Dante: Poet or Mystic?
In my previous article I discussed medieval mysticism and some of the many factors surrounding its rise, including an increased literacy among lay people and the booming presence of vernacular languages in literature. 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.”1 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, the Divine Comedy 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.2
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.”3
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.”4
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.”5 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!”6 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.
A full discussion of mysticism in Dante’s Divine Comedy could fill volumes, but for now this brief discussion of mysticism in the final canto of Paradiso shall suffice. 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.
1 McGinn, Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, 181.
2 Ibid 181.
3 Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, http://www.online-literature.com/dante/paradiso/33/.
4 McGinn, 180
5 Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII.