How Dante Draws Us Deeper Into Lent
Beauty: it’s all around us. Subtle, simple, sometimes muted. Obvious, explosive, grandiose, often louder-than-life. We all love beautiful things. In fact, we’re captivated by them—the dome on a particularly sunny day, the Basilica’s stained-glass windows, a friend’s smile after a long day, or a sunset over the lake.
But what does all of this mean? What is this inexorable pull beauty exerts on the human heart? Isn’t beauty somewhat superficial? Only skin-deep? Just a nice exterior masquerading…what?
The real question, I think, is what does beauty reveal? What does it mean for my life? For our lives?
Well, dear reader, I have two words for you: Dante and Lent. Hear me out.
You’re doubtless familiar, if only faintly, with Dante and his Divine Comedy—three works detailing Dante’s journey through the afterlife (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, in that order). The Roman poet Virgil (of Aeneid fame) leads Dante through hell and purgatory in epic buddy-poet fashion. In the highest realm of purgatory, however, Virgil hands Dante off to Beatrice, who will guide him through heaven. Beatrice is none other than Dante’s beloved, his muse, who died and has lived since in the glory of eternal life. She guides him through the end of Purgatorio and Paradiso, and Dante is infatuated. Beatrice is stunningly beautiful and lovingly leads Dante higher and higher into heaven.
Throughout the end of Purgatorio, Beatrice’s beauty completely overwhelms Dante and he essentially falls in love with her all over again. It’s very sweet—but it’s also meaningful. I’ll get there in a minute.
Let’s tackle that second word—Lent. Ah yes, the season of ashes, McDonald’s fish sandwiches, and giving up dessert. Well, kind of. Let’s go with the season of preparation, repentance, and asceticism. In Lent, we’re invited to pray, fast, and give alms so as to prepare our hearts for Easter joy. We seek to purify our hearts so as to better receive and love Christ.
And this is where Dante and Lent coincide. The souls in Dante’s Purgatorio continually seek purification from their sins and shortcomings, and this purification comes in the form of prayer, of sacrifice, and of a communal life of faith, hope, and love. Like Lent, purgatory is a period of preparation. And, like Lent, purgatory promises the joy of the resurrection.
But let’s not forget about beauty. Dante emphasizes Beatrice’s beauty in Purgatorio because she leads him closer to God. Her external beauty captivates Dante, but she’s not superficially beautiful—she’s fully beautiful. During her life, Beatrice drew Dante towards God. She explains, “I led him with me toward the way of righteousness” (Canto XXX, ll. 122-3). Ultimately, his pursuit of her radiant beauty (which, to be clear, is the beauty of God’s eternal life) leads Dante to God—the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth.
As we begin this Lenten journey, let’s be attentive to the role beauty plays in the conversion of our hearts. Dante would suggest it’s the role of the leading lady, and I think he might be right. We are called to live good and true lives, but also beautiful ones, in a true, rich, and full way. A beautiful life consists not of aesthetic color palettes and a stylish wardrobe and a glamorous instagram profile; look instead to the examples of Mary, St. Mother Teresa, St. Joseph, Pope St. John Paul II––all those holy men and women who have attained that beautiful beatific vision. They can—and will—help us on the pilgrimage towards eternal life.
As we begin this Lent, we’re called to change the world, to mend its broken seams, and to serve as avenues of divine healing. We’re called to remind the world that we are made for fullness and abundance of life. But let’s not forget Dante’s Beatrice. Let’s not forget the joy to be found in the beauty of creation and the beauty of another. In our evangelization and in our daily lives, while we’re focusing on the good and the true, let’s not forget the beautiful.
Mary Frances Myler is a sophomore in the Program of Liberal Studies with a minor in theology. Her preferred source of natural beauty is Lake Superior, particularly at sunset. Reach out with sunset pics to firstname.lastname@example.org.