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

From U. Texas "Dante World", The White Rose

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?


Paradiso Canto 22: From the “Little Threshing Floor” to “The Harmony of the Spheres”

“I danced in the morning when the world was young.
I danced in the moon, and the stars and the sun.
I came down from heaven, and I danced on the earth.
At Bethlehem I had my birth.”

“Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance,” said He.
“And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance,” said He.

“I danced for the scribes and the Pharisees.
They wouldn’t dance, they wouldn’t follow me.
I danced for the fishermen, James and John,
They came with me, so the dance went on.”

“Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance,” said He.
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance,” said He.

“I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame.
The holy people said it was a shame.
They ripped, they stripped, they hung me high;
Left me there on the cross to die.”

“Dance, dance, wherever you may be.
I am the lord of the dance,” said He.
“And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance,” said He.

“I danced on a Friday when the world turned black.
It’s hard to dance, with the devil on your back.
They buried my body, they thought I was gone
But I AM THE DANCE, and the dance goes on.”

“Dance, dance, wherever you may be.
I am the lord of the dance,” said He.
“And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance,” said He.

“They cut me down, and I leapt up high.
I am The Life that will never, never die.
I’ll live in you, if you’ll live in me.
I am the Lord of the Dance,” said He.

“Dance, dance, wherever you may be.
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He.
And I lead you all, wherever you may be.
And I lead you all in the dance,” said He.
(Sydney Carter, The Lord of the Dance; sung to Simple Gifts)

** We are still in the Seventh sphere, Saturn, the “Sphere for the Contemplatives. ” **
Soon Dante will move up into the “Sphere of the Fixed Stars”
through Gemini, the constellation under which Dante was born, and, to whose powers he has attributed his talent (see Par. 22.112-20).

But, for now, Dante is overwhelmed by the expansive thundering sound of the heavenly host.

My sense reeled, and as a child in doubt runs always to
the one it trusts the most, I turned to my guide, still
shaken by that shout;

and she, like a mother, ever prompt to calm her pale and
breathless son with kindly words, the sound of which is
his accustomed balm,

said: Do you not know you are in the skies of Heaven
itself? That all is holy here? That all things spring from
love in Paradise?” [Par 22, 1-9]

When he recovered via Beatrice’s ministrations, Dante beholds another brilliant orb amongst the heaven’s saints.

Although the beauty overwhelms him, Dante asks whether he may see the Saint fully, clearly.
He is told he must wait until he reaches the Empyrean (the final sphere), where all the spirits truly are, to do so.

He soon learns that it is Benedict, the father of the Western monastic tradition.

“Hence, brethren,
if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility
and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation
to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life,
we must by our ascending actions erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream, on which Angels appeared to him descending and ascending.

By that descent and ascent we must surely understand nothing else than this, that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.
And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world,
which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled.
For we call our body and soul the sides of the ladder,
and into these sides our divine vocation has inserted
the different steps of humility and discipline we must climb.”
- St. Benedict of Nursia ca. 480-547, Rule of St. Benedict Chap. 7

Benedict identifies this “ladder of contemplation” as being the biblical ladder that appeared in a dream to Jacob. (22.70-2)

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross.
Every rung goes higher and higher
Do you think I made the soldier
Rise, shine, give God your glory
Keep on climbing, we will make it
Children do you want your freedom
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Sinner, do you love my Jesus?
If you love Him, why not serve Him?

Benedict vs the Benedictines

Here in the ”Sphere of Temperance,” Benedict represents the self-control and discipline, obedience and simplicity, of this virtue.
It is not strange, therefore, that the saint laments the state of his own order.

He realizes his monks show greed worse than even than that of Rome.
The Rule of his order demands poverty, chastity and obedience, manual labor, and irrevocable vows.
Dante’s has always admired the poverty and purity of the early Church, and this contrast which he sees in contemporary religion horrifies him.

“For all the goods of the Church, tithes and donations,
are for the poor of God, not to make fat the families of
monks—and worse relations.
[Par XXII, 82 – 84]

“Yet Jordan flowing backward, and the sea parting as God
willed, were more wondrous sights than God’s help to
His stricken Church would be.”
[Par XXII, 94-96]

Beatrice tells Dante to prepare himself for the celestial joy that lies ahead by looking down.

She encourages him to look at Earth and all its smallness, down, down through all the seven spheres (the seven ‘planets,’ representing the seven virtues).

In contrast to these impressive, wheeling spheres, the earth, is no more than a “little threshing-floor (aiuola),” which by its very petty scale incites humanity’s ferocity (See Par. 22, 151).

Together, they enter the stellar heavens through the constellation of Gemini, Dante’s birth-sign

and instantaneously (at warp speed?) are transported to the “Stellar Sphere.”

“Therefore, before you enter further here look down and
see how vast a universe I have put beneath your feet,
bright sphere on sphere.” . .

“My eyes went back through the seven spheres below,
and I saw this globe, so small, so lost in space, I had to
smile at such a sorry show.”
[Par. 22, 127-129 & 133 -135]

Once again Dante is faced with the sinful and insignificant nature of man.
But, his hope returns as he is transported to the stellar sphere.

Afterword:

I am sure Dante would be perplexed (dismayed?) by the following poem, but I find it a delightful description of how I think Empyrean would seem to me:

“Heavenly Playground” by Adrian Plass

Oh God, I’m not anxious to snuff it,
but when the Grim Reaper reaps me,
I’ll try to rely on
my vision of Zion,
I know how I want it to be.

As soon as you greet me in Heaven,
and ask what I’d like, I shall say,
“I just want a chance
for my spirit to dance,
I want to be able to play.?”

Tell the angels to build a soft playground,
designed and equipped just for me,
with a vertical slide
that’s abnormally wide,
and oceans of green PVC.

There’ll be reinforced netting to climb on,
and rubberized floors that will bend,
and no one can die,
so I needn’t be shy
if I’m tempted to land on a friend!

I’m gonna go mad in the soft, squashy mangle,
and balmy with balls in the swamp,
colored and spherical,
I’ll be hysterical!
I’ll have a heavenly romp!

There’ll be cushions and punch bags and tires
in purple and yellow and red,
and a mushroomy thing
that will suddenly sing
if I kick it or sit on its head.

There’ll be fountains of squash and ribina
to feed my continual thirst,
and none of that stuff
about “You’ve had enough,”
surely heavenly bladders won’t?’ burst.

I suppose I might be too tall for the entrance,
but Lord, chuck the rules in the bin.
If I am too large,
tell the angel in charge
to let me bow down and come in.

COME JOIN IN THE PLAY!


Paradiso Canto 19: Undersea seeing

Reading the beginning of this Canto reminds me of a scene from Finding Nemo. Remember? The school of fish scene – all acting together and speaking with one voice (of John Ratzenberger, he of Cheers fame)?

And it reminds me too about Dante’s poetic strategy in each Canto: Dante doesn’t begin the scene this way just because it’s cool. Well, it is cool: A whole bunch of individual souls (the spirits of the Just and Temperate Rulers, hanging out in the Temperate Zone of Jupiter) who form the image of an Eagle, representing Divine Justice. Though individuals, they speak as if with one voice. What an interesting way to put it:

For I saw and heard the beak move and declare
in its own voice the pronouns “I” and “mine”
when “we” and “our” were what conceived it there. (19:10-12)

It’s a very interesting image with which to begin what is a meditation on divine justice, and its relationship to the kind of justice we practice here on earth. Indeed, the kind of justice that we can conceive of with our human minds.

That last nuance is, I think, rather critical here. We can indeed conceive of justice, which is a quality that emanates unadulterated from the Divine Mind, but we conceive of it in a way that is clouded by the limits of our individual, human and by nature self-bound reason. And the metaphor that Dante uses is a pretty apt one, I think.

Ever try to swim underwater and open your eyes to see where you’re going? We all know that doing so – especially if in the deep ocean – we can see a few feet in front of us, even if the water’s clear. But soon, our vision gets even blurrier in the irritation of water and eye. And we know there’s something down there that is deep, and visible. We just can’t see it with this equipment.

The idea is that God created us, and in particular our ability to see; but the equipment doesn’t match the power of the one who made it. There’s an “infinite qualitative difference,” to quote my good pal Karl Barth, between us and Him (or Her), and so our ability to see is a facsimile of that divine ability, but an infinitely lesser one.

But there’s aspect to this thing that impedes our ability to see, in this case the true nature of divine justice, which has to do with our very damaged nature itself. We can’t see, because we’re unwilling to wait for the thing that enables us to see: that “Prideful Power” (i.e. Satan, the first sinner to fall from heaven) “would not wait/the power of the ripening sun, [and thus] fell green and sour.” If that angel had waited for the power that illumines, he too would be able to see as the angels. Perhaps so would we.

It’s our self-ishness (like your “hit-ish”, Leigh!) nature that impedes our vision. We can’t see, because we’re solitary. Individuals. We glimpse a tiny part of the elephant, and can’t see the whole. We’re just one pixel in a huge picture, viewable only by the Viewer who created it.

Indeed:

And thus we see that every lesser creature
is much too small a vessel to hold the Good
that has no end; Itself is Its one measure. (19:49-51)

It’s here then where we can see Dante’s metaphor in its brilliance: these souls can see with a power so much greater than our own. Why? Because they are acting and seeing as solitary souls, lonely lights; but the difference is they see together. The power of their speech, and the power of their vision, is made greater by their cooperation, by their common mind and will. The “I” is given vision in the “we”. Just as the “glow of many living coals/issues a single heat, so from that image/one sound declared the love of many souls.” (19:19-21)

I think this is also a brilliant and subtle way of showing the very nature of divine justice as it meets the limited capacities of our human abilities to understand and practice it. What is justice for? It’s about a right ordering of things among people. Justice is that power that enables people to function together, to create something whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. A city, a civitas, is powerful not because of the quality of the individuals who live in it – that’s important. But its true power and quality lie in those individuals’ ability to form a cooperative whole that is grater than the individuals within it it. That is indeed one of the reasons Dante is so concerned about good government, good rulership: because it mirrors a divine capacity to order life together. Such communality is a keystone value in heaven.

But, by the same token, this ability – to function together in order to create something greater than any of us individually can create or access – also has limits.

Dante, in speaking to the collective being that is the Eagle of divine justice, believes that it can see as God sees – that it can explain the mysteries of divine justice that have so perplexed him.

I know that if God’s justice has constructed
its holy mirror in some other realm,
your Kingdom’s view of it is not obstructed. (19:28-30)

Not so, says the Eagle. We are of limited vision, just like you. Even though we create something greater together as a whole than we could as individuals, doesn’t mean we can see as God sees. S/He (pronouns…so awkward) is the only one who gets the full picture. It’s as if the “We” of the eagle is still constrained by the “I’s” (the “Eyes”) of its constituent members.

(A little aside: Is it possible that the opposite is also true? Could one argue that a collective can never be moral and truly “just”, whereas individuals can indeed function with a morality that is impossible for the society? Ala Reinhold Niebuhr in his famous Moral Man and Immoral Society? Interesting to ponder….)

So it’s no surprise when Dante lifts up one of the most vexing questions of justice in Dante’s time – and a relief that such questions are as live then as they are now: why are folks who have never heard of Jesus – say the virtuous people living in India – subject to a divine justice that requires people to “make a choice for Christ.”

The answer: We can’t see it. It’s there, but it doesn’t make sense to our human minds. The answer from the Eagle sounds curiously similar to the answer to Job from the whirlwind: “Who are you to take the judgment seat/and pass on things a thousand miles away/who cannot see the ground before your feet?”

Our only hope? Trust. Trust that there is justice, it’s God’s justice, we read of it in the scriptures, and it seems damn strange to us at times. That’s the way it is.

But it doesn’t mean we don’t try. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek to reflect, and see, how that justice can be applied on earth. Dante’s examples in the negative show just how disastrous can be the consequence of “bad justice”.

Or, maybe Dory’s advice is apt too. (Dory? Remember? Short-term-memory-challenged Dory from Finding Nemo?)

“Just keep swimming…just keep swimming…just keep swimming.”


Paradiso Canto 18: Save the Cheerleader, Save the World

First: apologies for the delay (again). Jeff, I do appreciate your forgiveness—but you certainly needn’t follow my tardiness this time around!

Second: Many thanks to Bob Sinner, whose post on the sixteenth canto I found particularly interesting, thanks in no small part to his initial reflections on being a soldier.

Finally: “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” (an amended quotation from NBC’s hit(ish) series, “Heroes”.)

I am happiest with the cantos that transition from one sphere to the next, and find it serendipitous that the eagle who took flight in the sixth canto (my first post), joins us again for our first look at Jupiter. (Serendipitous, too, that our lectionary reading on Sunday, the so called “cleansing” of the Temple, is referenced by the poet toward the Canto’s end.)

I imagine cheerleaders. Cheerleaders—with their cardboard letters, spelling out whatever message will best reach the crowd. Cheerleaders—giddy, well-trained Cheerleaders.

B-E A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E. Sorry, wrong cheer.

This time: “Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram.” Simply, beautifully: “Love justice, you who judge the earth.” Can we expand the near-perfect epithet?

Dante does, for the “M”— meant to evoke the Latin monarcha—monarchy—transforms its shape to become something altogether new. The emme grows and morphs until the stigma of the lilly becomes the head of the eagle. The eagle! The sign of the great Roman Empire, introduced to readers by Justinian in the sixth canto. We followed her across the Empire and now we find her here, among the great lovers of justice.

The fire from Mars has passed (Dante compares it to woman’s blush as it recedes), and Dante finds himself, by Jove!, on Jupiter. The “temperate” planet is, rightly, inhabited by the Just. Speech is preceded by the beauty of a light show—our cheerleaders take their place for the great spelling bee. It is a quiet Canto, but perhaps more beautiful for it.

Indeed, the muted canto allows for its climactic passage, a condemnation of Papist greed, to stand over and define the entire scene: “O soldiery of Heaven whom I look upon, pray for those who have gone astray on earth, following the ill example. Of old it was the wont to make war with swords, but now it is made by taking away, now here now there, the bread which the tender Father bars from none.”

Dante pleas for Justice on Earth. Jupiter, intercede for us! For we here in America have certainly taken away the bread which God wills for all.

Justice should come to us as an instinct—the same instinct that guides the bird in making a nest, or the souls in the formation of an eagle—but it instead manifests in us as an exploit. We given to do justice often forsake that noble call for the call of wealth, power, anger, passion…We are not temperate. We are hot. Some of us cold. Either way, the result is the same.

Love justice, you who judge the earth.
Love justice, you who monopolize her resources.
Love justice, you who confusion inaction with innocence.
Love justice, love justice.


Paradiso Canto 17: A Notebook

by Jake Willard-Crist

‘Not in dark oracles like those that glued the foolish like limed birds…’ (31-32)

 

In his Natural History Pliny relates the method of making birdlime:  Gather unripe mistletoe berries and dry them, then pound them, put them in water, and leave them to rot.  (Birdlime, according to Pliny, is ‘the only thing to find improvement in decay.’)   After rotting for twelve days, the mistletoe is again pounded with a mallet under running water until the outer coat separates and a thick inner pulp remains.  Now you have birdlime, which can be thinned out with walnut oil.  Smear it on twigs and branches.  The brush of a wing will snare a song thrush.

The poet loves the prophecy of his own banishment.  He writes it himself.  And puts it in the mouth of a crusader and martyr.  Listen to him, composing a retro-prevision of his own exile, like a songbird liming its own capture, enchanted by his own estrangement.

 

Inspired, poets and prophets are full of themselves.  They have a vessel complex.    No wonder so few people listen to them.

 

‘…but in clear words and the punctilious style of ordered thought…’ (35-36)

 

Clear words are limed birds.

Clarity sticks.  Order glues.  Conformity is rarely enforced by lyric utterance.  You’re clearly Guelf, orderly Ghibelline.

Limb-stuck, there’s no branching out.


Paradiso Canto 16: The Guelph, The Ghibelline, War and Fortitude

The sixteenth part of the Paradise of Dante Alighieri takes place in the sphere of Mars, where reside the spirits of those who fought and died for the faith

It seems quite strange to this reader, having been to war, though most certainly NOT a “Holy One” (Is any war truly Holy? Mine was the Second Indochina War), to find in the central canto of the central triptych of Paradise to be the “Fifth Heaven of Mars.”
We are in the heaven of Holy Warriors.

Stranger still, to find the canto revolve around a discourse on Florentine politics and a replay of the struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines (both Black and White) as proxies for the papacy and Dante’s beloved Holy Roman Emperor. Between the powers “spiritual” and “temporal” as it were.
Perhaps it strikes a strong chord with this reader because he was in Vietnam at the turning point (the Tet Offensive of 1968), which he has always considered the second Triptych of that war.
How the past confronts one, whether with Cacciaguida for Dante, or Dante for the reader.

Or, perhaps, Not — Not so strange.

Indeed are not these forces ever present in the realm of man? The duel between mind and body? Between spirit and reason?

Yes, true, but this is halfway up to the empyrean!
This is IN paradise.

But, then, we are in THIS world, trying to perceive THAT one with Dante’s help.

This is man’s projection of his concept of order upon the otherwise imperceptible.
We are back once again to the mystery of the incarnation; to the paradox of the Trinity.

God is God, but God is also human and God is spirit. How else are we to understand? How else are we to explain? How are we to accept God’s Will, even while we have Free Will? How are we to accept judgment, rather than to judge?

And so, we meet Cacciaguida in the sphere of Mars.

And in the second Cacciaguidan Canto, we find out that the Earth, too, is, in some respects a part of heaven. Or at least, so it must seem to us who cannot truly perceive it all until we are with the Lord.

So, … Warriors.
And where there are warriors, there has been strife – war; and often the worst type – internal unrest – civil war.

In Dante’s case, a war that has been heightened by the very powers entrusted with the welfare of its people: the supreme earthly Powers Spiritual (The Papacy) and Temporal (the Holy Roman Emperor).

Dante, himself, was no stranger to war, to combat on the field (he had fought in the Guelph cavalry at the Battle of Campaldino, 1289), and political infighting (as Cacciaguida predicts, Dante is exiled from his beloved Florence during the G & G infighting). As both Guelphs and Ghibellines (both black and white) play their parts in bringing the city low.

And so our pilgrim finds himself overjoyed, saddened, angered, perplexed as he hears his great grandfather relate the rise and fall of the Florentines in history. And, even Dante realizes “All are punished,” but “All can also be blessed. “

“With such as these I saw there in my past
so valiant and so just a populace
that none had ever seized the ensign’s mast
and hung the lily on it upside down.
Nor was the red dye of its division known.

– 151 – 155, Ciardi

OR, in another version:

“ For justice fam’d, but terrible in war,
Their military glory spread afar;
No Conqu’ror then their banner bore away
From the lost field ; the hours had not arriv’d,
When, in their fury, all the Fiends contriv’d
To stain it’s fold with blood in civil fray.

It would seem Dante allows some pride to be found in Heaven

[Dedicated to Henry Elwood Fullerton,
My "Father," A "Reluctant, Gentle Warrior" ]


Paradiso Canto 15: Decline or Improvement?

As he ascends to the sphere of Mars, Dante encounters his great-great-grandfather. The only historical information about Cacciaguida comes to us in this canto. Dante tells us that his forebear had been baptized and that he had died in the Holy Land during an ill-fated crusade. He also tells us that his venerated relative lives now in paradise with other sainted souls. Dante also provides in this canto some reflections on the degradation in Florence that has taken place between the time of Cacciaguida and himself.

Would it not be a remarkable thing to encounter and have conversation with one’s great-great grandfather or grandmother? While a few of us might have known one of our great grandparents, I doubt that any of us have known or talked with any of our relatives older than a great grandparent. Talking to a great-great-grandparent would mean interacting with someone we had never met, who had lived a hundred or more years earlier, and who might have had a shaping influence on our lives. What would we discuss with such a relative? Inevitably, we would engage in comparison and contrast between our era and that of our now departed forebear.

It seems likely that a narrative of decline would feature prominently in such a discussion. To be sure, the astounding array of technological developments would take up the first part of the conversation. After a time, however, the question of human spiritual, moral, and cultural progress would arise. On that score, I doubt that the present state of human functioning would gain high marks. Most likely, we would lament how things have gotten worse in terms of religious adherence, civility, personal morality, and corporate ethics over the course of a century or more. People today seem more self-oriented, more secular, more impatient, less considerate of others, less willing to serve rather than be served, and less committed to delayed gratification in service to a higher good than they did at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. America ascendant now seems in many ways like America in decline.

Is it true, though? Does the narrative of decline actually match the facts? In asking this question, I am reminded of an observation by E. Brooks Holifield in his recent book God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Eerdmans, 2007) that in every era of American history there has been a narrative of decline about the pastoral role. I also call to mind the recognition that while the tenor of national political discourse seems to have reached an all time low, our American forebears made similar claims—and in several cases, with good reason. Many of us have a tendency to see the times in which we live as a fall from an earlier grace. Reading Dante in this canto, we can see that such a tendency has been around for a long time.

If we wish to make the opposite argument—that human morals and spirituality have actually progressed or improved from a hundred years ago—what evidence would martial in support? We would probably want to point to the changing role of women toward equality with men, the Civil Rights movement, democratic movements like the Arab Spring (powered by the widespread availability and use of social media), and stunning advancements in the quality of life brought about by breakthroughs in medicine and science. More people are free, live longer and better than at any other point in human history.

What criteria should we use to gauge human progress or regress with respect to morality and spirituality? I am sure that Dante would approve the use of Jesus’ teaching about the double love commandment for this task. Individually and collectively, do we love God and our neighbor more now than people did a hundred years ago? Five years ago? Last month? Perhaps the criterion of love would be our best bet to gauge the state of humanity today versus a hundred years ago.

How would you answer the question of our current situation in light of where things were in society a hundred years ago in light of the double love commandment? Have we declined or have we improved?


Paradiso Canto 13: The Judgment of Judging

OK, first of all, let’s talk about the dancing. I find it so interesting that in this section of Paradiso, there’s so much dancing. And singing. If hell is about yelling and groaning and fighting, Paradise is about singing and blessing and harmony, in what is I believe a very intentional inclusio of symbol and image that harks back to what comes earlier. So much of this stuff harks back to its opposite – the stuff we find at the very beginning. In hell. And other places.

For instance, remember the Spenders and the Hoarders in Canto 7, in their violent parody of the round dance? Going round and round in opposing circles (“Why do you spend? Why do you hoard?”)? But, in heaven: here is the real dance, the real round dance. This is the place where we see the most dazzling representation of the dance human eyes can perceive. Where the soul-stars wheel round each other and create not hatred but harmony; create greater light and not greater scarcity, with their opposing lights.

“Dancing with the Stars” Dante style can’t compare to the cheap TV imitation. And all this – just for Dante’s eyes. Not that these souls are like this in themselves, we hear. We do not encounter the Kantean Ding an sich (thing itself) in heaven – but a dazzling display that’s dumbed-down for human eyes, an approximation of the real thing fit for human consumption, in an act of loving, heavenly condescension. Words themselves are a heavenly concession to the human mind.

The way Dante tells the very tale to his readers is an allegory for how that display appears to him: I can only tell you about what I saw in cheap words and similes and metaphors – about as crappy as the little muddy creek in the Chianna. But that’s in a way what it was to me: an approximate representation of something too blissful for human capacity to fully grasp.

Cool.

OK – so to the business at hand for today. (And, I didn’t want Leigh to feel uncomfortable being a bit late with her offering so I decided to delay today. Ahem.) This is what today’s Canto is about: judging. Judgement. Judgmentalism.

I think so. Actually, I’m sure of it. And I pretty much know I’m right.

This Canto speaks – via the via positiva – to our particular context at this moment. In the conversation between Mitt, Rick, Newt and Ron. A moment when we hear a bunch of guys talking about how right they are. Even if they agree, one says “I’m right, he’s wrong.”And the rightest guy gets the nomination, right?

It’s about how to know – what is the right thing to do in a given scenario? And not only that, how can I know what is true? How can I base my life on truths that may or may not be…er…true? Right?

The problem with earth-bound creatures, upon whom the perfect imprint of the maker has been marred (Dante’s whole deal about direct and secondary creation, via St. Thomas, will have to wait for another day…), is that oftentimes being right is more important than what really corresponds to the truth.

So, at stake in this Canto is a question raised way back in Canto 10: when Saint T makes the claim that when it comes to the wisdom of Solomon – the wisest king of ancient Israel – no one “ever rose to equal this one.” (X.114) How is that possible that Solomon was wiser than the original, perfect man (before he damaged the perfect nature he was given)? How is it possible that his wisdom was wiser than…uh…Jesus?

Now, there’s a subtext here. A debate that’s going on. Some of the Doctors of the Church have disputed (and continued to dispute in Dante’s time, apparently) whether Solomon was among the elect. Whether Solomon deserved to be in Heaven. He certainly had quite a taste for the ladies. And did some other not so wise things. But some thought he repented and made the team. Some thought he didn’t. Who’s right?

You see, back then, people debated this stuff. Perhaps the most infamous debate – how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? – was a serious argument. People would throw their beer at each other over such questions. Kind of like getting in the thick of it with your father-in-law over Rush Limbaugh’s etiquette, or Mitt Romney’s real feelings about health care reform.

Well, OK. So how elegant that Dante settles the matter. Via his poem. But in doing so, he also points out his own foolishness – how human beings want to know things, so that they can be right. And he gets a tongue-lashing at the end of it for his impulse – to be right. St. Thomas calls him on it (XIII.112).

It’s pride that’s at stake here. How often we make a judgment, and stick to it because it’s more important that we’re right, than what’s actually true. It’s the human ego thing.

So, the key here is why Solomon is in heaven. And I believe the answer has to do with the fact that his wisdom came about through a choice – and it’s actually a wisdom that didn’t come from him, but from God, so is in a sense a borrowed wisdom. Some of us may recall the story of Solomon’s choice (not the one about the baby and the two ladies). About how he offered a bunch of sacrifices to The Lord at Gibeon, and had a dream in which God offered to give him anything he wanted. Door number one: Unbelievable wealth. Door number two: Power to do anything you darn well please. And door number three: wisdom you need to really help your people get along – wisdom that’s fit for a King.

Solomon chose door number three. And it’s that particular kind of wisdom that’s peerless among mortals. The Kingly kind.

Because Dante underlines that it wasn’t just that Solomon chose wisdom; it’s about what kind of wisdom. He could choose to know about things that inquiring minds what to know: how do you square the circle? Who’s right about Prime Motion – is there or isn’t there? C’mon, we want to know, once for all. And get all the fame and fortune for being the knower.

Such hair-splitting wisdom may make the knower feel good, and get you a whole lot of other perks – but what lands Solomon in heaven is the fact that the wisdom he chose was that which was helpful not so much to himself, but to his people. It is a wisdom that came from God (again, another reason for its peerless quality) to be used not for the aggrandizement of the recipient, but the well-being of the governed. Perhaps this is here, because this (good government) was a particular concern of the D-man himself.

The final verses of this Canto brings us around to the heart of the theme here: why do we want to be “wise”? “Knowing”? One word: ego.

People make judgments because they want to be right. Not only that, but we think we are right. We think we can see things as we are. This brings us back full circle to the beginning of the Canto: listen, people: I learned in heaven that you can’t see things as they really are. We have to make do with “hints and guesses” (ala T.S.);  we have this crude paint-by-numbers set called language with which to fill in an approximate picture.

But we act like we can see it right. I can see the thing itself. I can see what’s right. Because I’m me.

People not only judge, but judge too quickly, under the illusion that we see things exactly as they are:

Opinions too soon formed often deflect
man’s thinking from the truth into gross error
in which his pride then binds his intellect. (XIII.118-120)

I once attended a Buddhist retreat in which the lesson (which was rather profound and subtle) really boiled down to what you can put on a bumper sticker: don’t believe what you think. We would do so well if we realized our judgements about the world are just that – our own personal human filter with which to process the world, a set of useful projections and guesses, not the world itself. Just realizing that is a huge bit of wisdom in itself.

So – don’t judge “lest you be judged.” And moreover, don’t judge to quickly. The thief may be a saint, and the non-profit exec may be a pervert. We can’t know. But inasmuch as we need to make judgments, we should rely on that kind of wisdom that comes to us, not from us: the kind that was given to Solomon. The kind that helps other people – the light of reason and wisdom that comes ultimately from God.

Right? Right.


Paradiso Canto 12: Wisdom in the World

First: an apology. I’m late in my blogging today. I know you’ve all been eagerly anticipating my entry! Well, pilgrim, be careful what you wish for.

Jake speaks well of Canto XI and his reflections are equally relevant for XII (mine will be neither as beautiful nor as instructive, I’m afraid!). Here too the dazzling radiance of the Sun ponders the the two wheels of the divine chariot: charity embodied by St. Francis and wisdom embodied by St. Dominic.

The second ring is mirrored and encircled by the first (as is the canto itself, which is a parallel reflection of Cantos X and XI). The scene is drips with light and vibrancy: dancers, poets and singers embody and enact the joy of the sun and the harmony of charity and wisdom. A voice rises above the rest:

“Christ’s army, which cost so dear to rearm, was moving behind the standard, slow, mistrustful and scanty, when the Emperor who reigns eternally took thought for His soldiery that was in peril, of His Grace only, not that it was worthy, and, as has been said, succored His bride with two champions by whose deeds, by whose words, the scattered people were rallied.”

Thomas spoke. Here we will deal with the man of words—the man whose mind was so alive that even in the womb he inspired his mother to prophesy, to dream a dream that defined the contours of the future. From Singleton: “His mother is said to have dreamed before he was born that she gave birth to a dog, with a torch in its mouth that set the world on fire.”

A Digression: The Strange Dream

How odd! Legend suggests that the dog, a rather puzzling complement for a modern reader, was black and white, colors later associated with The Order. And the torch bespeaks both light and fire. Light that would, with zeal and passion, expose the darkened corners of the church, and fire whose tongues would spread true faith across Europe. As for the image of the dog: Dominicani suggests Domini canes, “dogs of the Lord.”

A Commentary: The Baptismal Wedding

Records Dante, “When the espousals were completed at the sacred font between him and the faith, where they dowered each other with mutual salvation, the lady who gave assent for him saw in a dream the marvelous fruit destined to issue from him and from his heirs, and, that he might in very construing be what he was [...] Dominic he was named, and I speak of him as the husbandman whom Christ chose to help Him in His garden.”

Dominic’s baptism is spoken of as a wedding—he is espoused to Christ’s church. And to the church which offers him faith, he offers his Name: Dominic, which is identical with the thing, a Keeper of God’s vineyard. (Recall here that Francis is similarly espoused to Poverty, his earthly love). He became a “messenger” and a “familiar” of Christ, a spokesman for Christ and a reflection of Christ in His bodily absence. With wisdom and intellect Dominic tended the garden of the Church, and his parents became what their names signified: Happy was his father, and his mother Graced by the Lord.

“I am come for this”, Dominic seems to say, echoing Jesus’ fateful words. The naming of things corresponds to their essential being. Dominic tends the garden. To what, I wonder, do Presbyterians like me, do Christians, perhaps you, fine reader, to what do our names correspond? Is the Presbyterian an Elder in our society? A sober, Spirit-filled leader? Is the Christian Christ to the world? Have we come for anything?

I think we have. If only we can find it, dear reader. If only we can tend it. If only we, too, can take on the mantle of our baptism and wed ourselves to work of wisdom in this world. If only, if only.

Etc.: The Good Dominicans and the Self-Critiquing Franciscian

From here Bonaventura, our Canto’s voice, goes on to sing the praises of the great Dominic and, as Thomas did before him, to criticize the men of his own order (the Franciscans). He ends with the naming of the souls of the second ring of the Sun—Augustine and Chrysostom among Anselm and Donatus, and a host of other scholars and academics forgotten among most modern readers.

With a grace that could be easily overlooked, Bonaventura finally notes the presence of Joachim, “who was endowed with the prophetic spirit.” Himself a scholar, Joachim once postulated that there would come an earthly age of The Spirit wherein the Christian would live in perfect freedom without the constraints of civil or ecclesiastical discipline. The age of the Spirit corresponded to and transcended the age of the Father (the Old Testament) and the Son (the New Testament and time of the Church), thereby offering a Trinitarian view of History. Joachim’s “prophecy” was rejected by the Church yet popular among many Franciscans. Bonaventura was, in life, a great critic of Joachim’s. Notes Singleton:

“Joachim occupies, in this second circle of sapienti, a position corresponding to that of Siger (X, 136) in the first: each is the last named, each is to the immediate left of the spokesman. Both were not only controversial figures, but Thomas Aquinas, the spokesman of the first circle, engaged in an attack on Siger’s ideas, and Bonaventura attacked the Spirituals of the Joachimite order. The poet’s parallelism expresses a spirit of lofty conciliation and heavenly charity.”

On this Super Tuesday may we look forward to the Second Sphere of the Sun where our critics and those we criticize will live in harmony of knowledge and service, and will create a perfect circle of light, revelation and knowledge!


Paradiso Canto 11: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

 

Pedant of incandescence, parser of brilliancies—the poet in paradise tunes his eye to gradations of radiance.  Here is the poet as heliologist.  Light steps forward from light, light separates and light dances, dervishes into chandeliers, files into candelabras.  Light is identified, named.  Light speaks.  The poet listens.   The poet sees.

 

It’s easier for the eye to distinguish darknesses, to untangle shadows, and to adjust to night vision.  But staring at the sun who adjusts?  Who does not flinch and turn away with a proliferation of suns burning in front of them, all of which look the same?  Stare at the sun long enough and a garland of souls appears on your eyelid.  Can you name them?

 

Remember Thomas Merton’s Louisville epiphany:  “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

 

Solar attentiveness.

 

Oh the insensata cura of mortals!  The senseless strivings, the insensate concerns, the vocations, the careers, the careering of the mortal round!  Why do we do what we do?  Why do we not do what we not do?  O, angelic Aquinas, why can’t we all just rocket up here and be a segment in the resplendent scholastic glowworm?  What kind of sun shall I be?

 

We waver between the Franciscan and the Dominican, between seraphic ardor and cherubic splendor, between fiery action and illuminating reason, between passion and order.  (Are these the tonsured equivalents to Apollo and Dionysius?)  Torn, I ask, “If I agree to give up all of my possessions, does that mean the books, too?”  Torn I ask, “If I agree to illuminate the Word for my fellow men and women, will I be able to preach to the birds, too?”  Will brother wolf bend its knee to a professor?  Will stigmata come to Dominic?

 

All are born a sun rising (XI:50-51).  There’s just a lack of solar attentiveness.


Paradiso Canto 10: Of Faith and Reason in an ICU

Down in adoration falling,
This great sacrament we hail;
Over ancient forms of worship
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith tells us that Christ is present
When our human senses fail.

– St. Thomas Aquinas
(Sing, My Tongue, The Savior’s Glory)

As I sit here writing this blog, in my ninety-eight year old father-in-law’s room, in a brand new ICU in New Jersey, it seems appropriate that my topic for consideration today is the Tenth Canto of Dante’s “Paradiso.”

In two more days, the family will face major decisions concerning my Father’s (my father-in-law’s) future.

His small, but strong, body lies dwarfed in a large hospital bed, hooked up to “who-knows-how-many” life-support systems; marvels of modern science.

Marvels, but not miracles.

The penultimate scene from the French film masterpiece “Of Gods and Men,” confronts me, as the waltz from “Swan Lake” sweeps over the me.

Some eight harried Cistercian monks in Algeria partake of their “Last Supper” and prepare for what is to come … Faith and Reason. Reason and Faith. What to do? How to accept? Why? Because.

An event of some twenty months ago also comes into focus.
Pope Benedict XVI is commenting upon the importance of both Faith and Reason, and on Thomas Aquinas in particular:
“When natural law and the responsibility … are denied, the way is thrown … open to ethical relativism at an individual level, and to totalitarianism at a political level.” A frightening thought, indeed. … “The great contribution of the ‘Angelic Doctor,’ was to underline the essential interaction between faith and reason; between theology and philosophy. … The trust St. Thomas places in these two instruments of knowledge can be explained by his conviction that both come from a single wellspring of truth, the divine Logos, which works in the area of both creation and redemption.” (Pope Benedict XVI on the Contribution of Thomas Aquinas to the world – NY Times, June 16, 2010)

I believe Dante would have concurred.

The medieval theologian Aquinas had, perhaps, the most influence on Dante’s Weltanschauung (worldview). Aquinas put the teachings of rational philosophy in the service of religious faith and doctrine. He called the natural law “the human participation in God’s eternal law.” He wrote about faith and reason, the “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth. “ Through faith we accept Divine Revelation, and through reason we can understand basic practical principles (the ‘primary principles of natural law.’) ”

When Dante and Beatrice first arrive in the sphere of the Sun, a circle of spirits surrounds them in a dance of circling song and light. Aquinas is the spokesman for this first circle, the circle of the “twelve wise spirits.” Among these spirits we encounter many of the history’s great minds: Thomas’ teacher, Albertus Magnus of Cologne, King Solomon, (author of “Song of Songs”), Boethius (“Consolation of Philosophy”), Peter Lombard (“Sentences”), Gratian, Dionysius the Areopagite, Paulus Orosius; Isidore of Seville (“Etymologies”), the Venerable Bede, Richard of St. Victor, and a twelfth-century mystic opposed to Aquinas, called Siger of Brabant.

And, so at last, I come to the question frequently raised by many.

“Can science and religion be successfully remarried? Can a reunion of these old lovers infuse new vitality to the whole of western culture?” as Teilhard passionately asserted it would, or, as his critics suggest, does “Teilhard accomplish the reconciliation of science and religion at the expense of both partners to the marriage?” Does he fatally compromise both sides in forcing an alliance which should never have been attempted in the first place? See Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

Where does science (reason) begin and end? Where, and how, does it interact with, and lead to, and from, Faith? Can they be harmonized?

For Dante, all is harmonized in Heaven.

What say you? ????????


Paradiso Canto 9: Looking for Love in the Right Place

This canto highlights those inhabitants of paradise who had moved from a life of sexual license to a life of devoted faith in Jesus Christ. How appropriate that Dante locates this theme and its inhabitants in the sphere of Venus. Former prostitutes and those who acted out sexually make up the characters we encounter here. None other than Rahab the prostitute (see Joshua 2 and 6) serves as the chief exemplar of those who inhabit this zone of heavenly bliss. We could well imagine Mary Magdalene and several other biblical characters as residents of this region. Dante might well have made St. Augustine—a noted “player” in his early life who became one of the greatest of all followers of Jesus Christ—the patron saint of this band of redeemed sinners.

Drawing deeply from the Neo-Platonist anthropology that portrays human beings as fundamentally desiring or erotic creatures (the Greek word eros means “desire”—often, though not exclusively with a sexual connotation), Augustine powerfully explicated the Christian doctrine of sin. We are created as beings insufficient unto ourselves; we are hard wired for relationships of love with God, others, and ourselves. The structure of human existence is such that we find our center and our meaning outside of ourselves: first and foremost in God and secondarily in relationships with other humans. The root problem of human life arises when we turn away from God and make a creature (other humans, ourselves, or another created thing) the object of our highest desire. Augustine called this underlying disease “disordered love” or “disordered desire.” Turning away from desire for God as our highest good results in worshipping creatures or creaturely experiences and (attempting) to use God for our own purposes. In short, when we misdirect our desire to creatures rather than to the Creator, all hell breaks loose.

Augustine’s own life story illustrates this quite vividly. In his Confessions—the first spiritual autobiography or memoire—Augustine recounts an early adult life marked by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (but without the rock ‘n’ roll). He sought pleasure and fulfillment through endless sexual encounters. Eventually, he comes to realize that he has been “looking for love in all the wrong places.” His sexual escapades were really nothing but a desperate search for the fulfillment that can only come from a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. His sexual acting out only covered over his longing for a love that would not fade or slip away. Augustine captures the essence of his journey from sex addict and power seeker to faithful obedience to Jesus Christ by saying in the opening lines of the book that “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O God.” More profound words outside of the Bible have hardly ever been written! Underneath all our “ignorant craving” (to borrow an apt phrase from the Buddhists) lies our profound desire or hunger for God.

Augustine and Dante shed real light on contemporary American culture. We are a sex-saturated people. Everywhere we look—in the media, in popular culture, in politics—we see sexuality as a dominant theme. Sexuality promises fulfillment of our deepest desires and holds out the hope of perpetual happiness. And it sells billions of dollars with or products every year…but I digress. Augustine and Dante help me to see that our obsession with sexuality points to a much deeper desire for ultimate fulfillment and loving intimacy. No created thing, no matter how beautiful or alluring, will ever be able to meet the most burning of all our desires. That fulfillment only comes from giving ourselves—heart, soul, mind, body, strength—to God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. True blessedness, whether in the heavenly spheres or on earth, comes from intimate knowledge and love of God. Rahab knew this. So did Augustine. So can we.


Paradiso Canto 8: We’re Mixed Up, and That’s Good

Dante’s questions continue as he ascends the spheres of heaven. Again and again, his questions are absolutely understandable – but again and again, the answers suggest that he has momentarily forgotten the pervasive role of the Creator in directing all things. He is learning, brick by brick, that things have to be the way they are, and that’s good, because it embodies the cohering light of Intelligence, flowing through all, characterizing all, ensouling all.

There’s an undertone, perhaps unconscious, to Dante’s questions: Why are things the way they are? Why do they work this way and not another? Constantly, we feel the ramping, vibrant human mind kicking at its stall, wanting to blow down its limits, wanting to know, to know. Dante’s interrogation isn’t profane or irreligious, but its energy is nevertheless questing and profound. And being in heaven doesn’t quench the thirst of the search.

The sphere of Venus, eh? We’d expect a look at sexual desire and love, but no. (Maybe because, in the end, the belief in Venus and the star was a pagan holdover?) Instead, we find ourselves in a discussion with Charles Martel about a topic that has puzzled and horrified many parents: why do children turn out so differently? Why are people so diverse? What is the origin of that diversity, which admittedly makes human society so rich, and so is inarguably necessary to human life (as Aristotle pointed out), but also leads to such trouble? “How is it,” asks Dante, “sweet seed can bear bitter fruit?”

That question bespeaks human insecurity and frustration at unpredictability – in the world in general, but especially in human affairs. We can’t tell how people will turn out, and we can’t control the ways their differences will combine. We can’t foresee or catch up all the consequences. All parents know this tremulous, balked feeling in regard to their children. We just can’t see the future. Charles, now in heaven, is worried about the choices of his brother Robert. (Although I must say, he needn’t have worried: Robert turned out to be a good king, a peacemaker and defender of the Italian peninsula against foreign invaders.)

Charles, evidently for a while an admired acquaintance of Dante’s, is a good authority, because (as Dante sees it) he was very different from his brother, who may be on a perilous path. Charles says that had he not died so young, things might have been different. As in both Inferno and Purgatorio, the affairs of the world, and the worries of the world, go on, and those in these various postlife realms are aware of them and share them — even those, like Charles Martel, who are in perpetual bliss.

Dante had begun by calling the belief in Venus a relic of pagan times – but Martel’s explanation of human diversity is a mixture of the pagan (astrology) and the Christian (the informing divine Intelligence). The stars exert different influences on us as each of us are born; this astral individuation takes place within the plan of Providence. Martel reminds Dante of “The Good, which turns and gladdens the entire Kingdom you’re climbing,” and which “makes Providence a power” in the stars. “And in Mind, which is itself perfect, there is provision” for both the natures of men and for their well-being.

Dante and Martel agree that nature can never “tire of doing what is necessary,” because that’s what nature is. And, following Aristotle, Dante also agrees we’re a naturally gregarious, social animal, and that it would be awful if we were all the same. We need to live in society, and we need to be different and diverse and divergent. God has done a good thing in making it so.

But how, then, does human diversity lead to so much trouble? As usual, it’s us and our fallenness. We mess up the plan of Providence. Human beings misinterpret the plan, or they try to force others or themselves into talents, lives, or positions for which they aren’t cut out. People don’t pay attention to the groundwork laid by Nature, and humankind gets off on to the wrong road.

Suppose we substituted the term genetic material for the term stars. We’d have a rather moving notion. Thanks to sexual recombination of genes, it’s exceedingly, vastly unlikely that any two people are identical. In human terms, it’s all but impossible. Our genes are what recombine, take different mixes and forms, at our formation. What results is my and your and his and her unrepeatable identity.

Can we see genetics, that outplaying braid of human diversity, as nestling within the plan of Providence?


Paradiso Canto 7: When Punishment or Mercy Won’t Do

No one may grasp the hidden meaning of
this edict, brother, till his inborn senses
have been made whole in the sweet fire of love. (Par 7.58-60)

Yes, Brother. Amen, Brother.

Justinian departing at the beginning of Canto 7

I remember a story about a Jesuit Priest, a professor in a prestigious Catholic seminary, who asked his theology class the question one sunny morning, “How many of you understand the Doctrine of the Trinity?”

Half the class members somnolently raised their hands.

“You,” he said, staring the hand-raisers in the eye with a long pause. “You show you do not understand the Doctrine of the Trinity.”

We’re dealing with deep mysteries here – and Dante himself says so. That Beatrice is speaking not so poetically, but more like a scholastic theologian, is evident in the number of times Dante places the phrase, “Now pay attention people, or you’ll miss this…” (or its rough Italian equivalent) on Beatrice’s lips. Dante is doing theology, like only Dante can, and stretches not only the limits of good Terza Rima, but human logic as well.

But here’s the key starting point, I think: if we have a hard time understanding the theology of the cross (or the mystery of the Trinity, for that matter), it’s because we’re weighed down in human concepts, human ways of thinking, human ideas of justice and mercy that have the potential to make us miss the mystery of love, whose nature can seem to our human minds strange and paradoxical. The only way we can really fully understand it is through the lens of love itself, or (more precisely) in the light of love, whose glow seems to be increasing the closer heavenward we venture.

So, we encounter the first paradox: how come God both required a sacrifice to balance the scales of justice (i.e. the sacrifice of the only-begotten son), and at the same time required punishment of that same act (here referring to the sacking of Jerusalem under Titus Caesar, which in the mind of Dante’s age was thought to be avenging the crucifixion of Christ)? How is it that God, um, requires a sacrifice – of his only son? Requires vengeance in the form of the destruction of the holy city that God himself founded? Such notions represent a stumbling block that has tripped up not only many a non-believer, but also many a Christian.

Dante says, if I’m reading correctly here (and good chance I’m not): Well, God and the Jews were in sync. That the Jews really are all of us should be evident to us as a modern audience – and that the scapegoating of the Jews is an insidious product of human sin itself should be obvious to us…more on that later. But Dante says here: humans meant it for evil, God meant it for good. The earth quaked in horror, and the heaven’s were opened for bliss. Therefore, what was the most magnificent event in all human history was also cause for vengeance and punishment at the same (paradoxical) time.

Let me first turn over something of a new leaf here, and say I’m not quite sure that I’m with Dante here; at least, not completely. Let me say that the Great Poet was a child of his age, steeped in scholastic/Anselmian theories of the atonement, and medieval concepts of justice. But I don’t buy the notion that God requires a sacrifice in order to make things right. I’m more with Rene Girard, I suppose – or even Barth. To say that God required death – nay child sacrifice – is not true; WE required it. It is first God’s huge NO to the ultimate innocent death, the final way of exposing the very heart of human sin: OUR requirement of blood sacrifice, in the vain attempt to balance the scales for a while, attain some peace on the cheap at the price of a little innocent human blood.

But we remember that the cross also, at the same time, contains God’s YES. In submitting to human foolishness, God both exposes to the plain light of day the nature of its violence, while also showing forth the kind of love that heals all violence: through violence, God gives himself to us, as a final act of healing our violence. This is the paradox of the cross.

So, if we, especially those of us who prefer a somewhat more nuanced view of the cross than traditional atonement theology…if we strip down what Dante is trying to say poetically (and rather scholastically at the same time), we might arrive at a notion like this: how can love be love if it’s cheap?

If the only cure for human madness is love, and if our madness is so extreme that only the most serious medicine will do – only a medicine that God is capable of giving – what can we say of this medicine?

First of all, it ain’t cheap. Dante asks the question, really: “So, why didn’t God just forgive Adam’s indiscretion?” Why was mercy not the only medicine required?

I’m reminded of Auden’s whimsical musing from Herod’s speech in For the Time Being:

“I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”

It’s mockery to think that God’s grace is so cheap that, as a salve to human conscience, we can go on with our madness with the comforting notion that God will forgive all. Or, that the crime itself was no big deal.

Such an illusion, for Dante to be sure, would only further enslave us in our illusion. And what we’re after, after all, is ultimately freedom. Freedom from the illusion of freedom that Adam sought, in the attempt to take on God’s nature that ruined his, and our, own. By trying to take freedom by violence, Adam (i.e. our primordial fool) relinquished his freedom.

No – the crime is ultimate, says Dante; in sinning against heaven, we can’t pay a commensurate price in humility. Only the most precious ointment will make us right.

This is what Bonhoeffer means when he writes of cheap grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church…. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap? (The Cost of Discipleship).

One might say that cheap grace is the kind that let’s sin creep back in – for example, in fobbing off on the Jews the crime of crucifixion.

But what of the alternative? Is punishment (of the human) adequate? Or is human repentance enough? Would it be true that even the most precious human blood shed could balance the scales? Not so. Paradise can not be regained,

…by any road that does not lead to one of these two fords:

Either that God, by courtesy alone,
forgive his sin; or that the man himself,
by his own penitence and pain, atone. (Par. 7.88-92)

Note that the statement itself is fraught with paradox: “Cannot be gained…by any road…that does not lead to one of these….” These, which are essentially the same. To paraphase Psalm 85, “Justice and mercy shall meet…” at the foot of the cross.

All this…still fuzzy, in light of…this light. But the miracle is that the Word of God “chose to descend into the mortal clay,” thereby giving light to our eyes – if only evident at times in “hints and guesses” that bespeak our ultimate eternal healing and bliss.  (Thanks, T. S.)

But, to end, I can think of no better portrayal of how it all…works…than in this, a scene from one of my all-time favorite movies (dealing with the themes of violence, punishment, innocence, redemption): the cliffside scene in the movie The Mission. It’s about repentance and vengeance. No…it’s about forgiveness. Worth watching. But watch both of them.