By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Sheltering in place might not look much like a dark wood, but my time in quarantine has brought Dante to the forefront of my mind. I have long been awed by the brilliance of his “Divine Comedy,” the indescribably beautiful rhythm and rhyme of his Italian, and the sheer bravado that inspired him both to locate his own contemporaries in Hell and to give our Cistercian hero, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the final speech in Paradise!
But what struck me recently when I picked up my well-worn copy of the “Inferno” was a further cause for marvel: Dante is a master of the spiritual life. That is clear from the first lines of the poem: “Midway in the journey of our life, / I came to myself in a dark wood, / For the straight way was lost.” With one deft sentence, the poet invites you to see in the experience of Dante the pilgrim the experience of every human being, especially yourself.
He speaks of not knowing how he came to find himself alone in the savage, dense and harsh wood, noting that he was “full of sleep / when I forsook the true way.” We would likely speak of a mid-life crisis or a prolonged panic attack; for Dante, the misery of the human condition is encapsulated in this plaintive scene of confession, both of moral failure and of terrified desperation. Wishing to emerge from the wood and scale a peak bathed in consoling sunlight, his path is impeded by three wild beasts: a leopard (lonza, a lion (leone), and a she-wolf (lupa), perhaps meant to represent categories of sin, the last one draining him of “the hope of making the ascent.”
In the opening two cantos alone, Dante reveals several essential lessons for growth in self-knowledge and love of God. The first and most important is that you cannot ascend to God without first descending to the depths of your own misery, to the roots of icy self-loving and God-loathing. The pagan philosopher Heraclitus was aware of this principle: “The way up and the way down are one and the same”; the Christian paradigm of this truth is the death and resurrection of Christ. Dante the pilgrim must confront the worst of humanity, both universal and particular, before he can purify himself of his own sins in Purgatory, thus rendering him fit to behold the infinite luminosity of Heaven.
The necessity of a guide is a second lesson for those who wish better to know themselves and God. Precisely when Dante turns to flee back into the trees, a human figure appears, “faint in the wide silence”: it is Virgil, the inspired pagan poet idolized by Dante. We can and must learn from what is good in any artist or author, be they pagan or Christian; yet the greatest of help is often the most unrecognized. Dante cannot escape the dark wood or the beasts without the intercession of three women who have enlisted Virgil’s aid in rescuing the lost soul: Beatrice, the love of Dante’s earthly life who will succeed Virgil in guiding the pilgrim through Heaven, Saint Lucy, whose name itself suggests the illumination of grace, and Mary, the “gracious lady in Heaven.”
The final spiritual lesson concerns the dominant emotion ruling Dante as he struggles to right what has gone wrong. Fear is the dominant word in canto I, repeated five times; it had filled “the lake of my heart” during an agonizing night. It would have kept Dante locked within the dark wood had not Virgil made his appearance to begin the long journey. The great poet of the “Aeneid” observes that Dante’s soul “is assailed by cowardice, / which many a time so weighs upon a man / it turns him back from noble enterprise…” Only after hearing Virgil’s account of the plan conceived by the three women who love him does Dante recognize and reject the cowardly fear that ruled his heart, agreeing to be led to the realms of death, then hope, then light.
Quarantine qualifies as a dark wood for all of us. Fear of all sorts of realities are both understandable and rampant today: unemployment, economic and social recovery, sickness, the specter of death. Let Dante be a graceful guide: you are not alone, and you need to accept the fact that you must let yourself be directed. Any true spiritual progress requires a physician to detect and remove the sins and cancerous fears that only nurture your misery; you the patient cannot operate on your own self. This darkness can be terribly thick, but it can yield, if you regard it as a moment of purifying grace, to a radiant dawn.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas in Irving.