A windswept forest on a cloud-covered night creaks, cracks, and moans, sending chills up and down the spine. Trees waving and wagging on their upward path have elbowed for the brightest spot in the sun. They’re intertwined. When the wind blows, they rub, and a humanlike agony echos through the woods.
The 13th-century poet Dante Alighieri begins his famed supernatural epic, The Divine Comedy, with such an eerie scene. Yet, how did he end up in this ‘savage forest’? He writes,
“I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.”
Before Dante’s journey spirals into the depths of hell, climbs the steep slope of purgatory, and soars into the luminous heights of heaven, he stands confused, lost, and alone. He questions, “How did I get here?” Unsure of the answer, he is sure of one thing: he’s on the wrong path.
It’s familiar, becoming lost, making a wrong turn, missing an exit, or simply gawking at a strange setting. Depicting this familiar irritation, Dante probes a deeper tragedy, something more problematic than being in the wrong locale. Dante is on the wrong path of life. Abandoning the true way, he has abandoned the road to happiness.
The ‘savage forest’ describes Dante’s disordered soul. The gnarly branches are his own vices chafing in the wind of vain pursuits. Pride, vanity, envy, wrath, gluttony, sloth, and lust compete for their own desired objects: praise, honor, vengeance, pleasure, money, and material possessions. All of these drag him down and pull him off the path to true happiness.
What’s more, Dante perceptively connects slumber with veering off the true way. Following our passions and disordered desires resembles sleeping; we’re not really thinking. Our wounded souls struggle to know the truth, to desire what is truly good, to overcome what is difficult, and to resist that quick fix of pleasure. These wounds invert our humanity in such a way that the lower parts of ourselves influence the higher parts. Reason can become like a distracted ticket agent, admitting any action without a discerning judgment. Put another way, letting the passions rule our lives is like letting a toddler rule the household.
The true path that Dante longs for is anything but the result of slumber. Christ rose from the sleep of death to new life. You might say, “One has to be awake to be saved.” This salvation is living with vitality, while living according to vice is not living at all.
The vices are usually called the seven deadly sins, which lead to slumberous folly. In contrast, the life of salvation and grace manifests itself in the seven lively virtues. Faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance seek their own desired objects: truth, eternal happiness, the good, the right course of action, equity, self-mastery, and the balanced enjoyment of pleasure. Far from the gray and gloom of the “savage forest,’ the new life of grace and virtue resembles a garden of various flowers and fruits.
At the beginning of his journey, a lost and dull Dante rambles into a gray, shadowy scene. Yet, at the end of his journey, a found and illuminated Dante beholds a vision of variegated color he struggles to express. Beholding God, he writes,
“Here vigor failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”
Passing from vice to virtue, Dante’s journey begins in an enclosed, shadowy forest and ends with the unfathomable vision of God, the source of all light, love, beauty, and reality. Far from a slumberous vision, Dante becomes fully awake and fully alive.
Photo: Starry Sky