Selections from “How Dante Can Save Your Life”

Review of Book

Great art speaks with wisdom and authority to what is eternal in the human condition.

The presence of God radiated from the Chartres cathedral so powerfully that it even pierced the dark wood into which I had retreated to escape my father, whom I loved and hated and could not quit. I knew God was there; I had experienced him in that old church. As long as I held Chartres in my imagination, there was hope.

There is no exile quite like being a stranger in the midst of your own family.

The spiral design symbolizes how we fall into the depths of sin and how we may ascend out of them. Few of us lose our soul in a single moment. To become captive to sin typically requires slowly circling around vice, descending a bit more each time, barely perceiving our descent, until finally we arrive at the bottom: circling only around ourselves, prisoners to the ego.

Living to serve others is usually a virtue. But if the worth of your life depends on the judgment of others—your parents, your spouse, your children, your employer, anybody—then it becomes a vice. When you cannot live without the approval of others, you grant them power that they do not have a right to have, and may not even want. Worse, you expect more of them than they can give.

Thinking of sin as law-breaking, as many of us do, disguises the way it works on our hearts and minds, and keeps us from dealing with it effectively. Here’s a better model: Think of love as light, and sin as gravity, a force that bends light. The stronger the gravitational field, the farther love will fall from its mark. Hell is a black hole, where the light of love goes to die. Your goal in life: to put as much distance between your heart and the black hole’s deadly gravity field as you can. Passing too close to it will make even your most sincere acts of love land far from their intended destination.

I knew now that we condemn ourselves to misery not so much because of what we hate but because of what we love and the way we love. This gave me a new way to think of sin and brokenness, both in myself and in others.

Whatever idol you worship—and all of us, religious or not, are tempted by idolatry—the ultimate idol you worship is yourself. No discerning reader gets out of Dante’s inferno without having had at least one soul-shaking encounter with their ugliest self.

You start by separating your thoughts and desires from your self. Your thoughts and desires are not the same thing as you and only define you if you let them. Thoughts and desires that assault us and tempt us to do the wrong thing are called, in Greek, logismoi.

“To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness,” Flannery O’Connor wrote.


About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to Selections from “How Dante Can Save Your Life”

  1. Pingback: How Dante Can Save Your Life | Reading Freely

  2. Marian says:

    There’s some sincere wisdom there. I love that quote by Flannery O’Connor, too.
    Idolatry is definitely something I’ve struggled with, and probably one of the biggest pitfalls of the modern day, even for Christians and the spiritually minded. I’m saddened by the thought that so many people pursuing lives of altruism will be eventually disappointed by misplaced love and loyalties, putting God second or nowhere at all. But I say that as someone with a beam in their own eye.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Pingback: Purgatorio | Reading Freely

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