Durante degli Alighieri ( simply called Dante c. 1265–1321), was a major Italian poet of the late Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, originally called Comedìa (modern Italian: Commedia) and later called Divina by Boccaccio, is widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature. In Italy he is called il Sommo Poeta (“the Supreme Poet”) and il Poeta. He, Petrarch, and Boccaccio are also called “the three fountains” and “the three crowns”. Dante is also called “the Father of the Italian language”.
Dante was a descendant of a very ancient family whose real name was Durante. He was a great lover of literature, music and the fine arts and through his family heritage, at least, was greatly inclined toward religion, philosophy, and mysticism, and early in his youth began to master all of the philosophies of his time while maintaining a part in the social life and in touch with every aspect of Italian social activities.
When considering late medieval literacy and the rise of vernacular literature, the beloved poet Dante Alighieri is one of the most renowned and remarkable examples. His Divina Commedia journeys through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and heaven (Paradiso). Dante is known now as the “Supreme Poet” of Italy and one of the fathers of the modern Italian language. However, as some theological scholars such as Bernard McGinn argue, Dante was not only a great poet, but also a Christian visionary whose works can be rightfully studied as works of Christian mysticism.
Bernard McGinn classifies Dante’s Divine Comedy as a piece of mystical theology not solely because Dante portrays visions of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Rather, McGinn points out that Christian mysticism, at its very root, “is a way of life leading to the beatific vision and not merely an abstract teaching.” Dante’s Divine Comedy leads the reader up towards the beatific vision and deals with the very concreteness of human life—sin, suffering, death, joy, and the self; thus, by that definition, Dante can stand among Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Bonaventure, and Meister Eckhart as one of the great mystics of the later Middle Ages.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially Paradiso, poetically tells of the journey of the soul from sin (hell) through purification (purgatory) to the beatific vision of God (paradise). Dante writes in a first-person narrative, thus placing the reader into the poem and creating a spiritual journey for the reader. The vehicle of poetry allows Dante to create contemplation for the reader in the true sense of the word—contemplation meaning a visual gazing. As Dante and the reader journey from the sights of the inferno through purgatory to heaven, their way of seeing is sanctified by divine grace and they are able to contemplate, to gaze upon, holier and holier objects.
Dante describes himself in the Paradiso as one who, while still in the flesh, all’ eterno dal tempo era venuto, “had come from time to the eternal.” Speaking generally, it may be said that a mystic is one who thus conceives of religion as an experience of eternity; one who holds that the soul, even in this life, can unite herself with the Divine, and who believes in the possibility and the actuality of certain experiences in which the mind is brought into contact with what it believes to be God, and enjoys fruition of what it takes as the ultimate reality. The most mystical moment of the Divine Comedy occurs in the final canto of the entire poem, in Canto XXXIII of Paradiso. After sojourning through the lower levels of heaven, Dante finally encounters the Triune God. Dante writes of shifting his gaze up unto God:
“Because my sight, becoming purified,
Was entering more and more into the ray
Of the High Light which of itself is true.
From that time forward what I saw was greater
Than our discourse, that to such vision yields,
And yields the memory unto such excess.”
The highly visual contemplation of the divine reflects the goal of Christian mystical theology. Christian mystics longed for union with God and encountered God through visions. Union with God is participation with the divine, and participation includes the visual. Dante’s beatific vision is even beyond words for the great master of the Italian language, thus inviting the reader to strive for their own mystical experience with God. Paradiso, as McGinn notes, “is meant to give the reader hope of seeing God in heaven, and also in part in this life.”
Dante’s beatific vision extends beyond contemplation into true union, thus extending his word from poetry to mystical theology. As Dante contemplates God, his soul enters into God’s love, along with the other souls of the blessed. This union is physical as it moves his soul along with the rest of creation: “But now was turning my desire and will, / Even as a wheel that equally is moved, / The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” Dante’s soul experiences true rest and true bliss in union with God, a rest and bliss which many other mystics express.
Dante aligns himself with Christian tradition and other mystics when he expresses how the soul only comes to know itself truly when in union with its Creator. “O Light Eterne, sole in thyself that dwellest, / Sole knowest thyself, and, known unto thyself / And knowing, lovest and smilest on thyself!” A common theme in medieval mysticism was the notion of exitus-reditus, which was originally articulated by Maximus the Confessor. Exitus-reditus is the belief that humanity comes from God, made in his image, and thus desires to return to God. Mysticism emphasizes the return to God, and Dante articulates perfectly here why the soul desires to return to God.
In a biographical sketch of Dante by the Christian writer James E. Kiefer, Dante’s mysticism is depicted as an example of the approach to Union with the Divine called the “Via Positiva”:
“Throughout the centuries, many Christians have felt themselves called to pursue a direct experience of the presence of God through contemplative prayer and meditation. Some Christians have written books to assist others seeking to know the presence of God in this manner. Most such books are concerned with what is known as the Negative Way. The disciple of the Negative Way is advised to begin by rejecting all images, all concepts, all ideas of God, in order to make room for God Himself. This is not offered as something that works overnight. For many persons, it takes years. There are those who report that this approach has worked for them. In some instances, where I can see that their lives have been radically transformed for the better, and that the love of Christ flows forth from them to the world, I am disposed to take their statements about what has worked for them very seriously. But I do not believe that I am myself called to the Negative Way.
Another approach found in Christian circles is called the Affirmative Way. Here, instead of shoving the universe to one side (an interesting picture!) so as to see God face to face with no barriers, the contemplative undertakes to see God in and through the images that bear His likeness. Thus, he may experience sexual love between husband and wife as an image of the love between Christ and the Church, or between Christ and an individual human. Or he may look at a policeman directing traffic–or a conductor directing an orchestra–or a caller directing a square dance–and see in him the image of God directing and controlling the universe, that order may prevail and all things may find their true freedom in conformity to the pattern. Or, like Dante, he (she) may look at another human being who somehow seems to sum up in her (his) person the meaning of life and the goal of all desire, to be a window through whom the Glory is revealed. And contemplating and adoring glory as revealed in that person becomes the contemplation and adoration of the glory of God Himself. The image with which one starts need not even be human. We are told that we are to regard God with awe and fear. To many hearers, this suggests nothing but prudential efforts to be safe. God is someone who can smite you if you disobey Him, so you had better obey. Some persons have found the answer in the sight of a towering, unapproachable mountain crag. It is not dangerous–climbing it is not the issue, we are just looking at it. But it is majestic. It is awesome. It gives us (some of us, at any rate) a feeling of awe and wonder, of something like fear and something like respect, a feeling that we are in the presence of something not to be trifled with, something mysterious and tremendous, a feeling not easy to put into words, but one that helps us understand what is meant by the fear and awe of God.
The following of the Negative Way is found in several religions. As far as I know, the following of the Affirmative Way is peculiarly Christian. One might expect this, since all Christians are called to the contemplation of Christ, the visible image of the invisible God, the one who said, “He who has seen me has seen God.” And so, the mind and heart and imagination of the Christian are drawn upward along the Affirmative Way, from the contemplation of the majestic or the otherwise evocative in nature (the towering crag, the thundering cataract, the ocean waves, the call of a wild goose, the peacefulness of a canoe gliding through a bayou with the water lapping gently against its side), from the contemplation of another human somehow suddenly seen as glorious, from those in whom we plainly see the love and holiness of God at work, from saints and angels and archangels, from Mary the historic and universal God-bearer, to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in Whom the Image and the Unimageable are One.”
A full discussion of mysticism in Dante’s Divine Comedy could fill volumes, but suffice it to say that Dante’s poetry offers a mystical experience to its readers, inviting them to follow Dante all the way to the beatific vision. Much more than a poet or a visionary, Dante acts as Beatrice did for him, guiding the soul to God through contemplation.
Quotes from his writings:
“The love of God, unutterable and perfect, flows into the soul the way that light rushes into a transparent object. The more love it finds, the more it gives itself; so that, as we grow clear and open, the more complete the joy of heaven is. And the more souls who resonate together, the greater the intensity of their love, and, mirror like, each soul reflects the other.”
“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crises, retained their neutrality.”
“Heat cannot be separated from fire, or beauty from the eternal.”
“The purpose of the whole (work) is to remove those who are living in this life from a state of wretchedness and lead them to the state of blessedness.”
“Nature is the art of God.”
“There is no greater sorrow than to be mindful of the happy time in misery.”
“Follow your own star!”
“O conscience, upright and stainless, how bitter a sting to thee is a little fault!”
“Consider your breed; you were not made to live like beasts, but to follow virtue and knowledge.”
“Worldly fame is but a breath of wind that blows now this way, and now that, and changes name as it changes direction.”
“Remember tonight, for it is the beginning of always.”
“Beauty awakens the soul to act.”
“From a little spark may burst a flame.”
“The secret of getting things done is to act.”
“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.”
“If the present world go astray, the cause is in you, in you it is to be sought.”
“Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.”
“Art, as far as it is able, follows nature, as a pupil imitates his master; thus your art must be, as it were, God’s grandchild.”
“Love moves the sun and the other stars.”
“We climbed up until I finally saw through a round opening the beauteous things which Heaven holds. And there we came out to see, once more, the stars.”
“The more a thing is perfect, the more if feels pleasure and pain.”
“O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?”
“The man who lies asleep will never waken fame, and his desire and all his life drift past him like a dream, and the traces of his memory fade from time like smoke in air, or ripples on a stream.”
“The day that man allows true love to appear, those things which are well made will fall into confusion and will overturn everything we believe to be right and true.”
“I did not die, and yet I lost life’s breath.”
“Be as a tower, that, firmly set, shakes not its top for any blast that blows!”
“Thus it was up to God, to Him alone
in His own ways – by one or both, I say –
to give man back his whole life and perfection.
But since a deed done is more prized the more
it manifests within itself the mark
of the loving heart and goodness of the doer,
the Everlasting Love, whose seal is plain
on all the wax of the world was pleased to move
in all His ways to raise you up again.
There was not, nor will be, from the first day
to the last night, an act so glorious
and so magnificent, on either way.
For God, in giving Himself that man might be
able to raise himself, gave even more
than if he had forgiven him in mercy.
All other means would have been short, I say,
of perfect justice, but that God’s own Son
humbled Himself to take on mortal clay.”
“Salvation must grow out of understanding, total understanding can follow only from total experience, and experience must be won by the laborious discipline of shaping one’s absolute attention.”
“That precious fruit which all men eagerly go searching for on many different boughs will give, today, peace to your hungry soul.”