(This edition of the newsletter is going to all people who signed up for it during the freebie days. Paid subscribers will get today’s new edition late tonight, or in the early morning mail.)
Hi readers, we’ve been doing paid Daily Dreher for a couple of weeks now, and I thought I would share with y’all from the old list some of what I’ve been writing, and what you’ve been missing.
Dante, January 5
(From a January 5 discussion of an Uffizi Gallery exhibition of Renaissance era illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy:)
Here is one of the more memorable encounters in Hell. At one point, Dante and Virgil approach the gates of the City of Dis, Hell’s version of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Till this point, the hellish creatures have given way to Virgil, who tells them that he is on a mission from God. But he cannot easily breach the gates of Dis. This is because so far, Dante and Virgil have passed through the circles of Hell in which sins of the appetite are punished. But as they descend into the deeper levels, the walls of Dis separate the sins of the appetite from the sins of a hardened will. Virgil, an embodiment of classical reason, cannot rationalize his way through these gates.
Suddenly, three hideous women appear in the sky, carrying the head of Medusa. If Dante looks at it, he will be turned to stone. Virgil quickly grabs his pupil’s head and buries it in his robe to protect Dante’s eyes:
Notice the detail on these horrible demonic hags. See how withered their breasts are:
What makes this scene stand out to me is that the entire journey for the pilgrim is a journey of gaining sight. You get this more clearly in Paradiso, where the poet tells us explicitly that he cannot pass through the luminous realms until he is spiritually strong enough to bear the intensity of the Divine Light. But it begins here, in Inferno, with the education of Dante’s eye. This is a moment of great peril for the pilgrim, one in which his entire journey could end if he stared at Medusa. What the poet is telling us is that the power of sight could be our undoing, if we are not careful to guard our eyes. Surely the poet had in mind the famous story from Augustine’s Confessions in which his friend Alypius did not want to go to the bloody gladiatorial combat, but was compelled by the mocking of his friends to do so. Alypius hid his eyes at the shedding of blood, not wanting the sight to damage his conscience, but at the last minute looked up. Alypius was so stirred by the gore that he developed an unhealthy compulsion about the deadly entertainment — one that took years to conquer.
It is impossible to overstate the power of images for Dante. Evil and good are not abstractions. They take forms. And an image is never just an image; it always points to something else. Pornography is perhaps the most powerful Medusa of our time, corrupting hearts and minds, and rendering even young men impotent. But anything can be a Medusa. The Dante scholar John Freccero said that Medusa here represents the hardened heart that stands in the way of conversion. As we will learn later, Dante the pilgrim’s lost the straight path in large part by making an idol of romantic Love, embodied in Beatrice, the woman whom he could not have. Maybe Medusa’s head is what Beatrice’s beauty became in Dante’s fallen memory?
Just now I went back to How Dante Can Save Your Life to refresh my memory of what I learned about Medusa back then. It kind of shook me up to re-read this:
As I read through the small library of books about Dante I had assembled, I discovered that in a version of the Greek myth told by the Roman poet Ovid—who influenced Dante greatly—Medusa was a once beautiful woman who had been raped by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena, and as punishment made hideous by the furious goddess. Could it be that in the Commedia, the face of Medusa stands for something that was once a thing of beauty but had suffered corruption, and thus held a terrible power of fascination?
If so, then Medusa symbolizes the passions of Dante’s past and his inability to get free of them. Dante’s journey is a psychological one; the Medusa is the defaced image of a past obsession, one whose dark power threatens to end the entire pilgrimage.
Suddenly it hit me: my Medusa had begun as the beautiful dream of returning home to my family, a fantasy that had captivated and motivated me for years. When it finally came true in the wake of Ruthie’s death, I thought the realization of my dream was at hand. When it all turned sour and ugly, I was still captivated by the image of a loving, united family, but in a disfigured way that imposed a curse that I was powerless to defeat.
The showdown at the gates of Dis revealed to me my own personal Medusas: memories that rendered me helpless to act to free myself.
Why did it shake me up to read it just now? Because during this long, miserable Covidtide, I have been afflicted by nostalgia for happier times. In my newsletter post “A Serious House On Serious Earth,” I mentioned that I had seen last year Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Nostalghia, in which a melancholic Russian writer in Italy to work on a book finds that he is so gripped by his thoughts of other times and other places that he cannot focus on the work in front of him. He’s locked inside his head, with the memories of what he has lost, or seems to have lost.
When I wrote about seeing that movie last summer, I didn’t realize it, but the writer’s nostalgia was his Medusa. I wrote back then:
[T]he writer at one point skulks across the nave of a ruined medieval abbey. Here’s the clip — it’s in Italian. You hear the voice of a woman (presumably the Virgin) asking the Lord to speak to the poor writer, who is in a bad way. The Lord says the writer wouldn’t be able to hear him if he did. She asks the Lord to reveal himself to the writer, who needs to know that he is there. God says that he reveals himself every day, but the writer cannot see.
I was so deeply moved by this movie, which I began watching only minutes after my confession, and my confessor telling me to return to prayer. It felt like a revelation. After the movie was over, I searched online to find out where that amazing medieval ruin is. It turns out that it’s the Abbey of San Galgano. Who was St. Galgano? He was a medieval Tuscan who had led a passionate life, until he had two visions of St. Michael the Archangel. In the second, the Archangel told him to give up his worldly life, and devote himself to God. Galgano reportedly said that it would be easier for him to put his sword through a rock than to give up his worldly passions. He brought his sword down on a rock next to him — and it went through, almost up to the hilt. He immediately converted, and became a hermit. You can still see the sword in the stone inside the church the medieval Tuscans built in his honor. Later, some of his Cistercian followers built the great abbey dedicated to Galgano, though it later was abandoned.
Now, you don’t have to believe that the sword in the stone story is true (though I do) to understand the symbolism. Here’s why I bring it up. After discovering that the abbey in Nostalghia was St. Galgano’s, I believe I finally understood why an Italian engraver, Luca Daum, came to my 2018 talk in Genoa and gave me this, from his hand:
It’s called “The Temptation of San Galgano”. Notice how the serpent who tempts him to abandon his sacrifice comes from inside his head. From the rock where his cross-like sword stands impaled, a symbol of Galgano’s sacrifice, grows the Tree of Life.
I found Luca Daum’s email address and wrote to him about it. He responded, in part:
On what you confide in me about St. Galgano, I tell you what I have always known in words, but then on the practical side it always amazes and surprises me, and that is how God acts despite and despite us, but nevertheless often through us.
God is truly a good Father!
He loves us as we are but He wants to lead us to the Beauty of the Project that must be realized in us.
You have been caressed by God, dear Rod, through the image of an obscure Italian engraver, who only wanted to show you his esteem, and certainly did not imagine anything else.
God used this, as He could use anything else, to embrace and comfort you, and, I humbly say, me too. We are generally so fragile and consequently superficial that we find it hard to recognize God’s hand in our troubled daily lives.
Yet Providence is there and acts, and every now and then it shakes us more clearly.
Dear friend, I am very grateful to you for putting me aside from your moving experience, I will remember you with greater affection, for I feel more deeply and mysteriously bound to you in a common destiny.
After all this, I felt so reassured by my return to prayer, and challenged to deepen my faith in this apocalyptic age. So, my message to you is: Watch. Pray. Practice inner stillness. Prepare yourself to see and to hear. Something is about to be illuminated. The world is filled with mystery. Do not seek to know what cannot be known — just receive it with awe and gratitude, and with the resolution to change your life.
Lord, how I have forgotten this lesson! I’m so hard-headed and obstinate! Here I am, back in the place I was last summer. And I have also circled back to Dante: a circle within a circle.
I’m beginning to get why Dante scholars say that you keep going back to Dante, and re-reading him. Our lives wheel around us like stars in heaven. I’m going to go to confession this week. I need it. I need to rededicate myself to prayer, so I can love more purely, and therefore see more clearly. I swear I didn’t see that coming when I started this epistle three hours ago. I had never connected Medusa, Dante, and Tarkovsky. That leapt out at me, and convicted me.
Theophany And The Riot, January 6
[From a post I made a week ago, on the day of the riot at the Capitol, which coincided with the Orthodox feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ):]
My friend Michael Warren Davis, a young Catholic journalist, sent me a letter tonight (I posted the whole thing here) in which he quoted this passage from the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy:
How right the ancients were, dear friends, to have celebrated, feasted, and commemorated the foundation of a city; to have realized that the city was a being, a living being, and that its foundation was no ordinary action, but a religious action; something out of the ordinary and solemn, worthy of solemnization...
Some linguists think the word “religion” comes from the Latin, religare, meaning “to bind”. If so, then the founding of a city — or of a nation — is a religious act in that it binds the souls and destinies of its people. This is worthy of solemnization, indeed. What we have been seeing over the past year, culminating in today’s revolting display at the Capitol, is the fraying of the ties that have bound us, effected through the desecration of our people’s sacred civic symbols.
What has happened at those statue-wrecking protests, and what happened at the US Capitol today, makes you wonder: are we even a people anymore? These iconoclastic acts are an outward sign of an inner condition. It is hard to see any of this passing soon. Should things worsen significantly, we may find ourselves saying, with Solzhenitsyn, that these things happened because “men have forgotten God.”
St. Sophronious was the Jerusalem patriarch when the Muslim armies arrived to claim the city. He negotiated with the Saracens for the handover. He was said to be so heartbroken that he died soon after. Yet he left us with these triumphant Theophany claims:
Today we are free of the ancient grief, and like a new Israel have been redeemed.
Today we are delivered from the darkness and are bathed in the light of the knowledge of God.
Today the world's gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God.
Today the entire universe is lit as by a heavenly torch.
Today error is abolished and the coming of the Lord opens the way to salvation..
It all happened then, and it continues to happen. Sophronius, the author of those lines, lived to see the Holy City of Jerusalem taken by armies of the Prophet. Where are the Saracens today? Sophronious dwells with the Lord in heaven, and lives on in the icons of the Orthodox Church, and in the lines that all priests say over the waters on the great Feast of Theophany. Sophronious reminds us of the meaning of what happened in the Jordan River when Jesus came for baptism, and why it is always happening on this day.
The world’s gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God. It’s not a suggestion; it’s a proclamation. I prayed early in tonight’s service that the waters of Theophany would cleanse my vision, and help me to see God’s will more clearly. I thought when I heard the line about the world’s gloom that I was being told what is — not just pretty words, but a description of reality, through the eyes of faith.
The Son of God was baptized in a river, sanctifying creation, and filling it with a gloom-dispersing light. There I was tonight, participating in the commemoration of that world-historical event that began to open the doors to eternal life to all. According to the saint’s prayer, “All intelligent life quivers” in the presence of the God in whose presence, and in whose temple, we were praying tonight. We prayed prayers that are 1,400 years old, and participated in a ritual that will still be acted out long after the United States of America has fallen into ruin.
In short, we communed with the eternal, the source of renewal, our only fount of hope. Church was a long way from Washington tonight.
As America tears itself apart, the holiness, the wisdom, and the grace we beheld at church tonight is going to be medicine, and our church will be a field hospital. The church — the one that has been going since Pentecost, and has outlived kingdoms and empires, and persecutors of all kinds. The world’s gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God is always and everywhere true. To see God, and to hear His voice, is not to forget Him, and that He holds the whole world in His hands. To unite oneself to that ancient evergreen truth after today was an act of self-mercy.
Christ Plus Idol, January 7
(Here I quote a letter from a reader, whose words helped restore me spiritually):
As you know, my policy here is to consider all letters sent to me to be publishable, but I will never publish your names or identifying details without your permission. One of you sent me a letter that I’m going to reproduce, but with edits to make sure there’s no chance of identifying the author. It was so extraordinary, and helped me immensely. I have been praying these past few days for an answer to a vexing problem, one that has been causing me a fair amount of pain. I finally told my confessor that I needed to make my confession today (I haven’t been in a long time), because I felt so paralyzed spiritually, and needed to get back to the sacraments. Just before I went to the priest, I checked my e-mail, and found this from a reader who said he has been reading my blog for a couple of years, but had no interest in the Substack newsletter.
That changed during Advent.
Before I explain (and get to the point of my subject line), let me give you a quick background on myself. I’m a middle-aged husband, father, and Catholic convert. I don’t have the time or space here to give you the full story of my conversion experience, but suffice it to say it was a long and winding one, even more so after I knew I had to become Catholic. In any event, I realize now that I had a naïve—if not superstitious—view of the sacraments when I first entered the Church. I had convinced myself that if only I had regular access to confession and the Eucharist, all my problems would be solved, and my battle against mortal sin largely over.
Well, it didn’t take me long after my reception into the Church to be disabused of that fallacy. Since then my experience as a practicing Catholic has been one of high highs and low lows. When I fall, I fall hard, and succumb to all the sins of the flesh from my “previous life” that so dominated me prior to conversion. Thankfully, by the grace of God, I’ve always found the confessional and started again. But every time I fall it gets a little harder, and takes a little longer, for the Grace to break through.
That leads me to the past two months, particularly during Advent. I was in one of those lows, in the depths of sin, so much so that I seriously questioned whether I would get out this time. For when I hit bottom like that, the phrase “sin makes you stupid” applies to me par excellence, and I begin to question and doubt everything as to the faith. In any event, during one of those dark days, I decided to pull up your Substack. I can’t tell you now which day it was or the subject of your essay, but it caused the tiniest of cracks in my hardened heart.
Over the next few weeks, I continued reading each day, and I swear there were days where I thought you were writing directly to me or at least for me. Long story short, that tiny crack continued to grow, eventually allowing enough the Grace to break through to return to confession, receive the Eucharist, and start anew. Thank you for being the tool God used to bring me back!
Now to the point of my subject line. I’ve been thinking a lot about false idols lately, particularly the ones in my life. Your essays on Dante—the one titled “Ideals and Images” in particular—are part of the reason why. I want to share three quotes with you (one from scripture and two from spiritual reading) that God gave me earlier this week. The first is from 1 Kings 18:21, right before the dramatic scene where Elijah wins the showdown with the priests of Ba’al. The second is from St. Augustine’s Confessions. And the third is from a little book by Peter Kreeft called Jesus Shock. As far as I can remember, I read them in this order over a day or so:
“How long will you go on limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, then follow him.”
“A soul that turns away from you therefore lapses into fornication when it seeks apart from you what it can never find in pure and limpid form except by returning to you.”
“We need nothing more than Christ We do not need Christ plus joy, or Christ plus experience, we need only Christ. But we also need one more thing: we need to know that we need only Christ.”
I’m always amazed how God ties things together and illumines my darkened mind to see truths if only I have eyes to see. I probably won’t be able to articulate this well, but each of those quotes built on each other to open my eyes to see how for most of my Christian life (and certainly as a serious practicing Catholic), I have wanted (and unfortunately still want) “Christ plus”. Like the Israelites to whom Elijah was speaking, I limp along with two different opinions—one that Christ is Lord; and the other that maybe He’s not, or that He’s holding something back on me, or that He will never satisfy me the way the pleasures of the world do. So, like St. Augustine, I turn away and lapse into the sins of my former life, seeking in the world that which it can never provide.
But somewhere along that painful road, I slowly come to know that I need only Christ. Not Christ plus pleasure. Not Christ plus wealth. Not Christ plus comfort. Not Christ plus being liked by others. Not Christ plus a perfect family. Not Christ plus feeling his presence (which was the main point of Kreeft’s statement). Not Christ plus happiness. The list could go on and on. (Given the events in D.C. yesterday, for many on the Right, you could add: not Christ plus Trump. Not Christ plus Republicans/Conservatives in power. Not Christ plus the United States of America. Not Christ plus a well-functioning democracy, etc. Alas, all my Christ pluses are much more base).
Every “plus” is an idol for me, and one that will drag me down to the pits of hell if I don’t destroy it sooner or later. May God give me the grace to smash them. Thank you again for at least starting me back on that process.
It was uncanny how perfectly this letter crystallized what I’ve been struggling to articulate to myself these past few weeks. When I spoke to my confessor, I told him that a reader of mine had sent me a letter, and I summarized it. Before we began the formal confession, I told my priest that my own sins — chiefly of despair — come from wanting Christ plus other things. Good things, but as Dante teaches, even good things are idols if they are preferred to God (or wanted as much as God).
My confessor told me that my struggle is meant to purify me of desire for anything that is not Christ. This can be agonizing, he said, but it is for our spiritual good. He said more things, but you get the gist. Then I confessed, received absolution, and felt much better. I will return to communion on Sunday, for the first time in a long time. My confessor did not solve my problem. This is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived, and struggled with. But now I have more clarity, and feel God closer than He has been in a while.
For that I have to thank you, my reader. You didn’t know that you were helping me when you wrote any more than I knew that I was helping you when I wrote. But you were.
Answer To A Young Despairer, January 9
I posted a letter from a young man in his twenties, who said that he comes from a Christian family, but they have all lost their faith. He is confused. He doesn’t think he can believe. He looks around him and sees so much hatred on all sides, and wants nothing to do with it. What is there for him? I answered him, in part:
Those tears, for you, are tears of unbelief. You say that you can’t believe, but if your mind was truly settled on it, you wouldn’t have written to me. I am not going to tell you that you can think your way into faith. Maybe some can, but I don’t really believe it. What I would ask you to consider is that men far greater than you and I — men like Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn — believed in God, and committed their lives to Jesus Christ. That does not prove that God is real and Christ is the messiah, but it ought to turn your mind to the possibility that these things are true. When I was not much younger than you are now, and was just as uncertain about God’s existence, I was struck by how many of the writers and thinkers I most admired in history were serous Christians. Was Kierkegaard a fool? Was Dostoevsky? Was I so certain that I, an undergraduate living in late 20th century America, knew better than they did?
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, God sends the shade of the poet Virgil to rescue the pilgrim Dante, lost in a dark wood. Come with me if you want to live, says Virgil. Dante isn’t sure that he wants to do this, or if the offer is real, but in the end, he goes, because he trusts Virgil. It turns out that Virgil could see things that Dante, in his brokenness, could not. The pilgrim Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is a journey of recovering sight. You too are lost in a dark wood. There are Virgils all around who can help you. You say you can’t believe in God now, but can’t you believe in Virgil (so to speak)? If you can begin to train your eyes to see as Tolkien saw, as Solzhenitsyn saw, as Dostoevsky, C.S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor, and so many others saw, you may wake up one day to find that the world does not look so Christ-haunted — that God is not a ghost, but an ever-present reality.
That’s how it was for me. And I would add: do your best to get out of your head. My confessor always tells me that this is my downfall. He’s not anti-intellectual, but he’s trying to get me to understand that what I seek is not likely to be found in books. What I seek is communion with God. You say that apologetics are not working for you. Fine — then put them down for now. Your intellect may not be able to perceive the Lord at the moment. There are other ways to know Him. Do you know any Christians whom you admire, who seem like good people? Draw close to them. If not, do you know where you might meet some of them? Then go there. Ask God to lead you to them.
You say that you and your family stopped praying, and that that was a milestone on the road to unbelief. You’re right about that. Marshall McLuhan said that all those he knew who had lost their faith began by ceasing to pray. Get a prayer rope for yourself — here’s a link to an Orthodox monastery where they make them, but you can find them all over — and teach yourself to say the Jesus Prayer. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It doesn’t matter if you’re Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. Give yourself over to that prayer discipline. Breathe deeply, rhythmically while doing it. It takes time to get this right. It’s not magic, but what it does is clear inner space for the Holy Spirit to work. It does clear your mind so that you can hear the voice of God. The protagonist of the Tarkovsky movie “Nostalghia” is a writer who is so caught up in his head, brooding over the things he has lost, that he can’t see or hear God. At one point, the writer is walking across the nave of a ruined abbey, and we hear the voice of a woman — the Virgin, one imagines — asking God to speak to the poor lost writer, or to somehow show Himself to the man. God answers that He does this, but the man can neither hear nor see.
That is me most of the time. Is that you? Seekers want God to make things clear to us, but in truth we want Him to say what we already believe. Do your very best to open yourself to signs of His love and presence. I don’t say be gullible, but I do say resist the hypercritical spirit, which is just as destructive to perceiving the truth as the mindset that believes everything.
Do your best to go to church, even if you don’t believe. That’s where the Christians are. Pray for the gift of faith. Don’t idealize other Christians; a few of us might be saints (those who are will be the last to think that of themselves), but all of us are your companions in shipwreck.
The fact that you “do not want to live in a country full of hatred” is a powerful sign that you are on the right path. So many people today find vindication in hatred, and regard it as proof of their virtue. We live in an information ecosystem that rewards hatred, and builds entire structures of lies and inhumanity on top of that hatred. St. Augustine says that we are what we desire, and you, friend, are a better man than most of us because you desire to love, and to live in peace. Follow that, and begin to train your heart to desire the good, the true, and the beautiful. Read what is good and time-tested, not what is fashionable. Listen to beautiful, life-giving music (including sacred music: Ancient Faith Radio plays Orthodox chant all day long online). Immerse yourself in visual beauty. And, above all, pray, even if you aren’t sure God is listening, or that there is any God there to listen.
Cultivate patience, and the ability to watch and wait. St. Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th century Russian Orthodox mystic and hermit, counseled the faithful to “acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.” He meant that people are drawn to those from whom light and peace radiates. The saint also said:
You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.
This is not who I am, I am ashamed to confess. But this is who I want to be. This is who you, and I, and everybody can be, if we open our hearts and commit our lives to walking with Christ.
I have to tell you, though, that when I was your age, I wanted to believe, but I wanted to understand it all first. It doesn’t work that way. When you meet the person you want to marry, it is unreasonable to expect that you can know everything there is to know about marriage, and about what it would be like to spend your life with that person. You start with the experience of love, and if, after discernment, you believe that this person is trustworthy, and your feelings for her are not an illusion, then you commit yourself to her in trust. It is like that with God too. Faith is not the sum total of doctrines, or the conclusion of a lengthy syllogism. It is more like a poem, but even that doesn’t fully capture it. It is a living relationship, a lifelong pilgrimage. To believe is to suffer — but not to believe is also to suffer. The difference is that the suffering believer endures all things with hope.
I wish I could tell you more. You are much closer to the Kingdom than you think. About Asia, please do not think that there is a geographical cure for what’s upon us all. Wherever there is WiFi, there is modernity. I do believe that some places are better than others, in terms of living among sane, good people, but ultimately, we are all going to have to strengthen ourselves internally, and within small communities. If you can, watch the Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life, about the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic farmer who died a martyr in a Nazi prison. He and his family lived in a tiny Alpine village, yet Nazism even found them all there. The mystery here — and it is a profound one — is that Franz, though he was persecuted in the village for his resistance, and ultimately executed for it, was blessed in death, while all those who conformed, and who survived, were cursed by their servile lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another Christian martyr of the Nazis, famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Not very cheerful, that, but I can tell you with confidence, from the other side of the line between believers and unbelievers, that this is what it means to live.
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For you subscribers, I have something really interesting coming to you tonight. A reader who converted to Christianity after many years as an occultist writes about her experience. Also, very wise counsel from an Orthodox priest on seeking peace of heart in this time of strife.