Reading the great books of Western Civilization is supposed to be enlightening, ennobling, and (let’s face it) a source of pride and pretension for literati everywhere. What if encountering a part of that canon sets you off on a journey of spiritual discovery, striking the very core of self-knowledge and daily life? This was Rod Dreher’s experience when, during a low period of his life, he browsed through bookstore, picked up Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and read, “Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” He was hooked, giving himself over to the guidance of the great Florentine poet for the journey.
In allowing us to follow him into and out of his own “dark wood,” Dreher has cooked up a very interesting blend of confessional memoir, literary commentary, and spiritual help. It works astonishingly well. Each of these styles independently can be difficult to render engaging to readers, but the whole is strengthened by the inclusion of all three.
Crucially, he takes us on an instructive journey through his own struggles and spiritual healing without bluntly prescribing any canned self-help quick fixes. Few things are more unhelpful than books in which authors demand readers follow the same steps that led to their particular personal breakthrough. Dreher steers clear of those rocks, offering instead a very personal story (though one which, certainly, has application for many) and some key “takeaway points” while respecting readers’ differing needs and personalities. There are a lot more sins and failures on display than successes, put forth with endearing vulnerability that disarms readers and invites us along for the journey.
This is a follow-on to his The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. While How Dante can stand on its own well enough, reading Ruthie Leming first helps get the full value from the continuing story. I’ve been regularly following Dreher’s blog for several years, and was looking forward to this after seeing it develop in daily posts last year. It was even better than anticipated. He leads us into his own “dark wood” and relates the way that the Commedia, his priest, and a Southern Baptist therapist worked in concert to reveal his hurts and sins and put him on the road to redemption.
As in Ruthie Leming, Dreher sounds the depths of familial love, disappointments, and dashed expectations. Both books stem from his experience of growing up in a small Louisiana town, leaving to see the world, finding success as a journalist and joy as a husband and father, and then attempting to return home to West Feliciana parish. Both explore the rootedness that anchored his parents, sister, and cousins there while so eluding him. This second journey into the family realm, though, shows the darkness that comes from when we turn our dreams into idols, asking good and natural things to bear the weight of ultimate questions they were not designed to carry. Through Dante’s journey, Dreher’s frustrations and disappointments were revealed to him as the Lord’s wrenching idols from his grasp, forcing him to repent and return to trust in God for life’s strength and meaning.
I can heartily commend this to you, but it comes with my standard Dreher caveats. I love the guy, he writes on my wavelength and is culturally of my “tribe” (Southern, cosmopolitan, foodie, homeschool dad, etc.), but I have to recommend his theological work with a grain of salt. He is emphatically Orthodox, and rather given to the mystical aspects of the faith that the Eastern tradition inclines toward. Still, if you (like me) are emphatically Evangelical, don’t let that stop you from learning from Dreher and his Medieval Catholic mentor, Dante. There is good fruit here, and lessons to ponder long after you close the book.