“If a lesser thing allure your love,
It is a vestige of that light which – though
imperfectly – gleams through that lesser thing.”
In Canto V Beatrice speaks to Dante as they ascend from the sphere of the moon to the sphere of Mercury. Dante is overcome in the last canto by her radiant beauty and she tells him, “I am so because of my perfected vision – as I grasp the good, so I approach the good in act.” She sees the face of God and becomes godlike. “We shall be like him [God], for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2)
This wasn’t the Beatrice Dante fell in love with on earth. There is was a much more moon-like reflection of God’s beauty. It was a “vestige” of the Divine light that first caught Dante’s attention as a young man. Dante seems to use his infatuation as a picture of all earthly beauty. All of the beauties of this earth are truly delightful, he seems to say, but only as the moon compares to the sun. If we persist to heaven we will shine like stars.
As I slowly finish the Divine Comedy I hear in passages such as this the echo of Augustine. In his On Christian Doctrine Augustine tells the story of weary travelers who take a ship to return home but become so distracted by the beautiful ports and the excitement of sea travel that they never return to their homeland. (Clearly Augustine was envisioning a cushy sort of cruise like voyage and not the Mayflower). We are, as long as we are on earth, he says, like these weary travelers. We must never be fixated on the beauty that surrounds us but we must always remember that the earthly beauty delights us exactly because it reminds us of our true home.