In Dante's Footsteps: My Journey to Hell
A Modern Divine Comedy in memory of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who paved the way
It began the morning an email with "invitation" in the subject line was waiting for me on my computer. "Ready to have me as your Virgil again?" it said. "More later. Edward."
Huh? Edward had been dead for seven years! I stared at the screen in disbelief trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Having imaginary conversations with him from time to time was one thing, but now there he was on my computer. Or was he? Was this some kind of a sick joke?
I thought about the inscription he wrote on the flyleaf of the Commedia (Dante's Divine Comedy in Italian) he presented me with at Commencement. I hadn't looked at it in a long time, so I went to my bookshelf and read what he wrote: "Thomas, it was an honor and pleasure to be your Virgil. You were a wonderful travel companion. Dante would be proud. Perhaps we can do it again sometime. Blessings to you always, Edward."
That's what it said all right. Perhaps we can do it again sometime. I went back to the email, clicked Return, and typed, "Is it really you?" Moments later it bounced back with a message saying the address was not valid.
I thought of my seminary friend John as a possible culprit. He used to kid me about my church family and predicted half-jokingly that I would be the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church by the time I was 40. But he knew what Edward meant to me, so I couldn't imagine him making fun of it. Still, I was curious to find out what his take on it might be, so I forwarded the email to him and wrote at the top: "John, what do you make of this? Love to Wendy and the kids. Tom."
That night he wrote back. "Messiah! It's great to hear from you. If anybody deserves to go to Hell, you do. Maybe your Father Edward really does want you to join him. With your Dante background, I can't think of a better candidate. Go for it, my friend. Give my regards to Satan. John."
Three weeks after the mysterious email something much more unnerving happened. I was in bed starting to fall asleep after watching the eleven o'clock news when I saw a blurry light across the room that seemed to be moving slowly toward me. It reminded me of the ghost of Hamlet's father I had recently seen in a black and white film on late night television. I sat up for a better look as the blur got closer and came into better focus. Oh, my God, I can't believe it. Can it be? It looks like...yes, I think it is. It's Edward! I closed my eyes hard and opened them to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.
"Thomas, it's wonderful to see you again under these unusual circumstances."
It was Edward's voice all right. I would know it anywhere. Was he a ghost? He certainly looked like one.
"You're not going to believe this, but I'm here to invite you to join me in the Underworld."
"That's what they call it."
I was in total shock. Seeing Edward and having him talk to me was more than I could handle. He looked and sounded like Edward, but was it really him? When I had imaginary conversations with him, I always pictured him in my mind's eye, but this was different.
"I can't believe it's you. I mean, I know it's you, but I can't believe you're really here because...well, because you're dead."
Edward smiled impishly.
"Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated."
"Very good, Thomas."
The Mark Twain quote proved he really was Edward. He loved quotations. By the time I graduated I knew many of his favorites.
"Thomas, my resurrection, so to speak, was a big surprise as you can imagine. To suddenly wake up and be conscious again. And now to be up here talking to you. I can't believe it."
"I can't believe it either. Let me make sure I have this right. You want me to go down to the Underworld? There really is such a thing?"
"There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The quote from Hamlet was another one of his favorites. "To answer your question, yes, there really is an Underworld, but it's very different from what Dante had in mind."
"So, then you're not talking about the Inferno, or are you?"
"Yes and no. Hell is down there, but it has its own separate area. I can't answer the many questions I'm sure you'll have because I'm very new to this. They told me it will all be explained later. They're starting a visitors program, and they sent me to invite you to be part of it. That's why I'm here."
I heard what he was saying, but I was having trouble making sense of it. "Will there be other visitors?"
"That's their plan. They want the visitors to come back up here and spread the word. They don't think people up here are getting the right message about what happens after they die and what's expected of them while they're alive. They think the visitors program will help change that. You'll be one of the first visitors…that is, if you agree."
I couldn't believe I was having this surreal conversation. I was glad I was on the bed because I was feeling dizzy.
"Can you believe this, Thomas? It looks like we'll be able to go on another Dante adventure together, but this time it will be for real."
"Do you remember what you wrote on the flyleaf of the Commedia you gave me at Commencement?"
"Refresh my memory."
"You wrote, 'Maybe we can do it again sometime.'"
"Did I say that?" He smiled. "How prescient of me."
"This may sound like a strange question, but did you send me an email?"
"Ah, so they sent it after all. I told them I didn't think it was a good idea, but they thought it would help break the ice."
"It broke the ice all right and drove me crazy trying to figure out what was going on."
"Sorry about that."
"How long is this visit you want me to make supposed to last?"
"Just a weekend. Friday to Sunday. In and out like Dante."
By then I was thinking this must be some kind of waking dream. What else could it be?
"Thomas, there's something else you should know. It's something they think may help you make up your mind. It's about your father."
"What about my father?"
"He's down there."
"My father's in Hell?"
"He's not in the Hell part. Some areas down there are for good people, and he's apparently in one of them."
"I don't understand."
"I'm just telling you what they told me."
"If he's there, will I be able to visit him?"
"I don't know, but I don't think they would have me tell you he was down there if that wasn't a possibility. But I can't promise anything. There's something else I should mention. On the weekend they want you down there, there's going to be a "great thinkers" conference with lots of famous people from history. And there's something else too, but I'm not sure I should tell you."
He hesitated. "It has to do with them wanting us down there together as a teacher-student pair. I probably shouldn't say anything, but you have a right to know what's going on." He stopped as if he wasn't sure if he should tell me.
"What do I have a right to know?"
"If you decide not to go, I won't go either."
"What do you mean you won't go either? What will happen to you?"
"They'll send me back."
"Back to what?"
"Back to where I came from. The Big Nap."
"That's what they call it."
"Back to being dead?"
"So, if I don't agree to go down there, I'll in effect be killing you. That's what it sounds like."
"Thomas, I shouldn't have said anything. It's not fair to put you on the spot like this. But I want to be honest about what's happening."
I didn't know what to make of this bizarre conversation. The whole premise was wrong. Everybody knows that the so-called Underworld, or Hell, or the Inferno, or whatever you want to call it, doesn't exist except in ancient myths, in Dante's fertile imagination, and now in modern times in the rantings and ravings of demented imams and preachers. Yet here I am talking to Edward's ghost as if Hell really exists and he wants me to go there.
"Is it safe to assume you don't want to go back to being dead?"
"That's a fair assumption, but listen, Thomas, I feel bad about barging in on you like this. I can imagine how unsettling it must be. Don't worry about me. I shouldn't have mentioned it. Do what's best for you. 'If I am not for myself, who will be?'"
"If I am only for myself, what am I?"
"If not now, when?'" we said together and laughed. It was his favorite Talmud quote and mine too.
"Good memory, Thomas."
"Are you living down there?"
"For the time being I am, but as I told you, I'll only get to stay if I can get you to join me. Thomas, my time's up. I have to go. It's been wonderful talking to you. I hope you accept my invitation, but if you decide you can't or don't want to, I'll understand. I won't hold it against you. I'll be back soon to find out how you're doing with this."
Before I could ask him any more questions or even say good-bye, he disappeared like a light suddenly turned off.
In Dante's Footsteps--my audacious, entertaining book about a priest going to Hell (fiction of course, or at least I hope so)--is a tongue-in-cheek "Modern Divine Comedy" based on the Divine Comedy that Dante wrote 700 years ago. It's the story of Tom Reed, who is raised in a family of Episcopal clerics, gets hooked on Dante early, and after his own brief, ill-fated clerical career, moves to New York where he gets a job with an insurance company. After he resigns from the priesthood, he embarks on a viaggio down into the Underworld (aka Hell).
Yes, you read that correctly. The second half of the book takes place down there with a cast of characters Dante never could have imagined: Tanya, the CEO; Umberto, the Guest Master; Rachel, a young Dante scholar from Berkeley; visitors from China, India, Kenya, and Germany, and famous people woken up from the "Big Nap" for a "Great Minds and Personalities" conference. History greats in attendance include Socrates, Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, Einstein, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Groucho Marx. Tom also visits his father who's in a "purgatory precinct" and talks to Hashem (God), his "wife" Naomi, and somebody called Satan who wears a cowboy hat and walks with a swagger.
The climax of Tom's viaggio is his visit to the Crusaders who used to be in charge because he wants to include them in the book he plans to write that could make him the next Dante. However, the Crusaders disapprove of his being a "defrocked priest," so when he arrives, they withdraw their invitation and put him on trial.
After he survives his ordeal with the help of Wanda (an ex-nun), members of GETA (Ghosts for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and Dante himself, Tom is taken to the exit and resurfaces in New Jersey where Beatrice, his college girlfriend with whom he's back in contact, is waiting for him. Dante had his Beatrice (one of the great love stories of world literature), so why shouldn't Tom have his?
In Dante's Footsteps is sure to get lots of attention because there's never been a book like it. Whoever thought Hell could be such an interesting, fun place? :)
Charles Patterson (aka Dante II)