Christianity recounts the story of salvation in two ways. First, it recalls God’s work in history: the creation of the world, the Fall, the history of Israel, Christ’s Incarnation and Redemption, the end of the world, and our ultimate destination in the afterlife. All of this explains to us the nature of the universe in which we live, how we are to conduct ourselves, and the final meaning of existence.
But there is a second way to repeat the Christian story that, while acknowledging all the universal truths of salvation history, emphasizes the particular pilgrimage that each of us must make in our movement toward God. Indeed, the very notion that we are all pilgrims and wayfarers in this life has been a major theme in Christian thought in every age and an important contribution to the self-understanding of the human race.
Innumerable theologians, homilists, spiritual writers, and poets have taken up the subject of the itinerarium mentis in Deum, the soul’s journey into God, as St. Bonaventure called it. But perhaps no one has given a more lively, colorful, complete, and moving account of the pilgrimage of the Christian soul than the medieval Catholic poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).
Labor of Love
Dante’s long poem, The Divine Comedy, is by universal agreement one of the very greatest, if not the greatest, Christian literary work. Dante ranks among the giants of world literature, with figures such as Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Goethe.
The Comedy recounts how, in the middle of his life, the poet finds himself lost in a dark wood of sin and error. In desperation, he seeks to return to the right path and true life in God, a quest that takes him through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise to the Beatific Vision. Along the way Dante encounters sinners, penitents, saved souls—some great and well-known figures from history or from his own time, others humble spirits never known beyond the small circle of their friends and acquaintances. Through these encounters, Dante the pilgrim learns about the various aspects of the spiritual life, and Dante the poet writes a drama that he calls a comedy because, in spite of the many tragic evils and sufferings in our life, the story has a happy ending—if we learn the right lessons and make the right choices. But another dimension of Dante’s work makes it of particular immediacy and significance to modern readers: his vision of romantic love—the love between a man and a woman—as one of the most powerful inducements by which we can come alive to the right path leading toward the love of God. Romantic love, as modern poetry, novels, and films attest, often goes wrong. It did in Dante’s time as well: The greatest medieval legends—Lancelot and Guinivere, Tristan and Isolde—recognize as much. All loves present grave risks along with great possibilities of fulfillment. Dante would explore, as no one prior or since, the full depths and heights to which a different kind of romantic love than our usual fickle variety can lead us.
Dante was born in 1265 into a medieval world that had behind it more than a century of courtly love poetry and troubadour songs expressing the ennobling effects on men of love and devotion for a noble lady. His great insight was to see that the richness and power of this poetical genre could be harmonized with the great flowering of theological and spiritual thought that had occurred during the same period. An old Augustinian theme reminds us that the “order of our loves” (ordo amoris) constitutes the Christian life. Dante would show how the love for Beatrice, a young woman in his home city of Florence, led him to envision and to encounter the order of loves spread over the entire universe.
By the time he was midway through writing the “Purgatory,” the second of the three main divisions of his Comedy, Dante would—in a characteristically medieval union of form and substance—express his central theme at the very center of his poem. The mainspring of the universe as a whole and all its individual parts is a reality both transcendentally simple and infinitely complex: love. In Canto 17 of the “Purgatory,” Dante gets a lesson from the Roman poet Virgil, his guide for much of the trip through the other world:
“Neither Creator nor a creature ever,
Son,” he began, “was destitute of love
Natural or spiritual; and thou knowest it.
The natural was ever without error;
But err the other may by evil object,
Or by too much, or by too little vigour.
While in the first it well directed is,
And in the second moderates itself,
It cannot be the cause of sinful pleasure;
But when to ill it turns, and, with more care
Or lesser than it ought, runs after good,
‘Gainst the Creator works his own creation.
Hence thou mayst comprehend that love must be
The seed within yourselves of every virtue,
And every act that merits punishment.”
Natural love, says Dante, must always go the way the Creator intended. By natural love he roughly means the tendencies that God has put into all created things—from galaxies to atoms, plants and animals, to human beings. The supernatural dimension in the human person, however, who is a compound creature with both a physical and a spiritual nature, can go awry by choosing evil objects or by pursuing good objects with too much or too little vigor.
All those loves are ordered, particularly in the case of the human person, to Love himself, since it is God in this view whom we are finally seeking amid our other loves. The very first canto of the “Paradise,” the third part of Dante’s journey to God, begins with this moving description of the whole universe, which, by this point, the pilgrim has traversed: “The glory of Him who moveth everything/Doth penetrate the universe, and shine/In one part more and in another less.” The glory and love that Dante will see in the highest heaven, “The love that moves the sun and other stars,” as he will write in his concluding line to his whole work, is to be found everywhere, attracting everything toward Himself.
Center of the Circle
How did Dante, as an individual man and poet, come to this understanding of the universe as a vast sea of diverse loves tending toward the ultimate Love? The seed for this development was planted quite early. In his first book, The New Life (La Vita Nuova), a brief and visionary autobiography, Dante describes his first meeting as a child of nine with Beatrice, who is about the same age. She is dressed in a noble crimson on that first occasion, the color of charity. In a series of brief poems and short prose commentaries, he tells the whole story of how this love for a particular woman in what was then a relatively modest commercial city in Europe opened to him the great cosmic mysteries.
The early parts of this little book follow a familiar pattern in Dante’s day. Dante begins as a rather typical courtly lover, writing poetry in praise of his ideal lady, who is distant and perfect. When he sees her in the street, his heart is tormented by her beauty. In the very first poem, he recalls a dream in which Love appeared to him as a joyful lord carrying the sleeping Beatrice in his arms wrapped in a mantle. Love holds Dante’s heart, which is on fire, in his hands, wakes Beatrice and convinces her to eat it, then departs, ascending to Heaven weeping. Dante circulated this poem, asking what the vision meant.
As the first pages of Dante’s very first work show, he began his writing about love with much larger intuitions about love’s nature than other poets of his day. At first, like them, he describes the emotional turmoil that love brings. No writer has ever put better how dazed and tongue-tied we become, even the most eloquent of poets among us, when we first meet love:
Whenever and wherever she appeared, in the hope of receiving her miraculous salutation I felt I had not an enemy in the world. Indeed, I glowed with a flame of charity that moved me to forgive all who had ever injured me; and if at that moment someone had asked me a question, about anything, my only reply would have been: “Love,” with a countenance clothed with humility.
Moralists since the beginning of time have warned that there are many ways that this powerful influence on us can go awry; Dante will show the results in “Inferno.” But Dante claims Beatrice’s effect on him was such that “it did not suffer Love to rule me without the faithful counsel of reason.” And in what follows, he convinces us that when we take love rightly, it leads us out to unimagined worlds.
One striking difference between Dante and many of his contemporaries was that he soon came to a conscious decision that he should not indulge in the usual complaints about love’s sorrows. Love keeps telling him enormous truths. For example, in one episode, Love remarks mysteriously, “I am the center of the circle to which all parts of the circumference are in a similar relation; but you are not so.” This has obvious theological echoes. Several other episodes suggest an encounter with something that, at this stage in his understanding, Dante is barely able to express. But even more remarkably, a Copernican Revolution in Dante’s perspective occurs when some ladies with whom he had been discussing love tell him that, if he really believed what he was saying about the perfection of Beatrice and the nobility of love she produced in him, he would stop complaining and write in a far different way.
This hit him like a lightning bolt. He says, “Since there is so much joy in words that praise my lady, why have I ever written in any other manner?” Dante resolves to write only in praise of “this gracious being”; a new element had appeared in the literature of love. After several stumbling efforts to follow this intuition, Dante faces another great test. Beatrice dies on June 8, 1290, at the age of 24. Many men have experienced the death of a loved one and written movingly of the loss and of the hope of being reunited with him or her in the next life. But after a complicated series of events during which Dante accuses himself of having been temporarily unfaithful to Beatrice’s image, he remarks at the end of his little book that “there appeared to me a marvelous vision in which I saw things that made me decide to write no more of this blessed one until I could do so more worthily.” We know that after that he undertook many studies—philosophical, theological, literary—to which he applied himself as much as he was able. And he predicted, “thus, if it shall please Him by whom all things live that my life continue for a few years, I hope to compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman.” That hope was to be fulfilled in the remarkable story of Dante’s journey from sin to Heaven under Beatrice’s inspiration and guidance in the Divine Comedy.
Passionate and Spiritual
The idea that the love between a man and a woman can be the entry point into a deep encounter with divine love is, of course, perfectly compatible with Christian theology, though it remains a sort of minority position. The more usual path identifies Christian love with asceticism and denial. Even Dante, in his “Purgatory,” will give an exhaustive account of the disciplines and virtues that we must acquire even when we are on the way of love inspired by Beatrice. But the way he takes—what the English writer Charles Williams has called the “affirmation of images” as opposed to the “denial of images”—may be a more accessible path for most people. In terms of later spiritual schools, Dante would probably have been more at home in the Marian affirmations of a St. Louis de Montfort than, say, the strict asceticism of a St. John of the Cross.
Without question, seductive dangers lurk in claiming that Love Himself appears in our loves, not the least being that we may try to convert our loves, disordered and imperfect as they are, into Love. This is a special danger in the case of passionate, romantic love in the modern world, when the perfectly proper assertion that “God is Love” quite often is turned around to read “Love (in the sense of our own wayward choosing) is God.”
Still, the New Testament presents the fidelity and love between husband and wife as the image of Christ’s love for His Church. We quite often feel that sex and passion somehow distract us from the purity and peacefulness that should accompany the highest Christian life. For many people, of course, sex and passion do not have a happy result. But Dante would respond that that is not owing to any necessary contradiction between human love and divine love. Rather, it is what we have done and misunderstood with regard to human love ever since the Fall—ever since, that is, Eve and Adam, intended by God to be helpers and companions of one another, found themselves ashamed of their nakedness after their sin—that has placed a division of loves where there had originally been a harmony.
Dante’s aims thereafter must, therefore, be twofold. He has to explain how his love for Beatrice is ennobling and spiritual, even as it is passionate. And he must show how this personal passion fits in with God’s universal scheme of redemption. Nothing of quite this kind and scope had ever been attempted in the twelve Christian centuries that had preceded Dante. We probably have to go all the way back to the Song of Songs in the Old Testament to find (and that in an allegorical reading) the kind of moving rendition of human love as a dimension and image of the divine passion for us that we find explicitly and literally in Dante. Like the Incarnation, this love joins two worlds.
This is an important point for understanding Dante’s spirituality. Dante reminds us that divine Providence leads us, not primarily by an abstract set of ideas (as important as those are in bringing body, mind, and spirit into full harmony with the divine), but by the mediation of particular people and the circumstances in which it has placed us. Dante never neglects this great truth. He viewed the particular details of his life as having universal significance in several mutually reinforcing ways. For many of us, while the Christian story is something we believe in rather abstractly, we do not believe we play a high role in it. Yet it has always been the teaching of the Church that Jesus would have died on the Cross had there only been one human soul that needed saving. So each individual Christian lives a far higher destiny than he usually believes. Dante himself had to overcome some doubts about whether he was worthy of the high Christian honor about to be permitted him in his journey through the other world.
Ever Ancient, Ever New
Every detail of the journey will become important, not simply because the subject matter by its very nature demands symbolization and allegory of the Christian life. Dante carefully inscribes the whole story into a temporal as well as an eternal context. For example, we know that the fictional date for the poem is Easter 1300. By what we might call a coincidence, but Dante thought providential, 1300 was also the 35th year of Dante’s life, since he had been born in Florence in 1265. So at the midpoint of his biblical “three score and ten years,” which also coincides with the Jubilee year for the Church, 1300, he began his glorious pilgrimage back toward God.
As we approach our own Jubilee this year and the planned millennium celebrations, we would do well to turn back ourselves to this giant of Christian literature and spirituality. He might remind us that what the world considers a mere accident of the calendar may become for us a numinous encounter with the Love that gives time its very meaning. Many developments in science, theology, and psychology have occurred since Dante’s day. But beyond the obsolete elements, in Dante we are always in touch with an ardent Christian soul, tirelessly seeking to penetrate ever deeper into the mystery of God’s Love, and hoping to communicate the “bread of angels” to average people. His was an heroic adventure and a generous labor, and that is why even today, nearly 700 years after his death, Dante remains very much alive.