Category Archives: Paradiso

The Ultimate Canto: Paradiso 33

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
(Ps 8:4-5).

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A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.
(Par, 33.142)

Here my powers rest from their high fantasy;
but already I could feel my being turned –
instinct and intellect balanced equally
as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars –
by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.

In the “end – that is, “In the beginning,” in the NOW, and “ultimately” in “the end,” it’s all about LOVE – all types of Love – which is really all one type – - – God’s Love.

Words fail – they fail me now much more than they ever failed the divine poet.

But it is all about LOVE.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his “Encyclical Letter, ‘Deus Caritas Est,’
to the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Men and Women Religious, and All the Lay Faithful on Christian Love:”

reflecting upon 1 Cor 15:28

“Love grows through love. Love is ‘divine’ because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all.’ “

“Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels.

In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection:
the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.
- (‘Deus Caritas Est,’) “

Fellow Pilgrims, we have arrived at Last. It has been a wonderful pilgrimage.
AGAPE


Amen. And Amen. And Hallelujah!! Thanks be to God

DEDICATED to my Brother, Paul E. Sinner


Canto 31: City, Theater, Garden, Rose

Is Paradise a rose? Or a city? A theater? Or a garden?

All. Any. None. In Canto 31, this kaleidoscopic shimmer among images is the spectacle, and spectacular it is, of a poet, and a believer, employing poetry in all its magic to do what cannot be done in human language: give us the sense and sight of Heaven.

Poetry has is mystical to begin with. It seizes on our most human tool, language, that servant and master that issues from our lungs and our throats, teeth, nose, tongue, eyes, lips, fingers, and hands, our whole bodies, twisting and standing and knotting up, and somehow it speaks what’s in our minds. Or gets somewhere near. Or at least that’s the hope. Having seized it, poetry wrings yet more out of it, freighting each sound, rhythm, and shape with so much meaning we cannot catch up, meanings we can’t even be aware of, not as writers, not as readers, not as species.

So much about language escapes us, so much about even our own individual use of it. You’d think we’d have a feeling of ownership, and we do, yet, as even a moment’s reflection tells us, no, no one really owns this though all use it. And no one uses it, to the utter horizons of possibility and beyond, like the poet, and that brings a feeling of the unspeakable, what cannot be said, a feeling, also, of truth and truthfulness ordinary language cannot approach. Poetry, like all art, gestures, in its very existence and workings, toward Being, toward One, toward the Without-Time. I’m already verging on the poetic with those phrases, but they hardly go too far. No matter what else poetry is talking about (even when the poet speaks of God’s nonexistence, ironically enough), it is also always invoking the mystic.

That’s what’s crucial about the Commedia, and especially so in its last few, glorious, triumphant Cantos. I must say, few human achievements can be as wondrously assured and successful as this last stretch of the journey. We always have been moving forward, moving upward. Dante assiduously has been keeping track of time as long as time has lasted. Yet always he is maneuvering us toward a moment when we leave time and place, when our habit, indeed our error (itself redolent of the Fall) of distinguishing the then from the now, must fall away. Remember Canto XXIX, when Beatrice gets cross about the way we’re always going after appearances, and tells us we’re wrong, just wrong? We need appearances and can’t get along without them, but our reflexes of definition, analysis and synthesis, cubbyholing existence, the hot mind chugging away all it can, actually constitute a kind of lie. The bed is unmade, so we make the bed, but again the bed is unmade. We assume we are deathless and ever-right when we are blind and mortal. (“You say, ‘I am rich, and have put up great wealth, and am in need of nothing,’ and you do not know you are wretched, destitute, poor, blind, and naked.”) Dante reminds us, Beatrice and all the guides remind us, that what we’re trying to do we cannot actually do.

And so is Dante. And in the final Canto, he’ll let us know he failed, that he has to fail, being human. Meantime, to write poetry is trasumanare, either really to transcend our humanness, or to feel as if we have. Even if that were all poetry did, it’d be pretty good. But Dante wants it to lead to real transcendence.
My bold, slashing suggestion for this, my final log-in after three years of Dante with my beloved brethren, is: Dante believed poetry could actually get us there, get us to a direct experience of the divine, maneuver our spirits to the intersection of flesh and spirit that is the Incarnation. He definitely believed it could help us transcend our limits. The entire Commedia is based on that faith, and I think you’d have to say, after almost 700 years, it is doing a very good job. But in doing that job, Dante’s after the biggest moving project of all: to move us, as readers, into mystical contact with God.

So maybe transcending the human is essentially mystical. And writing poetry that seeks that transcendence is a mystical act. I’m going to swim up that waterfall as we proceed.
Dante, for the previous few Cantos, has been battering us with metaphors for Heaven. He’s trying to shift us into a mode of consciousness such that all his metaphors – the Theater, in which all of Heaven is arrayed as a whole before us, as on a stage; the Garden, a joyous, fertile, light-saturated region of eternal growth, union, and color; the City, that is, the New Jerusalem, the society of saints, angels, and Trinity, ordered in Divine Reason, reflecting (but also embodying) the goodness of eternal community; and the divine Flower, the white rose spirits in constant, ecstatic, eternal praise, infloresced around the integral, radiating Center – are not different ways of saying the same thing, but are, mystically and mysteriously, one thing, as the Trinty are One and One is Three. All the metaphors call on us to take on a total mental view of the vast, cosmic tapestry of Paradise, to see it as a whole. And . . . then . . . to collapse our notions of part and whole, and realize that Part and Whole are One. Dante is not different from Paradise and Paradise not different from Creation. Dante’s imagination shifts among these registers not as alternatives or parts but as constant, equal, interequilibrating, total truths. And if you can let your mind do what he’s urging it to do, you feel an expansion of the fabric of thought, a rising, an intimation of an impossible state we glimpse and perhaps, for an eye-blink, see.

My God, is it beautiful.

In the form of a white-hot Rose
The holy host showed itself to me
Which Christ through his blood had made his bride.

So the milizia, the “host” or (in a metaphoric way, military) ranks of Heaven, the assembled orders in limitless, spaceless eternity, show themselves to Dante, and we’re told that this host was made a bride through Christ’s sacrifice. That’s the basic teaching of the Harrowing of Hell, that Christ as God suffered mortal pain and death, thereby freeing the billions from their intermediary state and into Heaven. We recall, too, that the Church is also called the Bride of Christ, and as we’re told on many Sunday’s, also betrothed through that blood sacrifice. The blizzard of various yet unitary metaphors rains down: the stupefying candor of the white rose, the military, the wedding, the blood sacrifice. All of this feeds into the machinery of theater/garden/city/flower, a continuum, not a chain of separable visions. We may find the addition of violence disconcerting, but it fits. There is blood, there is punishment – and there is victory. And here you see it, in its singleness, all around you.

And now, if we can even bear it, we read:

But the other host, that flying, sees and sings
The glory of Him who enamors it,
And the goodness of Him that created it so wondrous,
As a swarm of bees that inflowers itself
One second and another returns
There where its labor adds sweetness,
Sank into the Great flower that adorns itself
With so many leaves, then rose again
There, where its love always sojourns.
All of them had faces of living flame
And golden wings, and the rest such a white
That no snow ever attains to that extreme.
When they let down into the Flower, from bank to bank
They carried something of the peace and ardor
They gained by fanning their flanks.
Nor did the interposing between the Flower
And what hovered over it
Of such a flying multitude
Impede the view or the splendor:
For the divine Light penetrates
Throughout the universe according to its merits
Such that nothing can stand obstacle to it.

Ravishing, and (for me) seductive, but also, in its constant process of metaphorization, of bringing each new way-of-seeing-one-thing-as-another into the whole, further expanding the aperture. The heavenly hosts either celebrate the Rose or fly into and out of it. Yet they never obscure the view of it, for they are of it and are not separable from it. Heaven is where Praise is at one with the Praised. The Light pervades and runs through all things, according to the degree to which those things merit the Light. Nor is the Light to be thought of as something that can be considered separate from the universe or the things the universe contains. The Light is the condition of the universe’s being. As is Praise of the light. Pure verb.

In this overpowering vision, we almost forget there’s a speaker, or that there has been a series of guides, or Beatrice. But Dante is moving us gently to the moment when we must let go even of her. We might feel sad, since she has been such a central fulcrum of all that’s gone on since Inferno: Through her we’ve been led out of the savage Abyss, through the grey regions of the Great Waiting, and now into this, the Empyrean.

Beatrice is our way to God, but is not God. She is our Lady, but she is not Our Lady. And Dante has come to the point at which he must relinquish his dynamo, his mirror and conduit of love and divinity, the human love that drove his poetry and drove him to the Divine. Why? Because now she is with Divinity, and he can see but not go there. And, despite the powers of his unexampled (and it is) poetry, he will fail, in the end, to say what he saw, even though what he says may bring us to that What.

Wow. Wow:

I, that had come from the human to the divine,
From Time to the Eternal,
From Florence to a just and whole Community,
Into what a stupor must I have been thrown!
Truly, between this and the Joy
I was pleased not to hear and to stay mute. . .
Passenger through the living Light
I passed my eyes over all the variegations
Now up, now down, now circling round.
I saw faces of persuasive charity
Empowered by the Light and His Smile
In attitudes adorned by all graces.
My regard already had gathered in
The general sweep of Paradise
No aspect staying fixed or closed
And I turned around me with the renewed wish
To ask my lady of things
About which my mind was in suspense.

Can we stand it, I wonder? Who else could have the towering, powerful, triumphant gust to write, or to have a character claim that “My regard already had gathered in / the general sweep of Paradise?” No aspect stays fixed or closed: Heaven always moves, ever takes the shape of music and song and praise. No sense of separability, of Time, of change. It is not change as we know it but a necessary, joyous movement, growth, and fructification. And persuasion: Who can resist those “faces of persuasive charity”? How could you resist Charity, when Heaven shows what Charity does?

But then he looks for Beatrice, as he’s done throughout the poem. And she is no longer at his side. She is seated, her crown reflecting the One, at the Third Level, below Christ and the real Queen of Heaven, Mary. When Bernard of Clairvaux appears as Dante-pilgrim’s final guide, he directs him to see her, who is both infinitely far from him, and not separated at all:

No mortal eye is so far removed
From the region in which the on-high thunders
Or no matter how deep the sea sinking
As my view was from Beatrice,
But I was not dismayed, because her image
Did not reach down to me through any obscuring medium.

Dante joyfully acknowledges his far remove from Beatrice, but it is a remove of ontology, of intrinsic degree of relation to the Divine, not a remove of physical distance. No mediation in Heaven. Ranks and realms and differing relations, but nothing separate. There is no place. Beatrice is sharp and clear, and acknowledging the differing realms is but, once again, to Praise. In fact, all verbs in Heaven are one verb, Praise.
Dante utters an absolutely gorgeous poem of thanks to his Beatrice, and asks for her continued grace, and then Bernard directs him to see Mary. And, if Dante was amazed before, he is now stupefied by the sight on which all are focused.

I saw smile there . . .
A beauty, a gladness
Such as was in the eyes of all the other saints.
And if I had as much skill in speaking
As in imagining, I wouldn’t dare
To try the smallest part of it.

This announces that language, from here on in, fails. Once Beatrice leaves us, so does the power of language to explain, to present, to mediate. Dante-pilgrim lets us know that the Commedia has given us the sweep of Heaven, the one view of the One . . . and has moved us past words, time, place. We are at the end of the poem and the end of Time. What we see in the next Canto is the unity of all things.

The Commedia has been nothing but language. But language is never nothing but language. Language can move people, change them, bring them new places. Imagination is body as well as mind. Where language takes us, all of us go. Whether Dante wishes us to be absolutely literal-minded, or whether he is conjuring with the ineffable through utterance, courting an inevitably failed enterprise (as he himself just told us!), as of Canto 31, we’re transported into a realm of ecstasy, where all moves, and where movement makes a whole, a drama, a city, a host, a sacrifice, a garden (without walls!), a Flower. We move, but not from place to place. We move as praise and joy and justice move. That Holy Stasis invoked at the end of Paradiso is an ever-growing, ever-sweetening, ever-burgeoning realization of perfection, endless and endlessly unfolding. It is the reality beyond speech to which poetry, all art, all thought, all our ultimate best, ever gesture. As Dante-pilgrim tells us, we’re always there already. Our desire, and our wish to be good, to be with the good, to be of God and with God, happens all the time, continually furnishes us with intimations and glimpses of the Unity within and through all things, so finely pervaded throughout that, although we use terms such as “hidden” and “elusive,” perhaps we really should use terms such as “superpresent” and “superfamiliar” and “supraverbal.” The fire and the rose are one.

Ah, Lent, you are long. But it is spring, and it is a good thing to reflect on our distance yet to travel and how far we have come. Those of us (I’m one) who think we’re always already there don’t think that solves everything. When infinity separates, you can’t span the gulch — except by spanning it. The somber reality of Lent, that we are flesh and make mistakes and keep making them, that our physical destination is as humble and dirty as our origins, can merge with the joy that precedes Lent (that of Christmas) and the unworded ecstasy in which it ends, that of Easter. But we can’t get to Easter unless we minister to the Easter within, let it guide us to the Easter up, down, all round. It’s a journey outside of time and across much other than space. We cannot possibly traverse it, except by traversing it. Dante has shown us.

Thanks, Jeff, for letting me be part of this. And my other brothers and sisters in this beautiful task.


Paradiso Canto 30: The (Penultimate) Crescendo

My sight lost not itself in the breadth and in the height, but took in all the extend and quality of that joy. There, near and far neither add not take away, for where God governs without intermediary, the law of nature in no way prevails.” (XXX, 120-123).

We meet in the Empyrean Dante’s trinity: the impenetrable light of the intellect, the love of the will and the joy of fulfilled desire. So too the “soldiery of Paradise”—the otherwise un-imaginable glorified bodies of believers (you remember, no doubt, the poet’s request in XXII, “assure me if I am capable of receiving so great a grace, that I may behold you in your uncovered shape”). Dante’s request now fulfilled, Heaven is borne open, and the resurrection of the body and life everlasting unfold like a morning rose before his eyes. Neither time nor space obscures his vision. The particular is subsumed by the eternal. Neither gravity nor the laws of physics govern this body. God’s love flows horizontally like a river and vertically like a beam of light. Indeed, it is only the unmediated, direct will of God, whose grace extends to such great depths that joy is experienced as a physical reality—joy takes on breadth, height, width and quality, that governs this place.

“Thou has created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it find repose in thee”, writes Augustine. Wide-eyed Dante stumbles across that point in space-time where souls are quieted in eternal peaceful awe, “A light there above which makes the Creator  visible to ever creature that has his peace only in beholding him.” God is beheld and the elect are fulfilled.

Dante sees only a few seats remaining, such a wicked age is his (and ours), but God’s amphitheater, it seems to me, will always be adding more seats and growing the circumfrunece of the bloom, for God’s is an outward-working, ever-growing, ever-inviting love, a kind of love that overflows with the finest vintage a man can imagine.


Paradiso Canto 29: A Notebook

by Jake Willard-Crist

As I was reading about the poet-pilgrim gazing at the ranks of angels, and listening to Beatrice explain the order and simultaneity of Creation, I thought of the poem “Oysters” by Seamus Heaney.  It begins:

 

Our shells clacked on the plates.

My tongue was a filling estuary,

My palate hung with starlight:

As I tasted the salty Pleiades

Orion dipped his foot into the water.

 

In a moment of sensual excess, the poet tastes the heavens.  His mouth becomes a microcosmos, containing estuary and starry sky.  But in the following stanza the poet’s conscience intervenes and the pleasure of eating dissolves:

 

Alive and violated

They lay on their beds of ice:

Bivalves: the split bulb

And philandering sigh of ocean.

Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

 

Violence and rapine curb the hedonistic instant.  But not for long, as the poet recalls the pleasant, hopeful motive for traveling to the shore with friends.

 

We had driven to that coast

Through flowers and limestone

And there we were, toasting friendship,

Laying down a perfect memory

In the cool of thatch and crockery.

 

With one more turn of guilt the poet recalls how the ancient Romans looted this particular shore of oysters.  And, by extension, his attempt at a perfect memory is spoiled by the thought of all those ripped and shucked by the appetites of Empire (and the affluent):

 

Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,

The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:

I saw damp panniers disgorge

The frond-lipped, brine-stung

Glut of privilege

 

He continues into the final stanza:

 

And was angry that my trust could not repose

In the clear light, like poetry or freedom

Leaning in from the sea.  I ate the day

Deliberately, that its tang

Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

 

Unable to find ease in the convivial meal or slip wholeheartedly into bitter renunciation, the poet’s feeling resolves into a productive admixture of anger and deliberation.

 

I’ve given the whole poem, but it was the final stanza, particularly the final sentence, that ran through my head as I read this canto.  (And thank God, unlike the angels, I have this divided mind that thinks in tangents and veers off focus to recall fantastic poems like this.)  Why?

 

In a single shot of a three-stringed bow, Beatrice tells the pilgrim, God flung forth 1) the pure essence of the angels, 2) the pure matter of the earthly elements and creaturely life, and 3) humankind, that strange concoction of both, a porridge of light and mud (lines 22-24).  The angels lovingly ring around the divine One as “pure act”, while humans hold the “lowest ground” in “pure potential” (33-34).

 

What catches me in Heaney’s poem is that final tentative hope that one might, through a deliberate act, a deliberate art, achieve the angelic state of “pure verb”.  Here verb is a noun as it is for the poet who watches the brilliant celestial ranks.  We live in a violent muddle of essence and matter, where the least of us are shucked and scattered and the privileged glut on delicacies in their shoreline villas.  Beatrice rails on about the earthly preachers playing to crowds, with swelling heads, concerned only for their reputations and not the truths they put forth.  Even the supposed holy are corrupted.  Just like for Heaney even the ocean is a philanderer.  So how can we have that “perfect memory”?  We aren’t the un-remembering angels.

 

Aspiration, then.  And hope.  Our earthbound trust finds no definitive transcendent rest.  We have only the dark-wood business of deliberation.  Isn’t that what the Commedia has been about?  How it began?  To eat the day deliberately, like the speaker in Heaney’s poem, is to acknowledge, with trepidation, that there’s no unshaky repose for trust, only a feeble shuffling along the path, and we have only imperfect memories.  But it’s still a matter of taking a bite, slurping the complicated oyster down.  Let’s remember that as we break the paschal bread.

 

 

 

 

 


Paradiso Canto 28: Chess, Angels and Order: “THE METAPHORICAL MATHEMATICS of HEAVEN”

…As I recall, did I first stare
into the heaven of those precious eyes
in which, o trap me, Love had set his snare;

then turned, and turning felt my senses reel
as my own were struck by what shines in that heaven
when we look closely at its turning wheel.

I saw a Point of light
Of such intensity that the eye it strikes
Must close or ever after lose its sight.
- Para XXVIII, 10-18

There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat,
from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony,
I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment
for the people of Israel.

- Exodus 25: 22 (ESV)

But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock,
and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock,
and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.
Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back,
but my face shall not be seen.”

- Exodus 33:20-23 (ESV)

So, our pilgrim and Beatrice have arrived at the “Primum Mobile,” the largest sphere, and are coming ever closer to “The Face of God“:
- the Face which Moses could not bear to look upon directly;
- the Face which had to take upon itself a human form to address mankind’s deficiencies.
- That which had to undergo degradation, death and resurrection in order to make Himself fully accessible to we unworthy humans.

And we return to our first encounter with that light, during the First Canto:
“Just as we would never stare at the sun (here I’m remembering … the solar eclipse of 1972 … and our mothers’ warning never to stare directly at it), Dante does just that. Beatrice can look at it, no problem. Somehow that Dante reflexively imitates her action (a “reflection” of her action) and does not go blind (which) indicates that something has already changed in him: he is capable of seeing ‘it’ …” (See above: “The Still Point of the Turning World” by jeffvamos)

Up front and close, we are confronted with “The still point of the turning world. “

Once again, Dante first sees The Face first in a “glass darkly,” via reflection in his beloved’s eye.
The spark of light is so intense he still cannot truly bear it on his own.
But as Beatrice explains to him the angelic orders that orbit this light, he “begins” to understand what he beholds here.

He is ‘seeing’ “the “Holy of Holies,” surrounded by the nine orders of adoring angels.
And, how does our Pilgrim come to grips with this ultimate reality?
This reality which is so far beyond our human senses and feeble comprehension?
Only through the use of metaphors.

With the aid of his lady, he beholds the ethereal essence, but he can only describe it through metaphors, and through his own grasp of the abstract, using mathematics.

This all came to mind, as my wife Judy and I visited the Amish/ Mennonite country in Lancaster, PA, this past week. As I began to reflect on many different ways of understanding and worshipping God.

When we viewed the reconstruction of the Tabernacle of the Ark of the Covenant there, the image of the Temple Curtain being torn asunder on the day of the Crucifixion flashed before me.

Why was there a curtain at all ?

Why was it no longer needed after the resurrection?

Well, we are told God had had to shield mankind from His “terrible aspect” before Christ. He shielded us from Himself, the Shekeinah (The Spirit of the Lord), within the Tabernacle.

But God made flesh, and sacrificed, enabled us to known Him in a different way.

So, now We are back to paradoxical thought.

Back to the essential paradox for all Christians; to the Three-in-one – the Trinity.

Dante understood these paradoxes.
Or, rather, he understood that he could only understand through faith.

The best he could do in order to convey his understanding(s) was to use metaphors - the blinding light, spherical magnitude, the speeding orbits.

And, even there, he had to explain that everything in heaven (anywhere near God – oh, yes, even here) had to be stood on its head to BEGIN to comprehend.

Hence the reference to the chessboard problem [Near infinity; The number obtained is "2 to the power 63, plus one" (based on the 64 squares on the board)], to represent infinity for our weak minds.

Hence the angels orbiting God in reverse order and speed and size to what we would expect on earth. Hence the need for Beatrice to explain, still again, what Dante thinks he is “seeing.”

So Seraphim, and cherubim, and Thrones (in the first triad of spheres), right down to the “lowly” angels and archangels that sometimes rub shoulders with us, have their place.

But, it takes metaphors and mathematics just to begin to convey the almighty glory of Paradise wherein God meets us. There. Here? Hmmmm…


Paradiso Canto 24: Herr Doktor

Over at Slate, Robert Baird suggests that one of the reasons The Inferno captivates our imagination is its portrayal of ironic justice. “Dante’s hell flatters us”, he rightly notes. Standing at a safe distance from the place, we become the judgers of the judged, relieved to know that we will never be that far gone.

The problem with Paradiso, Baird argues, is that it turns the judgment back on us: “Previously we judged hell; now heaven judges us.”

There is no better Canto than XXIV to illustrate Baid’s argument. Here the poet encounters a literal test of faith. St. Peter stands as the honored Herr Professor Doktor testing the Poet Candidate for entry into the realm. He has only to answer one simple question: what is faith? 

Of course Peter is the examiner of faith! He to whom the Lord gave the keys now bestows the key to the Poet. And the Poet begins rightly with the Scripture, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11). Ah, but we’re not quite done yet. Herr Doktor must know why substance precedes evidence—is not the substance of our knowledge determined first by evidence? We do not believe and then see! We see and then believe.

Dante, surely after a long thoughtful breath, continues: the stuff of the Divine is deep below our sensual perception. The stuff of faith is “so hidden to eyes below that there their existence is in belief alone”. Faith is hope materialized.

And so it is that Dante suggests that the stuff of God cannot be reasoned upward, but only revealed. Syllogisms lose their ground in matters of theology (though, as we will see a new syllogism, one based in Scripture, grows freely). Knowledge as related to God is rather simple—We cannot think ourselves or, for that matter, see ourselves to the Divine.

Peter is pleased, but he’s not done. If not by natural knowledge, whence has faith come? Why, of course, it comes through the Spirit’s work in the Word. It has come in the new syllogism, the Old and New Testaments. The intellect, that which sees, becomes subordinate, then, to faith revealed in Scripture. And how can we know that Scripture is divine? Why, because it tells us so.

I’m proud of Peter here, and I stand in his tradition. Circular logic won’t get us anywhere. Herr Doktor won’t be won with the Scripture’s own self-affirmation.

So Dante points to the spread of Christianity, a miracle, he thinks, far greater than the miracles recounted in the Word. It’s here that I most profoundly disagree with Dante. The spread of Christianity is 99 parts Empire. At best that leaves one part miracle. And that’s not a thing of Pride.

But does Empire lessen Christianity’s value?

Perhaps not. Perhaps the miracle is not the spread of the faith but the power of the message, even if it has been co-opted throughout history for decidedly ungodly ends. Perhaps the miracle is the faithful activity of the self-revealing God who works in, around and under the Empire. Perhaps the miracle is, as Christian Moevs notes, that Truth validates itself. Perhaps the miracle is that our ontological grounding is not what can be seen, but what the Revelator reveals.

For Dante and for us there is left but one question: “declare what you believe.”

We might rattle off the Apostles Creed or some other piece of Christendom. It’s not a bad strategy, but you might not always have Dante’s assurance. I certainly don’t.

Or we might remember that the inquisitor is he who thrice denied our Lord yet still bears the Keys.

Dante thought of God like a clock. Not like the clocks and clockmakers of our Deistic Founding Fathers, but rather as a harmonious unit compelled in its functioning toward one end. In life we are pushed toward God. Our faith and belief certainly matter, but they cannot be the end. The end is the three Eternal Persons who call the cosmos to its motion—who are not, as Dante and Aristotle may believe, unmoved movers, but rather condescend to move among us, to die for us, and to defeat death for us.

Revelation comes not by sight or sense but through the “spark which then dilates to a living flame and like a star in heaven shines within me”.  Faith is not about creed. It is about hope. And as much as Lent is a season of penitence, it must also be one of hope—a season of Springtime Awakenings to new life, to the light which shines on the Revealed if only we have the joy to see it. We may not always have faith. Peter didn’t. But all is not lost. The Lord is far more faithful than we.


Paradiso Canto 23: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

Spring is here.  Certainly here in Ohio where I write.  The forsythia’s twiggy blaze in the backyard and the daffodils poking up around the shed:  it’s the bright scattering of yellow that makes me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s description of spring as the time when thrush eggs make ‘little low heavens.’  I also think of the vernal metaphor for the starry sky he places at the conclusion of “The Starlight Night”:

 

  Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house

The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse

  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

 

Sallows are pussy willows, and Hopkins wants us to see constellations swaying with a bright powder of blossoms like cornmeal.  And—one of my favorite moments in the poetry of Hopkins—the following two lines use rural puns to encase the divine presence.  We are asked to identify the spread of stars as the walls of ‘the barn’, an image of the tabernacle.  Behind the wall, inside, are stored the shocks—sheaves—of corn; within the tabernacle, the electrifying presence of God.  In a second pun the stars are ‘piece-bright paling’, a paint-chipped fence enclosing Christ, Mary, and the saints.  I love how the other sense of ‘paling’ chimes with ‘piece-bright’: both qualities of a dimmer radiance containing what is too shocking and bright for human senses.

And now the poet has leapt the paling to stand among the fixed stars.  And like Hopkins throwing the barnyard into the heavens to help the reader’s eyes adjust to his enthralling vision, the poet introduces the eighth sphere with an extended natural metaphor.  Beatrice is compared to a bird, which has shielded her young throughout the long night and now waits patiently on the branch for the light of dawn and the moment she can leave the nest to look for food.  Perhaps this is one of the most startling aspects of The Paradiso:  the conveyance of the world below, of bird and branch and dawn, the transport of mortal memory, into the luminous heights.  The poet must use language, planked with memory, as a paling, piece-bright at its best, to house the shocks and hallows.

When the poet has seen—or rather been blinded by—the Radiant Substance, the vision of the triumphant Christ, his poetry again steers toward natural imagery.  But it’s reflexive.  The poet cannot describe what he sees, only what it does to him.  His mind is likened to a thunderhead swelling with so much condensed light that it bursts and erupts bolts of lightning into the ether.  And then, when he is conditioned by the radiant blast of Christ to see Beatrice’s smile for the first time, he cannot find the words to describe it.  Only the poet’s inadequacy stirs up the metaphorical imagination, invoking Polyhymnia and the Muses, and those wonderful images of a traveler leaping a crevice, Atlas shouldering his burden, and the ardent prow of verse plowing the rough seas of the beatific.  These waters are not for frail rafts but a craft that can leap when it wants to.  It’s the old poetic coping:  When words fail, word the failure.

After vaulting the ineffable the poet returns to his paling art, comparing, with the ‘feeble lids’ of memory and imagination, the array of hallows—saints or apostles—as a field of flowers struck by a cloud-breaking ray of sunlight.  Again the perishable world is bootlegged into the imperishable.  Even crowns and sapphires, though they glow ethereally, are earthly contraband, stashed under the poet’s robe to give him a hand with the brilliance of Mary and Gabriel.

In a journal entry for July 5, 1872, Hopkins relates this epiphany:

 

“Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timberframe—principals (?) and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big A’s with the cross-bar high up—I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again…”

 

While Hopkins sees dark alphas in the hayloft, the poet in paradise sees the hayloft in the Alpha.  To me, the beauty of the Commedia, the perception of which is heightened as one ascends into the empyrean, is the poet’s method of reverse inscape.  He doesn’t show heaven on earth, but earth in heaven, even if inadvertently.  He’s not interested in writing about little low heavens or God’s grandeur deep down things.  Brazenly situating himself in heaven, he finds the barn in the tabernacle and flowers in the firmament.  Does he know that he’s smuggled a nest in with the angels?