Dads, Dante, And Old Dogs

Things that make exiles feel at home in the world

Today in the Orthodox Church, one of the Scripture readings was this:

In his sermon, our priest explained that new converts to Orthodoxy sometimes preoccupy themselves with the Church’s spiritual disciplines (e.g., rules for fasting), eager to do everything right. It is true that Orthodoxy is better understood as a way of life to which we submit than a set of propositions to which we assent (though it is that too). Our priest warned that we must not allow ourselves to think that there is anything we can or must do to earn God’s love.

That is bog-standard Christianity, but it took me many years to believe it. I mean, I affirmed it once I became a serious Christian as an adult in his mid-twenties, but I didn’t really believe it.

In my 2015 book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I write about coming to terms with why I had so much trouble believing that I was worthy of God’s love. It all had to do with a deep-seated feeling, with me since childhood, that I could earn my father’s love if I just worked hard enough. I knew that my Dad loved me, but I also knew that he was disappointed in me for not turning out the way he wanted me to. I returned to my hometown in the middle of the journey of my life, and found to my shock that even then he wouldn’t fully accept me. I was giving him the thing he wanted most: his son and his son’s family living in town. But that wasn’t enough. The problem was not what I had done, or not done; the problem was who I was.

It took reading The Divine Comedy from a place of brokenness to reveal to me the nature of the problem within my own psychology. Dante’s vast poem is in one sense a story about fathers and sons. In reality, we don’t know much about Dante Alighieri’s father. Reading the Commedia, I sensed intuitively that the poet had been a sensitive boy who was for some reason not close to his father, and who had yearned for a father figure in his life. For example, his tutor and mentor Brunetto Latini appears in the Commedia as a false father. For another, Pope Boniface VIII is the archvillain and dark father of this intensely Catholic poem. The pilgrim Dante — that is, the character named Dante in the poem written by Dante Alighieri — only finds wholeness when he is purged of his destructive spiritual and psychological relationships to these false fathers, and is fully reconciled with God the Father.

That’s what happened to me. As I explain in the book, the fate of two characters in the Inferno (part one of the Commedia) compelled me to examine my own deformations because of my disordered relationship to my dad. In the passage below, I refer to one of these characters, Pier della Vigna, who had really lived, and had been a close adviser of the Holy Roman Emperor. He ran afoul of his lord, and was thrown in prison on accusations of theft. Pier committed suicide — in Dante’s telling, because he could not stand to live without the approval of the Emperor. Here’s what I wrote in How Dante Can Save Your Life:

I explained how much I had revered Daddy as a child, and grew up listening to his stories about the family and the land. When I’m gone, he would tell Ruthie and me, this land will all be yours to pass on to your children. This was a sacred trust. This was the right order of things.

“And you didn’t want it, but Ruthie did.”

“Well, I wanted it, but not in the way he wanted me to want it. I wasn’t made for this place. I was weird by his standards. I think he saw every deviation in me from himself as a rejection of everything he stood for, of everything he had to give me.”

“I can see that.”

The root of the problem, I explained, was that my dad couldn’t see me as me. I could not live here without being crushed by his will. I wanted the good things of family, but the price was too high.

“And this is your sin how?”

“You remember me telling you a while back that I have a lot of trouble believing that God loves me? That I felt like I could never make him happy enough to deserve his love? This is where it comes from. I didn’t understand it until Dante made me think about it, but without meaning to, I made gods of family and place. I made them into my idols. I set them up in my heart where God ought to be.”

Father Matthew looked at me, his brow creased.

“There’s more,” I said, then told him the story of Pier della Vigna. “Don’t worry,”

I hastened to add, “I’m not a potential suicide. It’s that there’s a part of me that can’t deal with life without my father’s approval. Isn’t that stupid?” I asked.

“It’s not stupid.”

“Well, I feel stupid. I’m forty-six years old, and I am stuck in this damn ditch, where I have been since childhood. I couldn’t take it when I was younger, and ran away.

I’m tired of running. I’ve got to face down this dragon and kill it. I don’t know what to do now, but I want to confess that I have worshiped idols, and I am sorry. I put other things before God. I want to lay those idols at the foot of the Cross and be done with them.”

Father Matthew said nothing. He bowed his head again and reached down to lift his stole, which was my signal to kneel. He put his stole over my head, pronounced the words of absolution, made the sign of the cross over my head, then unveiled me. I kissed his right hand, stood up, and walked out of the church feeling light.

A few nights later, I was lying in bed in the dark, with Julie asleep next to me. I was saying my five hundred Jesus Prayers, frustrated because I had put it off till the last moments of the day, and struggling through my fatigue to focus on it. By the time I arrived at the fourth cycle around my prayer rope—that is, after three hundred prayers—I was on autopilot.

And then something strange happened. The words God loves me appeared not in

my head but in my heart. It was the strangest thing—like someone was standing at my bedside, placing them into my chest. Not God loves you, but God loves me.

Just like that: God loves me. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. There it sat in my heart, like a pearl, glowing. It scared me at first, this mystical experience, because I feared it might go away. I finished my prayers, smiling in the darkness, because the words remained there, radiating. I fell asleep with the words repeating in my mind:

God loves me. God loves me.

When I awakened the next morning, the first thing I noticed was a feeling in my chest. It was as if someone had laid a cornerstone in my heart, and chiseled into the stone were those three blessed words. All morning, I could physically feel them in my chest, humming along like a happy little pacemaker. I refused my usual impulse to analyze what happened; I chose to accept it as a gift.

To this day, the words remain there, as if they were written on my heart. God loves me, and he had established a beachhead within my soul. It was a small patch of ground, but it was real and firm, and now it was where I stood. And Dante Alighieri had led me to it.

The words are still there. My inner life is so different from what it was before this healing. Still, though, I have to catch myself to avoid falling back into old habits. It’s tricky, though. I do believe, however, that lots of Christians today take unfair advantage of God’s unconditional love, treating it as an entitlement. Like a spoiled teenager, we think that it doesn’t really matter what we do, that God will love us anyway, and will overlook our disobedience. Christ said in the Gospel of John, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” What he means is not if you want me to love you, keep my commandments; the Bible makes clear that as sinners, we cannot always and everywhere keep the commandments. This is why God offers us mercy if we confess our sins and repent. He is the Good Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Here is a detail from that scene as imagined by Rembrandt:

I saw that painting almost exactly one year ago at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It is about ten feet tall. Intensely powerful! This is what the Kingdom of God is like: we are welcome if only we come home, where we will find welcome. The Prodigal Son only wanted to be in his father’s presence and to serve him. He didn’t expect to be restored — but that’s what happened. The Prodigal didn’t have to get his life together completely before he was good enough for his father would receive him. All he had to do was say, I’m sorry, have mercy on me. But — and this is the important thing — the Prodigal had to want to be reconciled to his father so much that he returned with no expectations. He wanted to serve his father out of love.

My mistake was thinking that God the Father was like my earthly father, and vice versa. My dad, who died in 2015, was a deeply good man in most respects, but his pride could not allow him to receive me just as I was. By the grace of God, we were able to reconcile before he died, and he passed from this world holding my hand. Even though my return to my childhood home did not work out as I had hoped and expected, and in fact it caused me immense pain, and even a stress-related physical breakdown, if I had not gone through it I would never have experienced the reconciliation with my father a few months before his passing, and more importantly, I would not reconciled with God the Father. I would not have experienced the gift of having my shame removed from me, so that the healing love of our heavenly Father could do its work.

The image above is from the iconostasis (icon screen) at my parish here in Baton Rouge. The quote is what Jesus told his disciples (John 15:16), but I was thinking about it this morning after the liturgy in the sense of being wanted by God. What blessed assurance!

I spent this bright, warm autumn afternoon in my backyard reading Kristin Lavransdatter, the epic Norwegian novel that has colonized my imagination the past few weeks. (If you want to read it — and you should! — make sure you buy the contemporary translation, by Tiina Nunnally.) The rich, tormented relationship between the headstrong Kristin and her doting father Lavrans is at the heart of the trilogy. I’ll write more about that when I finish the book.

I looked up this afternoon from the text and saw my old dog Roscoe poking around over by the fence.

He’s thirteen years old, which is 91 in human years. His hips are stiff — this once-taut schnauzer-poodle mix has no more spring in his step — and his back sways. Since his hips began giving out in late summer, I have cherished every day with him. He’s not close to having to be put down yet, but that terrible day is closer than I can stand to think about. When he noticed me sitting in my corner of the yard, he ambled over and asked to sit in my lap. His hips are too feeble now to allow him to jump, so I helped him up.

All that grey used to be auburn. Same with my whitening beard, in fact. I don’t know how I’m going to carry on when the little old man is gone. I have tears in my eyes as I write this, just thinking about it. I never, ever imagined that I would feel that way about a dog. My wife and kids found him back in 2007 on a Dallas playground. He was an older puppy, and wandered up, appearing to have been beaten. She phoned me at work that Friday, told me about the pitiful little black dog, and asked if it was okay to bring him home. Yes, I said, exasperated by the request, but he can only stay the weekend. On Monday, he’s going to the pound.

Monday never came, thank God. I had no idea, no idea at all, how much love all of us would come to feel for old Roscoe. We still do. Every hour of every day, though they dwindle down to a precious few in the November of his doggy life.

I was reading a big book when he came to me this afternoon and looked at me as if to say, May I sit with you? I can’t read a thousand-page novel with a twenty-five pound dog in my lap. I didn’t want to put the book down. I put the book down and abided with the old man for a bit.

A friend sent me this poem by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843); the translator is Scott Horton, whose translation appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 2007:


for the Landgrave of Homburg

By Friedrich Hölderlin

God is near
Yet hard to seize.
Where there is danger,
The rescue grows as well.
Eagles live in the darkness,
And the sons of the Alps
Go fearlessly over the abyss
Upon bridges simply built.
Therefore, since the peaks
Of Time are heaped all about,
And dear ones live close by,
Worn down on the most separated mountains —
Then give us innocent waters;
Give us wings, and the truest minds
To voyage over and then again to return.

Thus I spoke, when faster
Than I could imagine a spirit
In the twilight
Seduced me out of my own home
To a place I never thought I’d visit.
The shaded forests and longing
Streams of my homeland.
I couldn’t recognize the lands,
but then suddenly
In fresh a glow, mysterious
In the golden haze, quickly emerging
In the steps of the sun,
With the fragrance of a thousand peaks,
Asia rose before me, and dazzled
I searched for something
Familiar, since the broad alleyways
Were unknown to me: where the gold-ornamented
Patoklos comes rushing down from Tmolus,
Where Taurus is to be found, and Messogis,
And the gardens are full of flowers,
Like a quiet fire. Up above
In the light the silver snow
Blooms, and ivy grows from ancient
Times on the inapproachable walls,
Like a witness to immortal life,
While the joyous, the god-built palaces
Are borne by living columns
Of cypress, cedar and laurel.

But around Asia’s gates
Swish pulling here and there
At an uncertain sea level
With enough unshaded straits,
Though the sailor knows these islands.
And when I heard,
that one of these close by
Was Patmos, I wanted very much
To put in there, to enter
The dark grotto. For unlike
Cyprus, rich with springs,
Or any of the others, Patmos

Is housed on earth poorly,
But nevertheless is hospitable
And if a stranger should come to her,
Sent by shipwrecked or longing for
His home or for a departed friend,
She’ll gladly listen, and her
Offspring as well, the voices
In the hot grove, so that where sands blow
and heat cracks the tops of the fields,
They hear him, these voices,
And lovingly sound the man’s grief.
Thus she once looked after
The seer who was loved by god,
Who in his holy youth

Had walked together inseparably
With the Son of the Highest,
Because the Bringer-of-Storms loved
The simplicity of this disciple.
Thus did that attentive man observe
The countenance of the god precisely,
There at the mystery of the grapevine,
Where they sat together at the hour
Of the Last Supper, when the Lord with
His great spirit quietly envisioning His
Own death, and forespoke it and also
His final act of love, for He always
Had words of kindness to speak,
Even then in His prescience,
To soften the violence and wildness of the world.
For all is good. Then He died. Much
Could be said about it. At the end
His friends recognized how filled with joy
He appeared, how victorious.

And yet the men grieved, now that evening
Had come, and were taken by surprise,
Since they were full of great intentions,
And loved living under the sun,
And didn’t want to leave the countenance
Of the Lord, and of their home.
It penetrated them like fire into iron,
And the One they love walked beside them
Like a shadow. Therefore He sent
The Spirit upon them, and the house
Shook and God’s house and weather rolled
Over their heads, filled with anticipation, while
They were gathered with heavy hearts,
Like heroes whose death approached,

Then once more He appeared to them
At his departure. For now
The royal day of the sun
Was extinguished, as he cast
The shining scepter from himself,
With godlike suffering, but knowing
He would come again at the right time.
It would have been wrong
To cut off disloyally His work
The work of humankind, since now it brought Him joy
To live on in loving night, to preserve
Before simple eyes, unrelated
The depths of wisdom. Deep in the
Mountains grew also living images,

Yet it is terrible how God here and there
Scatters the living, and how very far they are flung.
And how fearsome it was to leave
The sight of dear friends and walk off
Alone far over the mountains, where
The Holy Spirit was twice
Recognized, in unity.
It hadn’t been prophesied to them:
Rather it seized them right by the hair
Just at the moment when the God
Who had turned from them, looked back, and they called out to Him
To stop, and they reached their hands to
One another as if bound by a golden cord,
And called it evil —

But when He dies —He about whom beauty hangs
Loved most of all, so that a miracle
Surrounded him, and he was the
Elect of the heavens —
And when those who lived together
Thereafter in His memory, became
Perplexed and no longer understood
One another; and when floods carry off
The sand and willows and temples,
And when the fame of the demi-god
And His disciples is blown away
And even the Highest turns aside his
Countenance, so that nothing
Immortal can be seen either
In heaven or upon the green earth —
What meaning must we take from all of this?

It is the cast of the sower, as he seizes
Wheat with his shovel
Throwing it into the clear air,
Swinging it across the threshing floor.
The chaff falls to his feet, but
The grain emerges in the end.
It’s not bad if some of it gets lost,
Or if the sounds of His living speech
Fade away. For the divine work
resembles our own:
The Highest doesn’t want all to be
Accomplished at once.
As mines yield iron,
And Ætna its glowing haze,
Then I’d have wealth sufficient
To form a picture of Him and see
What he was, the Christ.

But if somebody spurred himself on
Along the road and, speaking sadly,
Fell upon me and surprised me, so that
Like a servant I’d make an image of the God —
Once I saw the lords
Of heaven visibly angered, not
That I wanted to become something different,
But that I wanted to learn something more.
The lords are kind, but while they reign
They hate falsehood most, when humans become
Inhuman. For not they, but undying Fate
It is that rules, and their work
Transforms itself and quickly reaches an end.
When the heavenly triumph proceeds higher.
Then the joyful Son of the Highest
Is called like the sun by the strong,

As a watchword, like the staff of a song
That points downwards,
For nothing is ordinary. It awakens
The dead, those raised incorruptible.
And many are waiting whose eyes are
Still too shy to see the light directly.
They wouldn’t do well in the sharp
Ray: a golden bridle
Holds back their courage.
But when quiet radiance falls
From the Holy Scripture, with
The world forgotten and their eyes
Swollen, then they may enjoy that grace,
And study the quiet image.

And if the heavens love me,
As I now believe,
Then how much more
Do they love you.
For I know one thing:
That the will of the eternal Father
Concerns you greatly.
Under a thundering sky
His sign is silent.
And there is One who stands
Beneath it all his life.
For Christ still lives.
But the heroes, all his sons
Have come, and the Holy Scriptures
Concerning Him and the lightening,
Explain the deeds of the Earth up to this day,
Like a footrace that knows no end.
And He is with us too, for his works and all
Known to Him from the very beginning.

For far too long
The honor of the heavens
Has gone unseen.
They practically have to
Guide our fingers as we write,
And with embarrassment the power
Is ripped from our hearts.
For every heavenly being
Expects a sacrifice,
And when this is neglected,
Nothing good can come of it.
Without awareness we’ve served at the feet of
Our Mother Earth, and the Light
Of the Sun as well, but what our Father
Who reigns over everything wants most
Is that the established Word be
Caringly attended, and that
Which endures be construed well.
German song must accord with this.

–S.H. transl. Text follows: Friedrich Hölderlin, Patmos in: Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, vol. 1, p. 379-385 (Hanser ed. 1970).

As y’all know, I chose not to have comments on this Substack blog, but I do read your e-mails, and will post them from time to time. A reader writes:

Congratulations on your new Substack blog. It must be nice to now have a place to express thoughts that don't necessarily align with the TAC subjects you explore. It occurred to me that perhaps you've been wanting to address additional subjects for a while now, but hesitated because you might be labeled nutty or weird (which you're not, at least not in a negative way). I look forward to reading future posts. (Might you consider going into more depth, or perhaps giving an update, regarding your friend's wife, who you've previously said appears to be possessed? For some reason, that situation has stuck with me.)

Also, please, consider writing a bit about food and cooking. Your family are interested and explorative cooks, now including the baker Nora, so a post about a particular dish or meal now and again would be good fun.

Question for you. My husband and I will travel to Louisiana next week. (We love the state, and want to spread some tourist dollars throughout the parishes.) We've visited quite a few times, but always know that somehow we've missed good and interesting experiences, not knowing that they exist. If you would, please list your best recommendations. (A simple list. No towns, no addresses, no nothing, other than names. I can duck duck go the rest.) We love history, the outdoors, great little towns, bookstores, architecture, etc. Anything, really, that you might particularly like. As for food, though we love all kinds, when we're in Louisiana we eat solely Cajun, Creole, and Southern. (Because no other place does it better than Louisiana, cher.) Our very favorite kinds of places are hole in the wall, local establishments.

Our general driving itinerary. West from Baton Rouge, through and a bit past Lafayette, then up to Natchitoches, before heading east to Natchez, Mississippi, and up to Vicksburg.

What a lovely letter. Yes, this is a fun new thing, this Substack blog. It’s not so much that I didn’t want to appear nutty by writing about certain things on my TAC blog. That horse done left the barn a long time ago. Rather, it’s that I’ve come to see that blog in less personal terms than I once did. I’m not sure why. It feels that there’s so much Important News to comment on that I can’t waste front-page space on TAC on musing about an old dog, my pastor’s sermon, or sharing a poem. I like having another outlet for that sort of thing, for readers who are interested.

Now, about Louisiana. If I were you, I would head east from Baton Rouge to the town of Abita Springs to visit the Abita Mystery House. It’s a weird, funky little museum. I took these pictures when I visited there with the fambly a few years back:

You can go from there to the nearby Abita Brewery to sample some of their delicious brews. You’ll be only about eight miles from St. Joseph Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, where the novelist Walker Percy, who was an oblate, is buried.

I would also encourage you to go to St. Francisville, my hometown, thirty miles north of Baton Rouge. The Conundrum Bookshop in town is Walker Percy Weekend headquarters. Missy Couhig, the proprietress, has good books and great t-shirts. Eat at Restaurant 1796 at the Myrtles Plantation, a truly haunted house. Note well, though, that the restaurant has limited hours during Covidtide, and requires reservations.

Heading over the Lafayette, I’d say make a few stops to taste the boudin. Calvin Trillin’s great 2002 piece in The New Yorker takes you on the boudin trail in Acadiana, but I don’t know how many of those stories are open. My favorite boudin is at the Best Stop in Scott, not far off I-10 just past the I-49 junction in Lafayette. It’s so peppery! If you’ve never been to Vermilionville, a museum and exhibit dedicated to Cajun life and culture, then you really should. It’s fantastic. Oh, and I forgot: halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, there’s Whitney Plantation, the nation’s first museum dedicated to telling the story of plantation life through the eyes of slaves.

I spent my last two years of high school in Natchitoches, but haven’t really been there since I graduated in 1985. I imagine you can still get meat pies at Lasyone’s (pron. lazzy-owns) downtown.

Finally, I’ll pass one the signature advice of my mom and dad’s friend Uncle Bubba Shields: “Don’t get nothin’ on ya.”