Nearly ten years ago now, I took a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Much has changed since then. Since then, I have gotten married, become a father, experienced the deaths of two friends, one of whom was as close as family. I have encountered various forms of mental illness in myself and others to a degree I don’t think I had experienced before. I have completed an MA on Paradise Lost, and am nearly finished a PhD in Old English literature, a kind of literature very different from Dantean allegory. Now, during the season of Lent, I am returning to Dante via a study group through our church; we meet weekly, and so I consider it fitting to report weekly on thoughts emerging from our reading and discussion.
Reading Dante after being steeped in Old English poetry for many months is a shocking thing indeed; it is a little like reading Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon back to back. Both OE poetry and the Comedy baptize, as it were, a particular aspect of secular (by which I mean not churchly, rather than necessarily evil) life. Old English poetry baptizes the heroic tradition, and there is little that is romantic here – indeed, the most emotively affective relationship in OE poetry is arguably the relationship between one’s one and one’s lord, a relationship that comes to be a way of talking about our relationship with God. The poetry is spare and it is haunted by doom and vanity. There are battles. Moreover, I would add that the OE imagination is hardly anti-Biblical, for it simply elaborates upon seeds of images it finds in the Bible. The description of Christ as lord is so Biblical that we even talk about Him as such in an age when the term “lord” has come to be a rather hollow title. Doom and vanity are thoroughly Biblical themes, as evident in texts such as Ecclesiastes and Job. And battle is found literally in the Old Testament and figurally (against powers and principalities) in the New Testament.
Against the backdrop of OE poetry, Dante can seem (and I only say seem, because I know he is not) decadent, with a love of material, place, and romance. Certainly, the primary thing baptized here is the courtly love or fin amor tradition, so very odd from both an Anglo-Saxon and modern perspective. After the tonic of OE poetry, it does not feel stern enough; from a modern mindset, we need only imagine how surprised we would be if we asked for someone’s testimony of their relationship with Christ and they began, “Well, you see, I was at this party, and there was this girl…” To be fair, though, Dante’s chosen theme has Biblical seeds as deep as those of the Anglo-Saxon imagination; one need only consider books like Song of Solomon, and the celebration of the wedding feast upon Christ’s return at the end of time.
One may wonder if such imaginative elaborations of Biblical imagery are not dangerous, and all I can say to that is that it is indeed a dangerous thing to play with a double-edged sword. Too often in the church past and present the heroic imagination of the Old English type has metamorphed into something it is in its best instances not – a means of justifying violence unjustifiable on Christian grounds. Similarly, we need not look far to find places where spiritual experience and romantic/erotic love are being mistaken for each other in unhealthy ways; I think of the kinds of youth groups I grew up in, where the boundaries between hormones and the Holy Spirit were not always clear – I also think of Heloise and Abelard. Such dangers, of course, are why we learn swordsmanship, so to speak, by immersing ourselves in the training grounds of the traditions and disciplines of the Church past and present. Nonetheless, I do think the instance of Dante is interesting insofar as it is simply odd; put another way, had I been Dante’s friend, I would have advised him to get over his silly infatuation with Beatrice and focus on God – advice for which the church would have been much poorer.
The last time I read Dante, I think I was too cynical to understand such odd “Beatrice moments.” I think this was in part because I was exposed to too many poor ways of understanding them by my Evangelical background. Generally, speaking, it was understood (though never overtly stated) that the “Aha” moment we were all looking for was one of pure, personal experience with God. This happened through worship, prayer, reading one’s Bible etc. There was little room for those who had such “aha” moments elsewhere. There was also little room for those for whom “aha” moments were scarce or non-existent. As someone with OCD and depression, I fell largely into this latter category, though I tried very hard to have such experiences. The day I realized that Christianity was about much more than such a very limited Evangelical “aha” experience was a very freeing day indeed, though it did not of course happen in a day. And I still struggle to know where such experiences and emotions fit in the spiritual practice of someone who also has mental illness.
So, last time I approached Dante, I think I was suspicious of this instantaneous experience that changed Dante’s life, given how much it resembled the suffocating conversion and experience stories I had heard and tried to force in myself in Evangelical circles. What I am seeing this time around is that Dante’s experience is different from this. Dante finds grace in an odd and unexpected places, or at least what would seem so in terms of an Evangelical conversion narrative. Moreover, his experience is always open rather than closed. It always felt to me as if there were a number of things vying for my heart, and they were mutually exclusive – if I were to experience God, I should be careful not to experience other things. Dante’s love, however, is one that embraces rather than excludes other “aha” moments. Rather than avoiding them lest they distract one from the “aha” moment one is supposed to have with God, one allows them to be absorbed into the higher love of God. For Dante, we avoid idolatry, not by closing our eyes, but by looking up.
I think another thing that has changed for me is my general recognition that “aha” moments really can have worth. Being an older brother type (from the parable of the prodigal sons) and having been burned by a pressure cooker environment that expected God to appear as personal experience, I tended toward a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of theology, informed far more by the kind of loyalty and commitment prized in OE poetry than by an experiential faith, Evangelical or otherwise. What I have begun to see is that there are watershed moments; there are moments that matter. But they are not earned. Grace spills unexpectedly out on those who have not sought to experience it. And it can elude for a lifetime those who seek it very earnestly. Christian life is not about making these grace-experiences happen, nor is it about assuming that we are not Christians if we don’t have them. Rather, it is about being open to discovering them, thankful to God when they are there, and patient and prayerful when they are not. We must neither scorn them for their brevity nor cling to them as an anchor.
I do have one final thing to say, and that regards the very weird experiential faith of Dante involving Beatrice. I have been thinking about it, and I think that in a postmodern age we may in fact stand a chance of understanding this better than those in modernity, though perhaps not quite so well as a premodern person. There are two examples that come to mind of similar “Beatrice moments” in modern popular culture. Admissibly, they are much further away from blossoming into an allegory of faith, though there is the potential there.
The first is the Tim Burton film Edward Scissorhands. What is related in this film is an experience the narrator had as a child. She loved Edward, but clearly married someone else (she has a granddaughter), and Edward is still in exile making snow. In any case, the narrator at the end of the film says with poignancy of her experience of snow (which reminds her of Edward), “Sometimes I still catch myself dancing.” I don’t think this takes away from any relationships or loves that the narrator had after Edward. But the complicated relationship she had with Edward led her to an “aha” moment that stuck with her the rest of her life.
The second example is from The Hunger Games (warning: spoiler alert). The “aha” moment in this series is Katniss’s early encounter with Peeta, when he conspires to give her bread and thereby hope. The love here does in fact end in marital love, but for a while the series suggests that it need not. Katniss is conflicted between her love for Peeta and her love for Gale. In an alternate version of the story, Katniss could presumably have ended up with Gale and had no less appreciation of the earlier effect of Peeta’s love that was something different than simple romantic love. Though not perfectly analogous, I think these two modern narratives might give us a glimpse of what Dante is about in his love of Beatrice.