Monday, August 22, 2016

Delight – Dante, Beatrice, and the Delight of God


In a recent post on God’s delight, I compared my early experience of romantic attraction with that of Dante with Beatrice and the way those experiences mirror experiencing the love and delight of God. Following are some quotes from Dante himself. The second quote describing the effect Beatrice had on Dante might also be said of the difference knowing God’s love and delight can make in how we live and how we engage the world around us.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) only met Beatrice twice. The first meeting came in May of 1274 when he was only nine years old and she was eight. She was dressed in soft crimson and wore a girdle about her waist. Dante was overcome with love at first sight and heard in his mind, "Now your bliss has appeared." He frequented places where he could catch a glimpse of her, but she never spoke to him until nine years later. Then one afternoon in 1283 he saw her dressed in white, walking down a street in Florence accompanied by two older women. Beatrice turned and greeted him. Her greeting filled him with such joy that he retreated to his room to think about her. Seven years later, Beatrice died with Dante's love of her unrequited.

Those two meetings and one greeting inspired Dante to write some of the most vivid poetry ever and some of the most profound spiritual reflection of the Christian tradition. His first reflections came in the La Vita Nuova (The New life or Life Renewed) a collection of prose and poetry written over the ten years after the second meeting, years that included Beatrice's death. They culminated in his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy which includes the Inferno, Purgatorio, and the Paradiso.

Dante came to understand that the love Beatrice evoked in him drew him into the life of God "the Love that moves the sun, the moon, and the other stars” (Paradiso, XXXIII, 145). Indeed, she seemed an icon of the renewed, redeemed life found ultimately in that Love revealed in Jesus Christ. Dante was the great master of the idea that all true love reflects and participates in that one Love revealed in the life and love of Jesus Christ.

Here is Dante's account of his second meeting with Beatrice:

When exactly nine years had passed since this gracious being appeared to me, as I have described, it happened that on the last day of this intervening period this marvel appeared before me again, dressed in purest white, walking between two other women of distinguished bearing, both older than herself. As they walked down the street she turned her eyes toward me where I stood in fear and trembling, and with her ineffable courtesy, which is now rewarded in eternal life, she greeted me; and such was the virtue of her greeting that I seemed to experience the height of bliss. It was exactly the ninth hour of day when she gave me her sweet greeting. As this was the first time she had ever spoken to me, I was filled with such joy that, my senses reeling, I had to withdraw from the sight of others. So I returned to the loneliness of my room and began to think about this gracious person. (Vita Nuova III)
And
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 which 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. When she was on the point of bestowing her greeting, a spirit of love, destroying all the other spirits of the senses, drove away the frail spirits of vision and said: ‘Go and pay homage to your lady’; and Love himself remained in their place. Anyone wanting to behold Love could have done so then by watching the quivering of my eyes. And when this most gracious being actually bestowed the saving power of her salutation, I do not say that Love as an intermediary could dim for me such unendurable bliss but, almost by excess of sweetness, his influence was such that my body, which was then utterly given over to his governance, often moved like a heavy, inanimate object. So it is plain that in her greeting resided all my joy, which often exceeded and overflowed my capacity. (Vita Nuova XI)

Here is a poem he wrote about Beatrice:
The power of Love borne in my lady’s eyes
Imparts its grace to all she looks upon;
Men turn to gaze at her when she walks by;
The heart of him she greets is made to quake,
His face to whiten, forcing down his gaze;
He sighs as all his defects flash in mind;
All pride and indignation flee from her.
Help me to honour her, most gracious ladies.
All sweet conception, every humblest thought
blooms in the hearty of the one who hears her speak,
and man is blest at his first sight of her.
The image of her when she starts to smile
breaks out of words, the mind cannot contain it,
a miracle too rich and strange to hold.
(Vita Nuova XXI)

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