Tag Archives: Dante

Canto 31: City, Theater, Garden, Rose

Is Paradise a rose? Or a city? A theater? Or a garden?

All. Any. None. In Canto 31, this kaleidoscopic shimmer among images is the spectacle, and spectacular it is, of a poet, and a believer, employing poetry in all its magic to do what cannot be done in human language: give us the sense and sight of Heaven.

Poetry has is mystical to begin with. It seizes on our most human tool, language, that servant and master that issues from our lungs and our throats, teeth, nose, tongue, eyes, lips, fingers, and hands, our whole bodies, twisting and standing and knotting up, and somehow it speaks what’s in our minds. Or gets somewhere near. Or at least that’s the hope. Having seized it, poetry wrings yet more out of it, freighting each sound, rhythm, and shape with so much meaning we cannot catch up, meanings we can’t even be aware of, not as writers, not as readers, not as species.

So much about language escapes us, so much about even our own individual use of it. You’d think we’d have a feeling of ownership, and we do, yet, as even a moment’s reflection tells us, no, no one really owns this though all use it. And no one uses it, to the utter horizons of possibility and beyond, like the poet, and that brings a feeling of the unspeakable, what cannot be said, a feeling, also, of truth and truthfulness ordinary language cannot approach. Poetry, like all art, gestures, in its very existence and workings, toward Being, toward One, toward the Without-Time. I’m already verging on the poetic with those phrases, but they hardly go too far. No matter what else poetry is talking about (even when the poet speaks of God’s nonexistence, ironically enough), it is also always invoking the mystic.

That’s what’s crucial about the Commedia, and especially so in its last few, glorious, triumphant Cantos. I must say, few human achievements can be as wondrously assured and successful as this last stretch of the journey. We always have been moving forward, moving upward. Dante assiduously has been keeping track of time as long as time has lasted. Yet always he is maneuvering us toward a moment when we leave time and place, when our habit, indeed our error (itself redolent of the Fall) of distinguishing the then from the now, must fall away. Remember Canto XXIX, when Beatrice gets cross about the way we’re always going after appearances, and tells us we’re wrong, just wrong? We need appearances and can’t get along without them, but our reflexes of definition, analysis and synthesis, cubbyholing existence, the hot mind chugging away all it can, actually constitute a kind of lie. The bed is unmade, so we make the bed, but again the bed is unmade. We assume we are deathless and ever-right when we are blind and mortal. (“You say, ‘I am rich, and have put up great wealth, and am in need of nothing,’ and you do not know you are wretched, destitute, poor, blind, and naked.”) Dante reminds us, Beatrice and all the guides remind us, that what we’re trying to do we cannot actually do.

And so is Dante. And in the final Canto, he’ll let us know he failed, that he has to fail, being human. Meantime, to write poetry is trasumanare, either really to transcend our humanness, or to feel as if we have. Even if that were all poetry did, it’d be pretty good. But Dante wants it to lead to real transcendence.
My bold, slashing suggestion for this, my final log-in after three years of Dante with my beloved brethren, is: Dante believed poetry could actually get us there, get us to a direct experience of the divine, maneuver our spirits to the intersection of flesh and spirit that is the Incarnation. He definitely believed it could help us transcend our limits. The entire Commedia is based on that faith, and I think you’d have to say, after almost 700 years, it is doing a very good job. But in doing that job, Dante’s after the biggest moving project of all: to move us, as readers, into mystical contact with God.

So maybe transcending the human is essentially mystical. And writing poetry that seeks that transcendence is a mystical act. I’m going to swim up that waterfall as we proceed.
Dante, for the previous few Cantos, has been battering us with metaphors for Heaven. He’s trying to shift us into a mode of consciousness such that all his metaphors – the Theater, in which all of Heaven is arrayed as a whole before us, as on a stage; the Garden, a joyous, fertile, light-saturated region of eternal growth, union, and color; the City, that is, the New Jerusalem, the society of saints, angels, and Trinity, ordered in Divine Reason, reflecting (but also embodying) the goodness of eternal community; and the divine Flower, the white rose spirits in constant, ecstatic, eternal praise, infloresced around the integral, radiating Center – are not different ways of saying the same thing, but are, mystically and mysteriously, one thing, as the Trinty are One and One is Three. All the metaphors call on us to take on a total mental view of the vast, cosmic tapestry of Paradise, to see it as a whole. And . . . then . . . to collapse our notions of part and whole, and realize that Part and Whole are One. Dante is not different from Paradise and Paradise not different from Creation. Dante’s imagination shifts among these registers not as alternatives or parts but as constant, equal, interequilibrating, total truths. And if you can let your mind do what he’s urging it to do, you feel an expansion of the fabric of thought, a rising, an intimation of an impossible state we glimpse and perhaps, for an eye-blink, see.

My God, is it beautiful.

In the form of a white-hot Rose
The holy host showed itself to me
Which Christ through his blood had made his bride.

So the milizia, the “host” or (in a metaphoric way, military) ranks of Heaven, the assembled orders in limitless, spaceless eternity, show themselves to Dante, and we’re told that this host was made a bride through Christ’s sacrifice. That’s the basic teaching of the Harrowing of Hell, that Christ as God suffered mortal pain and death, thereby freeing the billions from their intermediary state and into Heaven. We recall, too, that the Church is also called the Bride of Christ, and as we’re told on many Sunday’s, also betrothed through that blood sacrifice. The blizzard of various yet unitary metaphors rains down: the stupefying candor of the white rose, the military, the wedding, the blood sacrifice. All of this feeds into the machinery of theater/garden/city/flower, a continuum, not a chain of separable visions. We may find the addition of violence disconcerting, but it fits. There is blood, there is punishment – and there is victory. And here you see it, in its singleness, all around you.

And now, if we can even bear it, we read:

But the other host, that flying, sees and sings
The glory of Him who enamors it,
And the goodness of Him that created it so wondrous,
As a swarm of bees that inflowers itself
One second and another returns
There where its labor adds sweetness,
Sank into the Great flower that adorns itself
With so many leaves, then rose again
There, where its love always sojourns.
All of them had faces of living flame
And golden wings, and the rest such a white
That no snow ever attains to that extreme.
When they let down into the Flower, from bank to bank
They carried something of the peace and ardor
They gained by fanning their flanks.
Nor did the interposing between the Flower
And what hovered over it
Of such a flying multitude
Impede the view or the splendor:
For the divine Light penetrates
Throughout the universe according to its merits
Such that nothing can stand obstacle to it.

Ravishing, and (for me) seductive, but also, in its constant process of metaphorization, of bringing each new way-of-seeing-one-thing-as-another into the whole, further expanding the aperture. The heavenly hosts either celebrate the Rose or fly into and out of it. Yet they never obscure the view of it, for they are of it and are not separable from it. Heaven is where Praise is at one with the Praised. The Light pervades and runs through all things, according to the degree to which those things merit the Light. Nor is the Light to be thought of as something that can be considered separate from the universe or the things the universe contains. The Light is the condition of the universe’s being. As is Praise of the light. Pure verb.

In this overpowering vision, we almost forget there’s a speaker, or that there has been a series of guides, or Beatrice. But Dante is moving us gently to the moment when we must let go even of her. We might feel sad, since she has been such a central fulcrum of all that’s gone on since Inferno: Through her we’ve been led out of the savage Abyss, through the grey regions of the Great Waiting, and now into this, the Empyrean.

Beatrice is our way to God, but is not God. She is our Lady, but she is not Our Lady. And Dante has come to the point at which he must relinquish his dynamo, his mirror and conduit of love and divinity, the human love that drove his poetry and drove him to the Divine. Why? Because now she is with Divinity, and he can see but not go there. And, despite the powers of his unexampled (and it is) poetry, he will fail, in the end, to say what he saw, even though what he says may bring us to that What.

Wow. Wow:

I, that had come from the human to the divine,
From Time to the Eternal,
From Florence to a just and whole Community,
Into what a stupor must I have been thrown!
Truly, between this and the Joy
I was pleased not to hear and to stay mute. . .
Passenger through the living Light
I passed my eyes over all the variegations
Now up, now down, now circling round.
I saw faces of persuasive charity
Empowered by the Light and His Smile
In attitudes adorned by all graces.
My regard already had gathered in
The general sweep of Paradise
No aspect staying fixed or closed
And I turned around me with the renewed wish
To ask my lady of things
About which my mind was in suspense.

Can we stand it, I wonder? Who else could have the towering, powerful, triumphant gust to write, or to have a character claim that “My regard already had gathered in / the general sweep of Paradise?” No aspect stays fixed or closed: Heaven always moves, ever takes the shape of music and song and praise. No sense of separability, of Time, of change. It is not change as we know it but a necessary, joyous movement, growth, and fructification. And persuasion: Who can resist those “faces of persuasive charity”? How could you resist Charity, when Heaven shows what Charity does?

But then he looks for Beatrice, as he’s done throughout the poem. And she is no longer at his side. She is seated, her crown reflecting the One, at the Third Level, below Christ and the real Queen of Heaven, Mary. When Bernard of Clairvaux appears as Dante-pilgrim’s final guide, he directs him to see her, who is both infinitely far from him, and not separated at all:

No mortal eye is so far removed
From the region in which the on-high thunders
Or no matter how deep the sea sinking
As my view was from Beatrice,
But I was not dismayed, because her image
Did not reach down to me through any obscuring medium.

Dante joyfully acknowledges his far remove from Beatrice, but it is a remove of ontology, of intrinsic degree of relation to the Divine, not a remove of physical distance. No mediation in Heaven. Ranks and realms and differing relations, but nothing separate. There is no place. Beatrice is sharp and clear, and acknowledging the differing realms is but, once again, to Praise. In fact, all verbs in Heaven are one verb, Praise.
Dante utters an absolutely gorgeous poem of thanks to his Beatrice, and asks for her continued grace, and then Bernard directs him to see Mary. And, if Dante was amazed before, he is now stupefied by the sight on which all are focused.

I saw smile there . . .
A beauty, a gladness
Such as was in the eyes of all the other saints.
And if I had as much skill in speaking
As in imagining, I wouldn’t dare
To try the smallest part of it.

This announces that language, from here on in, fails. Once Beatrice leaves us, so does the power of language to explain, to present, to mediate. Dante-pilgrim lets us know that the Commedia has given us the sweep of Heaven, the one view of the One . . . and has moved us past words, time, place. We are at the end of the poem and the end of Time. What we see in the next Canto is the unity of all things.

The Commedia has been nothing but language. But language is never nothing but language. Language can move people, change them, bring them new places. Imagination is body as well as mind. Where language takes us, all of us go. Whether Dante wishes us to be absolutely literal-minded, or whether he is conjuring with the ineffable through utterance, courting an inevitably failed enterprise (as he himself just told us!), as of Canto 31, we’re transported into a realm of ecstasy, where all moves, and where movement makes a whole, a drama, a city, a host, a sacrifice, a garden (without walls!), a Flower. We move, but not from place to place. We move as praise and joy and justice move. That Holy Stasis invoked at the end of Paradiso is an ever-growing, ever-sweetening, ever-burgeoning realization of perfection, endless and endlessly unfolding. It is the reality beyond speech to which poetry, all art, all thought, all our ultimate best, ever gesture. As Dante-pilgrim tells us, we’re always there already. Our desire, and our wish to be good, to be with the good, to be of God and with God, happens all the time, continually furnishes us with intimations and glimpses of the Unity within and through all things, so finely pervaded throughout that, although we use terms such as “hidden” and “elusive,” perhaps we really should use terms such as “superpresent” and “superfamiliar” and “supraverbal.” The fire and the rose are one.

Ah, Lent, you are long. But it is spring, and it is a good thing to reflect on our distance yet to travel and how far we have come. Those of us (I’m one) who think we’re always already there don’t think that solves everything. When infinity separates, you can’t span the gulch — except by spanning it. The somber reality of Lent, that we are flesh and make mistakes and keep making them, that our physical destination is as humble and dirty as our origins, can merge with the joy that precedes Lent (that of Christmas) and the unworded ecstasy in which it ends, that of Easter. But we can’t get to Easter unless we minister to the Easter within, let it guide us to the Easter up, down, all round. It’s a journey outside of time and across much other than space. We cannot possibly traverse it, except by traversing it. Dante has shown us.

Thanks, Jeff, for letting me be part of this. And my other brothers and sisters in this beautiful task.


Paradiso Canto 12: Wisdom in the World

First: an apology. I’m late in my blogging today. I know you’ve all been eagerly anticipating my entry! Well, pilgrim, be careful what you wish for.

Jake speaks well of Canto XI and his reflections are equally relevant for XII (mine will be neither as beautiful nor as instructive, I’m afraid!). Here too the dazzling radiance of the Sun ponders the the two wheels of the divine chariot: charity embodied by St. Francis and wisdom embodied by St. Dominic.

The second ring is mirrored and encircled by the first (as is the canto itself, which is a parallel reflection of Cantos X and XI). The scene is drips with light and vibrancy: dancers, poets and singers embody and enact the joy of the sun and the harmony of charity and wisdom. A voice rises above the rest:

“Christ’s army, which cost so dear to rearm, was moving behind the standard, slow, mistrustful and scanty, when the Emperor who reigns eternally took thought for His soldiery that was in peril, of His Grace only, not that it was worthy, and, as has been said, succored His bride with two champions by whose deeds, by whose words, the scattered people were rallied.”

Thomas spoke. Here we will deal with the man of words—the man whose mind was so alive that even in the womb he inspired his mother to prophesy, to dream a dream that defined the contours of the future. From Singleton: “His mother is said to have dreamed before he was born that she gave birth to a dog, with a torch in its mouth that set the world on fire.”

A Digression: The Strange Dream

How odd! Legend suggests that the dog, a rather puzzling complement for a modern reader, was black and white, colors later associated with The Order. And the torch bespeaks both light and fire. Light that would, with zeal and passion, expose the darkened corners of the church, and fire whose tongues would spread true faith across Europe. As for the image of the dog: Dominicani suggests Domini canes, “dogs of the Lord.”

A Commentary: The Baptismal Wedding

Records Dante, “When the espousals were completed at the sacred font between him and the faith, where they dowered each other with mutual salvation, the lady who gave assent for him saw in a dream the marvelous fruit destined to issue from him and from his heirs, and, that he might in very construing be what he was […] Dominic he was named, and I speak of him as the husbandman whom Christ chose to help Him in His garden.”

Dominic’s baptism is spoken of as a wedding—he is espoused to Christ’s church. And to the church which offers him faith, he offers his Name: Dominic, which is identical with the thing, a Keeper of God’s vineyard. (Recall here that Francis is similarly espoused to Poverty, his earthly love). He became a “messenger” and a “familiar” of Christ, a spokesman for Christ and a reflection of Christ in His bodily absence. With wisdom and intellect Dominic tended the garden of the Church, and his parents became what their names signified: Happy was his father, and his mother Graced by the Lord.

“I am come for this”, Dominic seems to say, echoing Jesus’ fateful words. The naming of things corresponds to their essential being. Dominic tends the garden. To what, I wonder, do Presbyterians like me, do Christians, perhaps you, fine reader, to what do our names correspond? Is the Presbyterian an Elder in our society? A sober, Spirit-filled leader? Is the Christian Christ to the world? Have we come for anything?

I think we have. If only we can find it, dear reader. If only we can tend it. If only we, too, can take on the mantle of our baptism and wed ourselves to work of wisdom in this world. If only, if only.

Etc.: The Good Dominicans and the Self-Critiquing Franciscian

From here Bonaventura, our Canto’s voice, goes on to sing the praises of the great Dominic and, as Thomas did before him, to criticize the men of his own order (the Franciscans). He ends with the naming of the souls of the second ring of the Sun—Augustine and Chrysostom among Anselm and Donatus, and a host of other scholars and academics forgotten among most modern readers.

With a grace that could be easily overlooked, Bonaventura finally notes the presence of Joachim, “who was endowed with the prophetic spirit.” Himself a scholar, Joachim once postulated that there would come an earthly age of The Spirit wherein the Christian would live in perfect freedom without the constraints of civil or ecclesiastical discipline. The age of the Spirit corresponded to and transcended the age of the Father (the Old Testament) and the Son (the New Testament and time of the Church), thereby offering a Trinitarian view of History. Joachim’s “prophecy” was rejected by the Church yet popular among many Franciscans. Bonaventura was, in life, a great critic of Joachim’s. Notes Singleton:

“Joachim occupies, in this second circle of sapienti, a position corresponding to that of Siger (X, 136) in the first: each is the last named, each is to the immediate left of the spokesman. Both were not only controversial figures, but Thomas Aquinas, the spokesman of the first circle, engaged in an attack on Siger’s ideas, and Bonaventura attacked the Spirituals of the Joachimite order. The poet’s parallelism expresses a spirit of lofty conciliation and heavenly charity.”

On this Super Tuesday may we look forward to the Second Sphere of the Sun where our critics and those we criticize will live in harmony of knowledge and service, and will create a perfect circle of light, revelation and knowledge!


Paradiso Canto 9: Looking for Love in the Right Place

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

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

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

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


Paradiso Canto 8: We’re Mixed Up, and That’s Good

Dante’s questions continue as he ascends the spheres of heaven. Again and again, his questions are absolutely understandable – but again and again, the answers suggest that he has momentarily forgotten the pervasive role of the Creator in directing all things. He is learning, brick by brick, that things have to be the way they are, and that’s good, because it embodies the cohering light of Intelligence, flowing through all, characterizing all, ensouling all.

There’s an undertone, perhaps unconscious, to Dante’s questions: Why are things the way they are? Why do they work this way and not another? Constantly, we feel the ramping, vibrant human mind kicking at its stall, wanting to blow down its limits, wanting to know, to know. Dante’s interrogation isn’t profane or irreligious, but its energy is nevertheless questing and profound. And being in heaven doesn’t quench the thirst of the search.

The sphere of Venus, eh? We’d expect a look at sexual desire and love, but no. (Maybe because, in the end, the belief in Venus and the star was a pagan holdover?) Instead, we find ourselves in a discussion with Charles Martel about a topic that has puzzled and horrified many parents: why do children turn out so differently? Why are people so diverse? What is the origin of that diversity, which admittedly makes human society so rich, and so is inarguably necessary to human life (as Aristotle pointed out), but also leads to such trouble? “How is it,” asks Dante, “sweet seed can bear bitter fruit?”

That question bespeaks human insecurity and frustration at unpredictability – in the world in general, but especially in human affairs. We can’t tell how people will turn out, and we can’t control the ways their differences will combine. We can’t foresee or catch up all the consequences. All parents know this tremulous, balked feeling in regard to their children. We just can’t see the future. Charles, now in heaven, is worried about the choices of his brother Robert. (Although I must say, he needn’t have worried: Robert turned out to be a good king, a peacemaker and defender of the Italian peninsula against foreign invaders.)

Charles, evidently for a while an admired acquaintance of Dante’s, is a good authority, because (as Dante sees it) he was very different from his brother, who may be on a perilous path. Charles says that had he not died so young, things might have been different. As in both Inferno and Purgatorio, the affairs of the world, and the worries of the world, go on, and those in these various postlife realms are aware of them and share them — even those, like Charles Martel, who are in perpetual bliss.

Dante had begun by calling the belief in Venus a relic of pagan times – but Martel’s explanation of human diversity is a mixture of the pagan (astrology) and the Christian (the informing divine Intelligence). The stars exert different influences on us as each of us are born; this astral individuation takes place within the plan of Providence. Martel reminds Dante of “The Good, which turns and gladdens the entire Kingdom you’re climbing,” and which “makes Providence a power” in the stars. “And in Mind, which is itself perfect, there is provision” for both the natures of men and for their well-being.

Dante and Martel agree that nature can never “tire of doing what is necessary,” because that’s what nature is. And, following Aristotle, Dante also agrees we’re a naturally gregarious, social animal, and that it would be awful if we were all the same. We need to live in society, and we need to be different and diverse and divergent. God has done a good thing in making it so.

But how, then, does human diversity lead to so much trouble? As usual, it’s us and our fallenness. We mess up the plan of Providence. Human beings misinterpret the plan, or they try to force others or themselves into talents, lives, or positions for which they aren’t cut out. People don’t pay attention to the groundwork laid by Nature, and humankind gets off on to the wrong road.

Suppose we substituted the term genetic material for the term stars. We’d have a rather moving notion. Thanks to sexual recombination of genes, it’s exceedingly, vastly unlikely that any two people are identical. In human terms, it’s all but impossible. Our genes are what recombine, take different mixes and forms, at our formation. What results is my and your and his and her unrepeatable identity.

Can we see genetics, that outplaying braid of human diversity, as nestling within the plan of Providence?


Paradiso Canto 6: Roman History (or, Gird Up Your Loins, this is a Doozie)

Veiled Light: The Politics of Rome and the Root of Jesse

 Following the flight from the Moon, Dante and Beatrice arrive in the second sphere, Mercury. In the fifth Canto, Dante likens his arrival on Mercury to a fish-pool. As a new fish attracts the attention of the school so too the new arrivals (Dante and Beatrice) draw the attention of all souls present, “so did I see full more than a thousand splendors draw toward us”. Dante is, unsurprisingly, immediately inquisitive. Mercury, often entirely obscured by the sun is somewhat of an enigma, after all.

Enigmatic too is this canto, which exposes the parallel history of the Roman Empire and the rise of the House of David. Gird up your loins, folks, we’ve got some history to get through.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Arriving at Mercury, Dante exclaims, “but I know not who you are, nor why, O worthy spirit, you have your rank in the sphere that is veiled to mortals by another’s rays” (5.130-135).

I Know Not Who You Are

In the sixth canto, we will follow the eagle, a symbol of God’s power and the primary symbol of the Roman Empire, from its founding  by Aeneas through the reign of the Caesars and to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The speaker begins by taking Dante back to the foundation of Christendom, “After Constantine turned back the Eagle counter to the course of the heavens”. You will, of course, remember that, before his deathbed conversion (337ad), the Emperor Constantine transferred the seat of the Roman Empire from the West (Rome, the seat of the papacy) to the East (Byzantium, renamed Constantinople in 330). Before his conversion, Constantine moves the eagle away from the seat of the church, reversing exactly Aeneas’s empire-expanding course from Troy to Italy.

The speaker then introduces himself, thus answering Dante’s first question, “I was Caesar, and am Justinian, who by will of the Primal Love which I feel, removed from among the laws what was superfluous and vain.” One should here note the shifts in tense. Justinian’s official title is unimportant in the heavenly realm. He “was Caesar.” Now, he is Justinian, justice, who still today feels the Primal Love which once inspired his earthly jurisprudence.*

Justinian, looking toward Beatrice’s expanded Christology in Canto VII, further defines himself by his orthodoxy. Before he codified the law, he held the heterodox view that Christ had only one nature—that is, that Christ was fully divine and not fully human (pace the prophets of our day who prefer that Jesus be viewed as only man and not divine!). There is some pride in Justinian’s affirmation that the Bishop Agapetus, “who was the supreme pastor, directed me to the true faith by his words.”

Throughout Canto VI, Justinian plays with themes of light and dark, ignorance and knowledge, truth and untruth. Mercury is a planet of extraordinary light that is nevertheless darkened by the sun. Justinian was a man of darkened ignorance whose view of Christ was transformed by the light of the orthodox two-nature doctrine. There is a duality at play here—a duality only heightened by references to the Aristotelian law of contradictories. The realization of contradictories will become important in Canto VII’s axiomatic discussion of Christ’s two natures. (and the paradoxes held within)

But again, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Nor Why Your Rank is Veiled

Having introduced himself, Justinian spends the bulk of the Canto tracing Roman history from the time before Christ through the passion and the succession of Titus, under whom the Temple was destroyed. The roles of the many players are too complicated to mention here. And indeed, Dante traces the history of the Republic in broad strokes. We follow the rise of Aeneas and the first expansion of the kingdom through Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and victory over Pompey (in this brief statement alone are three years of civil war!). We continue to follow the eagle to the extreme borders of Spain and the Alps, even to Pompey’s death in Egypt. We hear briefly of the betrayers Brutus and Cassius (who “bark” in hell), and of the death of Cleopatra, who turned against the empire by supporting her sons against the rightful heir. Dante’s brief history is meant to serve as preamble to Canto VII, which will expose the great mystery of Christ, a mystery far greater than Rome itself.

Nearing the end of Canto VI, Justinian notes “With him it coursed as far as the Red Sea Shore; with him it set the world in such peace that Janus’s temple was locked.”  The “Him” is Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar’s rightful heir and the initiator of the pax Romana. 

This is where it gets interesting.

Get to it, Stuckey, this is Getting a Bit Lengthy

The Roman God Janus is the Italian deity of doorways and protector of the state in war-time. The doors of his temple were to remain open in times of war (the god was said then to be with the armies), and had been locked only twice during the history of the Republic.  Under the rule of Augustus, the doors were closed for a third time. This time, though, the Republic would play host to the most important drama in its long history: the birth, adolescence, ministry and death of Christ. All history prior pales when next to this supreme historical moment when the seat of Caesar meets the root of Jesse.

As with the Roman history, here Dante skips over much of Jesus’ history, noting in the end that his death was avenged by another Caesar, Titus, who enacted “vengeance for the vengeance of the ancient sin.” Titus is considered by Dante the avenger of the Passion, for under his reign the Jewish Temple was destroyed (70ad). Orosius’s Roman Histories records the sentiment thusly, “Titus, who had been appointed by the decree of God to avenge the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ…closed the Temple of Janus…it was indeed right that the same honor should be paid to the avenging of the Lord’s Passion as had been bestowed upon His Nativity.”

Dante’s Canto, then, exposes the Divine foresight in appointing the Caesars such that a peace would befall Rome during the time of Jesus’ birth and ministry, and a vengeance would be enacted upon the Jews, who were (wrongly, I hasten to add) blamed for Jesus’ death.

Damnit, Leigh, You Still Haven’t Told Us Why they’re On Mercury

As I’ve noted, the Canto traces the history of the Roman empire to the birth of Christ. It seems to me that Justinian’s primary purpose in telling his story is establishing the means by which the pax was reached, thus setting the scene for The Extraordinary History. His secondary purpose, however, must be to answer Dante’s second question: how on earth did you get here?

After the (extraordinarily confusing) cautionary warning that is the history of the duel between the Guelphs, supporters of the Church, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Empire, Justinian notes, “This little star is adorned with good spirits who have been active in order than honor and fame might come to them.” Mercury, the obscured planet, is occupied by those whose earthly good was motivated by earthly ambition.

Those around whom human history turned are obscured in their heavenly place. Truly, they have received their reward. In eternity the light of their sphere is obscured ever so slightly for, “when desires, thus deviating [from the True Light], tend thitherward, the rays of true love must needs mount upwards less living [or, with less life].”

Yet their joy is no less, for their voices add to the harmony of the spheres, rending the choir of the heavenly realm richer by its presence.

If You Don’t Get to the Point, Stuckey, I’m Giving YOU up for Lent

God is the God of history, of the crossing of the Rubicon and of our own rubicons. God is the God who, amidst the violences of the Empire, prepares the way for the Coming of Christ and who, amidst the chaos of the 21st century, prepares for the Coming-Again of Christ. God is the God of those who presently draw attention to themselves and those who, like Romeo the Pilgrim, prepare the kingdom without reward.

History is God’s.

*Under the leadership of his general, Belisarius, Justinian’s empire expanded into the Vandal territory in Africa and the Goth territory in Italy. He is best known, though, for transforming Roman law.


Paradiso Canto 4: In Luna’s Light: Truth and truth – Can God be Unjust? [ Or, The Dilemma of Perception and Reality ]


Man’s mind, I know, cannot win through the mist
Unless it is illumined by that Truth
Beyond which truth has nowhere to exist
(IV, 124-126)

In his discussion of the Second Canto, John Timpane asserted of Truth:
“Our one way even to approach the truth of the Truth is to have faith, and to see through faith — indeed, as the glad light of Intelligence shines through the living pupil.” (See C2, above)

All that, of course, presents us with the major issue of what is truth / Truth?
In “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” Keats wrote that:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

And, Shakespeare’s brooding Dane stated:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(Hamlet, Act I, Scene V)

Neither was the first to be disturbed by this question.

The Greek Sophists argued that since nothing can be perceived except through the senses, and since all individuals sense, and therefore perceive, things differently—there is no absolute truth, only relative truth. So they believed. That IS quite a rub.

“What is Truth? Christ and Pilate, 1890” By Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge The “Horatio Question”

Truth and Will:
Many who have explored this canto in depth refer to it as a discussion of the “Risks of Free Will,” and the inherent and dangers in “Breaking Vows.” These are serious issues.

/>The implications of the tales of Piccarda and Constance indeed concern this reader as much as they did Pilgrim Dante. Something just does not seem right/fair. The judgment seems so, so … well – so unfair.

Why are these two seemingly blameless women, chaste and devoted, who were forced against their own will to break their vows, relegated to the bottom sphere of Paradise? Why do they hold lower status than the others in Heaven?

Well, one could turn to the old adages: “Ours is not to reason why,” and “God works in mysterious ways”. But, Beatrice informs us – “NOT SO.” Piccarda and Constance are as close to God as any in heaven, it just SEEMS otherwise to us – to our limited comprehension (at least that is the first argument).
They showed themselves here not because this post
was assigned to them, but to symbolize
that they stand lowest in the Heavenly host.

So must one speak to mortal imperfection
which only from the sensible apprehends
whatever it them makes fit for intellection
. (IV, 36-42)

It’s all about perception, you know, about our imperfect perception.
How do we perceive? Well, through our senses, of course. We know that the problem of misperception of reality (and REALITY) has been the basis for many a poorly made decision, right here, in this, our world of the mundane. And, if perception is a problem in the material world, then how well can one perceive in /of the spiritual? The Divine? This is a major problem for all us lesser beings. Therefore, as Beatrice explains:
“Scripture in like condescends,
describing God as having hands and feet
as signs to men of what more it portends.”
(IV, 43–45)

OMNIPOTENCE, OMNISCIENCE, AND OMNIPRESENCE – Oh My!
Indeed, in the fourth canto, Dante (the author; not the pilgrim) emphasizes the importance, and the seeming problems involved in “Free Will,” including the conundrum of “Theological Fatalism” (The “Paradox of Free Will”: If God knew how we would decide and how we would act, when he created us, how can Free Will exist at all?
Indeed, are omnipresence / omniscience and Free Will compatible?

Beatrice points out that Plato made a grievous error concerning destiny and the preordained paths of our lives. He believed in fate and predestination.
Beatrice explains to Dante (the pilgrim) that people are not “drawn to planets” (this basically meaning they were predestined to do so), as Plato asserted in his Timaeus (shades of Samuel Butler’s “Realm of the Unborn” and “Birth Formulae” in his Erewhon).
This is illusion.
It occurs to enable mortals visiting Paradise to sense souls at all.
Beatrice proceeds to tell Dante that souls only seem to be ‘located’ at particular ‘levels’ (see Ciardi 628). These souls are, in fact, fully blessed, and as close to God as are all those in heaven. None of the souls Dante sees here are actually ‘here’ (in the Lunar sphere) at all. Instead, she explains, every one of the ‘saved souls’ inhabit the highest heaven, the Empyrean. They only appear to be in different levels of heaven to Dante because that is the only way a human mind can perceive them at all. They may not all be equal in their blessedness, but they all dwell with the Lord.

And, what of Broken Vows? Of Absolute Will, Conditioned Will and Justice?
There is a reason for the existence of choice. Humans were made in God’s own image. They were given autonomy. Without choice, indeed, there is, in a sense, no good nor evil.

So, we have choice. We have Free Will. But, what is the extent of its scope? Is it relative or absolute? There would be little reason to have a unique purpose, or to hold meaning in life, if everyone’s life were predetermined. Dante (the author) was well aware of this; he believed that humans could control their own destinies. God put everyone on an even playing field: that’s justice; that’s Grace.

So, do we have truly Free Will? Or, is the “game rigged against us?” The former, according to Beatrice, because we have the ability to utilize our God-given Absolute Will. But, to succeed, we need to overrule our earthly Conditioned Will. The Absolute Will is incapable of willing evil, she asserted. But, the Conditioned Will, when coerced by violence or temptation, interacts with it and consents to a lesser harm in order to escape a greater.” (See Ciardi p 629) And, while men may not be able to control the forces that stop them from pursuing their vows, they can control their reactions to these forces.

As to the stratified nature of Heaven, every soul in Heaven rejoices equally in the bliss of God’s will. However, those who did not fully keep their vows are found in the lower ‘classes’ of the blessed. Not because they are viewed as less important to God, but quite simply because they lack capability to be closer to Him in Heaven. Therefore, in Heaven, as in Hell and Purgatory, a type of hierarchy does exist.

The second problem involves the inviolability of the will and the amount of freedom in forced actions. When one is forced to break a vow, should God hold them accountable for doing so? To what extent? Should they be diminished?
Well, yes, if they do not act to rectify the situation later. That is what absolutes are all about. That is why there are so many martyred saints (e.g. St. Lawrence and Mucius; 81-86). So said Beatrice. It is sin to break a vow to avoid danger or to “avoid the violence of others threatening them.” Committing a sin out of fear for life is understandable, but diminishes one. Beatrice called this “laziness of will,” Conditioned Will, in opposition to not the God-given Absolute Will.
A vow is a pact with God, in which one necessarily gives up his/her Free Will. Breaking a vow is just that, “Breaking a Vow.” Beatrice ventures to help Dante reconcile these incessantly frustrating theological issues of ‘Independent Action,’ ‘Free Will,’ ‘Predestination’; and the existence of ‘God’s Plan.’ She satisfies him; I’m not sure she satisfies me.

Afterword: At the conclusion of the Canto, Beatrice asserts that temporal power does exist concerning means to compensate for the transgressions of the Conditioned Will. Papal Indulgences are valid, but must be used carefully, with wisdom and authority. Future Protestants take note!
Bob Sinner


Paradiso Canto 3: Blessedness in the Lowest Sphere of Paradise

I am Piccarda, and I am placed here

Among these other souls of blessedness

To find my blessedness in the lowest sphere.

 

Our wishes, which can have no wish to be

But in the pleasure of the Holy Ghost,

Rejoicing in being formed to his decree.

(3.49-57)

 

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

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

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

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

 

 


Paradiso Canto 2: Reason Has Short Wings

How can you ask a question in Paradise?

Quite a question in and of itself. You’d have thought Paradise was where all questions have been answered. Was itself the answer to all questions. The garden in which all questions come to rest, without need for more.

Um, no. Not Dante’s Paradise.

More than once I’ve heard people say something to the effect of, “If I ever get to heaven, I’m going to have a few questions for the Almighty.” Understandable. Let’s say you find yourself in the Promised Beyond. All is One. All is revealed. All is known. A lot of us might well be like the Dante of the Paradiso. We might start asking, “OK, this is great. So how does it all work? And why does it work this way?”

In that (celestial?) light, it makes sense that so much of Paradiso is a question-and-answer session between Dante and his beloved pipeline to the Divine, Beatrice. Dante’s a lover, a poet, a scholar, a sinner, and in each of these roles he is amped, hyper-pumped, and supercharged with desire to know. As in know everything. Now’s his chance, and he’s going to make the most of it. He writes of the “longing” that is “enflamed” to “see” how it all works, our “inborn, perpetual thirst” that compels us forward and upward. And that has been the spur to the creation of this vast epic journey in the first place.

To begin, he reminds us no other poet has written a poem like his: “The waterway I take never was coursed before.” I love the opening lines, with Dante sailing in his boat, and warning other writers, in effect, not to try this at home. You might get lost!

Heaven, we soon see, is a hierarchical place. You can be closer or farther away from God, according to the virtue shown in your life. Like many of us, Dante is bothered by this, and he wants to know more. In Canto II, he is in the lowest sphere of heaven, that of the Moon. He writes, beautifully, “Beatrice looked upward, and I on her” (Beatrice in suso, e io in lei guardava). As a character in his own poem, Dante has always relied on someone, but really, his real guide has always been Beatrice, what she represents, the love of his life, and the Love toward which he and all things progress. His dependence on her is really, in the end, his dependence, the dependence of all existence, on God. He keeps forgetting that, and she keeps having to remind him.

So the question is: Why do we on Earth see black marks on the moon? If the moon is part of Heaven, why wouldn’t everything be perfect? Constant? As we learn, we are now in the lowest sphere of Heaven, that of the Moon, and this sphere, although still celestial, is characterized by inconstancy. With its changing phases, the moon was a symbol of the inconstant, the changeable, and Dante finds it a little unsettling to discover what appears to be inconsistency in the celestial realm.
Now, Dante had no telescope. But his question is one we still ask. We see the physical cosmos all around us, and we’re amazed by its vastness and beauty. But we also see signs of randomness, chaos, destruction. How, we ask, does this reflect the caress of the creating Hand? Dante’s question has resonance for 2012, no doubt about it.

Dante has some theories about varying densities of matter, and he runs them by Beatrice. It’s already pretty clear he’s wrong. Beatrice smiles indulgently “for a moment,” then remarks that Dante, knowing that human reason makes a lot of mistakes, and also knowing that “even when supported by the senses, reason has short wings.”

Wow. Dante and Beatrice take for granted the very truth our own age finds so repugnant, and which many people argue against with all their might: reason, even when the senses give reason evidence, has “corti l’ali,” short wings, a circumscribed ambit. To understand Paradise, to understand matters spiritual and divine, you have to think with more than reason. You have to augment reason with ways of knowing that connect with divinity, with hope, with virtue. To echo George Michael, to whom I never thought I’d be referring in any context whatsoever, “You Gotta Have Faith.”

It’s important for those of us with faith to acknowledge that those who reject faith do so for good reasons. Our reason and our senses are all we’ve got, or it can seem like that. These amazing tools help us solve our problems every moment of every day. When we’re asked to leave them, or to augment them, or to modify them — or when we’re told, as Beatrice tells Dante here, that they are inadequate — it seems an outrage, an affront. Little wonder when faith makes people feel disoriented or insecure.

But let’s be serious here. We employ faith all the time. “Object permanence,” the stage of infant thinking in which we asumme that objects that disappear momentarily from view still exist (as in a blanket withdraw from view momentarily), begins our long, innate, and necessary dependence on faith of all sorts. We can’t think or reason, ironically enough, without various levels of faith. That doesn’t invalidate the insistence that we honor reason, the senses, and the rules of evidence and argument. But it does make it seem silly to insist that we hold ourselves to only those things.

Beatrice, for one, is a big fan of reason and evidence. She even, in a wonderful, premodern moment, recommends that Dante conduct experiments to test his theories: “You can be set free from this quandary through experiment — if you ever want to try it — which is the font of the river of your arts” (“Da questa instanza puo deliberarti/Esperienza, se gia mai la provi,/Ch’esser suol fonte ai rivi di vostri’arti“). And by “arts” she means the arts and what we’d call the sciences. So both she and Dante are enthusiastic fans of science and reason.

But both insist that reason has those short wings. And this canto demonstrates it. She answers Dante’s question about the spots on the moon, but neither the substance of his question, nor, really, her answer, is the canto’s real point.

The real point is that Dante, in asking the question as he did, fails to understand. He fails because Heaven cannot be understood. Not, at least, without understanding the limits of understanding.

The last seven stanzas, among the most beautiful in the whole Paradiso, depict a cosmos deriving from the Intelligence behind it, which distributes intelligence throughout the universe as befits the bodies and levels of being in the cosmos:

Thus Intelligence multiplies its goodnesses
Among the scattered stars
Revolving itself upon its own unity.

Varying power makes diverse connections
With the precious matter it enlivens, in which –
As it does with life in you – it binds.

Thanks to glad nature from which it derives,
This mingled power shines throughout the body
Like gladness through the living pupil [of the eye].

It’s both not much of an answer (God mingles with everything, and everything shines according to God’s best plan), and a great answer, since it brings all questions back to the Light, to the Intelligence, in which human reason participates but from which it remains far distant, and of which it is but a circumscribed version. Dante, once again, has forgotten the dependence of all creation on the Light. That led him to ask the question. (Thus Beatrice’s smile!) Our one way even to approach the truth of the Truth is to have faith, and to see through faith — indeed, as the glad light of Intelligence shines through the living pupil.


Canto 34: Forget Mortal Sins? Recall Moral Successes as We Enter Heaven?

Much to say, but since so many of us are writing, I’ll limit myself to these two questions, then a few follow-up comments about Dante’s choices regarding bathing in Lethe and sipping from Eunoe.

Is it good to wash away the ability to recollect one’s mortal sins? I can understand needing to diminish such memories; but needing to eliminate them altogether? Doesn’t one need to know how and when s/he has erred in order to avoid repeating the same errors? Don’t such memories have huge power for remediating one’s negative inclinations?

Why sip from Eunoe right before entering Heaven? How is it useful to be most mindful of one’s good deeds when heading to the place of ultimate peace and reward?

Does Dante’s Purgatory purge too much?

This is perhaps where I have to acknowledge that nothing in my life has made me believe in an afterlife.

When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we express among our wishes the hope that divine “will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Heaven is the great repository of divine aspirations, divine ideals, the source of models, of inspiration. Wouldn’t Eunoe then be the thing to drink now, in the midst of life, along with the bread and wine, to remember the scale of courage and self-sacrifice necessary to help us engender a world in which “Thy will be done”?

Pier Kooistra


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?


Cantos 28 & 30: Intersections of Divine and Human

Joseph: “Well, keep your eyes open. …”

Clarence: “ Where? I…I don’t see a thing.”

Joseph: “Oh, I forgot. You haven’t got your wings yet.

Now look, I’ll help you out.

Concentrate, Clarence.

Begin to see something?

Clarence: “Why, yes!  This is amazing!…”

AS WE LOOK DOWN FROM OUR CELESTIAL CLOUD TO THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE, WE SEE A TERRACED MOUNTAIN AT THE VERY ANTIPODE TO MESOPOTAMIA.

We see Dante has made major progress.  He has reached the pinnacle of Mount Purgatory.

He, Virgil and Statius have arrived in “il Giardino dell’Eden,” in “Paradiso Terrestre” (Earthly Paradise). In awe, they enter the garden.

But wait, adjusting our ‘angel sight,’ we see much more.

The poets are at the conjunction of Heaven and Hell.  Oh, of course, that is Purgatorio.

But, more particularly, they have arrived at the very intersection, the crossing point between Purgatory, and Heaven itself.

What a contradiction of realities, even of words, is this “Earthly Paradise”

– it is the quintessential oxymoron.

Eden has not existed since the dawn of human trespass; and yet, here it is.

The pilgrims have, in fact, arrived at the very convergence of a multiplicity of spheres; indeed, of many different types of spheres.

What do we see?

Now dependent, as we are here, upon the limited scope of ‘human knowledge,’ we see a number of “intersecting Venn diagrams”: and, mostly of dualities.

We see interactions between human knowledge and Divine Knowledge;

between the corporeal and the spiritual;

between Reason and Faith.

In this garden of an eternal fountain, of two rivers, of beauty almost too painful to view, we find Matilda, the ‘Lady of Innocence,’ our Eve before ‘The Fall.’ She is singing and gathering flowers.

We have reached the point of “Farewell and Hail,”

of forgetting and remembering,

of the “Active” and the “Reflective.

Joseph directs Clarence’s attention to the unfolding drama.

He points out that in the last canto of this story, Dante had had a dream, a Biblically symbolic dream of Leah and Rachel.

Dante had related that dream as follows:

“… in my dream, I seemed to see a woman

both young and fair; along a plain she gathered

flowers, and even as she sang, she said:

Whoever asks my name, know that I’m Leah,

and I apply my lovely hands to fashion

a garland of the flowers I have gathered.” [Canto XXVII, lines 97–102]

In this dream, the young, beautiful Leah gathered flowers for a garland and observed how her sister Rachel could never stop observing her reflection in a mirror.   The observers know from Genesis (29-30; 35) that Leah and Rachel acted out, respectively, examples of the active and contemplative lives.

Here, in earthly paradise, so soon after this dream, Dante beholds Matilda (although she is not named for two more cantos) as the “Lady of Innocence,” as an active presence.

In response to Dante’s questions, Matilda explains the Garden, its creation, its purpose, and it maintenance.

She also explains the two streams that flow through it. The first (where Dante finds her) is the Lethe, which empties the minds of those who drink from it of all cancelled sins.

The second one, the Eunoe, when drunk, enhances recollections of the good that one has accomplished.

Matilda also emphasizes that one must drink of the Lethe before the Eunoe for the spell to work.

Refocusing after some thought, Clarence asks “Why do Statius and Virgil hold back?“

Once again, Joseph points to the multiplicity of intersecting spheres surrounding them.

Virgil can go no further. He has reached the extreme tether of his sphere of existence.  Human wisdom can go no further.

Statius simply smiles.  It is not for him to intervene here.

“And what of this Matilda?   What of the streams?”

“Well, Clarence, remember Leah and Rachel?

“Matilda is Dante’s Leah.  She represents the active life: the life of this world in a perfected state.   Dante first must understand the human paradise that God made for mortal humanity, before he can begin to grasp the eternal paradise that God made for our spiritual selves.“

“And Rachel?”

“That comes soon.”

“The streams?”

“They are essential for humans who would move on, move up, in their quest for the good and for God.

They must purge their sins – forget the bad they have done.

But, they must also remember, cherish, and move forward toward the good.”

“What happens next?”

A bright flash and the arrival of a majestic procession that includes all sorts of symbolic characters startle Dante and his observers.

Voices are singing ‘Hosanna’.

The light comes from seven candles, their pure, steady flames leaving rainbow trails behind them as they lead the entourage.

Using their special sight, Joseph and Clarence view a grand parade including:

– 24 Elders (books of the Old Testament),

– four six-winged angels (the Gospels),

– a two-wheeled chariot (The Church),

– drawn by a griffin (Christ),

– seven dancing nymphs (the virtues),

– then two more elders (Paul and Luke),

– and lesser New Testament writers,

–   –   and finally

– an old man with undimmed eyes (John /Revelations).

This “Mystic Procession” symbolizes the “Church Triumphant.”

It suddenly stops at a crack of thunder, and there arose the song

“Come, spouse to Lebanon”, “(Benedictus gui Venis”).

BEATRICE HAS ARRIVED!

She is to be Dante’s new guide.

It is at this time Dante first notices that Virgil has disappeared.

Virgil’s work escorting Dante is at last done.

Being unable to go any further towards Heaven, he has departed.

But, asks Clarence, “Who is this Beatrice?

“She is Dante’s Rachel.”

“Did Dante seek her?”

“Oh, indeed, though not constantly and consistently enough.”

Unexpectedly, the chariotress reproves Dante for his rudeness.

When angels in the procession ask Beatrice why Dante is being chastised, she tells them that he had fallen so far in his life, only his seeing Hell had save him.

Even at this point in his long pilgrimage, Dante himself requires repentance before he can enter Heaven.

Looking closely, we see that the Beatrice who appears to Dante in the Chariot is both the real Beatrice he knew, but also is a representative, of “Divine Philosophy.”

Her very name derives from “full beatitude.

She is a symbol of spiritual love, the only path to true knowledge and understanding.

“Aha, could she then be…”

“Yes, Clarence, she sits with Rachel in Heaven, as the symbol of  ‘the light linking truth to intellect.’

She is …’the source of truth in matters of religion.’ ”

“So Clarence, you see, Dante, and we observers, have reached the structural

‘keystone of the story – the poem,’

This is not just a general convergence of spheres, it is the convergence point in the story’s plot.

This is the “climax” of his Divina Commedia: Dante’s pilgrim has at long last achieved reunion (at least the starting point of it) with Beatrice.

But, there’s still a measure of distance during which Dante (and we)  must realize he (and we) are on our own. “

For Dante still has a long road ahead; ‘his internal suffering of shame will not be done yet’  (thanks John).

Although Dante has found Beatrice, and she  represents “Divine Love” and “Perfect Peace,” he still has much to learn.

–   “As do we all,” says Clarence.

Best Wishes, Dante!  Bob S

 

"Beatrice with the Holy Grail" by Rossetti



Canto 28 & 29: A Notebook

La divina foresta, la selva antica: the paradise garden is an ancient wood, a divine forest, not some florid menagerie, some viney treasury of orchid and rose.  The poet traverses the space between the selva oscura and the selva antica, and somehow he must see the one in the other.  The poet sneaks his pastorella into paradise, and therein lies his genius; cut loose from his ancient formidable guide, he can’t help but conjure his mysterious shepherdess gathering flowers, his streams, trees, twittering birds, all the “variousness of everblooming May.”  The accomplished poet is an accomplished earth-smuggler.

Because, how strange!  On the mountaintop…a pastoral!

The poet walks through fire, walks onward alone, free of Virgil, yet on the other side of fire what does he encounter but a georgic!  Didactic verse about the Edenic atmosphere.  Even in paradise, the poet will carry the earth within him (an earthly paradise).  What is the poet’s commedia but a well-wrought time-capsule, a golden vessel laden with clay?

Poets are always aspiring meteorologists.

It greens the highest peak, but paradise is still earth.  The moon is still above it.  It’s the fantastic inwardness of the land that distinguishes it from earth, the secret mechanism that makes its vegetation grow, its winds blow, its water flow.  Something in the land pumps differently.  No hoe has broken it; the land has its heart intact.

The poet, king of himself, is still a pauper without Persephone.

The walk through fire and then a discovery, still, of such simplicity.  A breeze, birds, a woman gathering flowers.  This is it right here:  the poet should rest right here, in this locus amoenus, and not venture on toward the griffon and all the marvelous abstraction that follows.

The poet straddles the fork of Lethe and Eunoë—the forgetting of sin and the memory of the good.  Of course, the order matters, from which river you drink—Lethe first and Eunoë second.  But sometimes the poet mixes up his rivers.  He gets his ladles crossed.

How perfect and heartbreaking is the final image of Canto XXVIII!  The backward look to the poet-guides, the gentle affirming smile:  this is the poet’s summit, an apex of restraint and simplicity (here I think of a phrase Wayne Koestenbaum coined for the work of Louise Glück: a poet of the minimalist ecstatic)—only a smile and the basso continuo of the Prime Mover in the trees.

* * *

Ah Helicon!  Ah Urania!  Make way for the procession of footnotes!

From the calm center, after the smooth continuo, the cymbal crash of the grand pageant.  This is what happens if you venture fifty paces farther from Virgil: the poet’s simple radiance, so delicately achieved, refracts, as if through the ‘bejeweled vision’ and ‘geodic skull’ of John the Revelator (phrases from Richard Wilbur’s poem “Icarium Mare”.)  A griffon!

I think the greatest challenge for a poet of faith might be negotiating the borderland between pastoral and apocalyptic.  To skyrocket from the murmuring stream to the cosmic candelabra, from the steady breeze to the roar of a heavenly chariot.  Such a thin membrane between Pan’s pipe and the angelic trumpet.  Let’s go back a bit, Matilda.

The poet moves so quickly from restraint to strain.  Twice he calls attention to the arduous task of presenting these magnificent visions in rhyme.  It’s not that the poet has shifted from description to allegory, from image to symbol, for we’ve never left the realm of symbol.  Instead the poet catapults here into a reservoir of preexisting biblical symbol and that shift in symbolic register, from innovative imagery to hieratic biblical collage, is necessarily abrupt.  The poet leaves Virgil and Statius for Ezekiel and John.  The former guides look on in awe, we’re told, but I think they shake their heads a little bit.

At what point to you stop following the poet.  When do you say, “Let’s bivouac here, big guy, in the leafy tents of the selva antica?”  I fear the Paradiso.  I long to return to the land where a mere shadow caused such a stir.


Canto 27. Moving Beyond One’s Mentor

Dante enters into yet another liminal space in this canto. He passes through the boundary of purging fire that guards the way to earthly Eden (Genesis 3). In so doing, his soul receives its final purification. As a result of passing through the purging wall of fire, he can now move forward into blessedness and he will see God because he has obtained a pure heart (Matthew 5). Before he can ascend yet higher, Virgil informs him that his work as guide has come to an end. In this canto, Dante loses his mentor. Virgil advises Dante to follow the (purified) desires of his heart from this point forward. In so doing, he will no longer need the wise, rational counsel that has guided Dante through the fires of hell and upward through the levels of purgatory.

Moving beyond one’s mentor may be as painful as it is necessary. Many of us have come a long way in life by depending on the wise counsel of some key figure who showed us where to go and who warned us of dangers en route. For such mentors, we have great and abiding affection. Without them, we likely would not have reached our long desired destinations. In many ways, mentors function for many of us as signs of divine grace.

There comes a time, however, in our lives when we have to move beyond our mentors in order to continue our upward journey. To cling desperately to a mentor can mean stagnation, and lack of further progress. In order to climb higher, we eventually have to leave our mentors behind. Such a move does not mean ingratitude; it only means that mentors can only take us so far. Ultimately, we have to travel the rest of the way in life according to our own instincts, perspectives, and reflective experience. Paul the Apostle and Immanuel Kant both come to mind in this connection. When speaking of the role of the Mosaic Law in the Christian life, Paul describes it as a pedagogue or mentor. It has a very important role to play in guiding, inspiring, and correcting. At the point of encounter with Jesus Christ and the Gospel, we cease to need the kind of mentoring provided by the Law. In order to climb higher, we must leave the mentor behind. Similarly, Kant, when asked about the meaning of the term “Enlightenment,” said that it is to move beyond our self-enforced mental minority. Enlightenment means to “dare to think” on our own without being subject to external authorities like mentors and other authorities who would do our thinking for us. At some point, we must dare to stand up on our own two legs and think for ourselves. Kant’s call to move beyond all mentors foreshadowed and set the stage for Existentialism and its similar call to dare to make and own one’s choices in life.

I am profoundly grateful to the four main mentors that I have had in my life. They have enriched me and guided me in ways that I can hardly enumerate. I will always love and respect them. Yet, in order to continue my journey of faith, I have had to move beyond each of them intellectually and spiritually. In the end, I have to travel the rest of the journey on my own. I only hope that I have learned their lessons well enough and that I have matured enough that I, like Dante, can trust my own desires and instincts.

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary


Canto 26: Add To Our Burning Our Shame

There are many arresting things about Dante’s Purgatorio. You can no longer sin – unlike in Inferno, where everything you do is sin, to compound and perpetuate the sin for which you have been damned. But in Purgatorio, you can sin no longer, only do things that expiate sin, a hopeful, gratifying sign that in Purgatorio, you are within the skirts of grace. You can and do suffer, however, both externally (as in corporeal agony and the physical work of climbing up the winding terraces of the mountain) (which, beautifully enough, gets easier and lighter as you climb, signifying an increase of grace and a nearness to Paradise) and internally – through shame. And as we see throughout this astonishing, strange, twilit poem, shame agonizes as bad as fire. The denizens “add to their burning with their shame,” hastening their self-purification toward Paradise.

In Inferno, Dante sees many burning in endless torment for lust, and for unnatural or excessive brands of sex. Paolo and Francesca, two of the most admired characters in the entire Commedia, are in hell. So why are they in hell, but Sodomites and Hermaphrodites and poets of desire here in Purgatorio?

Because in hell you can’t feel shame. Paolo and Francesca capitulated to the kind of desire in which you cease to care. They abandoned station, compassion, and conscience; they literally let their passion (stoked, remember, by love poetry!) burn them up until there was nothing left. They ceased to feel the shame that is the voice of conscience calling. And in Inferno they feel no shame, either. Shame is, of course, pointless once you’re in hell. You can feel regret, bitterness, and fury – and since these will be directed at God, they, too, will be sins. Paolo and Francesca didn’t care and still don’t. They are beautiful in a way, because of the totality of their passion, and also because of its source. But shame implies you care, and they didn’t then, and they don’t now that they’re in Inferno.

So it’s not sex, or the kind of sex, or the mere fact of sex, that damns. It’s a particular, familiar kind of crime, an immersion past conscience in the luxurious blandishments of physical pleasure. We recall that the  Latin verb pervertere, from which we get “perversion,” really means “a turning away,” possibly a relic of a time in which face-to-face sex was the only kind thought to be allowed, and so any turning away from the partner was a perversion – but much more probably an acknowledgment that any kind of perversion, as when we pervert parenthood, or fiscal probity, or social responsibility, or trust, or love, or food, involves a turning away from God.

So those who are here at the Seventh Cornice, those so close to the top, to the embrace of the Lord, they are those who fell through lust, but retained a conscience throughout. From here (2011), it may seem a small thing, but it’s dispositive, the utter difference. The Lust we encounter in Purgatorio is not mortal, not the soul-destroying, God-alienating evil lust (or any sinful behavior) can be.

Think of Dr. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s play. When he gets close to hell, Faustus prays to feel remorse – and he can’t. Prayer is futile. Efforts at reform, repentance, metanoia, useless. It’s gone. When Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, kneels to pray, he does so knowing his repentance is incomplete. He feels some sorrow that he killed his brother . . . but he still wants the things he got via the murder – his brother’s kingdom and his brother’s wife. Wanting these, he knows, means he doesn’t want to pray, doesn’t want to get any better. The intention isn’t there, so you might as well get up, Claudius, and go your way, because you’re cooked. Conscience is gone. “Words without thoughts, never to heaven go.” God won’t hear them because what you’re saying aren’t words – they’re noises without meaning or sense.”

By contrast, the way the Sodomites and Hermaphrodites and poets of desire – all the while burning in the terrible fire to Dante’s left – mingle praise (of Mary, of chaste Diana, etc.) and shout out their crimes in shame demonstrate how far we’ve come from hell. That’s how the Whip of Shame works, the Whip of Lust. Passing in different directions, exchanging kisses of greeting with one another, the homosexuals cry out “Sodom and Gomorrha!” and the straights repeat the tale of Pasiphaë. Shame, the capacity to feel shame, shows conscience is still alive; once shame dies, your soul dies, too. So, as Dante and Virgil wind their way along the Seventh Cornice, they hear the alternating shouts of physical agony and cries of personal grief at transgression, which amounts, in an uncanny, surreal way, to an ecstasy, a possession by the spirit of grace.

I don’t think Dante is saying you can screw around and still be all right. He’s saying, reasonably enough, that sin and intention and conscience lie across a certain range, for almost all sins. Yes, for some sins, to commit, even to consider, is to self-condemn. But the great mass of human failings stretch across a spectrum, and that includes lust.

Jimmy Carter will join me in the part of Purgatorio (I hope) dedicated to those who have lusted in their hearts.

That this state involves agony is inescapable. When the souls in the wall of flame realize Dante is mortal, they want to know why and how he’s here, and one cries out to him: “Answer me, who burns in thirst and fire.” Burning, surely, is apposite for the crime of lust. And in the next Canto, Dante himself will, after hesitating cowardly, plunge face-first into fire that will make him write, “I would have cast myself into molten glass to refresh myself, so measureless was the burning there.” This is serious fire, people, and even Dante, to get to Beatrice, to Paradise, to God, must go through the same fire as all mortals, suffer what all Purgatorio’s denizens suffer.

As a matter of fact, actual representations of lust and perversion are somewhat light in this Canto. We see Pasiphaë, who had intercourse with a bull, but this is a type, and besides, anyone who knew the myth knew she did it because she was driven mad in a curse from Poseidon, so that rather dilutes the intentionality implicit in excessive lust. (I mean, if bulls are your fancy, fine.) There’s also passing reference to Caesar’s homosexual dalliance with Nicomedes, King of Bithynia. But, especially compared to parallel depictions in Inferno, it goes light.

We get to see and hear much more of the poets of passion. We are not told why these poets are here, specifically . . . there seems to be an implication that, having written of lust, they must burn a little for lust. Guinizelli does speak for the “hermaphrodites” (which apparently means the heterosexuals who indulged too much), that they are here because “we did not serve human law, following appetite like beasts,” but adding that they had “repented before the final hour,” showing conscience and presumably landing their souls here. Strangely, though, I must say (and maybe because he’s a poet), Dante’s evident reverence for Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel seems, tonally, to balance out our consciousness of their punishment.

Now it’s time to talk about poets. The entire Commedia is a job application, in a way. Dante is well aware that he’s a well-known, much-praised poet, and he’s working, quite self-consciously, in a groundbreaking fashion, writing epic poetry in the vulgar tongue, not Latin. He’s using a language, if you will, that still isn’t used to being poetry, a language still controversial, still a challenge to taste and propriety. And he, Dante, is bent on showing how this language can rank with the great literary tongues of all time, that is, with Latin and Greek. Dante takes up the Commedia, in part, to show that what became “Italian” was a suitable language to sustain the greatest themes, the most profound investigations. Much like the Virgil who leads him through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante is an urban, self-conscious “modern” (he even calls his style of poetry “l’uso moderno,” “the modern fashion,” to distinguish it from the classical writers), who shoulders the vast tasks of ancient poetry (tales of God, man, sin, good, evil, and redemption) both to echo the ancients and to make something new. He thinks of what he’s doing as modern, as being of his moment. And he knows he’s putting himself forward as a poet without precedent. Thus he rubs shoulders with Statius, Virgil,

We get to meet a forerunner in writing verse in Italian, Guinizelli. I’m always amazed by just how good these writers were: Guinizelli, Cavalcanti, Dante . . . incredibly complex stanza forms, complex ideas, wit, and music. Dante calls Guinizelli “father of me and of others better than me.” Really the founder of the “sweet new style.” Dante had already written love poetry in La Vita Nuova and Il Convivio , poetry good enough to establish a reputation, and here, he continues, professionally, aggressively, expansively, to go for the very top.

These things mean a lot to him. We get a little literary-critical argument about poets with undeserved reputations, such as Guittone, or Girault de Bornelh. I don’t know Guittone much, but I’ve translated a bit of Girault, and I think he’s pretty good. But Dante clearly reverences Arnaut Daniel more. John Ciardi seems to sniff at this taste, but others don’t. Ezra Pound called him one of the greatest poets of all time, and T.S. Eliot loved him, too. So do I, for a lot of reasons. You’ll note that Arnaut speaks to Dante in Provencal, and although Ciardi might be right, that Dante would have heard this as antique and old-timey, I rather think he also thought of it as “great” poetry, and the moment his beloved Arnaut addresses him, in the revered language of his poetry, is a moment at which Dante pretty much crowns himself an equal of the greats.

And that’s where we end. We still have a ways to go in the Seventh Cornice, including a cannonball into the Wall of Flame itself. But we have to go there. Dante has to suffer it to get to Beatrice (Virgil even incentivizes him with “I can almost see her eyes now!”). It’s a minor personal Purgatory within the greater scheme of Purgatorio – almost as if the poet knew that he, along with the passionate poets he reveres, will pay a price for their art beyond their earthly lives. Yet they are also “souls sure of having, whenever it may be, a state of peace.”


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]


Gluttony Redux – Reflecting Through Pictures

GLUTTONS ARE US !

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”  (Matthew 5. 6)

Physical and spiritual appetites are normal to healthy human beings. Yet neither the body nor the soul is self-sustaining.

Both must be fed regularly

.

BUT !!

Of course,  in canto 24, on the Terrace of the Gluttons, we are faced with the theme of misguided  love once more.


Dante is reminded of this over & over  again.

GLUTTONY   

“Dante’s Theory of Everything”Dante’s view of what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it.

“Christians are not perfect,  just forgiven.”


The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes play an integral part in explaining these

wrongs, the many aspects of the seven deadly sins.

They are our sickness; the Beatitudes are its cure.

As Dante moves upward, the Angel of   Temperance,  removes his 5th P,

while singing a new version of the Fourth Beatitude:

“Beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam ”  –

“Blessed are they whom grace

Enlightens so, the love of taste enkindles

No overindulgent longings in their breasts,

“Hungering always only after justice!”

But, THE DANCE GOES ON, and on, and on

 


“I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of starving children around the world whose cries go unheard.

Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to share. We are afraid to let go of some of our wealth. Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent some time with children living in the streets. This is what one child told us:

‘I wish I was rich. And if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicine, shelter, love and affection.’

If child on the streets who has nothing is willing to share – why are we, who have everything, still so greedy?

How much has been changed since Severn spoke that day?

As Gandhi said many years ago, ‘We must become the change we want to see.’ I know change is possible.”

Address to the Plenary Session, Earth Summit, Rio Centro, Brazil 1992″ by Severn Suzuki, age 12.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

And this second tree is only an offshoot of the true “Tree of Knowlege of Good and Evil!”
THINK ABOUT IT!!

And a small child shall lead them.



Canto XXIII: A Notebook

A tree-high thought tuned to light’s pitch (Celan).  The poet begins scanning the leafy branches, but there are no birds in Purgatory.  (Thank God, all we need is another bird poem).  What does the poet hunger for?  He wants to peer through to find out where the voices are coming from.  He is always reaching for the tree-high thought: he’s no ground-picker, no forager intent on filling his basket. 

What does it mean to be a poet in the land of the gluttons?  There’s a story here, in this canto, perhaps, about the poet in the age of information gluttony.  As information becomes less and less nutritious, and more and more conducive to an empty obesity of trivia, the poet must grapple for the tree-high thought, the scent of the apple and pure droplet of dew.  (He must be content with the wheel-barrow, and its redness, its glaze, and not clog it with dirt.)

Is there such a thing as gluttonous poetry?  I’m drawn more and more these days to a more minimalist poetry, one that avoids volubility, that doesn’t brim the margins with chatter.  I want a poetry like the emaciated faces of the gluttons, the skin of feeling taut on the bone of language.  I want to the see the OMO (the homo, the person), the divinely carved glyph in every visage (31-33).

The poet changes register in this canto something like three times, I’ve read.  He begins with the more colloquial medium style (dominant in Purgatory), a language for establishing friendship and trust; Forese, the poet’s friend we encounter here, speaks in a more chummy low style to the pilgrim, using diminutives for his wife Nella and a lot of possessives; and lastly the poet employs his high ‘expressionistic’ style, harkening back to the inferno, as he describes the skeletal and scabrous gluttons.  Some of the best literature is the best literature because of its ability to employ a higher style while describing the most horrific or unusual things, and also the most common.  One goes to poetry because he or she is nauseous with sound bites and status updates. 

The poet does not fatten on bag-of-chips knowledge (though he really loves a bag of kettle-cooked mesquite).  He reaches for the scent of the apple and the spray of water.  Even if, no, because that food is unreachable.  The tree is not climbable.   The branches widen at the peak not the base. 

Today, with so much available at the fingertip, the poet goes thin for the tree-high thought.


So Much Depends upon “The Red Wheel Barrow”

Purgatorio, Canto XXII

 “So Much Depends upon ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’”

 so much depends

upon

 a red wheel

barrow

 glazed with rain

water

 beside the white

chickens.                             –William Carlos Williams

 So much depends not just upon the wheel barrow itself (or did in an age when agriculture was different) but upon the poem about the wheel barrow, the little, modest text dedicated to reminding us that little, modest things matter.

 This canto is about a number of things. For example:

 “Often, indeed, appearances give rise

                to groundless doubts in us, and false conclusions,

                the true cause being hidden from our eyes.” (ll. 28-30)

But the canto is also about the role poets and poetry can play in pulling the wool from our eyes.

 Of course, pulling the wool isn’t easy. As David Brooks wrote in one of my all-time-favorite columns: “The human mind is continually TRYING to perceive things that aren’t there, and NOT perceiving them takes enormous effort” (The New York Times, October 28, 2008; caps mine).

 Take a look at one of America’s favorite poems:

 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.    –Robert Frost

 We love this thing. We trot it out at one graduation after another. But I’d argue that we don’t pay enough attention to some of its little details.  A la Brooks’s comment, we TRY to perceive in Frost’s poem a message about the importance of “taking the road less traveled by.” But take (to follow the poem’s actual title) the road (too often) not taken. Take a look a stanza 2: The roads are “really about the same.” And take a look at stanza 4: What exactly is the purpose of the colon there? What is it setting up? All I’ll say is that it seems clear to me that Frost knew a lot about human psychology, in this case showing his grasp of how we pull the wool over our own eyes, both in interpreting our own past behavior and in interpreting what we read.

 Anyway, I love that Canto XXII is so much about the power of poets and poetry to inform our lives. And not just to inform but to re-form. Statius says so glowingly to Virgil:

 “Had I not turned from prodigality

                in pondering those lines in which you cry,

                as if you raged against humanity:

’To what do you not drive man’s appetite

                O cursed gold-lust!’—I should now be straining

                in the grim jousts of the Infernal night.” (ll. 37-42)

 I’m with Statius. Quite a roster of poets, and of poems, has followed me around, offering guidance in aptly timed whispers, sometimes shouts, from the memory.

 Of course, in order to be informed by a text, we must not deform it.

 And so, we read on. Into Canto XXIII, where we shall read about glutton.

 …and perhaps meditate on the dangers of putting on our plates too much of what we like, too much of what we choose for ourselves out of appetite, instead of taking in those things that we need. Raw vegetables, for example. And raw textual details.

 Better that the barrow—not our eyes—be glazed.

 Pier Kooistra