My Own Personal Virgil

In 1320, Dante finished the The Divine Comedy, which describes his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His guide through the first two parts is Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid. At the beginning of the story, Dante, age 35, meets the ghost of Virgil after going astray in the dark forest of sin. I love this part of the story because I feel like it mirrors what I experienced when I was 40. I felt broken and lost after my marriage ended in divorce and I met a therapist who showed me the way to this world’s version of paradise by walking through my version of hell. I frequently think of her as being my own personal Virgil.

Here is the description of that meeting in Dante’s words, edited for brevity by me:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.

And as I fell to my soul’s ruin, a presence
gathered before me on the discolored air,
the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence.

At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
“Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man.” And it replied:

“Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, sub Julio, and bred

in Rome under Augustus in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises’ noble son

who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you–why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy

which is the seat and first cause of man’s bliss?”
“And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?” My voice grew tremulous:

“See there, immortal sage, the beast I flee.
For my soul’s salvation, I beg you, guard me from her,
for she has struck a mortal tremor through me.”

And he replied, seeing my soul in tears:
“He must go by another way who would escape
this wilderness, for that mad beast that fleers

before you there, suffers no man to pass.
She tracks down all, kills all, and knows no glut,
but, feeding, she grows hungrier than she was.

Therefore, for your own good, I think it well

you follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you forth through an eternal place.
There you shall see the ancient spirits tried

in endless pain, and hear their lamentation
as each bemoans the second death of souls.
Next you shall see upon a burning mountain

souls in fire and yet content in fire,
knowing that whensoever it may be
they yet will mount into the blessed choir.

And I to him: “Poet, by that God to you unknown,

lead me this way. Beyond this present ill
and worse to dread, lead me to Peter’s gate
and be my guide through the sad halls of Hell.”

And he then: “Follow.” And he moved ahead
in silence, and I followed where he led.

The Afternoon Continues

(this is a continuation of the previously-started story)

“Wow,” I thought as I watched her storm off. There was a knot of fear in the pit of my stomach, like I get when someone is really angry at me. It felt the way I used to feel when I was in trouble as a child. My first reaction was to run after her and apologize, but apologize for … what? For saying what I thought about the stupid book she was reading? For upsetting her? I wasn’t sure what I would even say. The buzzing of a far-off locust framed the stillness of the hillside. Although I was definitely ruffled by what had just happened, the perfection of the sunny afternoon drew my attention away from the explosion that had just passed over.

As I sat, the fear held me, but I noticed another feeling underneath. I was amused at the intensity of her response, and I was pleased with myself for provoking her. I laughed quietly to myself. “That was really something. I would hate to be the person who has to hang out with her tonight.” Although it felt like a transgression, I realized I was proud of myself. I hadn’t backed off and I hadn’t apologized. I hadn’t said anything I needed to apologize for and I hadn’t. That was new for me. In the past, I would have done anything to deflect that kind of heat. The feeling of amusement turned curiously into affection towards her. There was a kind of intimacy in what she had just exposed to me.

I sat in a mix of different sensations: the sun on my face, the fear of her wrath, and the warmth of my attraction to the rage she had shown. It was a perfect combination of pleasant, afraid, and exhilarated, and I didn’t want it to dissipate. My evening was clear and the only thing waiting for me when I left was an empty apartment, so I stayed sitting until the shadows started to lengthen and the light started to turn the color of honey. As I walked back towards the parking lot, I realized my feeling of affection towards the woman with the book had grown and swept away the fear. The closer I got to the moment I would drive away, the more I wanted to see her again. When I reached the parking lot, I hesitated. I looked up the hill towards the meditation center, wondering if she were there. If there were a retreat in progress, I couldn’t just barge in.