Rod Dreher was 46 when he picked up a 700-year-old poem in the midst of his life’s worst crisis. Now he tells the story of how Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy restored him and made his life whole again.
Union’s Honors Community hosted the senior editor of the American Conservative Thursday evening in Harvey Auditorium. He shared his story about how his recent book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, came to be published earlier this year.
When Dante first composed the rather intimidating piece of literature, he had found himself exiled in the middle of his life. Dreher found himself in a similar position when he decided to read it.
Born and raised in rural Louisiana, Dreher didn’t quite fit in with his father’s “country boy” ideals. But that wasn’t the life bookworm Dreher wanted to live. He couldn’t wait to get away from Louisiana, so at 16 he went off to boarding school and eventually would move out east for a career in journalism.
Dreher went on to write and edit for publications like Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, New York Post, National Review and Time, among others. While he always felt a longing to return to his roots, he didn’t think he could make a life for himself in a small rural town with his family.
On the other hand, Dreher’s younger sister Ruthie was “the son my dad always wanted.” A homecoming queen who knew how to use a shotgun, it was clear to Dreher that his sister was the one who made their father proud. Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, became a schoolteacher in their hometown and stayed near her parents.
In 2010, Dreher was living in Philadelphia when he got a phone call about his sister. Ruthie had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at age 42. Dreher flew straight home and watched the people in his hometown come together to support his family. He began to see the people of St. Francisville, Louisiana in a different way.
“Suddenly the social cohesion that felt very oppressive to me when I was 16 years old was holding my family together,” Dreher said. “When she finally died, I realized that they had been transformed in my eyes, and I wanted to be there. I wanted to be there to serve my family. I wanted to be there to love that community. I wanted my kids to have the good things I had growing up.”
Dreher and his wife Julie made arrangements to move their family back home. During this time, he had been blogging about how the love of his hometown changed him, and it led to a book deal.
After writing all but the last chapter of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Ruthie’s oldest daughter told Dreher that her two younger sisters were not going to accept him back into the family. He learned that his sister raised her three daughters not to trust him because he left the family to find success in the big city—and his own father agreed.
Dreher was so heartbroken to lose the happy ending to his prodigal son story that he began suffering from chronic fatigue and chronic mononucleosis. He started visiting a rheumatologist and a therapist to learn how to get better. They told him if he didn’t find inner peace, he wasn’t going to make it.
That’s when Dreher found himself wandering around the poetry section of a Barnes and Noble in Baton Rouge. When he read the first lines of the Divine Comedy, he could immediately relate:
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the straight path.
“I thought I was coming back to the Garden of Eden, but actually I was coming into a dark, dark wood, and I didn’t know how to get out of it,” Dreher said. “So I kept reading. Five months later I emerged at the end of the poem, exiting Paradise with Dante. Like my fictional companion, I was spiritually and psychologically healed.”
Dreher said Dante’s journey through the afterlife mirrors every soul’s journey—he had to confront himself and learn that all sin is disordered love.
The different characters in Inferno represented putting fame, wealth, power, lust and adventure before God.
“I always thought sin was breaking the law, breaking the commandments,” Dreher said. “And it is that, but more deeply, it’s to love the wrong thing or to love the right thing in the wrong way.”
For Dreher, meeting Farinata’s character was a turning point. Farinata was a heretic who lived for family and place. When Dante started arguing with him, Dreher realized their fight embodied the 35-year argument about family and place he had been living out with his own father. It couldn’t be won, and he couldn’t change his father’s opinion.
Dreher had been a Christian since he was 25, but for years he had been worshiping the idols of family and place. He had confused the love of God with his own distorted relationship with his dad. Only if he did the right things would he be worthy of that love, he thought. Dreher had been searching for unconditional love in a place he would never find it.
Dante revealed things Dreher’s therapist and priest had been trying to tell him for months, but he didn’t get it until he connected with the literature.
“I knew that this medicine I was receiving in the Divine Comedy, as much as it hurt, was the only thing that was going to heal me,” he said.
Toward the end of last December, Dreher asked his hospitalized father to forgive him for the anger he held in his heart for so many years. But again, he didn’t get the Hollywood happy ending—his father agreed to forgive him but failed to reciprocate the apology.
Later that spring, Dreher saw that his father was nearing the end of his life, and he brought it up again. After explaining the hurt that came when his family failed to welcome him back home, his father thought more about their relationship and ultimately asked for forgiveness.
“What if I had stood on justice instead of love?” Dreher said. “I never would have been there to hear my dad say those words I waited my whole life to hear.”
Last month when his father’s health took a turn for the worst, Dreher was able to hold his hand as his life came to a close. Surrounded by family, he was also able to reconcile his relationship with his nieces at his dad’s bedside.
“I feared this moment my whole life—the day my dad would leave the earth,” Dreher said. “But because of the work the Holy Spirit did in me through Dante…I had been able to repent enough to receive that grace from God to walk with my dad in his final steps.”
Dreher admits that he is not a poetry scholar—he’s just a writer from South Louisiana who likes to eat crawfish, drink beer and read nonfiction.
But this “enchanted work of art” was written in the language of common people with a mission to bring them from a state of misery to a state of bliss.
“For Dante, true bliss is only possible when our hearts rest in God,” he said. “The Divine Comedy really is a roadmap through our own dark hearts and into the light of Christ.”
Eric Marcy, senior English major and lover of literature, was moved by Dreher’s story.
“In an academic context, we can work so hard to pick apart literature that the inspirational and emotional impact of works can be forgotten,” Marcy said. “It was really refreshing to be reminded of the simple life-changing power that stories—even a medieval poem like the Divine Comedy—can still have on us.”