There are two famous sinners whirling around in a whirlwind in Dante’s Inferno. Their names are Paolo and Francesca. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, but she and Paolo had an affair, her husband caught them and killed them, and now they’re whirling around in hell together, on the level of the lustful.
And some readers over the years have condemned Dante for this, for putting lovers in hell. They’ve thought Dante is opposed to love and to spontaneity and to people being happy. But the thing about Francesca is that she only talks about herself. She’s beautiful, but she only talks about her own feelings, and she never mentions Paolo by name. She doesn’t even look at him, she’s looking away, and the eyes are key in Dante.
When in the beginning of the poem Dante’s beloved Beatrice looks down from heaven and sees he’s in trouble, wandering in the dark forest, she really sees him, really cares about him. Her eyes are focused on him. And then she sends the poet Virgil to guide Dante on this long journey and Virgil is always looking Dante in the eye and studying the expressions on his face, his eyes are always fixed on him, and that’s the image of what love really is.
Paolo and Francesca aren’t in hell because they loved each other. They’re in hell because they didn’t.
Love serves, Ruth Burrows says. When we lust, “we want to possess, dominate, devour, destroy,” she says, but “love serves,” and this is who Jesus is. Jesus is always looking at others, always giving himself away. “We are to love one another,” the letter of John says. When one day it is revealed who we shall be, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” See him. Be like him.
As Burrows puts it, “when God showed us his inmost nature, the way he is as God, he came to us in the form of a servant, and as I have done, so you must do also.” It’s the nature of the human person. To be human, we must be servants.
We must look away from ourselves and at the other. We must see the other. Fix our eyes on the other.