The Divine Comedy, Dante wakes up lost in a dark woods. He has to take a terrifying and arduous journey – first through Inferno, then up Mount Purgatory and finally through the dizzying spheres of Paradise before he can finally make his way home. Metaphorically, this is a story of a man who has morally and spiritually lost his way. He has lost sight of the good and now wanders in a kind of moral darkness.
At the top of Mt. Purgatory, Dante visits the Garden of Eden. Having travelled through hell, visiting the depths of his small, dark heart and then worked assiduously to reorder his desires along the mountain climb, Virgil lets him loose. His love is now sufficiently oriented that he can follow his desires and find the proper path.
The Garden that Dante walks through is beautiful, yet it is clear that no one lives here – it is the kind of place you visit, but – unlike the Hotel California – you can never stay. In this way, it is like earth – a place that may at times seem to be our permanent residence, but which we know is really just a temporary resting spot. Further, Dante deliberately reminds us of the dark woods he woke up in, by referring to the Garden as the sacred woods. Finally, we are to recall that the Garden of Eden described in Genesis is actually earth – the place that God made in the seven days that we now know was the millennia that is evolution, and which is populated with all the animals of the water, air and land, including us.
Dante, you see, never left the dark woods he began in. The journey described in The Divine Comedy is a metaphorical account of an inward journey – Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven are all present within his soul in a real and substantial way. The question we are forced to ask, if he is indeed in the same physical place, is what has changed such that the terrifying woods he woke up in has become the idyllic scared woods that leads directly to Paradiso.
We normally think that the “fall”described in Genesis results in a change in location, we are ordered outside and it is as though the earth itself has been transformed. Dante, however, tells us that the change is one that takes place in us. When he wakes up he cannot see the sun that would light his path homeward, and, when he does see it, he is not sufficiently habituated to the light to be able to withstand it.
The transformation that occurs is neither of location nor of the earth itself. The transformation is internal to Dante. He turns inwards and sees the detestation he has caused to himself. Once this environmental crisis has been overcome, he is able to see the world with new eyes. Rather than darkness populated by leopards, lions and wolves, he now sees an earthly paradise and is visited by Beatrice – the woman he loves.
Among the many things Dante intends, this is a small but important point: when we fall into despair about the state of the world (and certainly there is much that needs our attention), often the problem is not only external, but internal. To despair is to believe that all is lost, that there is nothing to be done and that the dark woods will be our home forever. Dante imagines he is all alone, and then, mysteriously – even providentially – he is joined by fellow travellers who help and whom he helps in turn. Guided and guiding by love, his vision strengthens. And despite all of the ongoing problems – we cannot forget that upon returning from Paradiso to earth, Dante will be politically persecuted and sent into exile – he will see the woods not as dark but as graced by light. On his return, we imagine he will approach the world with neither despair nor hatred, but with hope and love.