Monthly Archives: March 2012

Canto 26: The Ecstatic Recitation of Love

This, to be sure, is the Canto That Has Everything. Vision, light, love, and Adam, Our Father. Dante is in rare, rarified, high companionship here, as he hangs out with Beatrice, St. John, and Adam.

You can feel  the end of Paradiso coming, and with it the end of the Commedia. The poetry and the ideas are exquisite, finely tuned, at once sublime and limpid, the trademark of this very learned poet who somehow turned out this lucid, inexhaustible epic of hope.

Since the last word was hope, maybe it’s not inappropriate to note that the end of the Commedia will be the beginning of everything, the One that gathers all the pages of the cosmos into a single, gold-diamond, singing book. Throughout the Paradiso, we have seen, again and again, the One as the basis and organizing principle, not just of life or the soul, but Paradise itself, light itself, the relations of all things in the universe. All of them are arranged as they are as a direct consequence of their roles played in relation to the One. (This is the to dunamon of Aristotle.) We human beings don’t understand this order and can’t attain to it – reminding us of Psalm 139, one of the best poems ever written on the nature of God: ”Such knowledge is too wonderful  and excellent for me; I cannot attain unto it” (Book of Common Prayer). Dante-as-Pilgrim keeps forgetting that the Love that binds all things orders all things. In this Canto, however, he remembers, in a very moving fashion.

Dazzled Dante is examined by the Evangelist about the love in the former’s heart. What elated precision in Dante’s answer! For once, he knows what to say: He knows why he loves, and he knows what has motivated this love. This is one of the most articulate moments, word for word, Dante-as-pilgrim has in the entire Commedia. Maybe, after his incredible journey through Despair and Waiting to Eternal Love, he finally realizes why he has come, why he was lost to begin with, and why, with dazzled eyes, he is so close now to the Ultimate. I think we’re meant to see this as divine inspiration, not just “the right answer” (although it is) – this is the same Dante who has made every mistake in the book, Mr. Misunderstanding, who’s has had to be schooled by Virgil, Beatrice, and everyone who knows anything. The Commedia’s been one long, running man-or-woman-on-the-road interview from level to level, insatiably, ardently trying to understand.  The entire Commedia, we realize, has been driven by this relentless thirst to know, to see, to understand, to transcend the human . . . ah, that verb, trasumanare. When it all gets down to it, now he can say it:

The good, to the extent it’s understood as such,

Ignites love, all the more as more goodness

Is comprehended in itself.

Toward the Essence, then (so exquisite

That all goods outside of it

Are but a light from its own rays) . . .

Moves any mind that discerns the truth,

Loving it more than anything else.

We are in the presence of powerful philosophy as well as lovely poetry, to which Dante-as-pilgrim adds references to Aristotle, and to the beginning of John’s Gospel, “which more than any other reports show earth the mysteries here.”

And St. John says, beautifully: “The utmost of your loves looks on God” (“d’i tuoi amori a Dio guarda il sovrano“). He asks Dante to go on, and in a blaze of dazzled inspiration, he says:

The being of the world and my own being,

The death He suffered so I could live,

And that which all the faithful (like me) hope for

Along with the aforesaid lively consciousness 

Have hauled me out of the sea of love gone wrong

And set me on the shore of the straightmost way.

Dante is here, and Dante is in love, thanks to the moment-to-moment fact of the Incarnation and Death of Christ, and he’s here because the cosmos exists as it does, an ongoing unfolding of the Essence. All this has ransomed him. We began Inferno in the middle of a dark road in a savage wood, direction lost. Now we know ourselves, and the Love that has brought us, and it is our living consciousness of that Love that has hauled us out of that marvelously phrased “sea of love gone wrong.”

Love is here. Love is Here. And the moment we are conscious of it, conscious in a vibrant, living consciousness, our way is made straight. The Incarnation happens. This may remind us of a moment in the “Dry Salvages” section of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled

Eliot knew he was shadowing Dante, or Dante him. The “impossible union/Of spheres of existence is actual”: We come into contact with Love, with the Essence. Most of us get only “hints,” Eliot says:  “For most of us,” he writes, “this is the aim/Never here to be realized” but glimpsed and guessed.

But in Paradise, Dante-as-pilgrim sees it clear enough, because it is all around him, and his living awareness is all-pervading.

As soon as Dante concludes his ecstatic account of Love-Known-As-Love, Paradise rings with “Holy, Holy, Holy!” and Beatrice wipes away the dazzle from his eyes. He has spoken the Truth that moves all Heaven, and the joy pulses throughout Paradise.

I’m not going to say much about Adam’s fascinating appearance. Dante’s search for knowledge continues, the running interview, the “What Do You Know?” asked of all the greats of Creation. We have to know; we want to know.  It is piercingly sad how short a time (a few hours) Adam spent in Eden, compared to those 4,302 years in Limbo. Adam says interesting things about the changing Name of God (“I” and then “El”). His presence here, as is everything else, is a direct reflection of the suffering and death of Christ, without which those who died without Christ had to wait in the anteroom of Paradise. Not that Adam is complaining.

Above all, I’m struck with the electric certainty of Dante’s proclamation: He knows Love now and knows why he loves. He knows the source and the motive. And he realizes it’s his own intellect that must stay wide open to Intellect/Love/the One, to see the goodness within It, and to discern the works of goodness radiating out from It.

It’s spring, with two and half weeks left before the end of Lent. I’m willing to say (it’s true, after all) I believe, but not to tell someone else what to think. Like the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, I realize I have built-in limitations common to my species. I want to know, but some walls I can’t break through. I’m fallen, fallen for sure. So I’m wary of defining the One, of saying that somehow I understand It and can “tell you what God is.”

But like Eliot, I think I get glimpses. Like Dante, I hope for moments of white heat of soul, full head of sail, where I am surfing on the breakers of sunlit benediction, humble, aware, and open. Easter.

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Paradiso Canto 25: Blind Sight

“Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.” So wrote the eminent French psychologist Emile Coue, whose schtick on autosuggestion was the rage of his time. Name it and claim it. Say it’s so, and viola: better.

Coue’s 19th Century fad seems to me to be the epitome of our standard definition for hope. What is hope? Pretty basic here: hope is the idea that things will get…better. And by better, it’s perhaps stupidly simple to say what that means: we want things to be like we want them to be. We want to see the future as different from the present. Better.

So, key here – for Emile Coue, and for us – is our operational definition of hope. That’s what this Canto is about. This section of Paradiso is about Dante surviving three pop quizzes on the hit parade of three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Love), given by none other than each of the three closest apostles to Jesus himself: Peter (who proctored the Faith exam), James (here, grilling Dante on hope), and John (soon to give Dante the SAT the nature of virtue numero uno: Love).

So – what is the nature of hope? To break down what is a very dense piece of poetic cheesecake, for all the symbol and interwoven imagery, the heart of the matter in this canto seems to be this: is hope what we can see? That’s what Dante’s playing around with, methinks.

So, here’s what I mean: does hope mean that things get better? Are we expecting a different picture in the future? To riff on that strange admixture of virtues 1 and 2 in the famous line from Hebrews: “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” Or, as Paul bluntly puts it, “hope that is seen is no hope” (Romans 8:24) Hmm. We seem to be in a whole different ballpark here. The progression goes like this “Faith, gives us hope…and hope’s about what’s notseen.”

Admiral James Stockdale

OK – maybe this will make clear what I mean. Years ago, I read in an excerpt from Jim Collins’s hit business book Good to Great, which has to do with what he calls “the Stockdale Paradox.” It involves a story about Admiral James Stockdale. You may remember him not so fondly as Ross Perot’s not-too-articulate running mate in the 1992 Presidential election. But his renown came, in many ways, out of his experience as a prisoner of war in Viet Nam, a guest in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison. He was the highest ranking prisoner in that prison, which by all accounts was one of the most miserable and inhumane places on earth.

But, as difficult as that experience was, Stockdale claimed that “it was the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Not sure what to make of this, Jim Collins (in his interview with him) asked him the question, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“That’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

Confused by his answer, Collins pressed him to clarify:

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale paused for a moment, and continued: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Dante starts this Canto off with an understanding of hope that is pretty standard. This is the picture he’d love to see: Me, says Dante…me, standing at the baptismal font of the Church of San Giovanni. Yeah, and someone gives me a laurel crown. The crowds gather around; everybody’s carrying a copy of the DC. They see the greatness of my poetry now. They applaud as I slowly lift it onto my head.

Yeah.

Lady Bea snaps him out of his momentary reverie, and gets him to…see…what is really meant to be true hope: what is embodied in the scriptures. What can be seen not with the eye, but with the heart, via the scripture.

It’s St. James who arrives, the scriptural poet of hope – dude number two in the trifecta of Peter – James – John, Jesus’ inner three.

What ensues is a very interesting play on Dante’s sense of…well, sense. His visual sense to be precise. Dante is afraid to “look up” so that his eyes meet the vision of this “illustrious being” for fear it will blind him. James, reading Dante’s mind naturally, encourages Dante to go ahead – look at me. Well, here’s how James puts it:

Lift up your head, look up an do not fear,
for all that rises from the mortal world
must ripen in our rays from sphere to sphere.

And ultimately, at the end of this Canto, it’s by “looking up” at John – the herald of Love – that Dante becomes blind. Can’t see. He employs a rather elaborate simile – of a man who becomes blind by looking at the sun to see an eclipse – to indicate several rather subtle meanings. He’s dispelling the myth that John actually rose bodily into heaven (only Jesus and Mary got that ticket) – thus the thing Dante’s trying to “see” is John’s earthly body, eclipsing the radiance of his soul. But what is also being eclipsed, to my mind at least, is hope itself, in the effort to see it.

“Why do you blind yourself / trying to see what has no true place here?” Meaning – his body. Meaning hope – in a place where hope is ironically meaningless – but for the opposite reason it’s meaningless in hell. It’s already here, there everywhere to be “seen” – and by seeing it, Dante’s mortal eyes are blinded by it.

See? In the attempt to see it, with the eyes, you become blind to it.

And to become blind is to “ripen” the means to see it.

Paradox is cool, huh?

Thus, Dante becomes blind in order to see. As we shall see.

But wait! you say. That wasn’t Dante’s answer on the quiz; that’s not exactly how Dante puts it. “Hope,” he says, “is the certain expectation / of future glory.”

Aha – but what is the future glory we await? In the here-and-now we may need to face “the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.” But how does one do that? We do that with the certain faith that, as the good Admiral puts it, “you will prevail in the end.” The future glory is not our prevailing, not our attached-to-the-outcome vision; that certain expectation is the victory of God. And we should never confuse the two.

Sometimes, to “see” that hope, we need to become blind. Paul met his ultimate hope in the risen Christ, after he had fallen off his horse and become temporarily blind.

Lear and Gloucester

In Shakespeare’s great King Lear, Gloucester, Lear’s friend, is blinded by the cruel wiles of his son, but it is in becoming blind that he’s able to “see, feelingly.” In relinquishing the ocular data, he develops the inner vision to see things as they are.

The “certain expectation of future glory,” may not be a picture of Dante donning the poet’s laurel at San Giovanni. That would be a really pretty sight. But no – the real glory that awaits us, is that which blinds us.

Don’t be afraid: look up.


Paradiso Canto 24: Herr Doktor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But does Empire lessen Christianity’s value?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paradiso Canto 23: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

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

 

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

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house

The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benedict vs the Benedictines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterword:

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

“Heavenly Playground” by Adrian Plass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COME JOIN IN THE PLAY!


Paradiso Canto 19: Undersea seeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paradiso Canto 18: Save the Cheerleader, Save the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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