Dante and Recovery Part 1: Into the Inferno

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“I think and judge it best for you
to follow me, and I shall guide you,
where you shall hear the howls of desperation
and see the ancient spirits in their pain…
When he advanced, I followed and
I entered the steep and savage path…”
Inferno (Cantos 2, 3)

I was never big on the idea of reading when I was younger, a choice I regret today. However, as an adult, I was introduced to Dante’s brilliant literary work, the Divine Comedy. While the Divine Comedy ought to be read in its entirety, I want to focus on the first part, Inferno, and what we can learn from Dante’s descent into Hell.

Dante’s journey is very similar to our journey of recovery. In the beginning, he is on a wayward path and cannot find his way up a mountain where he sees a beautiful light. He is scared and feels alone. Then the ghost of Virgil, the great Roman poet, appears and tells him that he will take him on a journey to ascend toward the light. But before Dante can gaze upon the face of God he must journey into the depths of the earth to see those who have been condemned to eternal torment.  

Some readers think Dante is writing this for the same reason some parents tell their kids stories of the boogeyman or La Llorona, which is to scare them into good behavior. However, Dante writes about Hell so that his readers can understand theologically what Hell is. It is Dante the pilgrim in the epic poem (not Dante as the literal author) that we in recovery ought to reflect upon.

Dante’s journey into Hell is a sort of examination of conscience; he is not only seeing the consequences of unrepentant sin but also his own interior life of sinfulness made manifest before his eyes. In recovery terms, he is “taking a fearless and moral inventory” of his life, although in an extreme way. Like us in recovery, he is not meant to take this journey alone but with a guide or sponsor.

Whenever we are taking stock of our defects and sins during our fourth step it is imperative that we do not do this alone.  I could not imagine what would have happened had Dante been without his guide, Virgil, as he descended into Hell. Virgil helps Dante navigate the steep slopes and challenging paths of Hell while offering him comfort and encouragement. Had Dante not had his “sponsor,” he would have surely been overwhelmed and possibly fallen back into his old sinful ways along his journey. 

There is no beating around the bush: we too cannot journey into recovery alone. There have been many times personally when I have felt that my world was ending and feelings of guilt and shame washed over me. I felt as though I could not take another step. I needed the help of another. Attempting to make a fourth step without the help of a wise person who has walked into the depths of their own Hell should not be undervalued. 

The same is also true without our spiritual life in general. It is always a good idea to have someone who can help guide us and aid us in our discernment when it comes to identifying God’s will for our lives. This “spiritual director” can be a priest, deacon, religious brother or sister, or even a member of the laity committed to living a life of grace.

I remember sitting and listening to people discuss their fourth-step process. I was told it’s the hardest step and that it’s going to be extremely difficult. I was even told that doing a fourth step can cause physical symptoms to manifest from having to confront past hurts and traumatic events. All of this sounded terrible to me. I remember thinking, “Why do I need to suffer more? I thought I was supposed to be healing and recovering.” One of the hardest things in recovery is being able to sit with our feelings, especially our most uncomfortable ones, to come to deeper self-awareness and eventual healing. 

I believe that Dante was in a similar situation. He had been blinded by his sin and mistakes, and he could not find his way to the beautiful light atop the mountain. As hard as he tried, the sins of lust, violence, and fraud kept getting in the way. It was not until Virgil was sent to shake him from his blindness and help him walk through his own “fourth step” that he was able to complete his journey.

For me, this journey of recovery can seem overwhelming. I am reminded on a regular basis to peer into my own hell and look for my own reflection. In other words, to see all the ways in which I have failed to love through my sinfulness and defects by taking a daily fearless and moral inventory. However, this is not the end of our journey. It’s only a necessary step that in the end brings peace of mind and serenity. 

Thankfully, we have our own “Virgils” to assist us. Aside from our sponsor and our fellows in recovery, we have Christ. We have his Blessed Mother and the sacraments of the Church. And we have the entire communion of Saints: men and women who, though sinners, peered into the depths of their own infernos and put their faith in God to scale the heavenly mountain. Take heart and walk with courage, my brothers and sisters, so that at the end of our recovery and spiritual journey we will arrive at the perfect and holy Light of God that awaits us in Heaven. 

“Because my sight, becoming pure, was able
to penetrate the ray of Light more deeply—
that Light, sublime, which in Itself is true.”
Paradiso (Canto 33)

Ambrose is a convert to Catholicism and has struggled with sexaholism and mental illness. He has undergraduate degrees in Catholic theology and philosophy and enjoys learning and reading about the lives of the saints.