Author Archives: jeffvamos

About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: http://pclawrenceville.blogspot.com/

Paradiso Canto 31: The Ardor and the Peace

At the risk of sounding silly (and perhaps anything said in the face of such a beatific vision as Dante displays in these final cantos would indeed sound such – n.b 31.42)…SO, at the risk of sounding rather silly, does anyone else see what I see here? This is what I’m talking about: Up to this point, Dante’s preference for lots of bird images. And here, bee images. Birds and bees. Ardor. Living flames. Eyes “fixed and burning / with passion on his passion” (31.139) Up…in heaven?

Dore's The White Rose

And what is the visage of heaven? A white rose. Indeed, a vision whose beauty and the buzz surrounding it suggests the beatitude of creation and recreation and reproduction: bees do it, Bea’s done it. Create, that is. Or, we might say, re-create. Beatrice has recreated, as a reflector of that love that emanates from God, the very soul of the pilgrim. The Canto seems full of such images that bespeak the height of human love, and all the fruit and beauty that proceeds from it.

We begin with a spousal image. Through his blood, Christ has “espoused” those whom he has redeemed (31.3). What is heaven about? It’s not some antiseptic abstraction. It’s a place where exists what we desire most, suggested by what generates “ardor” in this life: to create. To love. With all the attendant passion we can muster, and with all the resultant beauty.

But such images are also balanced by what seems to be ardor’s opposite: stillness. Contemplation. And here, am I the only one a bit disappointed: that Dante sees the most beautiful site his newly-recreated senses could possibly take in (like a Barbarian staring at Rome for the first time), only wanting to share that vision with his honey. But when he looks over to her, poof, she’s gone. Cold shower. Who instead? An “elder.” Wow, what a…um…disappointment.

But not just any elder. Saint Bernard, he who is the embodiment of contemplation. And, ironically, the embodiment of its opposite, in that Bernard also reflects the quality of ardor in his devotion to his lady. In his devotion to Mary.

Beatrice leaves Dante, indeed retreats from him at the greatest imaginable distance (in earthly imagination, to wit: as far as the stratosphere is from the Mariana Trench). But immediately Dante learns that heaven is the place where love exists as passionately at a distance, as it does up close and personal. Dante learns that distance cannot abate the radiance of the Bea-tific smile. It’s a place where distance and nearness, time and eternity, ardor and stillness are conflated into one, God-centered wholeness.

Perhaps the theme of this Canto could be summarized by what the angel-bees are doing up there in their heavenly hive. To fly close to God is to experience both qualities at the same time: “the ardor and the peace.” (31.17) In heaven, the soul experiences both desire and its fulfillment at the same time.

Somehow, I read this Canto and I can’t help but think of that other modern poet whose poetry is so stamped with the imprint of Dante: T. S. Eliot, he who speaks of that Still Point from which all of this beauty emanates. Check it out:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

I suppose in a way this is why for me Buddhism both holds so much appeal, and also at the same time, in my experience of it, convinces me of why I’m a Christian. I love Buddhism for its core ofpraxis, of contemplation, of seeking the still-point of the turning world, of cultivating the peaceful mind through the practice of equanimity. But I guess I can’t leave the ardor behind.

What I love (ardently) about Dante’s imagery in this most beautiful Canto is how it implies that both are joined in that beautiful vision. The ardor and the peace. Both, like the two natures of Christ, the human and divine, are joined in one God-fulfilled Gestalt.

And so now I suppose with that, admitting all the attendant silliness of what I’ve just said – silly in the face of that beauty, in the face of that indescribable flower of the creator – I should take a leaf from Dante’s notebook. And be silent.

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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 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 13: The Judgment of Judging

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

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

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

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

Cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right? Right.


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

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

Yes, Brother. Amen, Brother.

Justinian departing at the beginning of Canto 7

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

Half the class members somnolently raised their hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paradiso Canto 1: The Still Point of the Turning World

How to begin, when any beginning would be a failure.

How to speak, when any speech would be inadequate.

How to do justice to the place that is no place, only a shadow of the light that gives it any reality in the realm of sense.

A humble blogger (do I speak for us all?) calls upon powers greater than himself. Longfellow, Sayers, Pinsky. Alighieri.

And so we enter the realm of paradox, where punctuation will be convoluted, questions will become statements, reality will be folded into itself and human consciousness will be twisted – or I should say untwisted – so that what seemed unnatural will make perfect sense, in the ultimate discovery of the nature of that which powers the universe: love.

Hey, hell was easy: it’s literally stuck to the ground, too vivid, too sensical in its nonsense. Purgatory is the place where we rejigger our senses, where we forget in order to remember, and begin with a clean slate, a second infancy. Here we’re dealing with the opposite stuff: the place beyond sense altogether, which we can only get to through our senses. The place beyond words, which can only be apprehended in words, the parlance of human consciousness. (Stuff modern neuroscience is still trying to figure out). How speak trans-human change to human sense? (1:69)

I guess as good a place to begin as any is here: at the beginning. The very first line of this third Canticle indicates the source of its meaning:

The glory of Him who moves all things rays forth
through all the universe and is reflected
from each thing in proportion to its worth
(Canto 1:1,2)

As I think of this beginning, I can’t not think of another poem I have been studying the past couple weeks with a small band of pilgrims at the church I serve: Eliot’s Four Quartets. (Our own John Timpane is doing the heavy lifting as teacher of the class). The reference here in Canto 1:1 is to a popular concept in the medieval Thomistic theology, borrowed from Aristotle, from which he’ll be borrowing heavily: the unmoved mover, which gives the whole universe motion, that “still point of the turning world” from which all things ray forth, and which at the same time is centered in our own consciousness. Seems to me that there’s even more Dante in Eliot than I had ever realized.

Erhebung has everything to do with it. Using aesthetics, the beautiful, to represent, to reflect the good, in the impossible task of expressing it. “Ennobling elevation beyond the senses.” At the still point of the turning world, there is the dance that Dante will find, his love by his side.

So, as we begin, let’s sift out a few themes (just a few among so many) that are so very distinct in this Canto, and give us very concrete clues about what Dante will be up to in this final section of his masterwork.

Dante calls upon not just the muses (as he does at the very beginning of the whole enterprise), but this time upon Apollo, the master of the Muses. And not just him – but all his minions. Why not call on God himself, one might wonder? Ah – a clue. Apollo, the pinnacle of the pagan pantheon (sorry), a provisional figure to bear witness to the ultimate revelation which comes after him. Fitting indeed to inspire what can only be a provisional description of what cannot be described.

We have then also the image of light, which will be so important in what proceeds forth from here. Light, and our ability to perceive it through our sense of sight, serves as a metaphoric foil to describe the larger process that’s happening here, having to do with the re-attunement of a mortal soul. Just as we would never stare at the sun (here I’m remembering those pin-holed cereal boxes we held in the air during the solar eclipse of 1972 to see a tiny reflection of what was going on – and our mothers’ warning never to stare directly at it), Dante does just that. Beatrice can look at it, no problem. Somehow that Dante reflexively imitates her action (a “reflection” of her action) and does not go blind indicates that something has already changed in him: he is capable of seeing “it” – although not for long, and not the true “it”, but a second version, a second sun.

That we’re dealing with the problem of the senses here – not just light, but sound – is evident in the next few lines, where Dante detects the true motion of the universe, the “Primum mobile” that is the physical origin of all movement and life. That movement vibrates; it makes a sound that every creature is capable of detecting: the music of the spheres that betrays the essential harmony of the universe, but unheard by our normal mode of listening and hearing. What’s needed is a complete re-orientation not just of our senses, but our perception, dull with “false imaginings” that “do not grasp what would be clear but for your preconceptions.” Heaven requires a whole new paradigm, baby.

Finally, we return at the end of this canto to the very themes upon which Dante muses at the very beginning of his journey: the nature of desire, the mystery of free will that allows for imperfection in the art of a perfect maker. Here we hear once again that this place toward which we are navigating, toward which the whole universe is impelling us – whether we know it or not – is that place where our desires are truly satisfied:

Thus every nature moves across the tide
of the great sea of being to its own port
each with its given instinct as its guide.

I’m somehow reminded of C.G. Jung’s contention in the realm of psychology: that all beings tend toward wholeness (though not all of us get there).

But at least we can know the place, if now only by its reflection in a medieval poet’s words, as that which is the real object of human desire. So here’s the claim: it’s the place where we belong – in all multivalent richness of that word. Where being and longing are truly satisfied, where we BE LONG; that place that is

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.

Onward!


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?