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.

Advertisements

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.