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.


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?


Canto XXV: There Are No Stupid Questions in Purgatory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Canto XVIII, Take II: Lookin’ For Love

[Editor’s note: Jeff and Bob decided to do a sort of tag team, and “bonus” entry for Canto 18 – so popular, they wished to do two “takes” on it. Bob will post later this evening on Canto 19]

As I read Jake’s reflection on Canto 17 (and by the way we’ve just crossed the imaginary line between these Cantos marking the very middle of the Canticle), I can’t but help to think of the medieval alchemists. In the smoke-fed shroud of scientific naivete, the imagination of the medieval mixologists flourished, the dream of gold impelling their crazed search. Such rich imagination made bad science, but excellent metaphor; excellent theology; excellent psychology (especially for all you Jungians out there). Even though they never produced gold, might they have seen the truth, beyond the shroud of naivete? Because of the shroud of naivete?

I remember a friend of mine who once recalled the memory of seeing an angel in the desert when she was young, naive, ignorant of all the hifalutin’ theology she now possesses to enrich her well educated brain. But she reported sadly that it’s unlikely she’ll see an angel again: she knows too much.

Perhaps an ironic beginning to a reflection on a Canto celebrating human reason. I mention it because I think Dante has an advantage we do not: to play in the naive smoke that Jake mentions, and to be able to see through the shroud (perhaps) some truth that we find hard to make stick onto our scientifically self-assured, and (naively?) rational modern sensibilities.

Try this on…what if we believed, as Dante did, as Aquinas did, as the medieval theologians did: the world, the universe is powered not by energy or light or nuclear fission; it’s powered by love. The whole universe is pulsing, throbbing with…love. It’s what directs everything. What makes the fire’s smoke rise? It’s love seeking that unseen thing up there with which it seeks to unite. What if that is the story, the essential narrative, that governs not just everything, but every human being? We have got an inborn, innate desire to unite with that thing that loved us into being.

We are indeed “restless until we rest in thee.”

Dante has been saying that it’s desire that makes us human. And not just any desire, not an instinctual, animal love, but a desire that can lead us to love that very one who implanted love in us in the first place. And (contrary to my previous remarks) the only chauffeur capable of getting us there: Human Reason. Even though, how it actually works, how it all isn’t just automatic (hey, why punish or reward people for what they are born do do anyway?), is still a mystery, only to be revealed in Canto 5 of Paradiso, courtesy of Madame Beatrice.

What if we were to think that the addiction of the alcoholic; the frustrated attempt to satisfy our deepest desires with “the perfect mate”; every love song ever written – what if we thought that all of it is engendered by this nuclear reaction within our souls that is seeking to unite with what is most desireable? To desire is to love. And so what if all of that is really a misguided attempt to love the ultimate; to love God.

But for Dante, it’s not automatic. Not everything desirable is worth loving. As in Canto 10 of Inferno, what is being refuted here is the heresy of Epicurianism. The Epicurians believed that everything pleasurable could not, by definition, be evil. For Dante, any object of desire is useful only insofar as it leads our soul upward toward that object that is ultimately desireable. If we love anything out of proportion or direction – in the wrong way, or not enough, or too much – we go off track.

What if we understood, for example, that, just as we look back at the medieval cathedrals as markers of this desire for heaven, so too in our era: what if people were to see that the mega-malls that mar our landscape are the (misguided) shrines to this very same innate desire within us? And our frustrated attempts to meet that desire?

Dante knew in his time what we know damn well too: that the pleasures of the Epicurians are eventually going to disappoint us. Any of us who have stepped back to take in the sickening sight of the orgiastic aftermath of a Christmas morning, and the heap of plastic and cardboard and detritus that result from it – can see how ultimately, such pleasures are empty and disappointing.

Love gives us the energy. Reason guides us in the right direction. Grace provides the means.

And so goes Virgil’s little lesson in love. And so goes the explanation of the very neat (and naive?) schema of this place, so closely matched with the hopeless sins of hell: to get there means working through those vices that have to do with misdirected desire (Pride, Envy, Anger), with not enough desire (Sloth), and with too much desire (Avarice, Gluttony and Lust).

Interesting that here, the shades of the slothful – those who were given to that vice that made them inattentive to the good that ought to have impelled their attention heavenward – are purged of the stain by superenergetic activity. And note that here, we see the desire is not just for themselves; but rather to “strive on that grace may bloom again above.” Here we have the reverse phenomenon to contrast with what we’ve witnessed previously: instead of the living praying for the dead, vice versa.

How do we get there, though? Back to that question. I guess I’m not alone in my ambivalence about human reason: at the end of this Canto, Dante too admits that his mind is “scrambled” essentially. The chauffeur is just a chauffeur. Reason can drive us only so far.


Canto 13: I Liked Bob’s Post Better

…and Jake’s, and John’s and Gordon’s and Pier’s. They are such bloody good writers. And I…. You get the picture.

Envy. For Dante, the color is not green, it’s…well, I guess purple would be the closest to the word livido. Whatever is the color of a bruise. This is the color of the shades in this cornice of the Purg, and they are all wearing it this spring, along with the single mode of fashion, a hair cloak. The sin that is caused by making comparisons is healed by the thing that cannot bear comparison: mutual suffering. Those who were too busy comparing themselves to others to lean on them are healed of their woundedness by…leaning on each other.

I can hear music too…Bill Withers playing in the background.

“You just call on me brother…when you need a hand. We all need somebody to….” It’s the lesson the envious need to learn.

Dante is riffing on several levels here, as he continues some of the strands that he began in the previous cantos. First, there’s the riff on the senses: they can both cause our downfall, and effect our salvation, and in Purgatory the purification of the senses involves using one thing for the opposite (what’s seen is what’s heard; what’s heard is what’s seen). Here, it’s our sense of sight that is the culprit (literally): hence the color of bruising, as the envious eye wounds the soul of the envious by what it sees, by the mechanics of comparison. The cure? The envious have eyes sewn shut (as a falconer does to a falcon, to calm it down), in order to effect another, inner organ of sense: to cure the eyes requires the ear.

The “whip” here on Cornice Number Two does not consist of what’s seen, as in the previous canto (the bas relief that looked more real than reality). Here, the whip is what’s heard. (As Paul said, faith comes by hearing).

The healing of the soul requires the development of some other sense, that is in effect…beyond sense. That seems so clear in many of the references in the previous cantos: light too bright to perceive, images too real to understand. To “get” heaven, you have to develop a whole new set of senses, to be able to groc it.

I think somehow of Gloucester in King Lear, ambling along in mutual suffering with Lear along the fields of Dover. It’s only in losing his sight that Gloucester can actually see. “I see…feelingly.” Not to see enables these shades ultimately…to see clearly that sun that guides Dante and Virgil on their journey, whenever the “self-humbled” decide for themselves that they have had enough, and their will is pure enough to see what will allow them to continue.

And interesting isn’t it, the way Dante gives us an example we would not expect: instead of displaying someone who would typify the way we would obviously think of envy – desiring that of someone else’s we do not have – he gives us the negative space around which the vice subsists:  Shadenfreude. Leave it to the Germans to coin such a brilliant word to lay bare the darker but natural impulses of the heart: “harm-joy”. That Sapia rejoices at the downfall of Salvani shows the real trajectory of such a tendency: to abandon fear (and respect) for the ultimate power, that of God, which is indeed love; and to give ourselves over to love’s negative: desire for the other’s harm.

Vinum non habent. That’s for damn sure. But…it’s coming. It’s coming.


Purgatory Canto 8: A Paradise for Procrastinators

I’m an ENFP on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Always have been (meaning: same result each of the dozen times I’ve taken the thing). Probably always will be.

When I first took the MBTI, I think about mid-way through seminary, the results came as both a revelation and an affirmation. One of the descriptors of my “type” read thus: “Works more by inspiration than perspiration.”

And so afterward, I to myself: that explains why I was never able to start the paper three weeks in advance, read two books and three magazine articles, keep the notes neatly organized on notecards, and finish the first draft the week before. That explains why I’m up all night in a flurry of excited creativity, photocopies strewn about and highlighter stains on my fingers, until the thoughts flow like water through a dry irrigation channel. Inspiration. Not perspiration. I’m an ENFP, by God! It’s who I am!

Right.

I think this section of Purgatorio (meaning, Cantos 2-6; meaning Ante-purgatory) is ideal for ENFP’s. Meaning…procrastinators. And oh, I am not implying that we’ll all end up here – but there’s perhaps a better chance than most that this is our crib, initially, in heaven.

Dante’s playing around here, it seems to me, with this question: how do we get there? Is it by perspiration? Or by inspiration? Before I too hastily say that we ENFP’s have the right answer (inspiration), let me say that I’m sure Dante (being the extremes-avoiding, died-in-the-wool Aristotelian that he is…especially in this Canto) would say it’s got to be both.

But before we go there, first of all, let’s consider this: where is the “there” we’re trying to get to? It’s clear that what Dante’s after is the ultimate there: symbolically, it’s the thing that is represented by an entire 1/3 of the poem: Paradiso. It is the thing most to be desired, the ultimate joy and fulfillment of the human soul. It is that the place governed by that love that scratches our ultimate itch: a love that is love-in-loving. Whether we realize it or not, this is the ultimate thing that ought to capture our attention and desire, and it’s what we human beings are built for. Hell is where it gets totally screwed up beyond repair, and we forget the assignment itself; and purgatory’s where we work it out. We get the ultimate extension: all the time you need.

This whole section of Purgatorio is about those who, for one reason or another, were too preoccupied until the very end to apply their attention to what matters most: the disciplined practice of love that gets you there. The steady work that puts you there in your present, in-spired (that is, breath-ful) life, because you’ve gotten a taste of it, and it’s sweet.

Here, we see the shades of those who put it off to the end for seemingly good reason: the rulers mentioned here are “types” for all who neglected their own soul to be in service to others, through their exercise of worldly duties. I’m sure there are a lot of dutiful moms, magistrats…minsters here too? Their reward is a resting place of technicolor beauty (reminded me of that psychedelic Pink Floyd poster I stared at so many hours under a blacklight when I was a kid). One wonders, though – and this is a total riff – if God isn’t giving them a foretaste of the truest distraction that should have preoccupied them: might the beautiful colors represent that vivid brightness that should serve as the ultimate attention grabber. These are the colors of heaven, the brightness of the divine.

Which brings me back to the main point. How do you get there?  The sun, in Dante’s cosmos, plays a very clear and specific role: it is the inspiration part. It is the divine illumination without which one cannot make any progress toward the top of the mountain, toward that-which-matters-most.

This is the law of the mountain: ain’t goin nowhere at night. Not that someone’s blocking you (they’re not). It’s just that, to paraphrase John’s gospel, “cut off from me, you can do nothing.”

This seems particularly resonant right now, and not necessarily in a good way. There are so many I know who are feeling like they are in the dark. Completely unable to lift a toe upward, completely unable to make any progress forward; and it is no fun, let me tell you. And I know, because I’ve been there myself. Dark night of the soul. Theology seems like nursery rhyme. Life makes no sense. It’s night.

We’ll just have to rest the night, and wait until morning. I can testify to the notion that the color is indeed brightest when you’ve fully explored the darkness of night. That’s how it works. And – again having been there myself – I can tell you that morning does come. After night.

How do you get up the mountain? Is it inspiration? Is it perspiration? Presbyterians (so firmly on the inspiration side of the equation) do well to note: it’s got to be both. A holy and wise understanding of both in their place.

Evidence of Dante’s astute Aristotelian mean-ing: just take a gander at Henry III, practically the last visage we see in this Canto. The guy is there for the opposite reason: neglecting his worldly duties for an obsessive preoccupation with piety. Too fascinated by the notes and the drafts to ever actually produce anything at all.

How do you get up the mountain? Here’s an even better answer, and another reason we’re not in hell: It’s not just inspiration. Nor perspiration.

It’s with others. The help of the other, others; the Other.


Canto 1: God Rules

Several years ago I did a workshop at Green Gulch Farm, a working monastery that’s part of the San Francisco Zen Center, taught by the beat poet Michael McClure–pal of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac and other great beat poets of the 1950s. The workshop was based on what McClure called “Shannon’s law”. He offered an elaborate and delightful explanation of what “Shannon’s Law” was about, which boiled down basically to this: The more rules, the freer you can be.

What ensued was a delightful morning and afternoon of poetry writing not based on “free verse” – but instead, based on careful “rules” that constrained the writing. We discovered that the paradox was right: the more rules, the freer you can be.

In some ways, that is an apt description of a major theme of this “middle third” of the poem, the canticle called Purgatorio. It is a meditation on this: what are the rules that both bind and free at the same time? How can rules both oppress and set at liberty the human soul? Ultimately, one of the main questions at stake is this: what is human freedom? How does one attain sovereignty over oneself?

So…before we enter, we need to have a clear understanding of the “rules of the game.” Because, O reader, take note. We ain’t in hell no more. Different house. Different rules.

First of all: there’s weather. There’s a sunrise. Hey – there’s change! Growth! Hell is a place characterized by absence, just as Augustine characterized evil itself: it has no substance, but indeed is the absence of something, namely good. Therefore in hell, the most notable absence is that of change itself. It is a place where people suffer, and continue to repeat throughout all of eternity the very thing that creates that suffering. Hell is the place where suffering has no meaning. Hell is the place where people keep doing the same damn thing (literally) over and over again, expecting a different result.

Here, we learn, is different. We read that in Purgatory, the purpose of Dante’s pilgrimage is to witness the place of those “whose suffering makes them clean.” (I.66) In purgatory, people do not do what they are compulsed to do over and over; they do what they truly desire to do–what they will to do: to suffer. Their will is aligned with the work of suffering. Why? Because here, suffering gets you somewhere. Ultimately, it gets you to heaven.

And we shall see in some detail the means by which that can happen – through confession, contrition, and satisfaction. There are rules by which the soul becomes clean. Rules to make you free.

Dante is well aware that there seem to be rules of a different sort, rules that govern the universe. And there are rules governing the intricate schema he’s devised (or recorded, we might imagine) that describe how hell, purgatory and heaven function.

AND YET. Here’s a weird thing. We enter this brand new realm, Purgatory, and encounter a sight that should cause us to do a double-take at our programs. Dante and Virgil cast their gaze on the solitary figure of Cato, and we are meant to think, “Huh? That dude shouldn’t be here.” It’s a violation of the rules!

Cato’s presence in purgatory seems a violation of the careful plan that Dante has laid out, the very precise rules that govern the spiritual physics of the universe: how is it that this guy, a pagan, and a suicide to boot, gets the job of guarding purgatory–the place that in essence is heaven? Why does he get a free pass, and the other sots in limbo not get there?

Perhaps he would appreciate Emerson’s famous dictum, “A slavish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Because no, Dante is at his subtlest here in this first Canto of Purgatorio. He seems to invite us to reflect on the rules, how precisely reasoned they are. How we need a structure in which to be free. But rules are the scaffold, not the building. Therefore, they are meant at some level to be taken down. “Rules are meant to be broken”, as the cliche goes.

So, why is Cato the exception to the rule? Cato’s story itself is the obvious signal as to what Dante is up to here: Cato lived and died for the sake of freedom. Of liberty. As we read in our Ciardi, he opposed Caesar for the principle of freedom; fell on his sword rather than to lose his freedom.

So…what then is freedom? Is it just doing our own thing, whatever we want (or “will”)? Is the will indeed free if it’s just unfettered? Or is it possible that the lack of any structure in which to experience freedom – true freedom – can be a kind of jail? Can really be a kind of slavery?

At the very beginning, Cato realizes that one cannot escape hell on his own power, with one’s own sovereignty. “Who led you?” he asks Dante and Virgil. “Are the laws of the pit so broken?” In other words, “who changed the rules all of a sudden?”

Virgil explains to him, of course, that no. They are not breaking the rules because here is one who is “still to see his final hour.”

Things here are akimbo. A liminal state, an in-between place where the rules don’t quite make sense. Cato is an almost-saint, one who is not motivated by love, as much by authority. It’s not his former love Marcia that moves him, but the authority of Beatrice. Cato is one moved by what is proper and virtuous. One who follows the rules.

Note some other signs of things to come; other wonderful and beautiful gestures that allude to the things of our spiritual beginnings: Dante washes himself with the dew of a new morning – a reference to the baptism that washes away the sin. And as they begin a new journey, we have another allusion to a key ingredient of this process toward freedom: humility. They begin on a descent. To go up still means that you begin…by going down.

Final note: Hope there are some folk willing to add their own commentary on this canto, by replying here – or to respond to the main reflection. We’d love to hear from you!


Join us in Purgatory!

Greetings, O Reader!

As the season of Lent begins again, we continue our blogging adventure with the second canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy, 33 cantos chronicling Dante’s journey through Purgatorio. We are back, more or less the same motley band of bloggers as last year, with one change. Sadly, Adrienne Perry needed to bow out this year due to time constraints, and because her many writing projects are bearing down upon her especially now as she finishes her MFA. Hope you hear us cheering for you, A!

Enter Bob Sinner, who was a frequent commenter last year, a retired teacher of history, a member at The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, a wise mind, and a genuine good guy. We are aware that we have an abundance of Y chromosomes in this project – perhaps part of the purgatorial agenda will be to diversify. We will indeed work on that.

If you’re a new reader and would like some additional background on the project, and how it got started, read the first entry in this blog. You may also find our About page and the other pages in this blog helpful for orienting yourself.

Most especially though, we fervently hope you will join us in making this adventure part of your Lenten discipline – please do read the canticle, and comment along with us.

Tally ho!


Canto 31: How Do You Get a Giant to Kneel?

By Jeff Vamos

I want to pick up where Adrienne left off in her lovely riff on the wisdom of Virgil, so needed in the hallways of Central High—or the halls of name-your-Presbyterian-church, or the halls of Congress or the inner chambers of Wall Street.

Virgil functions in Dante’s poem as the embodiment of Reason–at least, this is the traditional interpretation. Remember who protected Dante from the poison tail of Geryon, as he hitched a ride on the very monster of fraud? That’s right: the V-man. Reason personified.

But there’s something interesting going on here, between Cantos 30 and 31. Beyond the prophylactic qualities of Reason (i.e. Virgil), so needed to prevent Dante from getting sucked into the wiles of Hell, here we see something different on display: grace. Here are the lines that follow Virgil’s rebuke of Dante’s voyeurism, and Dante’s consequent shame:

That same tongue made me feel its sting, / tinting one cheek and the other, then supplied / Balm….

He goes on to compare Virgil’s tongue – his speech – to Achilles’ lance, thought to both wound and heal. This is what grace does! The curious nature of grace is that it both wounds and heals, in a process that leads one toward new life (cf. what Dante just saw in Canto 28, in the healing-only-to-wound contrapasso of the schismatics).

I’m reminded of one of the many echoes we find in Eliot:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
 / That questions the distempered part; / 
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel / 
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
 / Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease / 
If we obey the dying nurse
 / Whose constant care is not to please / 
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
 / And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse. (East Coker, IV)

And what is the necessary quality for grace to work, to give life, to heal? One word: humility. A realization of our human condition, best experienced close to the earth, the humus. It’s humility that Dante displays in the transition between Cantos here. And as in most every Canto, this is a hermeneutic key toward understanding what’s going on symbolically in what follows.

Where we are now is a liminal place—a place of transition between one level of Hell (the Malebolge), and the very bottom, the frozen lake called Cocytus. And what guards the boundary? Those huge creatures that nature rejected called Giants. Let’s take a moment to think once again, shall we, as to what Dante is up to, symbolically, by placing such beings on the boundary between here and the Very Bottom.

Beyond the interpretive clue of Dante’s display of humility, we have this interesting allegorical bit: a reference to the funky noise these beasts make, “blowing their own horns”, to call attention to themselves in a vain attempt at communication. Dante compares this sound to the horn blast of one Roland, famously described in the French epic poem the Chanson de Roland, the rear-guard of Charlemagne during his march home through the Pyrenees after being at war. When Roland was under attack he was too proud to blow his horn, whereas just before he died he let out a wail loud enough for Charlemagne to hear seven miles up ahead.

Perhaps this is what Dante is up to: here we see symbolized the ultimate death, via the ultimate sin: pride. Pride, which is the root of it all in this landscape: fraud, betrayal, the gateway to all of those failings that degrade not just individuals, but human community itself.

In that light, Giants and Titans seem the perfect allegory: those who stand proud of the surface of hell, towers of irrational hubris. (I’m thankful to my woodworking hobby for teaching me one of the variegated meanings of this word; in that craft, “to be proud” is to stick up from the surface. Interesting).

The first giant we meet is Nimrod, thought to be the Babylonian architect of the Tower of Babel, the ultimate monument to creaturely arrogance. And we see here, when we get up close, the consequence of such a condition: confusion. This is the place where society itself breaks down, symbolized by the confusion of that very thing that enables communion, community, communication: human language.

Perhaps this is so dangerous too, because Hell is the only place that accepts nature’s rejects. Nature refused these creatures, because they were too dangerous to—forget about human society—to the gods themselves, since their power was out of proportion to their ability to…reason.

Perhaps this foreshadows too what we are about to see: those who possessed great power, and used it for evil, even irrational purposes, thus destroying the very basis for our intended form of human civilization. (Speaking of which—that’s what Dante thinks he sees as he approaches all this: in the funky not-quite-day, not-quite-night fuzziness, he sees the illusion of a city, a faux city that stands in opposition to the real destination, the Heavenly City).

And, this canto ends with the ultimate irony, doesn’t it? How do you get such a creature to bow (the posture of humility), so he can take you to the next level? You appeal to his pride. Neat, huh?


Canto 25: Dante Freak-out

I don’t recommend reading Dante just before bed. Especially this Canto.

My sleep last night, after reading Canto XXV with a warm glass of milk (well, actually…a wee dram of scotch), reminded me of the night’s sleep I got after my first R rated movie (The Omen; summer of ’76). That’s to say: freaked me out.

This is Dante at his freakiest. This is Dante as master of Horror; and Dante as poetic maestro. If poetry were figure skating, or snowboarding – this is Dante doing a quadruple axel, double toe loop; Dante doing an inverted 1080 barrel roll.

Dante basically challenges the Roman poets Lucan and Ovid, the Apollo Ohno and Shawn White of the previous era (sorry, Winter Olympics still on my mind) to a grudge match. Check it out:

…Let Lucan now attend / In silence, who has told the wretched fates / Of Nasidius and Sabellus—till he has learned / What I will let fly next. And Ovid, who writes / Of Cadmus and Arethusa, let him be still….

And, if you delve into the many many layers upon layers of poetic symbol and artistry, might we discover Dante playing on so many levels. Is he “borrowing” from his forebears here, even as he illustrates in such vivid color and detail the sin of…thievery?

And in that vein…here’s something else I find absolutely fascinating, not just about this Canto, but the whole poem. Here…try this at home: think of some abstract quality, any quality. Let’s just say that quality is…rudeness. And then, try to make a movie of it in words; a picture using rhyme. And try not to depict just the outward, obvious manifestation of it, but it’s guts, the inner clockwork that makes it tick. And do it visually, symbolically. And, moreover, do it so it messes with their brain, just by reading it.

This is what Dante does, methinks.

But, what of this here? Who would connect these things: Thievery, and human-animal transmutation? What’s the connection?

The dude makes you think. And when we start doing that, we realize that there’s a lot more going on here, a lot more at stake, (at snake? sorry…) than just pinching that magazine from the rack at the Five and Dime. What really is at stake here is no less than the opportunity for human transformation.

Let’s pick that apart a bit, shall we? Let’s start with that grudge match, the two-on-one of Lucan and Ovid vs. Dante. What does Dante have that they do not? Sure, Dante has illusions (delusions) of Fama (fame), and he is a kick-ass poet. But what Dante has that these two Roman forebears do not is this: a revelation about the true nature of transformation, one that is only possible to understand in the framework in which Dante is operating; namely, a Christian one.

What is shown here is mock transformation; transformation as transmutation. The horror of it. The insanity of it. As the previous Canto depicted: self-created Phoenix who dies and whose ashes yield nothing but…the same damn thing, over and over again, in meaningless change. Ground Hog day indeed.

But, again, what does that have to do, specifically, with thievery? Stealing?

Seems to me, what Dante’s dealing with here is the issue of belonging. What does it mean to belong? What is “belonging”? What is the true object of my “longing”, my “longing-to-be”?

Perhaps we might peel back the creative process, imagine Dante’s mind for a moment here. Maybe like this…Dante: “Hmm. Stealing. Thievery. To take one’s belonging(s). To violate what belongs to another. To blur the boundary between self other, to violate the object which is the proper longing of the self; to violate one’s own selfhood. Hmm. Let’s have some fun with that. Reminds me of that Ovid I read in high school….”

That does seem to me to be the process going on here. In talking about thievery, Dante is really exploring how it is that we violate our relationship to ourselves by appropriating what does not belong to us.

And what is the proper object of longing? The other. And to long for another (an other) requires integrity of self. A boundary between self and other. Thievery is first and foremost a violation of this boundary.

Makes me think of all those times I read Khalil Gibran in college. “Almitra, speak to us of marriage:

Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. / But let there be spaces in your togetherness, / And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Maybe here’s a way to think of it: all transformation happens in an encounter, an encounter between self and other. As Buber said, between an I and a Thou. And the ultimate encounter happens with he ultimate Other. The first and final Thou.

But here, in Canto XXV, there is no self, no other: all is in a state of continual transformation that creates nothing but horror; nothing but disgust and “nausea” as our Robert Pinsky has commented (his comment on this chapter – well worth checking out).

Here there is no change; people only make changes. Akin perhaps to what they call “doing a geographical” in AA: you don’t change, you just change place. Same you, different town. But in this horror, there is no “you” at all.  The whole concept of “you” has been violated, such that no selfhood at all exists. Here humans have lost their humanity, and have morphed into beasts.

The result is total confusion, complete lack of “integrity.” Perhaps that is most vividly illustrated by our rather colorful Vanni Fucci (say that fast three times), who apparently attempted to enter the sinner’s decathlon; he is purported to have committed the most sins in hell.  Double bird to God? Stealing the silver from the sacristy? Wow. It all adds up to a complete confusion of self-hood, in a place where the tormentors are themselves tormented (ala Cacus the Centaur – the plagued plaguer plaguing the plagued).

So, what does that look like here on earth? Does it not happen when we try to take from others what does not belong to us – not just possessions, but when we try to “possess” another? In couples counseling, they call it being “fused”. The attempt to possess some quality of the other that can only be gotten if it’s given, freely. To demand, to take such, is a violation.

And perhaps that is the ultimate irony in hell: it’s so damn (ahem) close to heaven. Heaven is a place where people do get what they long for, but in that experience, it’s not taken. It’s given. And it’s patterned after one who gave self away; and who invites us to “lose yourself, to find yourself.” We’ll just have to keep slogging on, through the exhaustion and nausea, if we’re ever to get to that place….


Canto 19: Holey Fathers

[Editor’s note: be sure to check out Jake Willard-Crist’s post for Canto 17, which has also been posted today…]

By Jeffrey Vamos

I can’t help but marvel at the strange fortune that places at my feet…this canto. And have I been the one commenting on all the religious professionals in hell? What gives, Dante?

This canto was a real strike on home turf. It did make me consider, by putting myself in front of the Dantean camera (thanks, John): in what ways is the issue that Dante explores in this canto – Simony – an issue for me? It made me think of why I went into the ministry in the first place. It certainly was not for the money. No, this was why:  by the power of grace, to love folks. To roughly (sometimes very roughly) approximate and model and point to that love that we know by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the spirit he breathed on us. And money should not be an issue here.

But if we’re honest, ’tis. It colors things in my line of work; it certainly can: how you see people, how you treat people.

For example, in my congregation, I do not know who gives what; that information is kept scrupulously secret by our two pledge accountants. I’ve often joked about the fact that for most of us Protestants, it’s way easier  to talk about sex, than about money. And whether this is a good practice (keeping our giving secret from each other) is not debated here. But, while I’m at it…need to say that there’s a part of me that rails against the privacy with which we guard our generosity – or lack thereof. We ought to celebrate each other’s giving – and challenge each other. But ah, that – a topic for another sermon.

But here’s at least one good argument for keeping secret such info from the shepherd of the congregation. Because, let’s just be honest here: even though it’s secret, one does know who gives, generally. One does know whose pledge would sting worst if it were missing, those few at the top on whose giving so much of the church budget exercise depends.

And perhaps it starts subtly enough. You think one of the top guys is a banker, and so you skip the part of the sermon you were going to do about how our banking system has stacked the deck against the poor. And maybe then you wonder, when pastoral care time gets divvied out: are you doing more for this person, that family… because they are of means? Because you know that their yearly chit means more than others? I try not to, I certainly do. But sometimes, I do feel that pressure. I try not to bow to it, but I feel it; and sometimes wonder if it does make a difference, in subtle ways.

When they are paying your salary, after all. Their money is paying for your digs, and your kid’s braces.

Well, just a small snapshot into my world – and OK, that’s a somewhat pale comparison to what Dante is talking about here. Dante is talking about people who abused the power of their office – made of it a mockery and a fraud, and used it for their own gain. But the trajectory is there – whenever we use the office that is sacred in order to curry favor, to use that power to personal advantage, or to avoid the hits you sometimes have to take, because this is the biz you’re in; that IS what Dante’s talking about. Failing to understand and live out the implications that holiness places on a person, whether religious professional or not.

A friend of mine pointed out the transition we’ve just made here, now that we’ve passed from sins of violence, to sins of fraud; in the latter place, people (like usurers) treat cheap things as if they were holy; here they treat holy things, as if they are cheap. This is clear in the scene in Canto 18: the flatters who treat the truth as cheap – they are literally swimming in their own bullshit.

Now, before we get into that further – a brief interlude here, to comment on Dante’s poetry – which is so very beautiful and subtle and multilayered.

Here’s something. And perhaps I’m just getting a bit flip, and loose, as we are now past the hump in this endeavor. Taking Adrienne’s tack, notice the topography of hell here; it’s HOLEY. A mockery of what holy should be. Now I highly doubt that such wordplay is going on in the Italian, but I think Dante would be pleased with it. The poetic point is this: people are using what ought to be treated with reverence and respect – symbolized here via the sacrament of baptism – and defaming it, abusing it. The whole (hole) place is shot through with abuse and fraud. The holes that are meant to serve as the portals to eternal life – those holes where people are to be baptized into it – have become clogged…with popes! The holiest of holy people! And their contrapasso is for their feet to be tortured by the very pentecostal flames that they ought to have called upon to transform the lives under their care. Dante talks to one (Nicolas the III) who, in a neat poetic trick, is expecting the very Pope who was alive at the time the poem was taking place – Dante’s archvillain, Bonaface the VIII.

Then notice also the beginning of this Canto. Dante makes a big deal about some baptismal font he once smashed, in his home church in San Giovanni. He says that he did it to save a life – the life of a young boy. Now, notice what he’s doing here? See how subtle a move that is? He’s saying here: I’m going to tell you about people who, by their actions, abused and destroyed this practice (baptism). But what I’m trying to do is “save” lives – and so I myself am going to have to do some smashing here, just like I did in that church, for that boy. I’m going to have to smash some holy things here, only in this case, I’m smashing (metaphorically) the reputation of a couple popes.

AND also, Dante, all with one fell swoop of a few lines, then settles the score on that whole San Giovanni incident – one where people accused him of losing his temper, being a hothead, and impetuously smashing the baptismal font. He sets the record straight on that too. Brilliant or what?

There’s so much going on in this canto that touches on the stuff that I do. Did you also notice the very first reference here, to Simon Magus?

Simon Magus was a magician (hence the name “Magus”) we meet in Acts 8, who wanted to “buy” the gospel, in order to use it for his own purposes. Is that not reflective of so many religious professionals today too? Who use religion – and the magic of charismatic speech – to attain power and to manipulate people? And what of the reference at the end of the canto to the ambivalent “gift of Constantine.” Dante is not referring to his conversion per se, but his conferral of land and wealth upon church, whose identity had heretofore been known in Christ’s suffering. This first Christian emperor, who made Christianity legal, is the same one who wrecked it, by bestowing upon it temporal power. Dante basically speaks to how religion had become (continues to be) a chaplain to culture.

Reminds me too of those who lament the lost power of the church in our era – how we used to speak with much more authority than we do now. In some ways, I wonder if Dante might cheer that. I think of Kierkegaard here: truth is always with the minority. When the church gets mucked up with money and power, and currying favor with the (usually wealthy) majority – it ceases to be what it’s meant to be. What is holy becomes coin, becomes currency, and then loses its very essence.

Boy. Glad I’m not mucked up with any of that business.


Midway

Midway through our journey, we find ourselves stuck. Dante and Virgil need to figure out how to get to the “next level” (in this case, down to it).

I’m crafting a brief reflection to mark the halfway point in the poem–this most eerie episode when Dante must ride the monster of fraud, even as our Jake Willard-Crist rides the steel beast back from Chicago (and will post his offering – the official post for this day – after he’s settled back in).

This episode in the poem has always been most fascinating for me. In Gil Bailie’s lectures on Inferno – listened to about nine years ago, and they have always been a huge influence on me – he points out that this midway meeting with Geryon, the monster of fraud, has to do with the poetic enterprise itself. Is this Dante wrestling with his art, the “vehicle” through which he has attained fame, but the vehicle through which he is aiming at truth itself? Virgil “rousing” that beast that makes the next step possible takes some prodding, some negotiating.

What Dante is doing, we must remember, is theology-in-poetry, that which aims at the highest truth. Can one ride the monster of fraud (which has an honest man’s face) toward the the angelic realm? Can lies lead to truth? Can fiction bring true knowledge? And perhaps more to the whole artistic enterprise: how do you muster the strength to go on when you realize that the enterprise itself (Dante’s fiction) is itself a fraud?

I have attempted in my life five novels. It’s at this point (half way) where I always seem to run out of steam. Is that where Dante is as well, in his writing enterprise? Realizing the fraud of the whole thing? Some other force – in this case, a beast with a poison tail – needs to give you a lift. So to speak.

Jake – look forward to what you have to say.

Onward!


Canto 13: My Life in Thorns

By Jeff Vamos

Here’s a question: In what sense does your life belong to you? And if so, in what sense are we free to give it? Or take it? Seems to me Big D is tempting us to meditate on that question.

I’m a Dante amateur – but it strikes me that this Canto is as rich, variegated and theologically (and poetically) complex as Canto 33 – which is for my money perhaps the most beautiful bits of literature (and theology) I’ve ever read or experienced.

As in Canto 33, we are witnessing the very subtle and ironic perversion (inversion?) of that impulse or opportunity that can land one in heaven.  In Canto 33, it is the perversion of the Eucharist (in the lowest pit of hell, it has become cannibalism). Here it is, I think (perhaps you thought I thought…ahem)… the inversion of the cross. The squandering of the gift of one’s own life, whose highest expression is found through giving it. But here its ultimate perversion and squandering is in taking it. And we see (as in Canto 33) how close those two possibilities can be. As Augustine said, sin is the perversion of the desire to love. And perhaps that is a theological insight that’s key to understanding D’s Comedia.

We begin the canto with images of faux verdancy: a forest of deadness and pain that is now the embodiment of those who forsook their bodies. We have the image of anti-life, of its botanical inversion and negation. Instead of fruit, the foliage bears thorns. Instead of offering life and sweet sustenance, these anti-plants instead offer pain – a “fruit” that both inflicts pain and suffers it at the same time (such is the irony of suicide: the victim and perpetrator of violence is the same).

I would love others to comment here, but that dominant symbol seen here (thorns) carries with it so many biblical resonances, for me at least. The sacrificial victim of the Lamb that Abraham finds caught in a thornbush as a substitution for Isaac in Genesis 22 comes to mind (a foreshadowing of Christ for those who read the OT that way). But the first and most obvious one has to do with the Passion story. In that central moment in the drama of incarnation, the divine man chooses to suffer; to give his life “as a ransom for many”. Here, a man in a similar situation – Pier della Vigna (PdV) – has a parallel opportunity to do so.

As Peter held the keys to the kingdom, Pier (is the name a coincidence?) holds the keys to Frederick’s heart (as the Pope is to God, according to Ciardi’s note on this). Seems Dante is intentionally posing PdV as a kind of inverse image of Peter, the vicar of Christ. Like Christ, he is accused unjustly (out of “Envy”) of a crime he did not commit; like Christ, PdV has a reputation for moral blamelessness, which he’s obviously claiming for himself. He, like the Lamb caught in the thornbush, is a victim.

And here is the brilliant irony, and the glorious delusion Dante puts on display: “To this, my glorious office, I stayed so true / I lost both sleep and life.”

PdV was a loyal advisor to Frederick the II, who through political machinations going on around him fell out of favor, and was imprisoned and tortured.  When given the opportunity to endure suffering (symbolized in the Biblical narrative as a crown of thorns), PdV instead escapes it, by hitting the eject button.

Here really IS a tragic statement (and just because Ciardi fits here, I use his): “unjustly blamed, / my soul, in scorn, and thinking to be free / of scorn in death, made me at last, though just, / unjust to myself.” Like Dante, I feel pity for him. Instead of suffering torture and ill repute, he tries to juke his fate. And who can blame him? Dante doesn’t pick some thin, cardboard character to illustrate this particular sin. This is one whose sin we could easily justify. He is a just man, unjustly tortured.

To me this irony (the very subtle inversion of the cross) seems no more clear than in line 100ff, when PdV is describing the contrapasso for all those like him who forsook their bodies. In contrast to the one whose body hung on a tree to secure the redemption of all, this is the destiny of the bodies of those imprisoned here (following RP): “Here shall we drag them and in this mournful wood / Our bodies will be hung: with every one / fixed on the thornbush of its wounding shade.”

I guess it was Jung who said that neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. Perhaps we see that at its most extreme here: the neurosis for PdV is to misconstrue the purpose of his life. His reputation (and virtue?) had become more important than his life. Irony indeed. And his moral failure was the inability to endure the pain of it, which as we know in the next Canticle (Purgatory) is the very stuff that transforms one into the likeness of God, and enables humans to feel and to know heaven. His is the squandered opportunity to show that love shown to us: willing to suffer and die. Here, life is taken, squandered.

I respect Dante for the way in which this theme is explored with such subtlety and skill. Even the poetry (and I’m only reflecting others’ expertise here) is part of the irony: the very carefully wrought verse is meant to telegraph the appearance of PdV, by using a type of verse that he himself was fond of; the literary skill that was a mark of PdV’s (all so important) reputation. And as I understand it, the gnarliness of the poetry reflects its landscape.

There are so so many other things going on here, seems to me. This just scratches the surface. For example: the theme that Dante seems to be developing around the desire of those shades in hell both to be pitied (and here, he makes a convincing case), and to have one’s reputation “cleared” in the life above. The irony around how Virgil coaxes Dante to get PdV’s shade to speak (it means having to cause pain). And, what’s going on with those Harpies? Perverse birds in the anti-nest?

All I can say about this is…wow. Wish I could get out of my day job today to get further beneath the surface of this….


Canto 7: Homo Economicus

By Jeff Vamos

To reprise Jake’s question, in slightly different form: are we THERE yet?

Well, if hell is the destination, then we’ve definitely arrived my friends. But perhaps it’s appropriate to say that in this hell, and by its very nature, the sinners trapped there never actually do get “there”, wherever that is. Ever. For Dante, hell seems to be the place of perpetual non-arrival, eternal dis-ease, literal pointlessness – and here is no better example.

The Hoarders and the Wasters

Dore's Spenders and Hoarders

After being blasted by what Dante means to be a meaningless (advertising?) jingle on the turgid lips of Plutus (think something like, “papasexy is specialixic”), and being shouted down by Virgil (“one little word shall fell him”), we meet a group of sinners – the “spenders” and the “hoarders” – who are locked in a perpetual Sisyphean round dance. Each is involved in a kind of equal and opposite version of the the very same meaningless activity.

And in this we encounter yet another aspect of the taxonomy of hell. Dante makes a definite point in this canto (which bespeaks utter pointlessness) that sin comes in pairs – the opposite version of the same sin. Aristotelian that he is, Dante shows that one of the sinister aspects of sin is that its nature is to cloak itself by accusation of the other. To be guilty of one extreme is not the real sin; the real sin is to seek to cover oneself by showing another to be worse than you.

All this on display in this parody of economics. In this section of hell, economics is all there is. Humans have indeed become Homo economicus. Locked in an eternal free enterprise zone of competitive activity, here are the shades of those who in life lost any sense of a larger system of meaning and values in which economics – the regulation of the oikos, household – makes sense.

Wordsworth seems appropriate here:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours…

And perhaps there’s more than chance (ahem) involved that it is I to whose lot it is to comment here. Because all (did he really say all?) in the infernal circle are clergy!

What up with that?

Perhaps it has to do not only with a critique of the system of wealth acquisition that had become the church of his time – but pointing out that of all people, these folks should know better. Clergy are the ones whose very job is to point folk to such a larger system of values in which economics plays a servant role, a chauffeur, in the drama of salvation, not its main character. To lead people into an experience of a world where “nature” is the gift for which no one must compete. It’s a gift that we spurn if we hoard it, or waste it.

We might find more evidence here for such a point in the linguistic playfulness and mastery of Dante as he speaks of fortune. He’s playing with the idea of fortune, using its personification, the pagan goddess whose Christian equivalent is providence. In our own language, we’ve perverted the original meaning of the word. In our parlance, fortune refers to the material stuff; as in, “I made a fortune selling widgets, and now look at my wad, eh.” Instead, the real meaning of fortune is what’s meant by the word: fortunate. To perceive in this universe created by God a fortune, a providence, that satisfies what our grasping – our getting and spending – cannot; in fact is negated by.

I can’t resist quoting one of my Dante heroes, Gil Bailie on this point. He speaks of a friend of his who says this:

There is no good or bad weather. There’s just weather.

Happiness is what happens.

To be satisfied. To have arrived. To be there. To have enough, whatever is provided, means enjoying life based on what you don’t even have to work for: it’s free. The rest is just the means of distribution. That’s what Dante’s talking about. And here’s the opposite tragedy on display:

“…you see from this / How all the gold there is beneath the moon, / …could not relieve / One of these weary souls.” (XII.57-60)

As my friend Gil asks here: is it possible that Job’s suffering is his inability to see this “providential universe”? Were he living “there,” might he be able to call his fate – what the wheel dealt him – “fortunate”?

We end the canto with an encounter of another matched set of sinners whose sin seems to make their minds “squinty-eyed”: the angry and the sullen. I find it utterly amazing that, so many hundred years before the modern psychological insight that “depression is anger turned inward,” here it is on display in Dante’s poem. The depressed folk are literally stuck in the oozing Styx – beneath it, blowing bubbles to the surface with half-articulate sighs – while the angry are stuck in the same muck, biting each other – a different dog-eat-dog version of the same old S*** we just saw. Here too, perhaps we say: What a waste – if not of value, in this case of psychic energy.

Onward! Down is up!


Inferno Canto 1: I Found Myself…Lost

by Jeff Vamos

Of the 14,000 (or so) lines of the poem, here’s where we begin: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself…lost”.

I first read, and fell in love with, The Divine Comedy when I was about 39 years old. Like Dante, right smack in mid-life. Typical of that stage, I found myself in my own dark wood, wandering in the mist of dissatisfaction and confusion. (And for anybody reading this – I won’t bore you with the specifics; suffice it to say it was painful). And somehow, this poem washed up on the troubled shores of my life.

And I discovered in its strangeness, its otherness, a certain balm for my soul. A giant prayer-wheel that spoke to my spirit’s longing. Dante’s story somehow became my story; his lostness my lostness. And I realized that this time in my life required something of me, something important. Something that needed to be examined and experienced, and not just gotten past. And this poem seemed to offer the symbolic landscape with which I might understand that struggle.

The poem begins with a paradox. Do you get it? “Midway through our life’s journey, I found myself…lost.” For those of us who have heard “Amazing Grace” about a billion times, it should be clear. The only way to be found is by being lost. Finding oneself means the willingness to embrace lostness, not to wallow in it, but to be present to it, to be willing to learn from it.

This is how the poem begins: with Dante–in his era the cultural equivalent of a rock star–getting lost in some woods at night. He is totally unconscious of how he got there: “how I came to enter, I cannot well say, being so full of sleep”. And he tries to get past this painful reality on the cheap: the irony is that he sees the goal of his journey at the very beginning of it. He sees the holy mountain (the mount of purgatory he’ll get to later), and the heavenly sun beyond, and he starts climbing. He “sees the light” from the very beginning, and feels some sense of relief that it’s only a little way off.

But here’s the deal: you can’t get there from here.

Three mysterious beasts – a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf – prevent him. What these symbolize is not terribly important to us, methinks – Pinsky’s notes give us the traditional understanding: that they are symbols of the sins of lust, pride and avarice. The things that have probably gotten us lost in the first place. The thing that prevent us from getting to where we’re going.

But the message is clear: the only way past hell is through it. You can’t go around. T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, puts it this way: “the way up is the way down”.

But Dante – like many of us who’ve been lost – does not have to journey alone; he finds a guide that had been sent to him. Not just any guide, his mentor. The person who inspired his own poetic fame: the Roman poet Virgil. And Virgil speaks of another guide who will come later, one even more “worthy” than he – Beatrice. The female Christ-figure who is the inspiration and the destination of the journey in the first place (who will be a primary character in the next canto).

I’ll end on this note – a few lines at the end of this canto that tell something of the nature of the hell he’s about to enter. Dante’s moral instruction will happen by witnessing the “lostness” of other souls who “lament…the second death they must abide.” But this kind of existence, this mode of living, is contrasted with that of those existing in the realm just beyond hell – in purgatory, the second stage of the journey (and the subject of the second Canticle):

“Then you shall see those souls who are content / to dwell in fire because they hope some day / to join the blessed…”.

What we shall learn in a few cantos here is that the souls in hell want to be there; that’s the irony. And their torment is their inability to imagine any other way of being. In that is true suffering: ultimate stuckness in one’s own pain. They “have lost the good of the intellect” (III.14, 15)

But on the other hand, at the very beginning of the poem, we understand what it takes to get to heaven: to see suffering as meaningful, literally “purgative,” purifying. A willingness to dwell in the pentecostal flame.

I suppose I learned that lesson in my own “lost” experience. But the only way to see that – the meaning of one’s suffering – is on the other side of it.

Postscript: If you’ve made it this far – hope you will keep reading. A few things to note:

1) This blog is a group effort, among my colleagues who have agreed to share their insights and reactions to the poem; and hope you’ll chime in too (via the comments).

2) I’ve set up a page (which I hope my colleagues might contribute to as well) of “Dante Basics” – some basic information about the poem to help get you oriented as to some general information about Dante and his Medieval context.

Onward!