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Waking in the Dark Wood

August 11th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Cate MacDonald

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

Where the right way was wholly lost and gone.

Canto 1:1-3, Inferno

Now, this is an interesting way to start a story. From the outset of Dante’s Inferno, the reader finds herself in what should probably be the middle. But Dante cannot remember where he started, his first step into the wood, or even when he left the path he meant to be on; so this is his new beginning. And it doesn’t look promising.

From the moment I opened Dante’s Inferno in high school, this passage became a part of my internal dialogue. In his first three lines, Dante expresses the experience of many a prodigal son or wandering daughter. You made a left when you knew you were meant to go right, a few more turns were a little less clear, the road kept slopping gently downward, and pretty soon, you’d forgotten where you’d been or how you ended where you are.

It’s sometimes easy for the dramatic sinner (those of us who, if we’re going to go wrong, really like to do the thing with flare and dedication) to identify when we’ve hit those dark woods, because everything in our lives is suddenly under shadow. But I think it is a common occurrence even in the most pious. Perhaps it is fifty extra pounds and a food addiction you seemed not to notice until you saw that picture on Facebook and now cutting back seems impossibly hard. Maybe it’s an illicit sex life that started out so innocently and grew so gradually, you can’t pinpoint where it went too far. Or maybe it’s even less obvious, like anger that’s been secretly stewing so long, forgiveness doesn’t seem possible, or bigotry and prejudice that’s become a part of you.

I am discovering, that, unlike the murky confusion and sudden awaking of the path that leads to darkness, the right ways are often fully illuminated and obvious, the better to see how difficult they really are. When Dante finds himself lost in the dark, the most obvious exit he finds is an ominous gate with a path leading slowly downward. Though any reader can tell this is a bad idea, Dante decides to take his journey farther down into a deep pit, only to find that he must eventually start climbing again, just from an even lower starting point. As he moves into Purgatory, he starts an ascent that is illumined by the light of day, but no more reassuring than the downward spiral in which he had been. In fact, the climb is about to get so steep, so difficult, that he must leave his current guide behind and carry on without him.

Dante cannot ascend towards heaven until he faces the consequences of sin and sees for himself that repentance is often hard and painful. This is as good an allegory for living repentance as I’ve read. Walking in the path of sanctification, in step with one’s own conviction can be really damn hard, especially when you’re used to the shade. Where it seems easy to slip down a path that leads to darkness, the way back out is not so fun; after all “...the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction.” You see this same theme, by the way, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which it becomes evident that the only way for Voldemort to heal his soul is through repentance, which is much too painful for him to ever consider.

I have spent a long time admiring the narrow path while blithely skipping down the broad, where the road is smooth, which such interesting, shady woods on the horizon. But those woods are not so pleasant close-up, and there are but two paths left. The arduous climb into the clear light of day, back to a high road, of sorts, or a certain gate I’ve no interest in getting nearer. It has taken a long time for me to accept that there is no easy way out of the woods. Despite it’s uncomfortable brightness, and the hot, dusty climb ahead, I’m turning towards the Sun.