I first started reading Rod Dreher about a dozen years ago, maybe a bit earlier. He was working at the Dallas Morning News, and many of his online stories were about the priestly abuse scandal, which first had captured headlines a few years earlier.
Dreher didn’t do investigative reporting. He wasn’t that kind of journalist. He did analysis, and he was good at it, but there was something that bothered me in his pieces about the scandal. He showed righteous anger about what was coming to light, but he showed anger of another sort too.
That other anger was written between the lines, but it was there. Something gnawed at him. He wasn’t just occupied with the abuse story—he was preoccupied with it, in an unhealthy way. It seemed to consume him. It ended up consuming his faith.
Raised a Methodist, Dreher had converted to Catholicism in 1993, in his mid-twenties. Disillusioned with the Church’s response to the scandal—particularly with the almost complete failure of the bishops to hold themselves accountable—Dreher left Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006.
When he announced his change of allegiance, I was disappointed, not out of party spirit but because I thought he let his course be determined by whatever produced that undercurrent of anger. Instead of dealing with that undercurrent, he ran from it.
I thought then, and I think now, that he was wrong to abandon Peter’s barque because it’s always wrong to leave the fullness of faith, no matter what the provocation. Even then, though, I sensed that Dreher, like many people, perhaps had to discover himself in a roundabout way.
He had been brought up in St. Francisville, which is located just south of where Mississippi pokes its nose into Louisiana’s side. To Dreher’s family, the town of 1,700 people was the world, but to Dreher it often felt like a prison. He went to Louisiana State, got a degree in journalism, and struck out for the big city.
He worked in Dallas and later on the East Coast. He wrote for multiple publications, particularly for politically conservative ones, and today he is the chief blogger for The American Conservative, for which he usually composes several pieces each day.
He had been getting along fairly well in his life, getting a name for himself among the conservative literati. He got noticed particularly for Crunchy Cons, a book that appeared while he was working for National Review. It was a tribute to the small-is-beautiful philosophy and sought to counter corporatist conservatism with largely forgotten Burkean principles.
But Dreher came more and more to the conviction that something was missing from his life, and part of that something was St. Francisville. He longed to go home, particularly after the death of his sister, whose life, illness, and death are recounted in his second book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.
He expected to be welcomed with open arms, but instead he was rebuffed. His parents and his sister’s children thought him a traitor to the family. What had been sufficient for them hadn’t been good enough for him.
“Preoccupation with my failed homecoming and the sense of anger, shame, and betrayal it engendered within me had darkened my perception,” he wrote in his third book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. “It colored everything I saw, and drained the joy from everyday life. It sapped my physical strength and weakened my immune system. These physical and spiritual effects came from sin, both my own sin and the sins of others against me.”
He would come to see his earlier self at arm’s length:
“Years later, after the sexual abuse scandal had destroyed my faith in the Catholic Church and made it impossible for me to remain a Roman Catholic, I reflected on how all that intellection had not saved me. I had always believed that as long as I had the syllogisms straight in my mind, my faith could withstand any challenge. But all that time I devoted to talking and reading about Catholicism, especially the theological politics within the Church, was not the same as living out Catholicism.”
This realization came later. First came the journey out of his dark wood. The journey began when he picked up a copy of The Divine Comedy, a book he had never read. He discovered it to be “a user’s manual for the soul.” He saw that the “Commedia reads you and teaches you how to read yourself.”
Sure, most people who read Dante appreciate it as a great work of poetic art, but “if you read it as I did, as a book that can save your life, you will find in its verses the key that unlocks the iron gates of the ego’s prison and opens the door to a renewed sense of joy, purpose, and inner healing.”
Much like the Bible, The Divine Comedy is a roadmap for sinners. Through it, Dreher came to see that he could make no progress with his family until he made progress with himself and with God. Much of his progress was made with the help of a local counselor and with the help of his Orthodox pastor, but his chief helper was Dante.
“If Dante’s Inferno is about recognizing the harsh reality of your sinfulness, his Purgatorio is about learning to overcome the sinful tendencies that drag us down and prevent us from living a life of spiritual health and wholeness. 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.” Dante’s Paradiso, of course, shows us the perfection of the Christian life—what we can aspire to.
How Dante Can Save Your Life is a memoir, and it is a very touching one, but it is more than a memoir. It can serve as an introduction to Dante’s great epic for those who have yet to read it.
It used to be that nearly everyone read parts of The Divine Comedy in school—at least passages from the Inferno, often accompanied by Gustave Doré’s illustrations. In recent decades Dante has been dropped from the curriculum in most places (so has Shakespeare; so have many others), and today many people seem wary of picking up a book—particularly a book of poetry—written in the Middle Ages. What could such a book possibly have to say to me?
Wordsworth famously wrote that the Virgin Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” Let me make an analogy: The Divine Comedy is our civilization’s solitary (or at least chief) literary boast. There is more sense (and sensibility) in it than in anything other than Scripture itself. There is healing in it because there is healing in seeing ourselves as we really are.
Rod Dreher remains in St. Francisville. He was able to be reconciled with his father before the latter’s recent death, and the gulf between him and his sister’s children has been narrowed. He overcame physical and spiritual ailments that quite literally imperiled his health, and he found a sense of peace that had eluded him most of his life. After God, he gives Dante credit for this, because Dante led him back to God. Will Dante also lead him back to Dante’s Church? Who’s to say?
Flipping through my copy of How Dante Can Save Your Life, I see that I have penciled in double vertical marks along many paragraphs: my sign for things that are worth going back to, again and again. In not a few places I have found helps of the sort that I otherwise have found only in top spiritual writers. The book is that good.