The year 476 A.D. is seen as the year that ended the Roman Empire, an institutional bastion of power, wealth, and peace that had dominated the known world of almost 1,000 years. It had been weakening for many decades, but the breakdown of its fundamental institutions and the advance of the Germanic tribes into the corners of the Empire finally resulted in the dissolution of the majesty that was Rome in the 5th Century. What followed in Western and Central Europe was 500 years of declining culture, scholarship, civil order and peace, a period called the Early Middle Ages, also the Dark Ages. The Christian Church, which was ruled, if loosely, by a Holy See in Rome, was the dominant institution and much of the more repressive elements of Early Christianity found their initiation and resurgence in this period.
Beginning in the 10th and 11th Centuries, the roots of scholarship and development began to resurface, enabled by a number of trends; and one piece of artistic majesty that emerged at the end of this was a literary survey of the spiritual, social and religious belief systems of the Middle Ages. It could also be seen as a spectacularly large analogy for our journeys from the depths of addiction to the sunlight of sobriety. It is called The Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri.
It is fiction, written in the first person, with Dante as the protagonist; and it has Dante as a 35 year old man, mired in an aimless life, desperately trying to find his way to God. To do so he must travel though three realms, each a separate part of the book, Hell (The Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso). Written in complex verse, it is also quite explicit, especially with regard to The Inferno and it has been said that the grossly horrific images of Hell portrayed by Dante in The Inferno are the source of much of the Judeo-Christian West’s terrifying view of Hell over the past 800 years.
Dante is in a dark place when he begins, but he is aided by Virgil, the famous Latin poet, who becomes his guide into and through Hell. The task is to get through a series of nine descending concentric Circles, each of which deals with a certain set of evils and sins, with each descending Circle a more severe one than the previous. Dante and Virgil are but travelers through these descending circles so they are witnesses to the sufferers, but the poignancy of what they see and the experience of it all are worthy of the analogy we are building here to show the comparisons to our Journeys.
I will leave it to my next writings to explore some of the more poignant comparisons of their horrendous experiences in Hell and then of the eventual move on to Purgatory and Heaven. But to close here, before we begin our exploration into Dante’s psychic renditions, it is worthy to recite the carving above the Entry Gates to the Inferno in the story. It is an inscription that clearly recalls our deep despair when we were mired in our disease: “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.”