How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem

A wise traveler reaches his goal and rests,” he continues. “The wanderer never reaches it, but with great lethargy of mind forever directs his hungry eyes before him.

Be grateful for holiness when you find it among churchmen, but do not expect it. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others.

Here was a man who was trapped in a thicket of fear and confusion, powerless to escape. Dante’s verse captured the feeling of my own depression and anxiety precisely. Wild animals blocked the man’s path at every turn. Suddenly the shade of a great poet of antiquity, Virgil, appears before the man and promises to show him the hard road to a good place—but first the man has to trust him.

HOW TO REFUSE DEFEAT Life is fragile and uncertain. Sooner or later, you will experience a great loss in life, when suffering reveals that the world is not the place you think it is, and that your dreams will not come true after all. What then? Don’t blame others for what happened to you, even if it might well be their fault. This is a dead end. And don’t settle for stoic acceptance of your fate. Merely bearing up under strain is noble, but it’s wasting an opportunity for transformation. You have the power to turn your burden into a blessing. What if this pain, this heartbreak, this failure, was given to you to help you find your true self? Make adversity work for you by launching a quest inside your own heart. Find the dragons hiding there, slay them, and bring back the treasure that will help you live well.

If everyone, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they loved themselves and their passions.

I’m not denying that what you’re going through is real. What I’m saying is that you need to decide what you believe about memories. They aren’t who you are. They aren’t who you have to be. Even if things like this keep happening, and they likely will, you have to decide how much you will internalize them.

In the Commedia, recall, sin consists not only in loving and desiring bad things but also in loving and desiring good things in the wrong way.

I saw—no, I think the word is beheld—the most wondrous thing in the world. This church was indescribably complex and harmonious; it was like stepping into the mind of God. I was overcome by the desire to worship—a feeling I would not see as adequately articulated until many years later, when I would read Dante Alighieri’s description, in his first book, Vita nuova, of the first time he, as a child, saw Beatrice:

It is always better to live in truth. However, I was very nearly destroyed. I now knew that I would never be able to return home.

It is better to choose to know the painful truth rather than settle on a comforting lie. Resolve to look for and to accept the truth, no matter how much it hurts. Nothing built on lies lasts.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.

Still, as I have said, accepting that God loved me was something I did only on the level of theory.

The commentaries on the Commedia also began stacking up at my bedside and on the bookshelf next to my chair in the den. There was Charles Williams’s The Face of Beatrice, Harriet Rubin’s Dante in Love, Yale scholar Giuseppe Mazzotta’s Reading Dante, and later the galleys for English Dantist Prue Shaw’s Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. Most important of all, I began listening to the Great Courses audio lectures by Bill Cook and Ron Herzman, which made the poem come alive like nothing else.

The first part of saving your life is coming to understand how you endangered it by loving wrongly, and living under the rule of your passions.

To live is to suffer. To become fully human is to overcome suffering by allowing it to give us wings. Stop thinking about how your struggles are weighing you down, and start thinking, with humility, about how they can lift you up, and make you more compassionate and merciful. Changing your attitude can turn a burden into a blessing.