Monthly Archives: April 2011

Canto 34: Forget Mortal Sins? Recall Moral Successes as We Enter Heaven?

Much to say, but since so many of us are writing, I’ll limit myself to these two questions, then a few follow-up comments about Dante’s choices regarding bathing in Lethe and sipping from Eunoe.

Is it good to wash away the ability to recollect one’s mortal sins? I can understand needing to diminish such memories; but needing to eliminate them altogether? Doesn’t one need to know how and when s/he has erred in order to avoid repeating the same errors? Don’t such memories have huge power for remediating one’s negative inclinations?

Why sip from Eunoe right before entering Heaven? How is it useful to be most mindful of one’s good deeds when heading to the place of ultimate peace and reward?

Does Dante’s Purgatory purge too much?

This is perhaps where I have to acknowledge that nothing in my life has made me believe in an afterlife.

When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we express among our wishes the hope that divine “will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Heaven is the great repository of divine aspirations, divine ideals, the source of models, of inspiration. Wouldn’t Eunoe then be the thing to drink now, in the midst of life, along with the bread and wine, to remember the scale of courage and self-sacrifice necessary to help us engender a world in which “Thy will be done”?

Pier Kooistra

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Canto 33: The End That Is a New Beginning

Our Lenten journey with Dante through purgatory comes to an end with this canto. It seems odd, though, to call it an “end” as it is, in reality, yet another major transition. After journeying upward through the terraces and trials of the mountain of purgatory, the end of the second part of the Divine Comedy sets the stage for heavenly journeying in the Paradisio. Before embarking upon the final stage of his trek, Dante has one more thing he must do. Before ascending further, Dante must be washed in the waters of the Lethe. In so doing, he will cease to focus on his sins and will henceforth focus on matters divine.

We end our Lenten travels with Dante instructed by this final canto. As with Dante’s final canto here, Lent is not a destination so much as a transitional space. During this season, we focus on our sins and work at repentance. Such things can never be the destination; to allow them to be so would miss the whole point. Lenten observance and penitential practices only prepare the way for us to enter into experience of and contemplation upon matters divine in an appropriate manner. The destination, however, lies yet ahead. Our encounter with matters divine begins on Palm Sunday and culminates in the profound mysteries of the death of Jesus on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

As with Dante, we must pass through the waters in order to ascend to that which is most beautiful, sublime, and holy. Lent was originally established by the ancient church as a time of learning and penitential preparation for the celebration of baptism during the celebration of Easter (a complex rite that began on Holy Saturday and continued until dawn on Easter Sunday morning). The early church teachers believed that divine illumination came through baptism. Some things-the most important things-about Christian belief and practice could only be known on the basis of the illumination provided by the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of baptism. For those already baptized, the culmination of the Lenten journey with the celebration of baptism for new converts provided an opportunity for baptismal renewal. So it was and so it continues to be. Renewal of the gift of baptism-passing symbolically again through the waters-prepares us for ascent to the most holy of all mysteries.

May the last sentence of Dante’s Purgatorio be ours as we move into Holy Week: “I came forth from the most holy waves, renovated even as new trees renewed with new foliage, pure and ready to rise to the stars” (Canto 33.145).

Onward and upward into heavenly grace!

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary


Canto 32: Sleeper, Awake!

It’s just my luck to draw this Canto. Action-packed, ain’t it? You got the Eagle, The Griffin, the Giant and the Whore. You have Beatrice, seated on the ground near the Apple Tree. Most of all, most active of all, most turbulent of all, is the speaker’s mind, going in and out of consciousness, in and out of full and half-awareness, now focused like a laser to only one thing, now overloaded.

Even more than most is what lies just beyond all this . . . Paradise. Purgatorio is a strange, frustrating poem, written to be frustrating, to feel awkward and balked, thwarted, thirsty, wondering, agonizing. It’s the last assertion of the clog of the flesh, the asymmetrical axis of spirit and body, the sense of the human soul, caught in time, gravity, infirmity, and sin, not really fitting in anywhere, ever caught, ever in a state of painful between-ness.

As Purgatorio is! The ultimateTweenLand!

It’s hard to describe, after the hard descent of Inferno and the hard ascent up the terraced mountain of Purgatorio, how moving, how sad, how Lenten, the sight of the Tree is when we first see it. I realize that allegorically this Tree symbolizes the Earthly authority of the Church – but even here we have echoes of the Edenic tragedy. And later, when we see the allegory of the corruption of the Church by greed and political intrigue, we see the expression of original fallenness even in the institution (the Church) that should be teaching us the way.

The Tree has been here all along. Everything we are must pass this way. We can be good, we can be wonderful, but everything we do must pass through our original fallenness. The Tree need not be a bar, need not be impassable, but it can be. That’s what it was in Inferno, where reside those who in their personal lives replicated the angelic fall from grace that created Inferno. The Tree was there, too, all along. It’s one of two Trees essential to Christian iconography – the other being the Tree on which Christ was grafted in exquisite, ecstatic agony. That second Tree lies in the shadow cast by the first; the first made the second necessary.

And how consistent Dante has been in stressing, and lashing, the corruptions of wealth and power. We saw it at all levels of Inferno, and we’ve been seeing it at all Terraces of Purgatorio. It’s pervasive, it’s everywhere, it ruinedFlorence, it ruinedRome, and if we’re not careful it will ruin us and the Church. Dante looks around at the evils of what was, for him, modern Europe, and he depicts a battle of mythic beings, the long, tortured history of the Church, from the Rome of Constantine toAvignon.

I admire how bumbling Dante is throughout this canto – and yet, how full of pathos and dramatic irony his situation is. He sees Beatrice full in the face, and stares too long, and (once again) is yelled at. Of course, we’d all do the same. This guy has made a confession, been admonished for wasting his gifts, been criticized for weeping over the loss of Virgil . . . he can’t do anything right.

Except follow Beatrice. He knows she can show him the way, show him the Divine as the Divine really is. Even if Dante messes up a lot – and he does, in ways he can’t anticipate – he doesn’t know the rules – I mean, who does? – he is saved by his belief he can be saved. Beatrice is the mystery of Divine Guidance, revelation, the hints, clues, and teachings in earthly life that lead to God. Seeing Beatrice in the face prefigures the moment, at the end of Paradiso, when Dante beholds all the leaves of the universe bound into a transcendent book.

It’s also a comment on human love, as Dante says it came into his heart, and how, through the image of the Divine in the beloved, led him to the Divine. Neoplatonism was more than an intellectual game to Dante – it was an attempt to connect the transcendent, life-changing power of human love with the Love that moves the universe, literally linking the two. In a poem such as “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” which we saw performed earlier in Purgatorio, Dante magnificently and repeatedly lets us know that My Lady is more than My Lady. She’s herself, of course, and I love her for herself, but she is also Light. She is also a portal of Love. She “strengthens our faith, / for such was ordained from eternity.” She, if we stay awake and alive and alert to it – she – whoever She is for us – is how we learn in this life, and this body, and this intellect, of the Love that is God.

Dante has said throughout his poem that the good person pays attention, and commits to memory (and to heart!) the lessons strewn, like bread on a forest road, throughout our existence. It’s both a medieval alertness for reality as a series of signs and a timeless awareness that God has structured existence to speak continually of the Divine, if one is a good enough person to recognize that, read it, and follow it.

It makes me wonder how many of us are that alert, that aware, that mindful. Poetry, music, and scholarship – and my job as a journalist – all of these rely heavily on notions of being aware, being in the midst of the world, cultivating a nuanced, omnidirectional alertness. Engaged and informed. Alert and aware. That’s what being alive is – and it obligates us to lead moral, humble lives, because without those, we’ll have no hope of seeing clearly.

And when Matilda calls on a dozing Dante to “Arise!” we definitely remember Lazarus. We remember the Transfiguration. We remember Easter. We remember Ephesians, with “Sleeper, awake!” It is a rising from the dead, a small version, a personal Resurrection.

And you know? I find his little personal awakening far more haunting, far more moving, far more Lenten, than the massive smash-up with Eagle, Chariot, and so on. The fate and history of the Church seems less moving than the spiritual fate of Dante. If such a bumbler, such a time-waster, such a political failure, such a trembling, flailing mess can see Beatrice and be blessed and be taken to Paradiso, anyone can.

That’s not true, of course. Not anyone. Inferno showed us those who can’t. But what counts here is that sense of hope, for the little person in the midst of a vast universe in which sin and goodness battle moment to moment. If Dante, then why not me? Maybe I will have my own Beatrice. Maybe — if I but saw it rightly — I already do.

That hope, that hopefulness, is extended to all by Dante though Dante, that feeling that we can achieve the sight of the Divine, if we stay open, work to be alert, follow the signs . . . and keep climbing.


Canto 31: She’s Just a Girl? She’s a Bomb.

So much of what I love about Dante and his magnificent poem is on display in this Canto, and what leads up to it. Love it.

Speaking of which, I can’t resist pointing out what I think is a delicious irony that we encounter through the setting of the last several Cantos in the Sacred Wood. It’s taken about 61 Cantos – how many thousands of words is that? – to go from getting lost in the woods to getting found in…the woods. All this time to “get ourselves…back to the garden.” Is it possible that the same dark wood in which Dante originally got lost is…the same woods that we find here, atop purgatory? If we stretch our spacio-temporal and poetic imagination, I think it’s what Dante intends. As if heaven and hell are the same place, only separated by a state of consciousness. I love that. And I think it to be true.

Makes me think of family vacation. But alas, I digress.

Now to get to the heart of the matter in this Canto: Beatrice. Is it not odd too (perhaps moreso for the modern reader) that it took Dante this long to catch a glimpse of his honey – to be in the presence of his soul mate (could we call one’s lady that, in the context of courtly love of Dante’s time? More on that in a moment…)…and for what? A mighty tongue lashing. And, am I the only one who senses the strange mix of pleasure and pain in the heart and soul of Dante to be receiving it? That pain/joy mix seems to match the experience of those souls we’ve just met – but especially in this section of the Purgatorio, we get the idea that this is not about Dante the voyeur, the poser, the one learning a great lesson about sin and hell and suffering and all that. All very…informative and salutary. No, this is about Dante the pilgrim: to get there, he too has to experience the pain of his own sin. He has to feel it, in order to be healed of it; in order to forget it. And the only one uniquely qualified to inflict that kind of searing pain? The one whom Dante loves most. His Beatrice. (And I use that phrase, “loves most”, carefully – in light of what follows here).

So then, let’s say a word or two about Beatrice. I notice we haven’t written much about sister Bea (the key to the whole structure indeed, Bob). One of the reasons I love the poem – a reason it’s been so spiritually meaningful to me – is the notion that God does not come to us as an abstract concept; a philosophy; a faceless “force”. God comes to us in the veil of human flesh. And for Dante, God comes in the most marvelous human flesh: that of a woman.

Disagree with me? I’d really be interested in anyone else’s insight here, but from my angle of view, Beatrice herself is none other than a Christ figure in the poem, and for Dante. Now, we can’t get too literal here – Dante is playing around in this very Canto with the idea of form and image as it relates to incarnation: how is it that God takes on a form that is “unaltered in itself / yet in its image working change on change”? (XXI:124-125) What Dante seems to be saying is that divinity can be reflected, refracted / imaged, imagined, in forms that “work change on change” – the essence cloaked in flesh can take a variety of visage. And in the poem, Beatrice takes various symbolic forms – divine light; the church; lady philosophy…and: a feminine Christ figure.

I think it’s rather cool that Dante connects the very viscera-engaging experience he had when he saw the image of a girl – she was just nine years old when he first saw her – and it rocked his world. He felt that thing that touched the inner core of his humanity, and he realized it was not “just a girl, just a girl”…to further borrow from Pete Townsend: she was a bomb. (Check out the lyrics and the story behind the song and maybe you too will see a strange consonance with Canto XXXI.) But for Dante came the insight that this soul-bomb could be nothing other than that which reflects to us the divine. This insight, to be sure, was incubated in the culture of courtly love in which Dante and everyone in his age was swimming – but to me, it is an insight that is given its clearest expression in Dante.

All this reminds me of a book I read years ago, We by Robert Johnson; one of those books you read, and somehow it sticks to your brain and soul. It’s a book about the psychology of romantic love. Johnson is a Jungian psychologist, and he uses the story of Tristan and Isolde as a parable of human and divine love. Tristan – like Dante – is off and away fighting battles for his Lady, Isolde. She is the very force that drives and motivates his quest. She is beyond reproach: a prefect image of woman. The irony is that he, like Dante, never really gets to know his love as a person. The share very few words. She’s a lady best viewed from a distance. She is, in that overused word from modern psychology, a “projection.” She is an image. And it is a powerful image. It has power to drive the soul of a man (and in this context, specifically, a man. I will not comment on the dynamics that may be at work in the opposite gender here, as I don’t feel qualified – but if there are any readers out there who would care to comment, would love to hear…). Romantic love, in some ways a discovery of the late middle ages, was like splitting the atom: it was a discovery that unleashed an incredible force on the collective psyche of the west.

Johnson’s thesis in the book, and here I’ll present a very boiled-down version, to me is fascinating. It’s also useful in diagnosing much of modern spiritual sickness, especially as regards our conflicted and dysfunctional expectations of our relationships. Here’s a question: when we settle on a mate, do we expect that person to be our “soul mate”? There is a very distinct and powerful social myth that indeed it should be so. There is one star-struck love who is meant for each of us. We find each other. The kiss that rocks the heavens. “You complete me,” you say. And we live happily ever after.

Well, not really. And not always, to be sure.

For Johnson, this is the unfortunate detritus of the Age of Romantic Love. In some ways, this has bequeathed to us a culture that worships…love. The experience of love. The kind of love you find in pop songs about it. (“Who’s that lady? who’s that lady? Beautiful lady. Who’s that lady? Sexy lady…”) Perhaps this is the most prominent example of what Dante has been talking about throughout the entire poem: looking for love in the wrong places – and ironically, the place that seems the most likely place to find it. In a woman. (Or a man, depending on your gender and orientation). In that Other we hope, fantasize, expect will…”complete us.”

The problem is the fact that we experience what most everyone experiences in the course of a romantic relationship: we fell in love not just with a person, but a projection. Somehow the real person presented an image we connected with something else. Something like that thing that Tristan saw in his Isolde. That Dante found in his Beatrice. And Dante could stay in the illusion (that’s not the right word, but suffice for now) because he never spoke with her. Never held her. Never saw her pick her teeth with a knife, or fart, or make a stupid comment at a party.

And don’t get me wrong: projections get a bad rap in modern psychology. “You’re projecting” might be the typical fodder of many a marriage counseling session. But projection in itself ain’t wrong. It’s the very thing that Dante is doing. And I think he’s conscious of it. How could we possibly connect to an image of God unless it were projected…somewhere, on something (or on someone).

For Dante’s age and culture, marriage was not the institution through which we find our “soul mate.” Marriage was for the purpose of having kids, creating family alliances. It was utilitarian. That’s not to say it was absent of love – indeed, that’s not the case. It was just not freighted with all the expectations carried by our modern culture, namely that our mate will also fill the role of…God for us.

Because, whether or not he realizes it, that is the true object of Tristan’s quest: God. God in the visage of a woman who fires his imagination (and his lions, and his viscera).

And the same is true for Dante. But what I would venture is that Dante is aware of this dynamic. Check it out:

Like sunlight in a glass the twofold creature

Shown from the deep reflection of her eyes,

now in the one, now in the other nature. (XXXI:121-123)

Dante sees Christ reflected in the eyes of a woman, his beloved Beatrice. And later when she (finally) smiles, he sees in that the very splendor of eternal light.

What would it be like if we – and I mean the biggest we here, the “we” of Western culture – woke up one day and realized that what we are seeing (as if on a scrim) when we look into the eyes of the beloved not the beloved, but God. All those pop songs about love (and indeed, about sex) is not about our numinous attraction to the other, but our innate desire for the Other. For God. Our quest for the infinite begins with the eyes of that creature that most stirs both our hearts and our loins: the object of romantic love.

And so then, what if we realized that we were looking at a projection? What I see reflected in you is in a sense not just you; it’s You. And maybe if we realized that, we would not put so much darned pressure on our relationships. We would not expect our mate to be our Mate. The one who “completes us.” The quest of romantic love is no less a quest for God. And if we were to go on that romantic quest, our relationships might change, for the better. Perhaps we might see them as a bit more utilitarian, a bit less viscera engaging than that first kiss. But no less magical, passionate, loving. It’s just that we would unhook our quest for the ultimate gut-engaging quest from that quest, the quest that is our true life’s quest, the quest of Tristan. The quest of Dante. We would begin our quest anew, and aright: a quest toward God.

Who might look like…and I speak only for me at this point…a woman?


Cantos 28 & 30: Intersections of Divine and Human

Joseph: “Well, keep your eyes open. …”

Clarence: “ Where? I…I don’t see a thing.”

Joseph: “Oh, I forgot. You haven’t got your wings yet.

Now look, I’ll help you out.

Concentrate, Clarence.

Begin to see something?

Clarence: “Why, yes!  This is amazing!…”

AS WE LOOK DOWN FROM OUR CELESTIAL CLOUD TO THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE, WE SEE A TERRACED MOUNTAIN AT THE VERY ANTIPODE TO MESOPOTAMIA.

We see Dante has made major progress.  He has reached the pinnacle of Mount Purgatory.

He, Virgil and Statius have arrived in “il Giardino dell’Eden,” in “Paradiso Terrestre” (Earthly Paradise). In awe, they enter the garden.

But wait, adjusting our ‘angel sight,’ we see much more.

The poets are at the conjunction of Heaven and Hell.  Oh, of course, that is Purgatorio.

But, more particularly, they have arrived at the very intersection, the crossing point between Purgatory, and Heaven itself.

What a contradiction of realities, even of words, is this “Earthly Paradise”

– it is the quintessential oxymoron.

Eden has not existed since the dawn of human trespass; and yet, here it is.

The pilgrims have, in fact, arrived at the very convergence of a multiplicity of spheres; indeed, of many different types of spheres.

What do we see?

Now dependent, as we are here, upon the limited scope of ‘human knowledge,’ we see a number of “intersecting Venn diagrams”: and, mostly of dualities.

We see interactions between human knowledge and Divine Knowledge;

between the corporeal and the spiritual;

between Reason and Faith.

In this garden of an eternal fountain, of two rivers, of beauty almost too painful to view, we find Matilda, the ‘Lady of Innocence,’ our Eve before ‘The Fall.’ She is singing and gathering flowers.

We have reached the point of “Farewell and Hail,”

of forgetting and remembering,

of the “Active” and the “Reflective.

Joseph directs Clarence’s attention to the unfolding drama.

He points out that in the last canto of this story, Dante had had a dream, a Biblically symbolic dream of Leah and Rachel.

Dante had related that dream as follows:

“… in my dream, I seemed to see a woman

both young and fair; along a plain she gathered

flowers, and even as she sang, she said:

Whoever asks my name, know that I’m Leah,

and I apply my lovely hands to fashion

a garland of the flowers I have gathered.” [Canto XXVII, lines 97–102]

In this dream, the young, beautiful Leah gathered flowers for a garland and observed how her sister Rachel could never stop observing her reflection in a mirror.   The observers know from Genesis (29-30; 35) that Leah and Rachel acted out, respectively, examples of the active and contemplative lives.

Here, in earthly paradise, so soon after this dream, Dante beholds Matilda (although she is not named for two more cantos) as the “Lady of Innocence,” as an active presence.

In response to Dante’s questions, Matilda explains the Garden, its creation, its purpose, and it maintenance.

She also explains the two streams that flow through it. The first (where Dante finds her) is the Lethe, which empties the minds of those who drink from it of all cancelled sins.

The second one, the Eunoe, when drunk, enhances recollections of the good that one has accomplished.

Matilda also emphasizes that one must drink of the Lethe before the Eunoe for the spell to work.

Refocusing after some thought, Clarence asks “Why do Statius and Virgil hold back?“

Once again, Joseph points to the multiplicity of intersecting spheres surrounding them.

Virgil can go no further. He has reached the extreme tether of his sphere of existence.  Human wisdom can go no further.

Statius simply smiles.  It is not for him to intervene here.

“And what of this Matilda?   What of the streams?”

“Well, Clarence, remember Leah and Rachel?

“Matilda is Dante’s Leah.  She represents the active life: the life of this world in a perfected state.   Dante first must understand the human paradise that God made for mortal humanity, before he can begin to grasp the eternal paradise that God made for our spiritual selves.“

“And Rachel?”

“That comes soon.”

“The streams?”

“They are essential for humans who would move on, move up, in their quest for the good and for God.

They must purge their sins – forget the bad they have done.

But, they must also remember, cherish, and move forward toward the good.”

“What happens next?”

A bright flash and the arrival of a majestic procession that includes all sorts of symbolic characters startle Dante and his observers.

Voices are singing ‘Hosanna’.

The light comes from seven candles, their pure, steady flames leaving rainbow trails behind them as they lead the entourage.

Using their special sight, Joseph and Clarence view a grand parade including:

– 24 Elders (books of the Old Testament),

– four six-winged angels (the Gospels),

– a two-wheeled chariot (The Church),

– drawn by a griffin (Christ),

– seven dancing nymphs (the virtues),

– then two more elders (Paul and Luke),

– and lesser New Testament writers,

–   –   and finally

– an old man with undimmed eyes (John /Revelations).

This “Mystic Procession” symbolizes the “Church Triumphant.”

It suddenly stops at a crack of thunder, and there arose the song

“Come, spouse to Lebanon”, “(Benedictus gui Venis”).

BEATRICE HAS ARRIVED!

She is to be Dante’s new guide.

It is at this time Dante first notices that Virgil has disappeared.

Virgil’s work escorting Dante is at last done.

Being unable to go any further towards Heaven, he has departed.

But, asks Clarence, “Who is this Beatrice?

“She is Dante’s Rachel.”

“Did Dante seek her?”

“Oh, indeed, though not constantly and consistently enough.”

Unexpectedly, the chariotress reproves Dante for his rudeness.

When angels in the procession ask Beatrice why Dante is being chastised, she tells them that he had fallen so far in his life, only his seeing Hell had save him.

Even at this point in his long pilgrimage, Dante himself requires repentance before he can enter Heaven.

Looking closely, we see that the Beatrice who appears to Dante in the Chariot is both the real Beatrice he knew, but also is a representative, of “Divine Philosophy.”

Her very name derives from “full beatitude.

She is a symbol of spiritual love, the only path to true knowledge and understanding.

“Aha, could she then be…”

“Yes, Clarence, she sits with Rachel in Heaven, as the symbol of  ‘the light linking truth to intellect.’

She is …’the source of truth in matters of religion.’ ”

“So Clarence, you see, Dante, and we observers, have reached the structural

‘keystone of the story – the poem,’

This is not just a general convergence of spheres, it is the convergence point in the story’s plot.

This is the “climax” of his Divina Commedia: Dante’s pilgrim has at long last achieved reunion (at least the starting point of it) with Beatrice.

But, there’s still a measure of distance during which Dante (and we)  must realize he (and we) are on our own. “

For Dante still has a long road ahead; ‘his internal suffering of shame will not be done yet’  (thanks John).

Although Dante has found Beatrice, and she  represents “Divine Love” and “Perfect Peace,” he still has much to learn.

–   “As do we all,” says Clarence.

Best Wishes, Dante!  Bob S

 

"Beatrice with the Holy Grail" by Rossetti



Canto 28 & 29: A Notebook

La divina foresta, la selva antica: the paradise garden is an ancient wood, a divine forest, not some florid menagerie, some viney treasury of orchid and rose.  The poet traverses the space between the selva oscura and the selva antica, and somehow he must see the one in the other.  The poet sneaks his pastorella into paradise, and therein lies his genius; cut loose from his ancient formidable guide, he can’t help but conjure his mysterious shepherdess gathering flowers, his streams, trees, twittering birds, all the “variousness of everblooming May.”  The accomplished poet is an accomplished earth-smuggler.

Because, how strange!  On the mountaintop…a pastoral!

The poet walks through fire, walks onward alone, free of Virgil, yet on the other side of fire what does he encounter but a georgic!  Didactic verse about the Edenic atmosphere.  Even in paradise, the poet will carry the earth within him (an earthly paradise).  What is the poet’s commedia but a well-wrought time-capsule, a golden vessel laden with clay?

Poets are always aspiring meteorologists.

It greens the highest peak, but paradise is still earth.  The moon is still above it.  It’s the fantastic inwardness of the land that distinguishes it from earth, the secret mechanism that makes its vegetation grow, its winds blow, its water flow.  Something in the land pumps differently.  No hoe has broken it; the land has its heart intact.

The poet, king of himself, is still a pauper without Persephone.

The walk through fire and then a discovery, still, of such simplicity.  A breeze, birds, a woman gathering flowers.  This is it right here:  the poet should rest right here, in this locus amoenus, and not venture on toward the griffon and all the marvelous abstraction that follows.

The poet straddles the fork of Lethe and Eunoë—the forgetting of sin and the memory of the good.  Of course, the order matters, from which river you drink—Lethe first and Eunoë second.  But sometimes the poet mixes up his rivers.  He gets his ladles crossed.

How perfect and heartbreaking is the final image of Canto XXVIII!  The backward look to the poet-guides, the gentle affirming smile:  this is the poet’s summit, an apex of restraint and simplicity (here I think of a phrase Wayne Koestenbaum coined for the work of Louise Glück: a poet of the minimalist ecstatic)—only a smile and the basso continuo of the Prime Mover in the trees.

* * *

Ah Helicon!  Ah Urania!  Make way for the procession of footnotes!

From the calm center, after the smooth continuo, the cymbal crash of the grand pageant.  This is what happens if you venture fifty paces farther from Virgil: the poet’s simple radiance, so delicately achieved, refracts, as if through the ‘bejeweled vision’ and ‘geodic skull’ of John the Revelator (phrases from Richard Wilbur’s poem “Icarium Mare”.)  A griffon!

I think the greatest challenge for a poet of faith might be negotiating the borderland between pastoral and apocalyptic.  To skyrocket from the murmuring stream to the cosmic candelabra, from the steady breeze to the roar of a heavenly chariot.  Such a thin membrane between Pan’s pipe and the angelic trumpet.  Let’s go back a bit, Matilda.

The poet moves so quickly from restraint to strain.  Twice he calls attention to the arduous task of presenting these magnificent visions in rhyme.  It’s not that the poet has shifted from description to allegory, from image to symbol, for we’ve never left the realm of symbol.  Instead the poet catapults here into a reservoir of preexisting biblical symbol and that shift in symbolic register, from innovative imagery to hieratic biblical collage, is necessarily abrupt.  The poet leaves Virgil and Statius for Ezekiel and John.  The former guides look on in awe, we’re told, but I think they shake their heads a little bit.

At what point to you stop following the poet.  When do you say, “Let’s bivouac here, big guy, in the leafy tents of the selva antica?”  I fear the Paradiso.  I long to return to the land where a mere shadow caused such a stir.


Canto 27. Moving Beyond One’s Mentor

Dante enters into yet another liminal space in this canto. He passes through the boundary of purging fire that guards the way to earthly Eden (Genesis 3). In so doing, his soul receives its final purification. As a result of passing through the purging wall of fire, he can now move forward into blessedness and he will see God because he has obtained a pure heart (Matthew 5). Before he can ascend yet higher, Virgil informs him that his work as guide has come to an end. In this canto, Dante loses his mentor. Virgil advises Dante to follow the (purified) desires of his heart from this point forward. In so doing, he will no longer need the wise, rational counsel that has guided Dante through the fires of hell and upward through the levels of purgatory.

Moving beyond one’s mentor may be as painful as it is necessary. Many of us have come a long way in life by depending on the wise counsel of some key figure who showed us where to go and who warned us of dangers en route. For such mentors, we have great and abiding affection. Without them, we likely would not have reached our long desired destinations. In many ways, mentors function for many of us as signs of divine grace.

There comes a time, however, in our lives when we have to move beyond our mentors in order to continue our upward journey. To cling desperately to a mentor can mean stagnation, and lack of further progress. In order to climb higher, we eventually have to leave our mentors behind. Such a move does not mean ingratitude; it only means that mentors can only take us so far. Ultimately, we have to travel the rest of the way in life according to our own instincts, perspectives, and reflective experience. Paul the Apostle and Immanuel Kant both come to mind in this connection. When speaking of the role of the Mosaic Law in the Christian life, Paul describes it as a pedagogue or mentor. It has a very important role to play in guiding, inspiring, and correcting. At the point of encounter with Jesus Christ and the Gospel, we cease to need the kind of mentoring provided by the Law. In order to climb higher, we must leave the mentor behind. Similarly, Kant, when asked about the meaning of the term “Enlightenment,” said that it is to move beyond our self-enforced mental minority. Enlightenment means to “dare to think” on our own without being subject to external authorities like mentors and other authorities who would do our thinking for us. At some point, we must dare to stand up on our own two legs and think for ourselves. Kant’s call to move beyond all mentors foreshadowed and set the stage for Existentialism and its similar call to dare to make and own one’s choices in life.

I am profoundly grateful to the four main mentors that I have had in my life. They have enriched me and guided me in ways that I can hardly enumerate. I will always love and respect them. Yet, in order to continue my journey of faith, I have had to move beyond each of them intellectually and spiritually. In the end, I have to travel the rest of the journey on my own. I only hope that I have learned their lessons well enough and that I have matured enough that I, like Dante, can trust my own desires and instincts.

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary