The Spiritual Quest Story

A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of the story.

Paul Elie


Of all The Quest stories perhaps the most compelling plot is the spiritual quest story, or pilgrimmage, and of these Dante’s Commedia, or The Divine Comedy as it is commonly known, must be the superlative fictional, or allegorical, example.

The Quest Story

Dr. Alison Watkins of the Ringling College of Art and Design identifies on her blog, using Booker as her guide, 5 successive stages in the typical quest story:

The Call
The Journey
Arrival and Frustration
The Final Ordeals
The Goal

The Spiritual Quest Story, as typified by Commedia:IMG_3203

1. The Call

Life has become oppressive and intolerable, and the hero recognizes that he can only rectify matters by making a long, difficult journey. He is given supernatural or visionary direction as to the distant, life-renewing goal he must aim for.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

2. The Journey

The hero and his companions set out across hostile terrain, encountering a series of life-threatening ordeals….the hero and companions receive hospitality, help or advice, often from ‘wise old men’ or ‘beautiful young women’. During this stage the hero may also have to make a journey through the underworld…

Right at the outset of his journey Dante in his attempt to go uphill, which he thinks is the path, encounters a lion, a leopard, and a wolf, completely blocking his path.
In the midst of his frustration he encounters a wise old man, Virgil, who has been tasked by a beautiful young woman, Beatrice, to conduct him safely through the entirety of the underworld. Virgil then leads him on the journey through all the circles of hell, The Inferno.


3. Arrival and Frustration

The hero arrives within sight of his goal. But he is far from having reached the end of his story, because now, on the edge of the goal, he sees a new and terrible series of obstacles looming up between him and his prize, which have to be overcome before it can be fully and completely secured.

to be filled in later

4. The Final Ordeals

The hero has to undergo a last series of tests (often three in number) to prove that he is truly worthy of the prize. This culminates in a last great battle or ordeal which may be the most threatening of all.

to be filled in later

5. The Goal

After a last thrilling escape from death, the kingdom, the Princess or the life-transforming treasure are finally won, with an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future.

From Wikipedia
While the structures of the Inferno and Purgatorio were based on different classifications of sin, the structure of the Paradiso is based on the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues.
The Divine Comedy finishes with Dante seeing the Triune God. In a flash of understanding, which he cannot express, Dante finally understands the mystery of Christ’s divinity and humanity, and his soul becomes aligned with God’s love.


Dante Sources

The best online source is the Electronic Literature Foundation (ELF)
The mission of the Electronic Literature Foundation (ELF) is to produce advanced electronic texts for the benefit of students, scholars, and admirers of literature around the world. Our goal is to provide free access to a variety of texts from world literature available in several languages and/or editions for all types of readers. Our current works online include The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the novels of Jane Austen, and more. There are 129 works by 20 authors in the library.

The World of Dante is a multi-media research tool intended to facilitate the study of the Divine Comedy through a wide range of offerings. These include an encoded Italian text which allows for structured searches and analyses, an English translation, interactive maps, diagrams, music, a database, timeline and gallery of illustrations. Many of these features allow users to engage the poem dynamically through the integrated components of this site.


What relevance does Dante’s Commedia have to modern day readers?

It appears to still have the ability to guide and renew. At least one current writer claims that it saved his life in the midst of his own mid-life crisis in How Dante Saved My Life


Other Spiritual Quest Stories

The Call of Stories by Robert Coles

So what did Robert Coles learn from a lifetime of reading and teaching stories. He came to understand that stories can provide a compass to people, and students in particular, who find themselves struggling with the moral challenges of life. He learned:

—-“Novels and stories are renderings of life; they can not only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers—offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings…there can be a moment of recognition, of serious pause, of tough, self-scrutiny.”

That’s why we read stories in general and spiritual quest stories specifically.

Popular Spiritual Quest Books

Goodreads has put together a list of 63 of them.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, 1948
The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, 1952
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, 1952
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, 1960

Questing, from Spirituality and Practice

This site offers understanding and guidance in the spiritual practice of questing. They offer not only suggestions for how to practice questing, but books and other resources to support it.

In addition their review of the Best Spiritual Practice Books of 2014 includes two on questing:

  • A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz (W. W. Norton & Company) offers a fetching overview of the life, the music, and the meaning of Leonard Cohen as a spiritual seeker.
  • We Make the Road by Walking
    We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation by Brian D. McLaren (Jericho Books) contains a 52-week Bible-based curriculum written for use in Christian communities

My Own Spiritual Quest Story

to be filled in later

One Response

  1. Len DeAngelis
    Len DeAngelis November 1, 2014 at 11:37 pm | | Reply

    Spurred me on to order the Coles book–have yet to finish the Elie book–but, re-reading Dante has its benefits.

Leave a Reply