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Canto 32: We Can’t Get There Without Grace

So . . . who’s in Heaven? And how close do they sit to God? And who’s next to them? Is everyone equal? Or are there degrees, and ranks, and grades? Do we have all ages? All genders? Young and old? Is Heaven a diverse place? And the question all of us really want to know: Is there room in it for me?
“From petal to petal, down through the rose”: we learn who sits where, what the seating chart is for Heaven.
The entire Commedia has been one voice explaining how it works (whether the it in question is Inferno, Purgatorio, or Paradiso) to another voice. Most commonly, it’s an old hand around here, such as Vergil in Inferno, or Bernard of Clairvaux here in the Tenth Heaven. The single most voluble, detailed, and patient explainer is Beatrice herself. The power of her intellect is a lifeline to the Divine, the Intellect instilling, literally, intelligence and information into the cosmos.
And the student, always, has been the pilgrim, Dante, amazed, confused, afraid, doubtful, curious, on fire to understand.
In Paradiso, we’ve been traveling throughout Paradise, always ascending toward the One, the Center, the Love informing all, and now that the lesson is about to end – or, more accurately in the poem’s terms, now that vision is about to become one with Vision – the questing, questioning pilgrim beholds, truly, a Rose that is a City that is a Theater that is a Garden: the holy greats of human history, named and nameless, arrayed in orders around the central Love that makes the wildly complex, inflorescent Rose cohere.

Plenty of paradoxes. In a Heaven without place and time, there are places and orders; there appears to be separateness. Individuals such as Mary, Peter, Anna, St. Francis, and others are identified by name, so they must maintain an individual integrity of some sort. But, as we see, they also, mysteriously, all are one, all focused, all gazing lovingly on the Vision that is one with vision. These are individual souls unified into one Flower, one Garden, one City, one Theater, organized around a Center that gives them being and the power to understand and praise.
Repeat: the Vision that is one with vision. To understand is to be at one with the Understood, in a way in which we can’t do it on Earth (although we get intimations of it). Heaven is where perception subsumes us into the object of perception. Observer ceases to be separate from Observed, who is expressed, in the first place, in the observer.

This Lent, we often meditate on the frustrations of being an individual dissoluble from others. We cannot stay fully consistent. Integrity eludes us. Mindfulness stutters or flags. Our attention may be like a searchlight sometimes, but at others it’s more like a flashlight.

But in these last Cantos, Dante suggests that the human self is the deepest of all errors. Not that it does not exist; it is the ultimate gift of the Giver. Only that we mistake it for what it is not. We think our intellect belongs to us, when it really is on a permanent continuum with the divine Intellect. We may be in time and space, but we are never separate from the power-station of Mind.

Consider the saying of Heraclitus, that “the Logos pervades everything, yet every man thinks he has his very own wisdom.” All thinking, mentation, mind, wisdom, and reason, expresses and is pervaded by, partakes in and is not separable from, the Logos, the principle underlying existence and also the principle structuring the way we use our minds. We think we have private versions of the Logos, when our minds and bodies already are penetrated and pervaded by it, and express it in being. That expression, of the mystical Logos (which for Dante and the Christian, is Christ) in the act of understanding, brings the Divine together with the timebound, placebound flesh, in an ineffable mystery. The miracle of human thought is the site, again, of the Incarnation.

Which raises the hair. And makes the knees shake. Which is literally not possible to understand, precisely because nothing is more present to us moment to moment than the movement, origin, foundations, and color of our own thoughts. And since they arise from our minds and are first known to us, and are not accessible to others unless we tell them, we assume they belong to us, and that we have a privileged relation to them. Which we do, but only contingently. Our relation to Mind is fallen, expressed through the flesh. Here in Dante’s Flower/City/Theater/Garden, we maintain the integrity of Self while unified with the Supra-Self.

Logos is the rules, the way things are, so that not only thought but also the structure of mind, and the physical laws of the universe that give rise to body and mind, are continually expressed in the life of body and mind. The life of fallen, enfleshed, ensouled human beings is a fallen version of the Logos-saturated life in Paradise.

It’s beautiful that Beatrice has given way to Mary. Bernard’s love of her is truly moving, his rapt gaze at her (“absorbed in his delight,” both absolutely enthralled with it, and merging with it) throughout the three cantos in which he serves as Dante’s final guide, and his vastly loving prayer to her, are sublime depictions of total connection with loving intercession.

I love the catalogue of holy women first described. It reminds us how Dante has been concerned to include both women and men in the sweep of his poem, and also reminds us of how many holy women are named among the saints. With piercing irony, Eve sits at the seat of Mary:

The wound that Mary closed and healed with ointment
Had been opened and pierced through by the person
Who sits, so beautiful, there at her feet.

Slightly disconcertingly, another echo of the Fall and the Passion sounds, but this permanent reunion of Eve and Mary signals the ultimate reconciliation, when everything, all Christ and humankind went through for the sake of rescue, of salvation, has been made all right.

We see one place, all filled, for those who had faith “Christ would come,” who somehow believed in Him even before the fact of his Incarnation on Earth. Bernard doesn’t go into much detail about who they are or how they could believe in Christ and be rewarded as such. Instead, on the facing side, are “where you see semicircles / Gapped with empty spaces” where sit those “who turned their faces to Christ who had come.” There are a few empty seats, but not many. They await the faithful of this moment on Earth, and not many will qualify.

Then we get to the children sitting in the rose. Bernard senses a doubtful hesitation in the usually vocal pilgrim. These are those “spirits who were freed / Before they had the power of true choice.” The ranks just above them were people who had choice, who had reached the age of reason. But these never got there, through various circumstances. They died as children: “You can observe it clearly in their faces / And in their children’s voices, if you regard them / With care and listen.” There’s no question of judging such souls by their merits, and they are here through a divine mystery. Before Christ, children were saved by their sheer innocence; after Christ, they are saved by circumcision and baptism.

Bernard had begun this part of his tour by saying, “Now wonder at the depth of Providence,” and Dante-pilgrim certainly is, for he can’t understand how children, who died before their time, “hurried to true life” (God, what a great phrase) can be ranked before and behind one another.

Bernard in essence says, it’s how God rolls. There are good reasons, just as there are for the way the entire universe operates. We can’t always know those reasons. Perhaps we can’t ever really know them. Just as in Canto XXXI, Dante sounds the first theme of the limit of language, the limit of being able to express, here we come up against the limit of understanding:
The King, in whom this kingdom comes to rest
In so much love and delight
That no will would dare ask for more

Creating all minds in his joyous sight,
Endows each differently with grace, by
His own pleasure – and here let that suffice.
When I was a boy, it used to disturb me to think that some people were better than others, that some people were smarter, or better at singing, or baseball, or arithmetic. I envied those who excelled me, and I lorded it over those I excelled. And when I thought of Heaven, it seemed unfair that there could be any stratification of ecstasy. If we are One, how can we be arranged and ordered?

The answer is that God’s doing it for God’s own reasons. The fascinating discussion, led by Charles Martel, about why children of the same parents can have such different fates, came to the same ground. We can’t know why. It’s so, and in Heaven, everybody is where they wanted to be throughout life, so no one’s complaining if they’re lower than Mary. In earthbound life, of course, the question of differing fates has the same answer, much less satisfying. Yet, Bernard implies, that state of affairs suits. After we have seen Gabriel flying before Mary, we see what Bernard calls “the roots of the Rose”: Adam, Moses, Peter, John the Baptist. There are conjunctions of angel and human, man and woman, pagan and Christian.

Having beheld the entire, splendidly enfolding Rose, we have come to the moment, when the pilgrim can direct his gaze to God. It’s beautifully done: “Since the moments allotted to you are flying, here we make a period.” A full stop. Two references at once, to Dante-pilgrim’s still essentially timebound mode of understanding. It also reminds us of the timebound experience we have had of the Commedia itself, of all poetry, saturated in time (in rhythm and in length), and that that experience, too, alas, is running toward its period. We’re coming to a full stop, and the moments for this exquisite, immense poem are flying. “Toward the First Love we will direct our eyes,/ So that, looking upon Him, you may penetrate / As much as possible through his effulgence.”

But Dante-pilgrim can’t hope to do that without help. Here, as on Earth, if he needs an Intercessor between himself and God, he goes through the Intercessor of all Intercessors, Mary. “Remember, oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided.” That’s how the prayer goes. “Oh, Mother of the Word Incarnate.” Dante needs “grace from the one who can help you.” We simply can’t get there without grace.

Can there be a better Lenten thought? Maybe not. We simply can’t get there without grace. We need help. We can’t go it alone. It’s a long road, a demanding journey, asking not less than everything, as is fitting and right. So has the Commedia been, and in the next Canto, Dante-pilgrim will both see and fail to recall the full, luculent Lightfall of the Uncreated Word. Not only could he not get there without grace, but also he cannot say it, cannot recall it with justice. He will fail to tell us, and yet his failure tells us all we need to know.

Happy Easter, everyone.

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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.


Canto 26: The Ecstatic Recitation of Love

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

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

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

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

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

Ignites love, all the more as more goodness

Is comprehended in itself.

Toward the Essence, then (so exquisite

That all goods outside of it

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

Moves any mind that discerns the truth,

Loving it more than anything else.

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

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

The being of the world and my own being,

The death He suffered so I could live,

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

Along with the aforesaid lively consciousness 

Have hauled me out of the sea of love gone wrong

And set me on the shore of the straightmost way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Canto 33: The End That Is a New Beginning

Our Lenten journey with Dante through purgatory comes to an end with this canto. It seems odd, though, to call it an “end” as it is, in reality, yet another major transition. After journeying upward through the terraces and trials of the mountain of purgatory, the end of the second part of the Divine Comedy sets the stage for heavenly journeying in the Paradisio. Before embarking upon the final stage of his trek, Dante has one more thing he must do. Before ascending further, Dante must be washed in the waters of the Lethe. In so doing, he will cease to focus on his sins and will henceforth focus on matters divine.

We end our Lenten travels with Dante instructed by this final canto. As with Dante’s final canto here, Lent is not a destination so much as a transitional space. During this season, we focus on our sins and work at repentance. Such things can never be the destination; to allow them to be so would miss the whole point. Lenten observance and penitential practices only prepare the way for us to enter into experience of and contemplation upon matters divine in an appropriate manner. The destination, however, lies yet ahead. Our encounter with matters divine begins on Palm Sunday and culminates in the profound mysteries of the death of Jesus on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

As with Dante, we must pass through the waters in order to ascend to that which is most beautiful, sublime, and holy. Lent was originally established by the ancient church as a time of learning and penitential preparation for the celebration of baptism during the celebration of Easter (a complex rite that began on Holy Saturday and continued until dawn on Easter Sunday morning). The early church teachers believed that divine illumination came through baptism. Some things-the most important things-about Christian belief and practice could only be known on the basis of the illumination provided by the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of baptism. For those already baptized, the culmination of the Lenten journey with the celebration of baptism for new converts provided an opportunity for baptismal renewal. So it was and so it continues to be. Renewal of the gift of baptism-passing symbolically again through the waters-prepares us for ascent to the most holy of all mysteries.

May the last sentence of Dante’s Purgatorio be ours as we move into Holy Week: “I came forth from the most holy waves, renovated even as new trees renewed with new foliage, pure and ready to rise to the stars” (Canto 33.145).

Onward and upward into heavenly grace!

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary


Canto 32: Sleeper, Awake!

It’s just my luck to draw this Canto. Action-packed, ain’t it? You got the Eagle, The Griffin, the Giant and the Whore. You have Beatrice, seated on the ground near the Apple Tree. Most of all, most active of all, most turbulent of all, is the speaker’s mind, going in and out of consciousness, in and out of full and half-awareness, now focused like a laser to only one thing, now overloaded.

Even more than most is what lies just beyond all this . . . Paradise. Purgatorio is a strange, frustrating poem, written to be frustrating, to feel awkward and balked, thwarted, thirsty, wondering, agonizing. It’s the last assertion of the clog of the flesh, the asymmetrical axis of spirit and body, the sense of the human soul, caught in time, gravity, infirmity, and sin, not really fitting in anywhere, ever caught, ever in a state of painful between-ness.

As Purgatorio is! The ultimateTweenLand!

It’s hard to describe, after the hard descent of Inferno and the hard ascent up the terraced mountain of Purgatorio, how moving, how sad, how Lenten, the sight of the Tree is when we first see it. I realize that allegorically this Tree symbolizes the Earthly authority of the Church – but even here we have echoes of the Edenic tragedy. And later, when we see the allegory of the corruption of the Church by greed and political intrigue, we see the expression of original fallenness even in the institution (the Church) that should be teaching us the way.

The Tree has been here all along. Everything we are must pass this way. We can be good, we can be wonderful, but everything we do must pass through our original fallenness. The Tree need not be a bar, need not be impassable, but it can be. That’s what it was in Inferno, where reside those who in their personal lives replicated the angelic fall from grace that created Inferno. The Tree was there, too, all along. It’s one of two Trees essential to Christian iconography – the other being the Tree on which Christ was grafted in exquisite, ecstatic agony. That second Tree lies in the shadow cast by the first; the first made the second necessary.

And how consistent Dante has been in stressing, and lashing, the corruptions of wealth and power. We saw it at all levels of Inferno, and we’ve been seeing it at all Terraces of Purgatorio. It’s pervasive, it’s everywhere, it ruinedFlorence, it ruinedRome, and if we’re not careful it will ruin us and the Church. Dante looks around at the evils of what was, for him, modern Europe, and he depicts a battle of mythic beings, the long, tortured history of the Church, from the Rome of Constantine toAvignon.

I admire how bumbling Dante is throughout this canto – and yet, how full of pathos and dramatic irony his situation is. He sees Beatrice full in the face, and stares too long, and (once again) is yelled at. Of course, we’d all do the same. This guy has made a confession, been admonished for wasting his gifts, been criticized for weeping over the loss of Virgil . . . he can’t do anything right.

Except follow Beatrice. He knows she can show him the way, show him the Divine as the Divine really is. Even if Dante messes up a lot – and he does, in ways he can’t anticipate – he doesn’t know the rules – I mean, who does? – he is saved by his belief he can be saved. Beatrice is the mystery of Divine Guidance, revelation, the hints, clues, and teachings in earthly life that lead to God. Seeing Beatrice in the face prefigures the moment, at the end of Paradiso, when Dante beholds all the leaves of the universe bound into a transcendent book.

It’s also a comment on human love, as Dante says it came into his heart, and how, through the image of the Divine in the beloved, led him to the Divine. Neoplatonism was more than an intellectual game to Dante – it was an attempt to connect the transcendent, life-changing power of human love with the Love that moves the universe, literally linking the two. In a poem such as “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” which we saw performed earlier in Purgatorio, Dante magnificently and repeatedly lets us know that My Lady is more than My Lady. She’s herself, of course, and I love her for herself, but she is also Light. She is also a portal of Love. She “strengthens our faith, / for such was ordained from eternity.” She, if we stay awake and alive and alert to it – she – whoever She is for us – is how we learn in this life, and this body, and this intellect, of the Love that is God.

Dante has said throughout his poem that the good person pays attention, and commits to memory (and to heart!) the lessons strewn, like bread on a forest road, throughout our existence. It’s both a medieval alertness for reality as a series of signs and a timeless awareness that God has structured existence to speak continually of the Divine, if one is a good enough person to recognize that, read it, and follow it.

It makes me wonder how many of us are that alert, that aware, that mindful. Poetry, music, and scholarship – and my job as a journalist – all of these rely heavily on notions of being aware, being in the midst of the world, cultivating a nuanced, omnidirectional alertness. Engaged and informed. Alert and aware. That’s what being alive is – and it obligates us to lead moral, humble lives, because without those, we’ll have no hope of seeing clearly.

And when Matilda calls on a dozing Dante to “Arise!” we definitely remember Lazarus. We remember the Transfiguration. We remember Easter. We remember Ephesians, with “Sleeper, awake!” It is a rising from the dead, a small version, a personal Resurrection.

And you know? I find his little personal awakening far more haunting, far more moving, far more Lenten, than the massive smash-up with Eagle, Chariot, and so on. The fate and history of the Church seems less moving than the spiritual fate of Dante. If such a bumbler, such a time-waster, such a political failure, such a trembling, flailing mess can see Beatrice and be blessed and be taken to Paradiso, anyone can.

That’s not true, of course. Not anyone. Inferno showed us those who can’t. But what counts here is that sense of hope, for the little person in the midst of a vast universe in which sin and goodness battle moment to moment. If Dante, then why not me? Maybe I will have my own Beatrice. Maybe — if I but saw it rightly — I already do.

That hope, that hopefulness, is extended to all by Dante though Dante, that feeling that we can achieve the sight of the Divine, if we stay open, work to be alert, follow the signs . . . and keep climbing.


Canto 31: She’s Just a Girl? She’s a Bomb.

So much of what I love about Dante and his magnificent poem is on display in this Canto, and what leads up to it. Love it.

Speaking of which, I can’t resist pointing out what I think is a delicious irony that we encounter through the setting of the last several Cantos in the Sacred Wood. It’s taken about 61 Cantos – how many thousands of words is that? – to go from getting lost in the woods to getting found in…the woods. All this time to “get ourselves…back to the garden.” Is it possible that the same dark wood in which Dante originally got lost is…the same woods that we find here, atop purgatory? If we stretch our spacio-temporal and poetic imagination, I think it’s what Dante intends. As if heaven and hell are the same place, only separated by a state of consciousness. I love that. And I think it to be true.

Makes me think of family vacation. But alas, I digress.

Now to get to the heart of the matter in this Canto: Beatrice. Is it not odd too (perhaps moreso for the modern reader) that it took Dante this long to catch a glimpse of his honey – to be in the presence of his soul mate (could we call one’s lady that, in the context of courtly love of Dante’s time? More on that in a moment…)…and for what? A mighty tongue lashing. And, am I the only one who senses the strange mix of pleasure and pain in the heart and soul of Dante to be receiving it? That pain/joy mix seems to match the experience of those souls we’ve just met – but especially in this section of the Purgatorio, we get the idea that this is not about Dante the voyeur, the poser, the one learning a great lesson about sin and hell and suffering and all that. All very…informative and salutary. No, this is about Dante the pilgrim: to get there, he too has to experience the pain of his own sin. He has to feel it, in order to be healed of it; in order to forget it. And the only one uniquely qualified to inflict that kind of searing pain? The one whom Dante loves most. His Beatrice. (And I use that phrase, “loves most”, carefully – in light of what follows here).

So then, let’s say a word or two about Beatrice. I notice we haven’t written much about sister Bea (the key to the whole structure indeed, Bob). One of the reasons I love the poem – a reason it’s been so spiritually meaningful to me – is the notion that God does not come to us as an abstract concept; a philosophy; a faceless “force”. God comes to us in the veil of human flesh. And for Dante, God comes in the most marvelous human flesh: that of a woman.

Disagree with me? I’d really be interested in anyone else’s insight here, but from my angle of view, Beatrice herself is none other than a Christ figure in the poem, and for Dante. Now, we can’t get too literal here – Dante is playing around in this very Canto with the idea of form and image as it relates to incarnation: how is it that God takes on a form that is “unaltered in itself / yet in its image working change on change”? (XXI:124-125) What Dante seems to be saying is that divinity can be reflected, refracted / imaged, imagined, in forms that “work change on change” – the essence cloaked in flesh can take a variety of visage. And in the poem, Beatrice takes various symbolic forms – divine light; the church; lady philosophy…and: a feminine Christ figure.

I think it’s rather cool that Dante connects the very viscera-engaging experience he had when he saw the image of a girl – she was just nine years old when he first saw her – and it rocked his world. He felt that thing that touched the inner core of his humanity, and he realized it was not “just a girl, just a girl”…to further borrow from Pete Townsend: she was a bomb. (Check out the lyrics and the story behind the song and maybe you too will see a strange consonance with Canto XXXI.) But for Dante came the insight that this soul-bomb could be nothing other than that which reflects to us the divine. This insight, to be sure, was incubated in the culture of courtly love in which Dante and everyone in his age was swimming – but to me, it is an insight that is given its clearest expression in Dante.

All this reminds me of a book I read years ago, We by Robert Johnson; one of those books you read, and somehow it sticks to your brain and soul. It’s a book about the psychology of romantic love. Johnson is a Jungian psychologist, and he uses the story of Tristan and Isolde as a parable of human and divine love. Tristan – like Dante – is off and away fighting battles for his Lady, Isolde. She is the very force that drives and motivates his quest. She is beyond reproach: a prefect image of woman. The irony is that he, like Dante, never really gets to know his love as a person. The share very few words. She’s a lady best viewed from a distance. She is, in that overused word from modern psychology, a “projection.” She is an image. And it is a powerful image. It has power to drive the soul of a man (and in this context, specifically, a man. I will not comment on the dynamics that may be at work in the opposite gender here, as I don’t feel qualified – but if there are any readers out there who would care to comment, would love to hear…). Romantic love, in some ways a discovery of the late middle ages, was like splitting the atom: it was a discovery that unleashed an incredible force on the collective psyche of the west.

Johnson’s thesis in the book, and here I’ll present a very boiled-down version, to me is fascinating. It’s also useful in diagnosing much of modern spiritual sickness, especially as regards our conflicted and dysfunctional expectations of our relationships. Here’s a question: when we settle on a mate, do we expect that person to be our “soul mate”? There is a very distinct and powerful social myth that indeed it should be so. There is one star-struck love who is meant for each of us. We find each other. The kiss that rocks the heavens. “You complete me,” you say. And we live happily ever after.

Well, not really. And not always, to be sure.

For Johnson, this is the unfortunate detritus of the Age of Romantic Love. In some ways, this has bequeathed to us a culture that worships…love. The experience of love. The kind of love you find in pop songs about it. (“Who’s that lady? who’s that lady? Beautiful lady. Who’s that lady? Sexy lady…”) Perhaps this is the most prominent example of what Dante has been talking about throughout the entire poem: looking for love in the wrong places – and ironically, the place that seems the most likely place to find it. In a woman. (Or a man, depending on your gender and orientation). In that Other we hope, fantasize, expect will…”complete us.”

The problem is the fact that we experience what most everyone experiences in the course of a romantic relationship: we fell in love not just with a person, but a projection. Somehow the real person presented an image we connected with something else. Something like that thing that Tristan saw in his Isolde. That Dante found in his Beatrice. And Dante could stay in the illusion (that’s not the right word, but suffice for now) because he never spoke with her. Never held her. Never saw her pick her teeth with a knife, or fart, or make a stupid comment at a party.

And don’t get me wrong: projections get a bad rap in modern psychology. “You’re projecting” might be the typical fodder of many a marriage counseling session. But projection in itself ain’t wrong. It’s the very thing that Dante is doing. And I think he’s conscious of it. How could we possibly connect to an image of God unless it were projected…somewhere, on something (or on someone).

For Dante’s age and culture, marriage was not the institution through which we find our “soul mate.” Marriage was for the purpose of having kids, creating family alliances. It was utilitarian. That’s not to say it was absent of love – indeed, that’s not the case. It was just not freighted with all the expectations carried by our modern culture, namely that our mate will also fill the role of…God for us.

Because, whether or not he realizes it, that is the true object of Tristan’s quest: God. God in the visage of a woman who fires his imagination (and his lions, and his viscera).

And the same is true for Dante. But what I would venture is that Dante is aware of this dynamic. Check it out:

Like sunlight in a glass the twofold creature

Shown from the deep reflection of her eyes,

now in the one, now in the other nature. (XXXI:121-123)

Dante sees Christ reflected in the eyes of a woman, his beloved Beatrice. And later when she (finally) smiles, he sees in that the very splendor of eternal light.

What would it be like if we – and I mean the biggest we here, the “we” of Western culture – woke up one day and realized that what we are seeing (as if on a scrim) when we look into the eyes of the beloved not the beloved, but God. All those pop songs about love (and indeed, about sex) is not about our numinous attraction to the other, but our innate desire for the Other. For God. Our quest for the infinite begins with the eyes of that creature that most stirs both our hearts and our loins: the object of romantic love.

And so then, what if we realized that we were looking at a projection? What I see reflected in you is in a sense not just you; it’s You. And maybe if we realized that, we would not put so much darned pressure on our relationships. We would not expect our mate to be our Mate. The one who “completes us.” The quest of romantic love is no less a quest for God. And if we were to go on that romantic quest, our relationships might change, for the better. Perhaps we might see them as a bit more utilitarian, a bit less viscera engaging than that first kiss. But no less magical, passionate, loving. It’s just that we would unhook our quest for the ultimate gut-engaging quest from that quest, the quest that is our true life’s quest, the quest of Tristan. The quest of Dante. We would begin our quest anew, and aright: a quest toward God.

Who might look like…and I speak only for me at this point…a woman?