In my work as a spiritual director, I am privileged to accompany people on their spiritual journeys. Along the way, I have learned that help and guidance can come from unexpected quarters. One such example is Dante Alighieri, the 14th century Italian poet.*
Dante’s most famous work is The Divine Comedy, in which he takes an extended tour of hell, purgatory, and heaven (Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise). Dante was probably the first person to write from this perspective and certainly influenced many who followed, including C.S. Lewis and his book, The Great Divorce.
Dante helped me frame some core principles that have been a tremendous help on my spiritual journey and may be helpful to you: 1) You need a guide; 2) to go up, you must first go down; 3) everything is happening now; and 4) the journey is helical (like a spiral), not linear. I’ll unpack these principles gleaned from Dante in hopes that they will also provide helpful perspectives for you.
1. You need a guide.
Dante begins his narrative with these lines:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.
When I first read these lines I was hooked. Here was a man who was speaking to me. I could relate. I know what it’s like to wake up and ask, “How did I get here?”
Dante’s journey begins by recognizing he was stuck. The key to getting unstuck was not to double-down and try harder but to reframe the problem. Since most of the time we can’t do this on our own (if we can we probably weren’t stuck in the first place), we need the help of a wise and trusted guide. In Dante’s case this was the Roman poet Virgil, who lived 1300 years before and wrote in the golden age of the Roman Empire. Virgil represented the pinnacle of pagan thought and morality. He was the noble poet who conducted Dante’s tour of hell and purgatory and helped him make sense of it all. He helped Dante get unstuck. But it was a long, laborious journey.
I too found myself at a point where nothing was working; I was stuck. In my case, the guide who came alongside was pastor/philosopher/professor Dallas Willard. He helped reframe my view of the Christian life. I began a slow and thorough reading of everything Willard wrote. It was slow-going and by no means easy. Yet Willard had a way of saying things that sounded different enough to make one want to hear more. He whetted my appetite and ignited a fire in me that has yet to be extinguished. I now find myself turning back to him time and again to help keep things in perspective. He was my Virgil.
In addition to a poet or philosopher, a guide can come in the form of therapist, spiritual director, or mentor. Whatever the case, if you find yourself stuck, follow Dante’s example and don’t try to go it alone. Ask God for grace and accept help when it shows up. Ultimately this help is whatever God deigns to send our way. It may even be the direct hand of the Almighty—though often we are too stuck to see or respond to Divine intervention. God in his grace usually responds by sending us a person.
2. To go up, you must first go down.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart. Ps. 15:1–2
“The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.” Frederick Buechner
The Divine Comedy begins with Dante admitting he is lost. Virgil appears, but rather than taking him immediately to the path of righteousness, Virgil first leads Dante on a tour of hell and purgatory before making the ascent to heaven. It was all a necessary part of Dante’s journey; It helped him reorient himself and see things in proper perspective.
There are many biblical examples of this. Moses spent forty years in the desert before leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. In a similar way, Paul spent three years in the desert before he became the “untimely born” apostle (Gal 1:17–18; 1 Cor. 15:8). Perhaps the scriptures are scarce on the details of this experience so that we might all fill in with our own experiences and relate.
Today there are many ways this is also mirrored in our culture. The 12 steps developed by Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous (and its many variants) is just one example; things get worse before we can get better. Maybe we need to strip away false pretenses before we can be set straight. I have often found that I need to unlearn as much as I need to learn. This stripping away is mirrored in many Christian settings which practice some form of confession before taking communion. In any case, we all need to regularly reorient ourselves and “speak the truth in our hearts” before God (Ps. 15:2).
3. Everything is happening now.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Ps. 139:5
As Dante and Virgil travel together, they encounter people that have ceased to live their lives on earth but are very much alive in hell, purgatory, and heaven. They aren’t in an afterworld as much as they are in the real world where the consequences of their actions bear fruit. They are still reliving their experiences and reaping the consequences of their choices. There is the feeling that Dante is seeing things as they really are without the veil of the material world. All four realms comingle into a seamless experience. Even though Dante describes his experience as a journey, there is a sense that the past, present and future are happening concurrently. This is the genius of Dante.
Similarly, God is not bound by time. As finite and limited human beings, we experience time. God, on the other hand, is infinite and stands outside the bounds of time. He sees us in our totality. This can be a very helpful and comforting thought as we experience the twists and turns of our journey. God knows what we will be as we are becoming it.
God also works in our past as well as our future. As limited humans bound by space and time, our past is fixed and our future is unknown. God, however, is bound by neither space nor time. He can work in our past and give us “a beautiful headdress instead of ashes” (Is. 61:3).
4. The journey is helical, not linear.
Dante describes his journey as a trip around a mountain. He doesn’t take a direct line up the hill, but rather makes his way around and around. In some cases, he circles the mountain to find himself only a few feet higher than he was before—nearly the same point as before but having gained a few feet of altitude. I love this description because it seems to be an accurate picture of our life experience. We circle around a core issue (or passion) and never seem to leave it behind.
As I accompany people on their spiritual journey, I find that they are generally delighted to see God at work in their lives; they rejoice when they see their problems being resolved and they can “move on.” They are usually very discouraged when the same problem reemerges in a later season of life.
Sound familiar? I think this is a common occurrence for us all. We tend to have a theme for our lives. The theme could be a recurring struggle, a difficult relationship, or a circumstance that does not easily resolve. When we encounter it, our tendency is to think linearly when we need to think helically.
Dante helps me keep this in perspective. Our issues may take various forms and progress may seem slow. But a core passion can be an orienting principle—the thing around which our lives revolve, the itch that never seems to be scratched. It may be a dark shadow that we fear and want to avoid, but there is “gold in the shadow.”** Christ is there waiting for us. We have nothing to fear.
If you find yourself asking the question, “How did I get here?” know that you are in good company and that many have stood in the same place before you. It took me a few times circling the same issue to see that I was actually making progress. Even though things at first glance looked the same, I was ever so slightly edging my way up. Of course I had several people step into my life and help me reframe my perspective. Help can come from unusual places—even from a 14th century Italian poet.
REFLECT AND RESPOND
- Which of these four principles for the spiritual journey resonates the most with your own experiences? Which one surprises you?
- Do you have a guide for your spiritual life? Who might be able to offer you helpful perspective so you’re not on your own?
- Can you name the core issue that keeps “coming around” in your life? If you look at this issue as a theme, can you see ways that you have made progress over the years, even in small ways?
*I don’t usually read medieval poetry but in this case, it was required reading as part of a class on the history of Christian spirituality. I am grateful to my professor for assigning this work.
**I first encountered this term in Robert Johnson’s book, Owning your own Shadow, who got it from the Swiss psychologist Karl Jung.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Vaughan is a member of the ChurchNEXT ReNew Team, a CRM ministry working to strengthen the souls of Christian leaders so they can thrive in every season of life and ministry. He lives in La Mirada, CA.