Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

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Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

Botticelli's Dante and Beatrice

Botticelli’s Dante and Beatrice

I’ve been so close for so long to finally finishing John Sinclair’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (it’s only taken me thirty years to get this far) that I thought to aim to finish at the end of 2014 might be an incentive. So I’ve been reading a couple of Cantos a day to try and get it done. I’d read Dorothy L Sayers’ translation in my twenties and loved it, then started on this version, in the (forlorn) hope that I’d learn Italian at the same time, as Sinclair’s translation lies next to the original text. I whizzed through the Inferno, then went a bit more slowly through the Purgatorio, and then ground to a halt on the Paradiso around 1992. No doubt life on this earth took over. I can remember going to a display of Botticelli’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy at, I think, the Royal Academy in the late 90s. The first room was full of luridly coloured drawings of Hell and its inhabitants and the room itself was hot and heaving with people. There were about half the number of people in the next room, devoted to the drawings of Purgatory. These illustrations were less highly coloured and more unfinished than those in the previous room. We then battled our way to the room devoted to Paradise to find that it was cool and serene with hardly anyone there – a very useful sermon or blog illustration in itself.

That of course was not Dante’s experience. In his story there were continual challenges to his vocabulary to describe just how many saved souls and angels he was seeing at the final stage, how many living examples of those kept alive by God’s grace – if he had known the word “gazzillions” he would probably have used it, since he was so fond of the vernacular. He is also finding it hard to describe the increasing beauty and holiness of the sights and sounds and is frequently blinded by the light as he gets closer to God. For many years I had a poster from the exhibition above my desks at home and at work – of Botticelli’s drawing of Dante next to Beatrice in mid-air, surrounded by the flames of the apostles and saints, with God just out of sight at the top of the picture. Dante has his hand up to his eyes as if he can’t take any more, even though Beatrice, his love, is pointing higher. Dante, even now, needs healing and his eyes strengthening if he is to see more.

Today I was as far as Canto XXX of the XXXIII. And it’s happened again! Dante again is overwhelmed by what he’s seeing: “Like sudden lightening that scatters the visual spirits and deprives the eye of the action of the clearest objects, a vivid light shone round about me and left me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence that nothing was visible to me.” [1]. Dante is using the language of St Paul’s experience of the divine light on the road to Damascus that left him blinded for 3 days [2]. But for Dante help is virtually instant: “…I was conscious of rising beyond my own powers, and such new vision was kindled in me that there is no light so bright my eyes would not have borne it. And I saw light in the form of a river pouring in its splendour between two banks…”

He sees angels like “living sparks” and the saved souls as jewel-like flowers set in gold that kept plunging into the water, as if drunk with wonderful smells, and laughing. Dante is instructed to drink of this water too so that he can see what’s actually going on, and when he does he no longer sees mere sparks and flowers but these changed into “a greater festival, so that I saw both the courts of heaven made plain.” [3].

This whole process of needing to be acclimatized before one can receive the beatific vision reminded me of the end of C S Lewis’ children’s novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is probably what Lewis intended. How great, to sneak Dante into a kid’s book! As Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, King Caspian, Reepicheep and the others are at the final point of sailing to the end of the known Narnian world, they too need to drink the now sweet water in order to be acclimatized to the staggeringly intense light that is the prelude to meeting with Aslan at the edge of the world and the beginning of Aslan’s own country. They too are about to see their hearts’ desire and need to be made strong enough to bear it.

Reepicheep is the first to hurl himself overboard and drink the water, which he says is like “drinkable light”:

“And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were silent. They felt almost too well and too strong to bear it…” [4].

They now notice that they are reacting differently to the light which had been getting stronger around them everyday since Ramandu’s Island. “Now, the light grew no less – if anything, it increased – but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before…” [5]. The sweet water of “that last sea” makes the older ones on the voyage feel younger and fills everyone with joy and excitement and… stillness. It even enables them to see past the sun, beyond the End of the World and into Aslan’s Country – sights and smells and sounds that would break your heart with longing [6]. We know this because of one of the most extraordinary things in the whole of the Narnia Chronicles, that is, that Lucy herself spoke to C S Lewis and told him about it! He must have been curious, we assume, at her saying this most wonderful sight could break your heart. “ “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.”[7] But she does not elaborate further, and neither does Lewis, with the obvious implication that the experience is beyond words and we are in the realm of the apophatic. We are often treated to Lewis speaking to us as the author in his children’s stories but this is the only place where he tells us one of the characters has spoken to him and he is giving us their first-hand account, as if Lucy is a real person. It is as if Lucy (whose name means ‘light’) is Lewis’ Beatrice, telling him the glories of the heaven that he has not yet seen, the communicator of the ultimate sehnsucht.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to be reminded of Lewis by this Canto of Dante. John Sinclair back in 1939, before the Narnia Chronicles were written, wrote in the commentary on his translation of Canto XXX:

“From such vision springs the love of true good, and from such love joy surpassing every sweetness. (The suggestion of Mr. C. S. Lewis, made in another connection, is relevant here: ‘The joys of heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste.’)” [8].

Once Dante’s sight is strengthened, everything changes from mere “shadowy forecasts” to “their truth”. And Sinclair quotes Aquinas to support this, that “grace and glory are the same in kind, since grace is nothing but a certain beginning of glory in us.” Wow!! That God’s grace working in us now is the same ‘thing’ as his glory revealed to and in us later – what an amazing thought! And Sinclair adds that this section is Dante’s version of what is referred to in the 36th Psalm: ‘Thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light we shall see light.”

What a great end to Dante’s great work – and my own year – anticipating the soul’s final enlightenment. And huge thanks too to Lewis for writing about this in a form children can understand – who, like me, might take another thirty or more years to get round to Dante – his characters literally acquiring the taste for heaven.

Come to think of it, my eyes have been very sore recently and sensitive to light. Mmm, now where is that sweet water…?


[1] John Sinclair (trans.), The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, with translation and Commentary by John D Sinclair, III, Paradiso, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1939/1961, Canto XXX, lines 46-51.

[2] Acts 9:9.

[3] ibid., lines 94-96.

[4] C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, HarperCollins, London, 2002 edn, p174.

[5] ibid., p175.

[6] ibid., p185.

[7] ibid.

[8] Sinclair, ibid., p442. This is a quote from Lewis’ 1940 book The Problem of Pain, so presumably Sinclair added this quote in the later edition of his translation.