Dante, Beatrice, May Day
On this date in 1274, a young Tuscan man, not quite 10, went with his father to a May Day party at the home of a neighbor, a prosperous banker. There he saw the banker’s daughter, almost nine. And, as he would later write,
At that very moment, and I speak the truth, the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that even the most minute veins of my body were strangely affected; and trembling, it spoke these words: “Here is a god stronger than I who is coming to rule over me.”
This is, of course, Dante Alighieri, and he describes the moment he met Beatrice Portinari. They did not again speak to each other until a decade or so later, when passing by accident in the streets of Florence (see above), she cut him, and it was as if she had plunged a knife into his heart. Beatrice was married to a banker, and died early, at 24. But she lived forever in Dante’s heart, and is now, thanks to his Commedia, immortal among us.
This morning I marvel over how two kids meeting at a party in Florence on this day in the 13th century had everything to do with the direction of my own life. You just never know, do you?
You can visit what is reputed to be her grave, in the tiny church between her house and Dante’s, but the truth is, she is almost certainly not interred there. She is probably in her husband’s family’s tomb in the Sante Croce church. Still, people come, and they leave private prayer requests for love in a basket by her alleged tomb. It’s a beautiful thing.
Here, from How Dante Can Save Your Life, is a recollection of the moment I met my Beatrice, on the evening of October 11, 1996:
And then I flew to Austin, Texas, one weekend to meet Frederica Mathewes-Green, a friend who was giving a speech. The Texas capital is one of my favorite towns, and I wanted to show her around. On a Friday night, Frederica gave a reading at a bookstore. There I met a University of Texas journalism undergraduate named Julie Harris. The moment I took her hand, I knew that something unusual had just happened.
“Here is a god stronger than I who is coming to rule over me,” said Dante to himself when he first saw Beatrice. That’s how it was with me when I laid eyes on Julie. Nothing like that had ever happened to me—or, as it turned out, to her.
We went to dinner that night, and out for a late coffee on Saturday. We spent Sunday together, and had our first kiss in the parking lot of Waterloo Records. Three days later, me back at my job in Florida and her in Austin, we were emailing, talking about marriage.
It was crazy. But we both knew. Four months later, after only a few weekends spent together but many, many emails and phone calls, I flew to Austin and, kneeling in a chapel in front of an icon, proposed marriage. She accepted. We drank Veuve Clicquot and ate chips and salsa. Late that same year, 1997, we married, and began our life together.
How in the world had that happened, and happened so quickly? Sure, I’m a hopeless romantic, but I am convinced that if my own heart had not been purified by those three years I spent walking through the fire, I would not have recognized that the smile of the beautiful, pure-hearted woman who was my own Beatrice, for whom I had been praying and longing for many years.
Dante, who never seems to have touched Beatrice in his life (assuming they shook hands as children), nevertheless came to see her and her beauty as a preparation for coming to love God. In fact, it was the shock of her beauty that opened the door to a new realm of his imagination. Again, from How Dante, more on the shock of beauty:
But on a coach trip through Europe as a seventeen-year-old (Mama won the vacation in a church raffle and gave it to me), a visit to the Chartres cathedral struck down my callow concept of faith.
I was going through an intense Hemingway phase at the time and was focused on getting to Paris. The guide annoyed me by scheduling a two-hour stop at Chartres, just outside Paris, to see its medieval cathedral.
Resentful, I followed the tour group inside.. The soaring towers anchoring the façade instantly dispelled my air of sullen impiety.
I saw—no, I think the word is beheld— the most wondrous thing in the world. This church was indescribably complex and harmonious; it was like stepping into the mind of God. I was overcome by the desire to worship – a feeling I had never seen adequately articulated until many years later, when I would read Dante Alighieri’s description, in his first book, Vita nuova, of the first time he, as a child, saw Beatrice.
I left the building eager to know more about the kind of religion that created temples like this, works of art that could connect people so profoundly with the transcendent that it was like taking hold of a live wire. Our group motored on to Paris, but to this day I cannot remember a single thing about that part of the trip.
The beauty of Chartres haunted me. I did not understand this at the time, but God set the hook in me inside that cathedral. It was there that I began an ambivalent quest for him, not really wanting to find him, but also unable to deny the power of that revelation. I could not explain how I knew that he existed, but I saw him and felt him and was overawed by him at Chartres.
The presence of God radiated from the Chartres cathedral so powerfully that it even pierced the dark wood into which I had retreated to escape my father, whom I loved and hated and could not quit. I knew God was there; I had experienced him in that old church. As long as I held Chartres in my imagination, there was hope.
I am about to leave Dallas to spend the entire day driving for home. I won’t be able to read and to approve comments easily. But let’s spend a good portion of this day with you readers recalling in the comments the moment you met your true love, or a moment when the shock of beauty — of a person, a building, a work of art, etc. — changed your life. Don’t make arguments; tell stories.