Finding Hope in the Dark Wood of Dante's Inferno

A couple of weeks ago, I read a lovely little story about how Dante's Divine Comedy helped the author overcome his midlife crisis. It was a beautiful testament to the way literature -- and art in general -- can reach beyond time and culture and language to have a substantial impact on our personal lives in the here and now. The story created through the brilliant mind of a 13th-century Italian poet of traveling through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven on a quest to rediscover his beloved Beatrice may seem like it could not possibly have anything to do with us, here and now, in the progressive 21st century with our enlightened minds which are no longer imprisoned by the "superstitions" of the Middle Ages. And yet, no matter how often we insist that we are somehow substantially "different" from our historical predecessors, we are reminded over and over again through literature that we are still very much the same. In fact, the same questions, experiences, emotions, and contemplations have stuck with us throughout our long history because, as long as we continue to exist as human beings in this world, we will always be on a pilgrimage, a journey, a search for the answers to the inmost questions and longings of our spirits. This is an integral part of our being and cannot be removed. We will not be able to "evolve" away from this. We will always be searching through our own personal Hells, Purgatories, and Heavens to find a way to finally soothe our mental unrest. Dante, as one of humanity's most moving authors, gives us a handbook on how to do just that with his magnum opus, the Divine Comedy.

The Divine Comedy is too great a work to ever do justice to in any one blog post, and I don't intend to do so here. Instead, I'd like to just wander through a few moments in the text and muse on their possible applications to us. What does Dante's treatment of the Lustful tell us about the sin itself and our relationship to it? How about the Blasphemers? What can we learn about our own journeys towards perfection from the Proud in Purgatory? Or the Envious? What can we learn from Dante's conversations with St. Thomas Aquinas or St. James in Heaven that may inform our behavior or inspire us with a new fervor for beatitude? This questions will hopefully be tackled over time. In this post, however, I will just wander briefly with Dante through the dark wood in which his story begins and make my way with him to the gates of Hell, upon which is written those famous lines: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here".

At the beginning of Canto 1, we find Dante lost and alone in a dark wood. His description of the wood is an allegory for the state of his soul during his own midlife crisis, his "dark night" of the soul: "Midway this way of life we're bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone. // Ay me! how hard to speak of it -- that rude / And rough and stubborn forest! the mere breath of memory / Stirs the old fear in the blood". Rude, rough, and stubborn: these qualities speak to the three types of sin which make up the circles of Hell in Dante's epic, namely, the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious. Dante here realizes that he is a lost soul, bereft of grace, and doesn't know where to turn. He says he was "so heavy and full of sleep" that he lost his way; it is through sloth, inattentiveness to the needs of his own soul, that he has drifted from the state of grace almost without realizing it. His defenses were down and sin crept in. How often does this happen to us! Too often I find myself growing tired and lazy, no longer willing to meet the expectations of my life, allowing things to slip further and further out of control, until I one day look around me and am shocked at what my life has become. How did I wander so far off the path? When did I stop paying attention? It can take much effort to shake the sleep from our eyes, stand up, and work ourselves back towards the right road, but we can do it. However, we can't do it alone.

Dante first attempts to "do it alone", to find his own path to his goals without the help of any other power. He attempts to climb a mountain to get out of the dark wood, the mountain of Purgatory. However, he is prevented from climbing it by three creatures: the Leopard, the Lion, and the She-Wolf. These animals, like the description of the dark wood, are emblematic of the three main levels of sinfulness in Hell. When faced with these three hindrances, Dante is completely overwhelmed by his inability to overcome them and falls into despair: "at that dread sight a blank / Despair and whelming terror pinned me fast, / Until all hope to scale the mountain sank." He despairs of ever escaping the darkness and climbing the mountain; he despairs of ever escaping the darkness of his own soul and making the climb to purgation. Despite our many affirmations that we can "do whatever we set our mind to", or that our will is capable of conquering anything set before us, this is not the case when it comes to conquering sin. We are not capable of simply willing sin out of our lives. We cannot will ourselves into Heaven, and neither can Dante. Dante needs help to find salvation and, in his time of need, he finds Virgil -- or rather, Virgil finds him.

Virgil, for Dante, is the poet of all poets; he is Dante's inspiration. He is also considered by Dante to be a philosopher and natural scientist, a vast reservoir of knowledge about the world and man, possessing all of the wisdom of the ancient world of Greece and Rome. Encompassing both aspects of the human mind, creative and analytic, poet and philosopher, Virgil represents allegorically the height of intellectual and moral virtue that human reason can attain without the aid of supernatural grace. It is through the wisdom, virtue, and beauty of man before grace that Dante will discover himself and discover the path to salvation. This recalls the personal experiences of many great saints, the greatest perhaps being St. Augustine of Hippo, who approached the salvation of Christ first through the works of the Greek philosophers. Discovering the need for salvation, the need for grace, is something that is within the reach of human reason. Our first step back on the path of our earthly pilgrimage is to seek after the truth wholeheartedly and recognize our own insufficiency in bringing about our own happiness.

Virgil tells Dante that he can't just climb up the mountain: they must go through Hell and come out at the other side of Mount Purgatory. In other words, Dante must come to a full understanding of sin, and then a purgation of those sins, before he can find Beatrice and, through her, the Beatific Vision. Virgil, of course, cannot lead Dante all the way to Heaven because he had not received the light of grace in his life on earth; in the same way, human reason and human effort alone are not enough to bring us to God. It is only through Christ and, in the beautiful participation of all humanity in the Divine Plan, through the intercession of His servants that each of us attains the grace of God. In Dante's case, Beatrice will be the faithful servant and intercessor who brings Dante to Christ.

Dante wavers on whether he should follow Virgil into Hell or not. He compares himself to both Virgil's hero Aeneas and to St. Paul to prove his inability to commit to such a journey: "But how should I go there? Who says so? Why? / I'm not Aeneas, and I am not Paul! / Who thinks me fit? Not others. And not I." Dante expresses what might be considered his humility in protesting against undertaking such an epic journey with so prestigious a guide. Who could think themselves worthy and not be guilty of some kind of pride? However, Dante's reluctance is not humility but the remnant of the slothful attitude that got him into this spiritual trouble in the first place. Allegorically, this is the figure of the human soul's difficulty in choosing to set aside its own selfish desires to follow in the footsteps of Christ. It's so much easier to just remain as we are. This is what C. S. Lewis is referring to in the title of his book The Weight of Glory: being called to spiritual greatness, to sainthood, to the inheritance of the Eternal Kingdom, is a great responsibility. It requires much of us. It is a burden that, in some ways, our lazy souls wish that God had not called us to. It would be so much easier to be mediocre. But Virgil -- or reason -- can help us overcome our doubts and fears and unwillingness. Reason argues with the will, urging it to make the choice. Virgil urges Dante to follow, to make the choice to come out of the darkness.

Virgil uses the imagery of courtly love, the same courtly love for which Dante had been a fervent adherent to and poet of in his youth, to cajole Dante into continuing: "What ails thee then? Why, why this dull delay? / Why bring so white a liver to the deed? / Why canst thou find no manhood to display / When three such blessed ladies deign to plead / Thy cause at that supreme assize of right". How can Dante dare to lack the courage to continue when three worthy women -- Beatrice, St. Lucy, and the Blessed Virgin -- are interceding for him, waiting for him, asking for him to please them? He must show courage and do as they ask! It is this hope for Beatrice's favor, as well as Virgil's application of reason, that gives Dante the courage to continue and the ability to hope for his eternal beatitude. With reason bolstering us to follow our good intentions and the gift of hope being infused into our souls, we are able to bear the weight of glory, to dare to approach the throne of God as His true children, and to lay claim to all the spiritual treasures Christ has won for us. Without hope, we have already lost everything. When we give up on the possibility of achieving Paradise through the grace of God and our willing response to that grace in our lives, we deny God's power to save and willfully refuse to allow His grace to transform us. We refuse to be all that we were created to be. And, when we do that, we truly do enter those forbidding gates that read: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here". The damned can no longer hope that anything will turn out right for them again; they have refused all chance at bliss and have embraced their own self-defined futility.

When Virgil and Dante reach the gates of Hell, Dante is struck with fear at the inscription written on the gates: "'Sir, / This sentence is right hard for me,' I cried." Virgil comforts and reassures him that all will be well, taking him by the hand and leading him into Hell's caverns. In this moment, we are shown the difference between hope and presumption. As despair abolishes the virtue of hope by negating its very possibility, presumption abolishes hope by presuming that those things hoped for are already assured. By being afraid at the gates of Hell, even despite the special grace being accorded him by God, Dante shows that he does not assume that Heaven is already the assured destination of his pilgrimage. He recognizes the very real possibility of losing grace through sin and losing Heaven in Hell. As long as we are pilgrims in time, we are always capable of denying our true fulfillment by turning away from the path of life and losing ourselves in the dark wood. There is never one moment in our lives on this earth where we can say with absolute certainty that we possess the Kingdom of Heaven. We always and only can possess it here insofar as we possess it in the hope of Christ's promise. The virtue of hope allows us to fully appreciate the fact that we are required to "work out our salvation in fear and trembling", but also to recognize that Christ has given us all the tools we need to find our way to Him, even when the way seems most hellish. Dante will not be trapped in Hell with the damned souls because Virgil has renewed hope in his heart; he is just passing through.

In the first three cantos of the Divine Comedy, Dante has already laid out for us the prerequisites for a true conversion of heart: we must recognize our need for salvation and hope that we will attain it. It is this hope that gives us the courage to move forward in faith and love, to respond generously to the call of God. Rather than abandoning hope, we must abandon despair and presumption, and trust in the mercies of God. Our pilgrimage through this life towards eternal Being begins when we acknowledge the very "ground of our Being", as Josef Pieper says, and walk our path through hell or high water towards perfect union with Him in the Beatific Vision of Paradise.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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