Dante's Inferno, a vision of romantic love

Georgene Rice interviews Jim Ware, who along with Kurt Bruner, co-authored the book The Purpose of Passion, Dante’s epic vision of romantic love. The authors explore the secrets of the Divine Comedy and what it reveals about passion, romance, spirituality, and how they are all connected. Men and women will learn how to give and receive love in a way that will enrich their lives to fulfill the purposes of God.

Georgene: This is an interesting pairing, God’s Love with Dante’s Inferno. It is a rather interesting source to draw the insight for the book.

Jim: Dante’s work is not easy reading but it is rich in Christian imagery and deep wisdom for the Christian life. I think we don’t often associate the work with romance because the best known portion of the book is the first third which deals with the inferno, Dante’s journey down through hell.  But that’s not really where the story begins. It begins with a book Dante wrote before the Divine Comedy, La Vita Nuova (The New Life). In that book, Dante talks about falling in love with a girl, Beatrice. It is the same Beatrice in The Divine Comedy when Dante finds himself lost in a deep wood. She sends for him from heaven and becomes his guide into the presence of God himself.

The Divine Comedy is really about being lifted out of yourself by your desire to be united with another person. That person becomes your pathway to devotion to God.

Georgene:  Some would say that the title ” the purpose of passion” would be better titled “the perils of passion” by those who have found romantic love something of a challenge. Why is it important for us to think of this thing God has given us as a gift, something  with fuller meaning than our culture would suggest?

Jim: The perils are there, but the perils are there because the purpose is so great.  Kurt begins his Introduction to the book with a quote that is significant. That is, “if we want to know what is most sacred in this world all we need to do is look for what is most violently profane”. We can see in our culture that love between the sexes has been violently profane. That is because, on the other side of the coin, it is such a great gift. It is a way, in fact, that we can move toward a relationship with God. We have lost that in a lot of ways in our culture. Even though it is such a popular theme in films and fiction, I don’t know whether we really know what romance is any more. We have kind of a twisted picture of it.

Georgene:  In fact, romance is something different from physical love. People often confuse the two. What you are writing about is romantic love, which is much fuller than we might imagine.

Jim: There is an interesting detail of the story, where Dante first sees Beatrice. This vision of a beautiful girl overwhelms him. He hears a voice saying, “Now your bliss has come.” But, Dante is only nine years old and she is only eight. I think that is an important part of the story. We can all remember what it was like when we were very young and someone captivated our attention. We weren’t old enough to know what the sexual side of love is about, yet we still had that potential to fall in love. It is a deeper, more profound, meaning than a sexual experience. That is what Dante explores in The Divine Comedy–what does that experience say about my humanity and my ultimate destiny?

Georgene: You make some strong statements about the connection between romantic passion and the Gospel.  I don’t think many people make that connection.

Jim: In the book, Dante’s guide is the Roman poet Virgil, when they are half way up Mount Purgatory they stop and have a dialogue. It is at that strategic point that Virgil tells Dante why Amore’ (love) is so important. He says it is absolutely essential to everything.  It is the fountainhead to which all of our actions, good and evil, can be traced because human beings are designed to function as seekers. Men and women, made in God’s image, are meant to lead their lives in search of a true and genuine Other, someone to complete the partialness of their existence. Love is the power that drives us out of ourselves to find that completion. That is the connection with the New Testament that says we can find that fulfillment with God, through Christ.

Georgene: Even those who may be single can find that fulfillment through that relationship with Christ.

Jim: What you are saying is absolutely central to Dante’s message. What our book is about is showing how this vision of romantic love becomes an icon, a reminder of devotion that helps you picture what God is like and direct your thoughts upward. This love that we experience for another person is just a signpost, an image, and a pathway of devotion to God himself.  Romance is something bigger than what it seems to be. It is something that points us to God.

Georgene: The Divine Comedy is a classic that has been appreciated for many, many years, yet you bring out an element that has not been understood.  There are references in Scripture to the “marriage of the lamb” and the “bride of Christ”. This imagery is sometimes difficult to think about in terms of our relationship with Christ. The language the Scripture uses points to the very thing that you are describing and what Dante wrote about.

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