“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In a dark wood, the right road lost.”
These are the famous opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy and, even if you hate what follows, their brevity and archetypal power are hard to deny. Mutter them to yourself in a particularly low moment and you will no longer need several meandering journal entries to find the right words. “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In a dark wood, the right… road… lost.“
Dante’s original audience would have known why he felt this way. The first half of Dante’s life had operated with a karmic consistency that had only increased his prospects and reputation. But, in a sudden twist and due to no fault of his own, Dante found himself exiled from his home and betrayed by the church. The steady foundation had disintegrated underneath him. At the beginning of the text, Dante is reckoning with the fact that he has been completely cut-off from the things that gave him definition and he now has but two options: die to self or simply die.
The way out of his frightful state is, to modern audiences at least, counterintuitive. To rescue him from the dark wood, a mentor, Virgil, appears and offers Dante the pilgrim a tour of the afterlife. But why would a visit through Hell and Purgatory, in particular, stabilize the unbalanced mind?
We Protestants sometimes get nervous around The Divine Comedy. We are afraid it isn’t christological enough, or that it is too focused on a medieval vision of punishment, or that it promotes a works-driven vision of salvation. I understand the concerns and agree with a few of them. But baked into Dante’s vision of the afterlife is a truth that many of us have lost and must recover, maybe best summarized by Hebrews 5:8: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
In Dante’s narrative, many believers die and are ushered to Purgatory. There are three things about Dante’s Purgatory that you need to know: 1) Purgatory is only accessible to the repentant, 2) all who make it to the shores of Purgatory will make it to Heaven, and 3) growth happens through suffering and discomfort. In fact, Purgatory is so committed to suffering that most of its levels could easily be swapped out with levels from Hell. The difference is that in Inferno, suffering does nothing for the individual. It is punishment. Endless. In Purgatorio, it is the means for sanctification. There is no glorification apart from suffering.
At this point in my life (in my 30s with four kids), all of my fantasies involve a clear schedule and autonomy over my time. I crave a world wherein no one depends on me. I imagine what it would be like to freely schedule my workouts, my reading, and my sleep. In other words, in my vision of growth, commitments and relationships are the problem. I had a professor in college who swore off marriage because he felt it would hold him back from self-actualization. Apparently, in my heart, I agree.
One recent week, I was determined to make it to the gym. Just once. I set my alarm early, printed out my workout routines, and made it to bed without the normal episode of Seinfeld. Of course, this was the week that my one-year old decided to wake up every morning sometime after midnight. I never made it to the gym. And here is the kicker: I believed, somewhat bitterly, that I was serving my daughter in those early hours by holding her and encouraging her to sleep. But, actually, it was God who was serving me.
God’s vision for growth is very different from my own.
There is a dangerous, mostly subconscious triumphalism in my theology that ultimately subverts the call of Christ. This triumphalism argues that if I pray enough or believe enough then I can skip the suffering that comes hand-in-hand with discipleship. In this view, suffering is primarily a problem to be avoided.
But the Scriptures don’t see suffering in the same light; in fact, they argue that our suffering is a means of growth. You start reading through Luke and Jesus just won’t stop talking about it. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me…” Or the real humdinger, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple… So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
I am more and more convinced that the reason it is so hard to preach on difficult topics is because we have not asked people to follow Jesus who ”learned obedience through what he suffered.” Instead of issuing the call to discipleship, the preacher instead feels pressure to show how Jesus helps with our self-actualization projects. Look at Christ at the end of his encounter with the Rich Young Ruler, or his encounter with Peter on the shore after his betrayal, or the Great Commission. The call is not “You are forgiven! Go back to your life!” It is the call to renunciation, suffering, and discipleship. Why? Because the call to discipleship is the most gracious thing Jesus can offer us.
Everything else will fail and kill us. Jesus does not want a church of searchers, desperately looking for the right romantic partner or the right job or our true selves. All of those things fade after sucking us dry. Jesus wants disciples. This is the way of life. This is the light yoke. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in The Cost of Discipleship, “the call to discipleship is a gift of grace, and… the call is inseparable from the grace.”
Dante knew this as well. I am not Catholic and I do not believe in Purgatory, but I think I am most compelled by Purgatorio because Dante’s vision of sanctification rings true for the Christian life on earth. I have an assurance that God will finish the work He has started, I know that He is with me, and I need to remember that following Christ means “learning obedience through suffering.” When Dante attempted to craft a realm of the afterlife dedicated to growth, he didn’t create a place wherein everyone has radical autonomy, a full budget, and worship music blasting through their airpods. He created a school for dying to ourselves.
When Dante finds himself lost in that first canto, he needs to be shown the afterlife because he needs an introduction to the way of suffering. He thought his salvation lay in his prior success. Instead, cut off from his family, attacked by the church, and betrayed by many friends, he was finally on the path that would lead to Christ.