted, would have dangerously degraded my health” (xiii). The book is an intertwined story of Dreher and Dante.
In Dante there are sinners “who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way” (xiv). Dante wrote his masterpiece in the language of the people, not in Latin, because he wanted ordinary people to find their way out of “the dark wood and into the light of the starry heavens” (xv). Dreher, like Dante, was in the dark wood.
Part I of Dreher’s book is called “From the garden to the dark wood” and is an outline of how the stories of how our family and the place where we have lived shape our lives. Dreher felt that he was a disappointment to his father but, due to the example of his sister Ruthie, who eventually dies of cancer, he heads “north toward home—and Rome” (the title of chapter two). During the period leading up to Ruthie’s death, Dreher is depressed and alienated from his family. It is at this point that he buys a copy of of Dante’s Commedia and begins to find his way out of the dark wood and into faith.
In chapter three, “The super Tuscan”, we learn about Dante’s world. Around 1306 he began to write the Inferno, his diagnosis of what he thought was wrong with the world. He had faced a catastrophe in which everything he owned had been taken from him.
Dreher follows in chapter four by giving a short guide to Dante’s Commedia and notes that “Catholics coming to Dante for the first time are often startled by Dante’s ferocious criticism of the Church” (44). In Dante’s purgatory there is a struggle of the sinful nature to open the soul to God’s grace and the Commedia takes us on the journey of a soul through life. For Dante, reflecting the mind of the Middle Ages, “everything that exists has meaning, everything is a sign pointing to God, and everything is mystically connected” (49).
Part II of the book is called “inferno, or why you are broken” and discusses “myth, memories, and meaning in our lives” (53). The chapter is an outline from Dante and indicate that stories are what we remember best and therefore change our lives. Today, neuroscientists also claim that we are wired that way. Dante stumbles down a dark road and his awakening teaches him two things he needs in order to save his life: 1) that he is lost, and 2) that there is a way out” (57). Dante, however, “had believed in the [Catholic] church and state and sought to serve them faithfully but was betrayed by both” (60). In his poem, Dante is overcome by fear yet finds “a light in the darkness” in the presence and words of Virgil (who had lived 1300 years prior to Dante), that challenge Dante to not let cowardice rule his heart.
Chapter six leads us into the “black hole” and Dreher finds that the first step to recovery is humility and the hope of Jesus as he “descends into hell to rescue souls” (66). Hope is needed, for Dante’s famous line “abandon all hope, you who enter here” (67) is a journey into introspection. The key to Dreher’s own escape from the black hole was recognizing that, although you can’t control people, you can control your reaction to them.
Dante’s Inferno is a excursion through the circles of hell. The circle of lust was one that plagued him, as well as Dreher, who recognizes that all his intellectual doubts were a problem of his will: “I didn’t want to believe, because then I would have to change my life” (77). He concludes “If you want to find true love, stop indulging your lust” (84).
Chapter eight has to do with wealth and begins with a quote from Dante’s Purgatorio:
An avarice quenched our love of worthy things,
wasting our chance to do good works,
so justice here has bound us fast.
Dreher recounts the story of a man called James Fletcher, a great-uncle that he barely knew. However, the eulogies at Fletcher’s funeral caused Dreher to see some of the problems in his life. He recognizes that worshiping money and possessions was part of Dante’s circle of hell. In Dreher’s case it was not the love of money or possessions, but the need for love and loyalty that were a part of his family’s system.
Chapter nine is about the life of books, or “the promise and peril of bibliotherapy” (95) and in this chapter Dreher tells of his own movement from Catholicism to Orthodoxy. The Catholic church scandals had destroyed his faith in the church and all the intellectual information he had accumulated had not saved him. The orthodox priest (Father Matthew) with whom he interacts and who becomes his mentor teaches him the value of prayer.
Chapter ten deals with “the power of the image”, how the contrapasso works. Dante has some gruesome images, but his “purpose is to demonstrate to the reader the disfiguring nature of sin”, for “An image is never just an image; it always points to something else” (107).
The “damnable worship of family and place”, based on Dante’s Purgatorio of false gods and heretics, is the theme of chapter eleven. According to Dreher, in Dante’s day it was heretical to not believe what the Catholic church taught, so Dreher warns us to “do a steady, unflinching examination of our own consciences to uncover idol-making heresies….idols—especially good things, like family, spouse, country, religion, or a worthy cause” (127).
Chapter 12, “Is life ever not worth living?” includes the comment that “The worst sins, in Dante’s reckoning, are those that make peaceful, fruitful life in community impossible, because the sunder social bonds and defeat the possibility of justice” (130).
According to Dreher (in chapter 13), “social science shows that the millennial generation is one of the most self-centered in American history” (137). He refers to it as a vice that can occur in Dante in an otherwise noble character (in this case Brunetto). “And like my father, Brunetto could not imagine a future for his “son” separate from his will and from his affection for the boy” (147).
This viewpoint is followed up in chapter 14 (“Sins fo the fathers”), which is about the spiritual pride and fall of the Catholic Church, and is summarized by Dreher as “God speaks to us through religion and religious leaders, but they are not the voice of God” (159).
Dreher continues his internal and medical struggle in chapters 15 and 16 (“The end of all our exploring” and “Out of Egypt”) and concludes, “No discerning reader gets out of Dante’s inferno without having had at least one soul-shaking encounter with their ugliest self” (179).
Part II, “Purgatorio, or how to be healed” begins with “Stand up and walk” (chapter 17) and reminds us that Purgatorio is “an allegory of our lives on earth and the struggles we face to purify our hearts and strengthen them in love and virtue” (183). It follows with chapter 18 (“The will to love”) and 19 (“The ghost in you”), then, in succession. treatises on pride (20), envy (21), wrath (22), sloth (23), gluttony (24) and lust (25). The divisions are not comforting reading and we need the reminder that “Dante believed that finding a sense of completing in loving and being loved by another prepared our hearts for unity with God” (265).
It is somewhat of a relief to go to Part IV of the book: “Paradiso, or, how things ought to be” (269). Dante and Dreher take us “Into the light” (chapter 26) and “Down by the riverside” (27) before Dreher’s conclusion on “How to make your own Dante pilgrimage”.
Dreher has consistently and effectively woven quotations from translations about Dante into the book. What he has given the reader is a sobering book—who would of thought otherwise if we are to follow Dante through his circles of hell, even if moderated by Dreher?
I have never read Dante—I at one time skimmed through his work—and I am not sure that I want to read him now. Nevertheless, I can fully appreciate the impact and relevance it had to treat the depression and disease of Dreher. I can only hope that I won’t have to go through a similar exercise and cure.