Author Archives: gmikoski

About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary

Paradiso Canto 15: Decline or Improvement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paradiso Canto 9: Looking for Love in the Right Place

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

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

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

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


Paradiso Canto 3: Blessedness in the Lowest Sphere of Paradise

I am Piccarda, and I am placed here

Among these other souls of blessedness

To find my blessedness in the lowest sphere.

 

Our wishes, which can have no wish to be

But in the pleasure of the Holy Ghost,

Rejoicing in being formed to his decree.

(3.49-57)

 

In the sphere of the moon—the lowest of the heavenly spheres—Dante encounters the blessed soul of a nun who had been forced to break her sacred vows and to marry through her brother’s political machinations. Piccarda apparently died of despondency soon after her wedding. Though her brother and her husband used her body as a pawn in a game of political power, she remained married to Christ in her heart. She now spends eternity in communion with the Lord and oriented to Him. No one shall misuse her or wrench her body from her soul ever again. The desires of her heart find perpetual fulfillment in devotion to Christ as inspired and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit. A truly blessed state!

Piccarda has no interest in moving to a higher sphere in paradise. She communicates absolute contentment and pure fulfillment. What she desires most, she receives. Inclined toward the Lord, she finds blessedness and joy without end. Rank, status, and privilege matter not one whit to her. She is free from calculating ambition and the slavery of unfulfilled desire. Piccarda serves as a worthy guide to heavenly bliss.

Piccarda can function as a spiritual model for the Lenten reader of the Paradisio. She loves the Lord with all of her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She finds her joy and fulfillment solely in the Lord. As a result, she finds contentment right where she is and does not long for anything beyond intimate fellowship with the Lord in the Spirit. In this regard, Piccarda can serve as an ideal guide for Lenten pilgrims. She would seem to ask us what it would take for us to find contentment and joy in the midst of our current station in life? She seems to teach us that the secret to a blessed life here and now consists of finding fulfillment in intimate fellowship with the Lord. If we heed the call to turn away from all sources of ignorant craving and all efforts at chasing after wind, Piccarda holds out the promise of a contentment and joy hitherto unimaginable.

One wonders why Piccarda’s bliss does not suffice for Dante. Why must there be other heavenly spheres that are higher than that in which Piccarda dwells? Did Dante not take Piccarda seriously? If true blessedness comes from orienting one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength toward Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, why would there need to be any higher levels of heavenly joy? The notion of ranked levels of paradise would seem to undermine the very notion of the true character of heavenly bliss as we find it exemplified in Piccarda. Because Dante has proven a worthy guide through hell and purgatory, we shall press onward and upward…even if a bit puzzled as to why we need to do so.

 

 


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 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


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

 


Canto 15 – Visions of Gentleness

In Canto 15, we find Dante and Virgil at the third terrace of Purgatory. Here, Dante must address the deadly sin of wrath or uncontrollable, destructive rage. Due to our fallen state, it is inevitable that wrongs of various kinds will be committed against us during the course of our lives. The natural (dare I say “normal”?) response to the wrongful actions of others is anger, sometimes to the point of destructive rage. When painfully wronged, anger and a desire for restitution or even punishment flares up within. When acted upon, wrathful anger inflicts pain on the offending party which, in turn, evokes anger and a desire for revenge on their part. What could be more familiar to us all than the destructive dialectic of pain-driven anger that begets more of the same until both parties are engulfed in wrathful action aimed at the destruction of one another. In every age, we see and experience this deadly dance of destruction at the micr0, meso, and macro levels of human society. Sadly, wrath seems to make the world go around.

Breaking the cycle of pain turned to anger which escalates into wrath requires intervention. Left to its own devices, this cycle spins out of control until a kind of insanity of ire leaves destruction of lives and relationships in its bloody wake. This cyle, familiar though it may be, is not inevitable; it can be interrupted or broken. Drawing from the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Dante lifts of mercy or gentleness as the chief antidote to wrath. “Blessed are the merciful” is the key that unlocks the purgative meaning of this canto. Because spiritual principles, true as they may be, are usually not sufficient to change behavior, the canto points to the possibility and even the necessity of divine intervention. Dante is given three visions, each of which emphasizes mercy or gentleness that turns away wrath. The first vision poetically recalls the story from Luke’s Gospel in which the middle school aged Jesus goes off by himself to the Temple for three days without telling his parents where he was. When they finally reunite, Mary’s response to Jesus speaks honestly of the pain that his actions have caused her, but without falling into anger or wrath. The second vision comes from Greek literature: an exchange between Pisistratus (tyrant of Athens) and his wife. In the face of his wife’s demand that Pisistratus execute a young Athenian man who dared spontaneously and without permission to kiss the princess, Pisistratus turns away wrath with a wise and gentle word that reframes the meaning of the event in question. The third vision recalls the stoning of Stephen the deacon as recounted in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. While being stoned to death, Stephen prays that the Lord would have mercy on those whose wrath will momentarily lead to his painful and bloody martyrdom. These three brief visionary narratives – two biblical and one pagan – are the instruments of divine intervention. Their aim is to help Dante to see the possibility of gentleness as an antidote to wrath.

It may be worth noting that the three merciful characters supplied by the visions refuse to omit themselves from the articulated responses. They refer to themselves and their pain when responding to wrath. They do not simply focus on the morally problematic behavior of the one who has caused pain. They do not turn the offending person into a demon nor do they dehumanize them. Subtly, there seems to be here a call to own one’s pain and to deal with it in a way that frames it. Perhaps owning one’s pain and putting it into some sort of larger frame of meaning is one of the keys that makes mercy or gentleness possible.

The visions given to Dante suggest that story and narrative may also be key in funding gentleness in the face of wrath. Perhaps destructive anger is, in the end, a failure of imagination.

 

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary