Chapter 1: The Dark Wood of Error
Just before Good Friday, April 8, 1300, Dante woke up to find himself in a dark wood. How he got there he did not know because he had wandered from the correct path little by little, not realizing for a long time that he had wandered from the straight path and was instead on the path of error. But midway in the threescore and ten years allotted to human beings in the Bible, the 35-year-old Dante had finally awoken to find out that he was not on the path he wanted to be on. Instead, he was in a dark wood in a dark valley, far from the light he wanted to see. And he felt fear rather than the reassurance he wanted to feel.
But Dante looked up and saw the light shining on the top of a hill. Light shows human beings the correct path to take, and light calms fears. A swimmer who has escaped dangerous waters will take a look at the waters when he is safe on shore. So Dante, who felt safer but still had a long way to go before he reached the light, looked at the dark path and the dark valley while resting before he attempted to climb the hill and reach the light.
The climb was harder than he expected because of Dante’s weakness — one foot dragged behind the other. Worse, Dante was not alone. Just as he began the climb upward, a leopard blocked his path. Everywhere Dante went, the leopard went. Dante was unable to climb upward. Just when Dante thought that he could get past the leopard, a lion appeared and blocked his path. And then still more trouble! A she-wolf appeared, and again Dante’s path upward was blocked. Dante was unable to climb upward; instead, the she-wolf, hungry, walked toward him, forcing him down the hill into the dark wood and the dark valley.
If Dante were to ever climb upward, he needed help. Some things cannot be accomplished alone. Some things require help in order to be accomplished, and some things require divine help in order to be accomplished.
Just then, Dante saw a figure coming toward him, and he cried out, “Whoever you are, have pity on me, whether you be a man or a spirit!”
The figure replied, “I am no longer a living man, although I lived in Rome while Caesar Augustus ruled, in a time when the wrong gods were worshipped. I was a poet, and as a poet I told the story of Aeneas, a refugee who survived the burning of Troy. But why aren’t you climbing toward the light? This dark wood is no place to be.”
I know why you can’t climb toward the light, the figure — Virgil — thought. You have sinned, and you are in the dark wood of error. Your sins are keeping you from climbing toward the light. The leopard is a manifestation of the sins of incontinence, the lion is a manifestation of the sins of violence, and the she-wolf is a manifestation of the sins of fraud. Sometimes, sins take on material form. Dante, I am aware that you have messed up your life so much that you need help to reach the light. Fortunately for you, help is here.
“Are you Virgil, author of the Aeneid? Can you now help me, who have spent so much time studying and adoring your poetry?” Dante asked. “You, Virgil, taught me to write poetry. You, Virgil, taught me the style that has been so much admired. A beast has kept me from climbing to the light. Save me from the beast!”
“I can help you to go further toward the light,” Virgil replied, “but we must go in another direction. The beast that keeps you from climbing the hill and reaching the light allows no one to get past her. She always blocks travelers. This she has always done and will continue to do until a champion arises to slay her. Such a champion will not be concerned with money or property, but will concern himself with wisdom, love, excellence, and virtue. The beast will not survive the encounter with the champion.
“But follow me. I will be your guide, and I will take you most of the way through your journey. First we shall visit a place of screams, and then we shall visit a place where souls rejoice in what may seem like punishment because they know that they shall reach Paradise. I shall take you as far as I can, and then a soul worthier than I am shall take you the rest of the way to your destination. I cannot take you that far because I did not worship the Supreme Emperor in the right way. The Supreme Emperor is the ruler of everything, and all of his citizens are happy.”
“Poet,” Dante begged, “in the name of that God Whom you did not worship rightly, please save me from this dark wood. Lead me to the place you mention, and let me see the gate that Saint Peter guards.”
Virgil led the way, and Dante followed him.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:
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