Dante and the Lure of Beauty, Sermon by Rev. Dr. Alison Milbank February 24th 2013

Lent 2 Worcester College Oxford: Dante and the lure of beauty

Recently, you have heard about Rilke and Larkin, two poets with some nostalgia for the numinous but without religious faith but today I bring you a medieval Catholic Italian poet, who makes theology and the search for God the subject of his verse – though he had no time for bad popes! For the child Dante, his poetic and spiritual life began when he was nine years old and met a little girl in a crimson dress at a party. He hardly knew her, and in adulthood her greeting in the street was the height of happiness to him and the nearest he came to know her. On your sheet you have a famous painting by Henry Holiday, designer of this chapel’s stained glass, showing the time Beatrice refused her greeting because she had heard something to Dante’s discredit.

She married and died young, but for Dante she was the way into a new form of poetry and the way to salvation. The new form of poetry sought to wrestle self-obsessed courtly love poetry away from casting the woman as pretext for self-analysis towards poetry of pure praise, in which she is loved and wondered at for the miracle of her existence – her thisness, her radiant being; the way of salvation was to see her as an opening to the transcendent, with a beauty that is not self-contained but leads into the heart of God himself.

After the death of Beatrice however, Dante’s life goes all astray. He is exiled from his beloved birthplace, Florence, by his political enemies, and he loses this image of Beatrice that leads to virtue. And so his journey in the Divine Comedy is a penitential one, which takes him through Hell to see his own lostness, and to understand how poetry can deceive and foster violent hatred, before he can slowly climb the mountain of Purgatory and achieve reconciliation. In the Earthly Paradise he meets and confesses to Beatrice, who leads him through the heavenly spheres.

I could, as befits Lent, have used the Inferno, beginning in the wood of error, ‘Midway upon this journey of our life’ – and might have done had I realized about Worcester’s own ‘midway’ rite of passage. But Oxford calls the Lent term, ‘Hilary’ from hilaios, meaning cheerful or gracious, and our Lenten fasting is not life-denying but equally cheerful, and is performed out of love for our blessed Lord. Christ’s beauty on the cross or resurrected walking in the dewy garden is the lure that draws us into prayer and fasting. At one point Dante has to walk through the – purely mental – heat of the fire of purgation of lust, and is terrified. The poet Virgil, his guide at that point, encourages him by using Beatrice as a lure, saying, ‘Beatrice is the other side of that fire. I think I can see her eyes already’. To see true beauty requires purgation not just physical fasting but purgation of the desire to own, to master, to degrade, just as true faith requires the reorientation of our whole being.

To stress the importance of the lure of beauty, we heard a passage not from Inferno but from Paradiso, not long before Beatrice leaves Dante to take her own place among the blessed, where he may be part of her prayer but where she has her own destiny. She cannot be a mere idealization. And I chose a point where Dante gives up his attempt to write about her beauty, a beauty which opens to a reality beyond her through her eyes and smile. Dante follows neo-platonic thought in allying goodness, truth and beauty together, just as the fairy-tales of the ordinary people do when they make Cinderella as beautiful as the day. Like Socrates, reporting Diotima’s view of love in Plato’s Symposium, for Dante earthly desire opens the way into heavenly love. Beatrice is a window that lets the light through, ‘light not of the earthly sun but of God himself: ‘light of the intellect, light full of love,/ love of the true good, full of ecstasy,/ ecstasy that transcends the sweetest joy’. This love draws Dante out of himself and launches him on a journey into the reality of God, a journey that begins where words end. Dante’s importance to contemporary poets lies precisely in the way in which he uses poetry to describe the limits of words. When he finally sees the Trinity as rainbows and fiery circle, his imagination fails as he is unable to work out how the human figure he also discerns there relates to the Divine circling. It is, however, that very difficulty – that laborious activity of thought – that brings him into the life of God, so that the poem ends:

At that point vision failed high fantasy

But, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,

I felt my will and my desire impelled

By the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.

True desire leads us out of ourselves on a journey that will never end but is always full of delight. It is like a book, C. S. Lewis suggests, in which each chapter is better than the one before.

All this, you may say, is very attractive, but how does it relate to the Bible? I could have chosen Christ’s words in St John’s gospel, where agape and eros, desire and loving-kindness, are used together, or one of the ecstatic passages from St Paul. But I chose a passage from the book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha, which is also part of our Anglican Bible, containing books written late in Jewish history, because Dante uses it so often in the Comedy. Your sermons on Rilke and Larkin stressed the transformation of the everyday by poetry, while I have been talking about going beyond, about Transcendence. But Dante also learns on his journey how everything in the whole cosmos fits together and is related: he has a vision of the world as a great book, and Beatrice is also an image of the Divine Wisdom: Hagia Sophia, to whom churches in the east are often dedicated and who is illustrated on your sheet.

She is guide and teacher of the beauty of God’s creation. The book of wisdom is narrated as if by Solomon himself, the king who prayed for wisdom as a child. Dante may be comparing himself implicitly to Solomon in the story he tells of meeting Beatrice when he too was a child. Wisdom is both beautiful woman and craftswoman, a mirror of the divine, and Dante’s whole poem is a tribute to a world made radiant by discerning within it a beauty of structure and form: in which we see it as a made thing – God’s work of art. If we truly admire a beautiful object, or even are astounded by the beauty of a person we just glance at in the street, their beauty is not an isolated phenomenon that makes everything else dull but a revelation of how everything truly is: wisdom makes all things new. The dreary Cornmarket is suddenly illumined as if from within. The cup the person drinks from, the ground they tread upon, has a pattern and significance. In the same way, Dante is restored to normal life at the end of his poem, but it is a life now in movement, ‘impelled’ by the Love he encountered, shaped by wisdom.

It is asking a lot more of you to read Dante than pick up a short lyric by Hopkins or Larkin but I hope that once in your life you will read him, perhaps with others because that is the best way to do it. At this very moment there are little groups of people around the world reading Dante together and helping each other with the obscure names. And what I pray may happen in your reading is that the poem may open within you a desire, a longing, for something more: for holy wisdom, holy beauty, for without this divine discontent we will have no transformation, in love or in politics. So let us pray for light intellectual, light full of love, love of the true good, full of ecstasy, that we too may taste the ecstasy that transcends the sweetest joy as beauty opens herself to the aching need of our desiring souls.



About the author