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


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


Canto 26: Add To Our Burning Our Shame

There are many arresting things about Dante’s Purgatorio. You can no longer sin – unlike in Inferno, where everything you do is sin, to compound and perpetuate the sin for which you have been damned. But in Purgatorio, you can sin no longer, only do things that expiate sin, a hopeful, gratifying sign that in Purgatorio, you are within the skirts of grace. You can and do suffer, however, both externally (as in corporeal agony and the physical work of climbing up the winding terraces of the mountain) (which, beautifully enough, gets easier and lighter as you climb, signifying an increase of grace and a nearness to Paradise) and internally – through shame. And as we see throughout this astonishing, strange, twilit poem, shame agonizes as bad as fire. The denizens “add to their burning with their shame,” hastening their self-purification toward Paradise.

In Inferno, Dante sees many burning in endless torment for lust, and for unnatural or excessive brands of sex. Paolo and Francesca, two of the most admired characters in the entire Commedia, are in hell. So why are they in hell, but Sodomites and Hermaphrodites and poets of desire here in Purgatorio?

Because in hell you can’t feel shame. Paolo and Francesca capitulated to the kind of desire in which you cease to care. They abandoned station, compassion, and conscience; they literally let their passion (stoked, remember, by love poetry!) burn them up until there was nothing left. They ceased to feel the shame that is the voice of conscience calling. And in Inferno they feel no shame, either. Shame is, of course, pointless once you’re in hell. You can feel regret, bitterness, and fury – and since these will be directed at God, they, too, will be sins. Paolo and Francesca didn’t care and still don’t. They are beautiful in a way, because of the totality of their passion, and also because of its source. But shame implies you care, and they didn’t then, and they don’t now that they’re in Inferno.

So it’s not sex, or the kind of sex, or the mere fact of sex, that damns. It’s a particular, familiar kind of crime, an immersion past conscience in the luxurious blandishments of physical pleasure. We recall that the  Latin verb pervertere, from which we get “perversion,” really means “a turning away,” possibly a relic of a time in which face-to-face sex was the only kind thought to be allowed, and so any turning away from the partner was a perversion – but much more probably an acknowledgment that any kind of perversion, as when we pervert parenthood, or fiscal probity, or social responsibility, or trust, or love, or food, involves a turning away from God.

So those who are here at the Seventh Cornice, those so close to the top, to the embrace of the Lord, they are those who fell through lust, but retained a conscience throughout. From here (2011), it may seem a small thing, but it’s dispositive, the utter difference. The Lust we encounter in Purgatorio is not mortal, not the soul-destroying, God-alienating evil lust (or any sinful behavior) can be.

Think of Dr. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s play. When he gets close to hell, Faustus prays to feel remorse – and he can’t. Prayer is futile. Efforts at reform, repentance, metanoia, useless. It’s gone. When Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, kneels to pray, he does so knowing his repentance is incomplete. He feels some sorrow that he killed his brother . . . but he still wants the things he got via the murder – his brother’s kingdom and his brother’s wife. Wanting these, he knows, means he doesn’t want to pray, doesn’t want to get any better. The intention isn’t there, so you might as well get up, Claudius, and go your way, because you’re cooked. Conscience is gone. “Words without thoughts, never to heaven go.” God won’t hear them because what you’re saying aren’t words – they’re noises without meaning or sense.”

By contrast, the way the Sodomites and Hermaphrodites and poets of desire – all the while burning in the terrible fire to Dante’s left – mingle praise (of Mary, of chaste Diana, etc.) and shout out their crimes in shame demonstrate how far we’ve come from hell. That’s how the Whip of Shame works, the Whip of Lust. Passing in different directions, exchanging kisses of greeting with one another, the homosexuals cry out “Sodom and Gomorrha!” and the straights repeat the tale of Pasiphaë. Shame, the capacity to feel shame, shows conscience is still alive; once shame dies, your soul dies, too. So, as Dante and Virgil wind their way along the Seventh Cornice, they hear the alternating shouts of physical agony and cries of personal grief at transgression, which amounts, in an uncanny, surreal way, to an ecstasy, a possession by the spirit of grace.

I don’t think Dante is saying you can screw around and still be all right. He’s saying, reasonably enough, that sin and intention and conscience lie across a certain range, for almost all sins. Yes, for some sins, to commit, even to consider, is to self-condemn. But the great mass of human failings stretch across a spectrum, and that includes lust.

Jimmy Carter will join me in the part of Purgatorio (I hope) dedicated to those who have lusted in their hearts.

That this state involves agony is inescapable. When the souls in the wall of flame realize Dante is mortal, they want to know why and how he’s here, and one cries out to him: “Answer me, who burns in thirst and fire.” Burning, surely, is apposite for the crime of lust. And in the next Canto, Dante himself will, after hesitating cowardly, plunge face-first into fire that will make him write, “I would have cast myself into molten glass to refresh myself, so measureless was the burning there.” This is serious fire, people, and even Dante, to get to Beatrice, to Paradise, to God, must go through the same fire as all mortals, suffer what all Purgatorio’s denizens suffer.

As a matter of fact, actual representations of lust and perversion are somewhat light in this Canto. We see Pasiphaë, who had intercourse with a bull, but this is a type, and besides, anyone who knew the myth knew she did it because she was driven mad in a curse from Poseidon, so that rather dilutes the intentionality implicit in excessive lust. (I mean, if bulls are your fancy, fine.) There’s also passing reference to Caesar’s homosexual dalliance with Nicomedes, King of Bithynia. But, especially compared to parallel depictions in Inferno, it goes light.

We get to see and hear much more of the poets of passion. We are not told why these poets are here, specifically . . . there seems to be an implication that, having written of lust, they must burn a little for lust. Guinizelli does speak for the “hermaphrodites” (which apparently means the heterosexuals who indulged too much), that they are here because “we did not serve human law, following appetite like beasts,” but adding that they had “repented before the final hour,” showing conscience and presumably landing their souls here. Strangely, though, I must say (and maybe because he’s a poet), Dante’s evident reverence for Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel seems, tonally, to balance out our consciousness of their punishment.

Now it’s time to talk about poets. The entire Commedia is a job application, in a way. Dante is well aware that he’s a well-known, much-praised poet, and he’s working, quite self-consciously, in a groundbreaking fashion, writing epic poetry in the vulgar tongue, not Latin. He’s using a language, if you will, that still isn’t used to being poetry, a language still controversial, still a challenge to taste and propriety. And he, Dante, is bent on showing how this language can rank with the great literary tongues of all time, that is, with Latin and Greek. Dante takes up the Commedia, in part, to show that what became “Italian” was a suitable language to sustain the greatest themes, the most profound investigations. Much like the Virgil who leads him through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante is an urban, self-conscious “modern” (he even calls his style of poetry “l’uso moderno,” “the modern fashion,” to distinguish it from the classical writers), who shoulders the vast tasks of ancient poetry (tales of God, man, sin, good, evil, and redemption) both to echo the ancients and to make something new. He thinks of what he’s doing as modern, as being of his moment. And he knows he’s putting himself forward as a poet without precedent. Thus he rubs shoulders with Statius, Virgil,

We get to meet a forerunner in writing verse in Italian, Guinizelli. I’m always amazed by just how good these writers were: Guinizelli, Cavalcanti, Dante . . . incredibly complex stanza forms, complex ideas, wit, and music. Dante calls Guinizelli “father of me and of others better than me.” Really the founder of the “sweet new style.” Dante had already written love poetry in La Vita Nuova and Il Convivio , poetry good enough to establish a reputation, and here, he continues, professionally, aggressively, expansively, to go for the very top.

These things mean a lot to him. We get a little literary-critical argument about poets with undeserved reputations, such as Guittone, or Girault de Bornelh. I don’t know Guittone much, but I’ve translated a bit of Girault, and I think he’s pretty good. But Dante clearly reverences Arnaut Daniel more. John Ciardi seems to sniff at this taste, but others don’t. Ezra Pound called him one of the greatest poets of all time, and T.S. Eliot loved him, too. So do I, for a lot of reasons. You’ll note that Arnaut speaks to Dante in Provencal, and although Ciardi might be right, that Dante would have heard this as antique and old-timey, I rather think he also thought of it as “great” poetry, and the moment his beloved Arnaut addresses him, in the revered language of his poetry, is a moment at which Dante pretty much crowns himself an equal of the greats.

And that’s where we end. We still have a ways to go in the Seventh Cornice, including a cannonball into the Wall of Flame itself. But we have to go there. Dante has to suffer it to get to Beatrice (Virgil even incentivizes him with “I can almost see her eyes now!”). It’s a minor personal Purgatory within the greater scheme of Purgatorio – almost as if the poet knew that he, along with the passionate poets he reveres, will pay a price for their art beyond their earthly lives. Yet they are also “souls sure of having, whenever it may be, a state of peace.”


Canto XXV: There Are No Stupid Questions in Purgatory

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate; 30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. 

– T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Yes indeedy, there will be time for all that. Or so we imagine as we spend our time, whose preciousness perhaps our pilgrim truly apprehends as he and Statius and the V-man whip around this cornice (following on XXIV:93, “It was an hour to climb without delay…”). And at the end of time, which gives substance in the remaining three dimensions to this flesh and its actions, this is what we find: the face unmasked.

Seems to me, that’s what this Canto is about: unmasking. Unmasking what is, through that divine and providential process (for Dante, scientific in his day) by which we come to know and see ourselves in our true seeming, and by which our true will is shown for what it is.

But first, let’s deal with the first few delightful lines of this Canto. A dense piece of cheesecake, methinks! OK, we’ve been dealing with gluttony here, n’est pas? As we’ve seen in the previous couple of Cantos, gluttony has to do, in a certain sense, with what we do with our mouths. We can fill our pie-holes with stuff we hope (in vain) will satisfy us. Or we can use them for both sustenance (in the right proportion)…and praise. We can also use them to ask. To seek. To know. (See line 19)

Throughout these last few Cantos, indeed throughout the whole DC, there’s a dialectic (and one that’s big for Dante to be sure) around the desire to know; a particular kind of appetite. For Dante, such desire is in a way akin to the glutton’s desire for food, the lust-driven for sex. What knowledge will really satisfy us? What is the purpose not only of hunger, but of that hunger of the mind called curiosity? What good is it to “know”? And I do mean to convey the whole range of meanings for that word…as in to “know” someone in the biblical sense. Because, check it out, there it is in line 128 (“I Know Not a Man” – the Whip of Lust). In that very specific sense, “knowing” serves the very most intimate purpose – both intimate and dangerous at the same time. But alas, I digress.

Dante wants to ask a question, because he’s curious. That Dante checks his appetite to know (i.e. to ask) is both a mark of his moral progress, still like a baby stork, that medieval symbol of new life. But it’s also a sign, I think, of his attempt at “continence” in his intellectual hunger. And tellingly – and typical of how things work as we keep getting closer and closer to heaven – Virgil picks up on the need of his companion, and invites him to ask about what he’s obviously bursting with. And thus to satisfy that sort of hunger. Clever indeed.

Apparently, little did Dante-the-pilgrim know that he’d be getting a lecture on the pre-reneassaince understanding of the birds and the bees. The process by which babies are made. But just to break it down for our purposes: this is a meditation, on the lips of Virgil and Statius, on how things are created, and more importantly, how they become what the are. As I alluded to in my blog entry last week – if we can join in the scientific naivete of our ancient compatriot, we might just find some spiritual wisdom for our time. (Just as the alchemists practiced bad science but good wisdom). Because, wheareas for Dante this Canto is all about science (in his time, a discipline in no way separate from theology), for us it’s a beautiful meditation on this very spiritual issue: how do we know ourselves for who we truly are?

The bottom line for Dante: death is the great unmasker. In death, again through the providential love and justice of the creator, we become who we truly are. Or perhaps more accurately (and surprisingly) we become who we will ourselves to be. In death, unfettered by the limitations of our flesh, our souls are free to take the form that reflects our true will.

I think Dante means for this Canto also to reflect us back to the very first shades we met, those residents of Inferno, as our Virgil, Dr. Ciardi, so aptly notes. As we learned in the first Canticle, the shades in hell desire to be there: their surroundings and form – and ironically their contrapasso – simply depict the true seeming of the essences and desires that governed them while still enskinned. And – again, so like the shades in this part of Purgatory are eager to move ahead, but for a very different reason – the shades headed for hell are eager to get there.

But here in purgatory, as Statius explains, there’s a twist. The will takes the form of its true seeming not for the sake of punishment, but for the sake of purgation. The purpose of unmasking the true appearance of a soul is for diagnosis, not to consign for (willful) self-punishment. And in Purgatory, the shades burning off their sins desire both heaven (the true essence of their desire) even as they experience the provisional desire for pain – which is experienced in a sort of odd sense as joy, since it is preparing them for a different kind of “seeming”.

I love this – abstract as it may be – for its “spiritual physics.” Dante, in the voice of Statius, speaks of God’s providential arrangement of the universe much like how physicists spoke of “ether” in the pre-relativity era: it’s the stuff in which stuff (matter, light, human souls) exist. God provides the substance that gives our souls (and more importantly, our wills) shape and form. It is the stuff onto which a “shade’s” form and sense is cast in the afterlife. And it’s there that, again, we are simply our essence.

Isn’t it interesting too, the specific example Dante is curious about: why are the gluttons…skinny…if in the afterlife “there is neither marriage or being given in marriage”; if in the afterlife, nobody needs to nourish the physical body? How interesting that just as those who struggle with anorexia perceive their true seeming as fat, those who are guilty of the sin of gluttony are seen in their true seeming: emaciated. Their sin springs from a (literal, in Dante’s case) self-image that is the opposite of the very-fleshy seeming in life: malnourished. Their downfall is the attempt to feed this need in the wrong way, to overcompensate for their lack.

What an irony: that in Dante’s version of the afterlife, we simply get what we want. And if we’re lucky, we have enough reason left – provided not by our own lights, but that great light that illumines the narrow path upward – we realize that the misguided desire that sidetracked us toward our truest destination is the very thing that wrecks us, and repairs us: all desires lead godward, ultimately.

And finally, how delicious that the only thing keeping someone in hell, or preventing them from getting to heaven, is our own desire; our own feeling of worthiness and freedom to deserve that destiny.

So, in that sense, maybe old T. S. had it right, and we can apply those words to purgatory too: it is the place and time to prepare a face for the faces that you’ll meet. Indeed.

[PS – I found a good website to use in reading the DC on the fly – much of the poetry preserved, but as prose… Check it out]


Gluttony Redux – Reflecting Through Pictures

GLUTTONS ARE US !

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”  (Matthew 5. 6)

Physical and spiritual appetites are normal to healthy human beings. Yet neither the body nor the soul is self-sustaining.

Both must be fed regularly

.

BUT !!

Of course,  in canto 24, on the Terrace of the Gluttons, we are faced with the theme of misguided  love once more.


Dante is reminded of this over & over  again.

GLUTTONY   

“Dante’s Theory of Everything”Dante’s view of what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it.

“Christians are not perfect,  just forgiven.”


The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes play an integral part in explaining these

wrongs, the many aspects of the seven deadly sins.

They are our sickness; the Beatitudes are its cure.

As Dante moves upward, the Angel of   Temperance,  removes his 5th P,

while singing a new version of the Fourth Beatitude:

“Beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam ”  –

“Blessed are they whom grace

Enlightens so, the love of taste enkindles

No overindulgent longings in their breasts,

“Hungering always only after justice!”

But, THE DANCE GOES ON, and on, and on

 


“I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of starving children around the world whose cries go unheard.

Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to share. We are afraid to let go of some of our wealth. Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent some time with children living in the streets. This is what one child told us:

‘I wish I was rich. And if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicine, shelter, love and affection.’

If child on the streets who has nothing is willing to share – why are we, who have everything, still so greedy?

How much has been changed since Severn spoke that day?

As Gandhi said many years ago, ‘We must become the change we want to see.’ I know change is possible.”

Address to the Plenary Session, Earth Summit, Rio Centro, Brazil 1992″ by Severn Suzuki, age 12.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

And this second tree is only an offshoot of the true “Tree of Knowlege of Good and Evil!”
THINK ABOUT IT!!

And a small child shall lead them.



Canto XXIII: A Notebook

A tree-high thought tuned to light’s pitch (Celan).  The poet begins scanning the leafy branches, but there are no birds in Purgatory.  (Thank God, all we need is another bird poem).  What does the poet hunger for?  He wants to peer through to find out where the voices are coming from.  He is always reaching for the tree-high thought: he’s no ground-picker, no forager intent on filling his basket. 

What does it mean to be a poet in the land of the gluttons?  There’s a story here, in this canto, perhaps, about the poet in the age of information gluttony.  As information becomes less and less nutritious, and more and more conducive to an empty obesity of trivia, the poet must grapple for the tree-high thought, the scent of the apple and pure droplet of dew.  (He must be content with the wheel-barrow, and its redness, its glaze, and not clog it with dirt.)

Is there such a thing as gluttonous poetry?  I’m drawn more and more these days to a more minimalist poetry, one that avoids volubility, that doesn’t brim the margins with chatter.  I want a poetry like the emaciated faces of the gluttons, the skin of feeling taut on the bone of language.  I want to the see the OMO (the homo, the person), the divinely carved glyph in every visage (31-33).

The poet changes register in this canto something like three times, I’ve read.  He begins with the more colloquial medium style (dominant in Purgatory), a language for establishing friendship and trust; Forese, the poet’s friend we encounter here, speaks in a more chummy low style to the pilgrim, using diminutives for his wife Nella and a lot of possessives; and lastly the poet employs his high ‘expressionistic’ style, harkening back to the inferno, as he describes the skeletal and scabrous gluttons.  Some of the best literature is the best literature because of its ability to employ a higher style while describing the most horrific or unusual things, and also the most common.  One goes to poetry because he or she is nauseous with sound bites and status updates. 

The poet does not fatten on bag-of-chips knowledge (though he really loves a bag of kettle-cooked mesquite).  He reaches for the scent of the apple and the spray of water.  Even if, no, because that food is unreachable.  The tree is not climbable.   The branches widen at the peak not the base. 

Today, with so much available at the fingertip, the poet goes thin for the tree-high thought.


So Much Depends upon “The Red Wheel Barrow”

Purgatorio, Canto XXII

 “So Much Depends upon ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’”

 so much depends

upon

 a red wheel

barrow

 glazed with rain

water

 beside the white

chickens.                             –William Carlos Williams

 So much depends not just upon the wheel barrow itself (or did in an age when agriculture was different) but upon the poem about the wheel barrow, the little, modest text dedicated to reminding us that little, modest things matter.

 This canto is about a number of things. For example:

 “Often, indeed, appearances give rise

                to groundless doubts in us, and false conclusions,

                the true cause being hidden from our eyes.” (ll. 28-30)

But the canto is also about the role poets and poetry can play in pulling the wool from our eyes.

 Of course, pulling the wool isn’t easy. As David Brooks wrote in one of my all-time-favorite columns: “The human mind is continually TRYING to perceive things that aren’t there, and NOT perceiving them takes enormous effort” (The New York Times, October 28, 2008; caps mine).

 Take a look at one of America’s favorite poems:

 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.    –Robert Frost

 We love this thing. We trot it out at one graduation after another. But I’d argue that we don’t pay enough attention to some of its little details.  A la Brooks’s comment, we TRY to perceive in Frost’s poem a message about the importance of “taking the road less traveled by.” But take (to follow the poem’s actual title) the road (too often) not taken. Take a look a stanza 2: The roads are “really about the same.” And take a look at stanza 4: What exactly is the purpose of the colon there? What is it setting up? All I’ll say is that it seems clear to me that Frost knew a lot about human psychology, in this case showing his grasp of how we pull the wool over our own eyes, both in interpreting our own past behavior and in interpreting what we read.

 Anyway, I love that Canto XXII is so much about the power of poets and poetry to inform our lives. And not just to inform but to re-form. Statius says so glowingly to Virgil:

 “Had I not turned from prodigality

                in pondering those lines in which you cry,

                as if you raged against humanity:

’To what do you not drive man’s appetite

                O cursed gold-lust!’—I should now be straining

                in the grim jousts of the Infernal night.” (ll. 37-42)

 I’m with Statius. Quite a roster of poets, and of poems, has followed me around, offering guidance in aptly timed whispers, sometimes shouts, from the memory.

 Of course, in order to be informed by a text, we must not deform it.

 And so, we read on. Into Canto XXIII, where we shall read about glutton.

 …and perhaps meditate on the dangers of putting on our plates too much of what we like, too much of what we choose for ourselves out of appetite, instead of taking in those things that we need. Raw vegetables, for example. And raw textual details.

 Better that the barrow—not our eyes—be glazed.

 Pier Kooistra


How long, O Lord? Canto 21

According to Plato, we are erotic beings (from the Greek word eros, meaning desire). We are beings who are insufficient in and of ourselves. We are hungry for things outside of ourselves: the world, one another, beauty, God. We are open to and dependent upon these objects of desire for the the sustenance of our lives. We can understand much about our lives and what makes the world go around by thinking in terms of desire and the varied attempts to satisfy desire. For Plato and for the Bible, all of our desires are interrelated and they find their proper coordination when we are oriented toward the ultimate object of human desire: God. When our deepest desire is for God, all other desires fall into their proper place.

Things go badly awry, however, when our deepest desire is for something other than the Highest Good (Summum Bonum or God). Disordered desire is problematic, catastrophic even, in terms of the object of desire and the process of desire. When our deepest desire becomes some part of the created order, we inevitably fall headlong into chaos, brokenness, and despair. Looking for love in all the wrong places always has tragic consequences. Even the process of desire becomes distorted and diseased. Such is the fate of us all.

Canto 21 opens by invoking the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. The Samaritan woman provides an exemplar of disordered desire and its painful consequences as well as the healing and fulfillment of right desire. Having several husbands and living with a partner outside of the bounds of marriage is only a symptom of a much deeper erotic disease. Jesus, the master physician of the soul, begins with a discussion of the presenting symptoms. An avoidance or deflection move on the part of the woman points to the deeper cause of her disease. Her desire for God has been displaced…and she knows it when in the presence of Jesus. Rather than scolding her for her sexual morals, Jesus addresses the root cause of her deep spiritual disorder and offers a cure: making the Lord the object of her highest desire. This move transforms the woman and she runs to tell others and to invite them to come to the great Physician.

One wonders how long this woman lived in a state of internal disorder arising from diseased desire. Multiple marriages and a current relationship are mentioned. Fifteen, twenty, thirty years? It is not entirely clear, but it does seem like a big chunk of this woman’s life. St. Augustine in his spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, recounts decades of his life lived in the living hell of disordered desire. We can readily see examples of people we know who lived for years, decades, even a whole lifetime subject to the chaos and pain that comes with disordered desire. If we demythologize Dante’s Purgatorio a bit, it might be possible to imagine that Dante is asking a similar question. Statius, the great poet of Rome’s “silver age”, tells Dante and Virgil that he has been in this level of purgatory for 500 years. That is a very long time to suffer before something clicks and he is able to move forward and to ascend to blessedness. Many of us dwell in the living hell of disordered desire with all of its wretched consequences for what seems like centuries. At some point, though, many of us “come to ourselves” like the younger of the two prodigal sons (Luke 15) and reorient our desires toward the one thing that can truly satisfy our deepest desire as human beings: God.

During this Lenten season, Dante lifts up before us the woman at the well and Statius. He seems to ask us about our desires. He invites us to reflect deeply in order to determine that which is our highest desire. He invites us to repent and to make “the main thing” the main thing.

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary