“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”
I for one know how this feels. Once in the vast Yosemite National Forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, I lost my way. And I was not alone but supposedly taking care of my two young nephews. Night was falling, and I walked faster and faster, not reaching the main road, but striding deeper and deeper into the dark towering trees. My nephews marched along happily, thinking it was a game to keep up, chanting “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”
Oh my. I was terrified that a mountain lion or bear really could lunge out at us but I also horrified that my lack of direction had endangered these two young boys. Dante Alighieri was 35-years-old, middle aged by medieval standards. It was the evening of Good Friday, in the year 1300, and he was terrified to find himself so far astray. His Inferno is monumental and indelibly unique. But it also describes a universal human experience—being lost.
That evening in Yosemite, I was in my early thirties, young by contemporary standards. But I felt as if I was in the middle of my life. I felt the full weight of it in the present moment, as if everything led up to this terrible reckoning. And one bitter twist was that I came to that forest from a 10-day meditation retreat. In those days, some people, including my Navy pilot brother-in-law whose children I was minding, thought such pursuits were self-indulgent, to say the least. It was a form of dropping out. This was before science made its slow and careful studies and claims.
As darkness fell, I agreed. The retreat seemed nothing more than a bubble, a dream. Walking in the woods, I was close to my present moment experience. But how could it help me find my way? Decades later, I know this is where the path begins.
Dante sees sun shining on a distant mountaintop but wild beasts block his climb, forcing him to retreat to the forest. There he glimpses a luminous presence, the ghost of the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who was dispatched as a guide by his true love in heaven. Here is a clue for us all: love sends guidance.
Eventually, we found our way back to the right road and a shuttle bus back to the family. My brother-in-law was waiting, scowling. He collected his sons and stormed off in a fury. My mother stood behind him smiling. “You look like you could use a drink,” she said, wrapping me in a hug. All these years later, I remember sitting with her on the terrace of a café in the forest. I don’t remember words, just her loving presence, accepting and even amused by the comedy of the situation. Her love was a guide rope.
Before Virgil can lead Dante up the mountain and up to heaven, before his journey can become the Divine Comedy, the pair must take trip through hell. Before Dante can know the liberation of divine love he must descend into reality. He must understand suffering and the causes of suffering. He passes through the gates of Hell, emblazoned with “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here” – an indelible way of saying that here on earth there is no escape from the consequences.
As Dante moves from the outskirts of Hell (where the terminally uncommitted endlessly chase blank banners) to it’s deepest depths, he moves from horrified aversion to a kind of acceptance: the gluttonous wallow, the wrathful tear each other apart, the sullen choke on mud–the punishment fits the crime. The punishment IS the crime lived over and over again. In the deepest depths of Hell, Lucifer is frozen in a lake of ice. Suffering is revealed: it is not wild outlaw freedom but bondage to hatred or greed or ignorance.
So what is the way out of Hell? It is love, inevitably. It is the loving awareness that accompanies us, meeting our imperfection without demanding that it straighten up and be perfection. It is a presence that isn’t laced through with judgment or desire.
When we are lost, bereaved, overwhelmed, suffering, we may also begin to awaken to deeper realities. Easy fictions about who we are and what we can and cannot control evaporate and we glimpse deeper truths—impermanence, the limitations of our knowledge, the way one thing leads to another. But we also see the reality and power of love.
“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.