Our own life’s journey, like Dante’s, is fraught with temptations and trials. We modern pilgrims should exercise the gifts of free will, reason, and a capacity for love in such a way that our choices lead us ever closer to the source of all Love and away from those occasions, near or far, that would take us away from Him.

Unfortunately for many Catholics and other Christians, poetry is not a form of literature they readily turn to. I say “unfortunately” because with just a little effort and time, it can provide both pleasure and knowledge in spades. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a perfect case in point. Not only does it offer many delights—wonderful stories, fascinating characters, high drama, and so on—but it also instructs as it goes along, historically, morally, theologically. Besides these things, it is a rich source for spiritual reflection. One passage from one canto of one section of the poem will nicely illustrate what I mean.[1]

The fifth Canto of the Inferno, with its true story of Paolo and Francesca, is easily one of the most delightful and instructive in all of Dante’s great work. It can be read variously as a commentary on erotic love, married and illicit; as a lovely, minor masterpiece of storytelling and drama; and as a vital learning experience for Dante the pilgrim whose compassion for the lovers temporarily overwhelms him. It is all of these and more.

The focus I want to put upon it here, however, is as a cautionary tale illustrating the problem of the near occasion of sin, that is, a situation which can all too easily lead one past temptation into serious error. In one common Act of Contrition found in many Catholic prayer books, the penitent resolves “to sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin.” The Church in her wisdom knows that we have a better chance of avoiding sin if we preemptively steer clear of those close occasions. Experiencing temptation, as we all do from time to time, is not a sin. But as a simple matter of prudence, it is better not to put oneself in its way.

The story of Paolo and Francesca—she is married to Paolo’s brother—is an exemplary case of two lovers who put themselves in the way of temptation with at least partially predictable results. Dante meets the pair in Canto V, along with other lovers whose lives also had unfortunate outcomes: Dido, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy are among them. But it is these two “weary souls” (l. 80), contemporary Italians, in whom Dante as both pilgrim and poet takes a special interest. He begins by likening them to two doves called by desire and carried forward by their will (ll. 82-84). Francesca herself then alludes briefly to the courtly love tradition (in which Dante had earlier written). She notes how quickly love can set fire to a gentle heart (l. 100); by way of emphasis she adds, it is such “Love, which allows no loved one not to love” (l. 103). But her follow-up statement is quite jarring: “Love led us to one death” (l. 106).[2]

What should not escape notice, too, is that, in spite of the consequences of their affair and the circumstance in which she and her lover now find themselves, she appears to take no responsibility for her—their—actions. Those actions, of course, led to her jealous husband discovering them and subsequently murdering them. To her mind, the cause was Love alone—that and the book from which they read.

When Dante the pilgrim asks her what led initially to the affair, she identifies “the first root” as their perusal of the enticing story of the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. As the Italian lovers read it, each caught the other’s glance, and the tale told how Guinevere’s smile led in turn to Lancelot’s kiss, which she and Paolo themselves then reenacted. It was that “one point alone” (the kiss) that brought them to ruin: “[Paolo] trembled to place his lips upon my mouth… That day we did not read another page” (ll. 136, 138). Step by step they had passed the point of no return, which is precisely what happens when one fails to recognize the peril inherent in the near occasion. The first step leads to the second, then to a third, and so on in a slippery series.

Her failure to recognize such risks, along with her refusal to own their joint responsibility, is emphasized in a concluding remark: “A panderer was that author, and his book!” (l. 137). Not the two lovers being in the same place at the same time with her husband absent, not their choosing to read an inciting love story—only the book itself brought about their adultery, its discovery, and their subsequent violent death. Human willfulness can indeed confect whatever version of reality it wants.

As many commentators have cautioned, Dante the pilgrim’s clear sympathy for the lovers and his fainting at the end of their story might mislead us into thinking that Dante the poet is equally sympathetic. After all, he depicts far worse sins and sinners elsewhere in the Inferno: traitors, counterfeiters, and sowers of discord. And the lovers’ case does pull hard on the heartstrings. But finally we do have to make a distinction between Dante as pilgrim and as poet. It is after all the latter who places the lovers in hell. (Dante the pilgrim is still undergoing illumination and finding his way.) Or to put the point more accurately, it is they who place themselves there.

Based on what Francesca has said, it’s clear that their punishment is simply a matter of receiving in full that which they so ardently had sought, a union of bodies bound by desire with no regard for vow or reason. For Francesca, Paolo is a “man, whom nothing will divide from me” (l. 135), she exclaims. Indeed. Put otherwise, hell is simply the eternal condition of receiving a version of what you think you most truly want. However, as the professor Anthony Esolen observes, love is not, theologically speaking, possible in hell.[3] What Paolo and Francesca are tragically left with is a dreadful simulacrum. Paradoxically, erotic passion—which led in their case to death and damnation—is most perfectly enjoyed when embedded in the permanent covenant of married love.

Our own life’s journey, like Dante’s, is fraught with temptations and trials large, small, and in-between. It only makes sense then that, given the gifts of free will, reason, and a capacity for love, we modern pilgrims exercise them in such a way that our choices lead us ever closer to the source of all Love and away from those occasions, near or far, that would take us away from Him. We could do far worse than to take Dante’s poem as one guide along the way.

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[1] Scripture itself is, of course, replete with poetry and other forms of great literature. This is true to such an extent, I would argue, that one can scarcely escape it even if he or she so desired. The obvious instances include the Psalms, the Song of Solomon, the Book of Job, and so on. But poetry lurks elsewhere, too—in historical and prophetic books, in the four Gospels, the letters of Paul—and often appears without a moment’s notice. The translation of Dante cited here is that of Anthony Esolen, The Inferno (New York: Modern Library, 2003).

[2] See La vita nuova, 20, for a representative sonnet by Dante. While Francesca articulates a sentiment taken directly from Andrea Campellanus’s Treatise on Love, the same work rejects acts of erotic love outside the married state (Esolen, Inferno, Notes, 422).

[3] Ibid.

The featured image is “Dante and Virgil with Paolo and Francesca” (c. 1835) by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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