How Dante May Not Save Your Life But Might Make It Better

My friend Rod Dreher never ceases to surprise me and he has managed to do it again with his new book “How Dante Can Save Your Life. Ignore the title. It’s a good book and you should read it.

The book takes off from where his “The Little Way of Ruth Lemming” left. Rod had returned to his home town after the death of his sister expecting, oh foolish man, that a joyous reunion would occur and all the stains of the strains of the past would be washed in the blood of the lamb. Oh boy was he ever wrong! Proximity made things worse, all of the things that made his relationship with his family difficult (to put it politely, if my father had behaved that way towards me, he would not have died of natural causes) were amplified to the point where the stress was destroying Rod’s health. Ultimately his wife did to him what mine did to me when I was being killed by my pancreas. She dragged him to a doctor, in this case a therapist who gave him very good care. The therapist did not say anything I would not have said so I know it was good. And Rod, being Rod, went to his Russian Orthodox priest who prescribed for him what we would call mantra yoga, saying the Jesus Prayer 500 times a day. That is not as nuts as it sounds as it truly does settle mind, close down the emotions and allows the body to destress. Remember it was the stress of dealing with his family that was doing Rod in.

Then Rod wandered into a bookstore and picked up a Marvel Comic. No, he didn’t. He picked up what most folks who encounter it consider a medieval Marvel Comic, The Divine Comedy, you know, the long poem written by the funny Italian with the big nose and leaves on his head shuffling around in his bathrobe.

Rod has a strange way of seeing things that other people do not. It is part of his charm as a writer. In his hands, Dante stops being a medieval relic, someone you put in the comedy barrel with Aquinas, fun to read but never to be taken seriously. He managed to find things in Dante that related to his life and his problems and then sought to apply the lessons. In that regard, think of The Comedy as a sort of Bardo, and the path from the thorny wood to the heights of Paradise a variant on the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism.

The book is more than Dante though. If it were only about Dante it would not be as good a book as it is though I am beginning to doubt that Rod can write a bad one. It is the continuing story of the life and disasters of Rod Dreher. It makes him human.

It is easy to dislike Rod. I certainly did when I first read his blog on Beliefnet. He came across as a reincarnation of Cotton Mather. And no doubt he repaid the compliment wondering how he had managed to attract this inhuman monster. But years have a way of sanding down the rough surfaces and the illness and death of his sister were a veritable belt sander. In this book he tells of one exchange where his sister calls him “holier than thou.” He was taken aback by it but his sister was right. He was! And in the beliefnet days I took great pleasure in poking holes in that holiness. But with time a funny thing happened. We got used to each other. He found that he could joke about me and I would not get mad. I enjoyed it. And I would joke back. This puzzles some close friends of mine who cannot understand why I like his blog so much. It is not just that I have a soft spot for lunatics, and Rod can do a good imitation of a lunatic at times, but I’ve seen the man in his writings and the change in the man.

This book is the culmination of that change and the story of it. Join Dante on his trip. You will not find everything to your liking. You will find things that you cannot accept. But that is ok. Take what is given as you find use for it and discard what you cannot.

And now a bit of a personal afterword. Rod was so moved by his experience that last year he made a pilgrimage to Florence and the surrounding countryside, visiting all the Dante sites. I, of course, had to make a joke that he should visit the spot where they burned Savonarola and to my surprise he did, and when he did, he remembered to say a prayer for me, an act he repeated later. I have friends, who not understanding, would be offended at that. They are foolish. Rod could have given me, the Terrible Uncle Chuckie, no greater gift. Not that I am likely to convert or anything, but the fact that he saw fit to remember me at what for him was the pilgrimage of his life, giving thanks to the man, long dead, for saving his life.

And so now I return the favor. Thank you Dante, not only for your poem, but for keeping Rod alive.

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