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“The infernal hurricane that never rests / Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine”

~ Dante, Inferno V, lines 31-32

Prologue {Lillibridge Elementary, c. 1971}

I can clearly remember that fateful day filled with lachrymose as if it were yesterday: a transcendent day inside the reading room of Ms. Mirandi’s fifth-grade at Lillibridge Elementary, Detroit, Mich. I was 10 years old. By “reading room” I mean a corner of the classroom decorated like a library. There were three or four nice decorative chairs, a small sofa, a Persian rug, a coffee table, a lamp and, of course, the epitome of that wonderful space … a bookshelf filled with classical books.

Dante’s ‘Inferno’

Two books I remember with an inexplicable clarity are John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and “Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy – Hell, Purgatory, Paradise,” translated by Henry W. Longfellow, Illustrated by Gustave Doré.

This book became my obsession. While I didn’t know it then, this classic opus would also become my destiny.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I will focus on Doré’s pictures, for it was these exquisite etchings that pricked my soul, that convicted me that I, even as a little boy, was a sinner in danger of eternal hell like those tragic figures Doré illustrated in Dante’s “Inferno,” and therefore I needed to make a sober, rational decision based on both deductive reasoning and faith – to give my heart, my life, my soul to God.

God created my body, soul and spirit, and my spirit would never have rest in this life until I gave my soul back to its Creator who first gave it to me. Since my father abandoned me as a little baby I had issues of low self-esteem, loneliness and fear, which led me to foolish decision making, most prominently anger.

Dante wrote in Inferno VII, lines 115-116: “Son, thou now beholdest / The souls of those whom anger overcame …”

Page after page after page I read. Canto after canto after canto, like Dante’s guide, Virgil, I eagerly followed where his words took me. I bore witness to the unspeakable horrors of hell with a mixture of childlike wonder, fear and utter revulsion, yet I couldn’t stop reading that book every day … every way. I was obsessed with Dante, but more with the illustrations by Doré. It was like within those grotesque illustrations of horror and damnation I saw my very soul reflected back to me: THERE, lost with the millions of others who had died without God down through the ages captured by the genius of Doré as no artist ever could in the above-titled panel, “The infernal hurricane.”

Would this be my fate? Would I remain eternally lost inside this ghetto hell? Dante wrote in Inferno III, line 9: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Was my destiny already decided? If so, then should I follow the Siren song of the Greek Epicureans whose philosophy was: “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”?

No, No, No! I rejected the zeitgeist of hedonism, for I saw its pernicious and life-destructive effects on the lives of the people I lived with in my neighborhood; inside the hopeless, racially segregated ghettos of Detroit after the 1967 riot – the pimps, the prostitutes, the pushers, the drug addicts, drunks, hustlers, and gangbangers … the idle, the lazy, the lost. This was my hell as I, like Dante and Virgil, passed by them daily as a little ghetto boy going to school. Therefore, I knew if I did what those people did I would end up in Dante’s Inferno, and I earnestly didn’t want to remain inside that abode of the damned. Yet, I also remembered a sermon of a preacher whose text was 2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not … willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

Epilogue:

It was August 1976. I was 14 and about to start high school. Since I was starting a new chapter of my life, I felt it was time to get my eternal soul right with God. My mother, being a teacher, always had lots of books around. That day I found a Good News translation of the Bible in our basement and read it for several hours until I got to this passage in Acts 16 regarding St. Paul’s conversion of the Philippian jailer:

“… and brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?

“And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”

That Bible passage, joined with the classics I read years before in Dante’s “Inferno,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and other canonical works, compelled me to fall on my knees in my mother’s basement that fateful day of Aug. 8, 1976, and I invited Christ in my heart and asked Him to save me from my sins by the blood He shed for us all on Calvary’s cross … and He did.

Twenty nine years later, while traveling to see his grandmother, I was telling this story to my son, Stone, and he immediately said like the Philippian jailer, “Father, I want to accept Christ into my heart too!” I was taken aback and pulled the car over to explain in detail what this critical decision would mean. He assured me that he was ready. Not only was he 10 years old, the same age when I was compelled to follow God by reading Dante’s “Inferno,” the same work I made Stone read which drew him to God, but Stone also made his declaration to God under the Jewish Star of David at the same church (a former synagogue) where I first made my public declaration to God almost 30 year before. Stone didn’t know any of this information, for I never shared it with him, but God knew… and God remembered me.

Forty years after first discovering Dante in Ms. Mirandi’s fifth-grade classroom, my new two-volume book, “The Progressive Revolution,” contains cover art by Doré of Dante’s “Inferno.”

Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God alone!)

 

 

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