By Kevin Dodge
When I first started teaching Episcopalians in an adult Sunday school format, I experienced a challenge. How does one teach the faithful who have been in the Church for a long time, who have heard countless sermons and been through the lectionary cycle multiple times? I’m certainly not the first to discover that great literature offers a powerful medium for teaching the Christian faith. It seems to have a unique ability to break through the fog of resistance to theology and the content of the Scriptures.
Dante’s short work, La Vita Nuova (“VN”) offers an example. Dante wrote the VN, which translates as “The New Life,” when he was in his late twenties. In it, Dante tries to answer the question, “What is true love?” VN is a series of poems intermixed with prose commentary. It is one of Dante’s first published works and the one that initially made him famous in Italian literary circles.
Had Dante never written the Divine Comedy, he would still likely have been considered the greatest Italian poet of his age because, in the VN, he transcends the troubadour love poetry that was all the rage in his day. Dante does this by thoroughly Christianizing the concept of love, drawing on the deep reservoir of Christian thinking to do so.
Although most modern treatments of the VN ignore this, Dante seems to be drawing on St. Augustine’s notion of love from On the Trinity (“DT”) to effect this transformation. Here, Augustine famously looked in everyday life for psychological analogies to the reality of the Triune God. If we are created in God’s image, this would imply that we should be able to find the footprints of God embedded in our souls.
Augustine’s notion of love held particular interest to Dante because, as the Scriptures insist, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Thus Augustine famously observes that love requires a lover, a beloved, and love itself (DT, 8.14). To love, then, is a reflection of the Trinity and draws upon the love that God first gave to us. As Augustine writes, “If a man is full of love, what is he full of but God?” (DT, 8.12)
Hence Dante draws, in part, on Augustine to transform the late medieval approach to poetry and thus to surpass the poets who preceded him. In the VN, Dante presents his beloved, Beatrice, as a kind of divine figure. To the great consternation of 16th-century censors, Dante actually referred to Beatrice as a “savior.” Here, Dante is punning on the intersection of the Italian word “salute,” which can be both a greeting and a reference to salvation (VN, 3). Yet, since Beatrice’s name means “she who brings beatitude,” Dante likely has the salvific connotation in mind.
Dante is simply awestruck when he first meets Beatrice (at the age of nine) and then when he encounters her again (nine years later at the ninth hour). As Dante tells us later, all these references to the number nine are indications that Beatrice finds her root in the triune God, since the square root of nine is three.
The problem is that Dante’s passions overwhelm him in these first encounters. He’s in love with Beatrice’s flesh and can’t find a way to communicate with her. Dante fails at his first attempts at love.
After this, Dante switches gears. If his first attempts at love fail because his greetings could be spurned, Dante turns to a strategy that he claims cannot fail. He’ll just write about Beatrice instead, thus immortalizing her in eternal language. This leads to some of the most beautiful poetry in the VN, as Dante tries to describe his love for Beatrice in verse.
Yet this approach also proves problematic. Dante has not accounted for the reality of death. When Beatrice physically dies in the middle of the work, causing him to grow despondent, Dante recognizes that his attempt to understand love has failed again. How can we love another if our beloved will ultimately be taken from us by death?
After her death, Dante observes that Beatrice has ascended into heaven. He comes to realize that his salvation is above, not below. In classic Neo-Platonic fashion, which Dante also likely inherits from Augustine, he eschews what is immediately external to him and turns inward to look upward. Just like Christ, Beatrice has died, pointing the way, so that Dante might live.
Drawing on the medieval notion of the spiritual life as an ascent to God, Dante starts to understand the gospel. The end of all love is union with Christ. Beatrice is simply pointing the way. The question is whether Dante can follow.
Yet, what Dante realizes in the third section of the VN is that he’s not ready spiritually to follow. He is still stuck in his flesh. Dante can intuit intellectually the love that Beatrice is offering, but cannot leave his comfortable, debauched life to enable it to happen. If love is the force that propels us upward, Dante can’t yet make the trip because of sin. Thus, at the end of the VN, Dante resolves in the future to “write of her that which has never been written of any other woman” (VN, 42). The Divine Comedy is Dante’s attempt to do just that.
Hence Beatrice comes to earth, takes on flesh, points toward God and then ascends into heaven. She has imitated Christ. By re-presenting the love of Christ, Beatrice preaches the gospel to us in a powerful way.
The message Dante leaves us is that we cannot love adequately without the grace of God because God is love and is the one who gives us the ability to love in the first place. Charles Singleton, one of the best-known readers of Dante from a prior generation, puts it well:
Beatrice is the guide along a way which reaches to where God is. With all due allowance for differences, it may still be said that the force which bears the poet upward is, in either case, the same. That force is a love which first moved from Heaven and which lifts from there (Essay on the Vita Nuova , p. 103).
As N.T. Wright never ceases to remind us, the Gospel is not so much a ticket to heaven as it is proclamation about the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Thus Beatrice, as the one pointing the way, powerfully preaches the Gospel in the guise of love to Dante.
Unlike so many modern treatments that are embarrassed by Dante’s Christian vision, it turns out that a Christian view of love is inseparable from the pursuit of the beatific vision. The reason Dante succeeds finally in his quest in the Divine Comedy is because he embarks on an arduous spiritual journey of ascent.
Helping those we teach to read the signs of transcendence all around them is, to me, one of the central tasks of Christian education. When we start to see our world differently — as a world of signs “declaring the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1) — this is when distinctly Christian formation begins to take hold. The Gospel really is good news when love lifts us upward into the hands of the Triune God.
Kevin Dodge is a speaker and author in the Dallas area, where he attends and teaches Sunday School at Church of the Incarnation. The featured image is “First meeting of Dante and Beatrice” (1832-1916) by Raffaele Gianetti. Photo credit: Newport Museum and Art Gallery.