The Divine Comedy: Week 39, Beatrice

In the Garden of Eden, at the top of Mount Purgatory, the Pilgrim will meet the next guide in his journey, the one who will lead him upwards through Paradise.

If Vigil represented Reason, the next guide, Beatrice, will represent Faith.

The relationship between the real life Beatrice, and the one we encounter in the The Divine Comedy, is a bit of a literary mystery and puzzle. How connected are the two?

According to Dante, he only met Beatrice Portinari twice in his life. Both encounters were short and fleeting, almost impressionistic. The first encounter was when they were children. They met once more, nine years later, when they passed on the street. Hardly knowing each other, both Dante and Beatrice married different people. Beatrice died in 1290, at the age of 24. After her death, Dante would compose poems to her memory.

Dante's fascination with Beatrice is strange, to me at least. The short, fleeting nature of their meetings doesn't seem to justify the depth and intensity of Dante's feelings for her. To say nothing about the fact that Dante was married to another woman. What was going on in Dante's heart and mind?

Hard to say, really. Something like a courtly love--an idealized, pure, unconsummated, ennobling love--at first sight. What does seem clear is that there was something in Beatrice that came to symbolize for Dante the object of desire and love. And maybe their lack of contact helped create that symbolism. Beatrice became a cipher for Dante's romantic, and eventually, spiritual longings.

And perhaps that's the point, the connection between romantic love and spiritual longing. As we've seen in The Divine Comedy, God created us to be lovers. And all our loves, even Dante's courtly love for Beatrice, are drawing us and pointing us toward our ultimate desire.

And so, ten years after her death, Dante, in the literary guise of the the Pilgrim, beholds Beatrice again in the Garden of Eden. The vision that filled him with love on earth will now serve as our guide, pointing beyond herself to the Love behind all our loves.

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