Tag Archives: Paradiso

Paradiso Canto 28: Chess, Angels and Order: “THE METAPHORICAL MATHEMATICS of HEAVEN”

…As I recall, did I first stare
into the heaven of those precious eyes
in which, o trap me, Love had set his snare;

then turned, and turning felt my senses reel
as my own were struck by what shines in that heaven
when we look closely at its turning wheel.

I saw a Point of light
Of such intensity that the eye it strikes
Must close or ever after lose its sight.
– Para XXVIII, 10-18

There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat,
from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony,
I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment
for the people of Israel.

– Exodus 25: 22 (ESV)

But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock,
and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock,
and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.
Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back,
but my face shall not be seen.”

– Exodus 33:20-23 (ESV)

So, our pilgrim and Beatrice have arrived at the “Primum Mobile,” the largest sphere, and are coming ever closer to “The Face of God“:
– the Face which Moses could not bear to look upon directly;
– the Face which had to take upon itself a human form to address mankind’s deficiencies.
– That which had to undergo degradation, death and resurrection in order to make Himself fully accessible to we unworthy humans.

And we return to our first encounter with that light, during the First Canto:
“Just as we would never stare at the sun (here I’m remembering … the solar eclipse of 1972 … and our mothers’ warning never to stare directly at it), Dante does just that. Beatrice can look at it, no problem. Somehow that Dante reflexively imitates her action (a “reflection” of her action) and does not go blind (which) indicates that something has already changed in him: he is capable of seeing ‘it’ …” (See above: “The Still Point of the Turning World” by jeffvamos)

Up front and close, we are confronted with “The still point of the turning world. “

Once again, Dante first sees The Face first in a “glass darkly,” via reflection in his beloved’s eye.
The spark of light is so intense he still cannot truly bear it on his own.
But as Beatrice explains to him the angelic orders that orbit this light, he “begins” to understand what he beholds here.

He is ‘seeing’ “the “Holy of Holies,” surrounded by the nine orders of adoring angels.
And, how does our Pilgrim come to grips with this ultimate reality?
This reality which is so far beyond our human senses and feeble comprehension?
Only through the use of metaphors.

With the aid of his lady, he beholds the ethereal essence, but he can only describe it through metaphors, and through his own grasp of the abstract, using mathematics.

This all came to mind, as my wife Judy and I visited the Amish/ Mennonite country in Lancaster, PA, this past week. As I began to reflect on many different ways of understanding and worshipping God.

When we viewed the reconstruction of the Tabernacle of the Ark of the Covenant there, the image of the Temple Curtain being torn asunder on the day of the Crucifixion flashed before me.

Why was there a curtain at all ?

Why was it no longer needed after the resurrection?

Well, we are told God had had to shield mankind from His “terrible aspect” before Christ. He shielded us from Himself, the Shekeinah (The Spirit of the Lord), within the Tabernacle.

But God made flesh, and sacrificed, enabled us to known Him in a different way.

So, now We are back to paradoxical thought.

Back to the essential paradox for all Christians; to the Three-in-one – the Trinity.

Dante understood these paradoxes.
Or, rather, he understood that he could only understand through faith.

The best he could do in order to convey his understanding(s) was to use metaphors – the blinding light, spherical magnitude, the speeding orbits.

And, even there, he had to explain that everything in heaven (anywhere near God – oh, yes, even here) had to be stood on its head to BEGIN to comprehend.

Hence the reference to the chessboard problem [Near infinity; The number obtained is “2 to the power 63, plus one” (based on the 64 squares on the board)], to represent infinity for our weak minds.

Hence the angels orbiting God in reverse order and speed and size to what we would expect on earth. Hence the need for Beatrice to explain, still again, what Dante thinks he is “seeing.”

So Seraphim, and cherubim, and Thrones (in the first triad of spheres), right down to the “lowly” angels and archangels that sometimes rub shoulders with us, have their place.

But, it takes metaphors and mathematics just to begin to convey the almighty glory of Paradise wherein God meets us. There. Here? Hmmmm…


Paradiso Canto 24: Herr Doktor

Over at Slate, Robert Baird suggests that one of the reasons The Inferno captivates our imagination is its portrayal of ironic justice. “Dante’s hell flatters us”, he rightly notes. Standing at a safe distance from the place, we become the judgers of the judged, relieved to know that we will never be that far gone.

The problem with Paradiso, Baird argues, is that it turns the judgment back on us: “Previously we judged hell; now heaven judges us.”

There is no better Canto than XXIV to illustrate Baid’s argument. Here the poet encounters a literal test of faith. St. Peter stands as the honored Herr Professor Doktor testing the Poet Candidate for entry into the realm. He has only to answer one simple question: what is faith? 

Of course Peter is the examiner of faith! He to whom the Lord gave the keys now bestows the key to the Poet. And the Poet begins rightly with the Scripture, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11). Ah, but we’re not quite done yet. Herr Doktor must know why substance precedes evidence—is not the substance of our knowledge determined first by evidence? We do not believe and then see! We see and then believe.

Dante, surely after a long thoughtful breath, continues: the stuff of the Divine is deep below our sensual perception. The stuff of faith is “so hidden to eyes below that there their existence is in belief alone”. Faith is hope materialized.

And so it is that Dante suggests that the stuff of God cannot be reasoned upward, but only revealed. Syllogisms lose their ground in matters of theology (though, as we will see a new syllogism, one based in Scripture, grows freely). Knowledge as related to God is rather simple—We cannot think ourselves or, for that matter, see ourselves to the Divine.

Peter is pleased, but he’s not done. If not by natural knowledge, whence has faith come? Why, of course, it comes through the Spirit’s work in the Word. It has come in the new syllogism, the Old and New Testaments. The intellect, that which sees, becomes subordinate, then, to faith revealed in Scripture. And how can we know that Scripture is divine? Why, because it tells us so.

I’m proud of Peter here, and I stand in his tradition. Circular logic won’t get us anywhere. Herr Doktor won’t be won with the Scripture’s own self-affirmation.

So Dante points to the spread of Christianity, a miracle, he thinks, far greater than the miracles recounted in the Word. It’s here that I most profoundly disagree with Dante. The spread of Christianity is 99 parts Empire. At best that leaves one part miracle. And that’s not a thing of Pride.

But does Empire lessen Christianity’s value?

Perhaps not. Perhaps the miracle is not the spread of the faith but the power of the message, even if it has been co-opted throughout history for decidedly ungodly ends. Perhaps the miracle is the faithful activity of the self-revealing God who works in, around and under the Empire. Perhaps the miracle is, as Christian Moevs notes, that Truth validates itself. Perhaps the miracle is that our ontological grounding is not what can be seen, but what the Revelator reveals.

For Dante and for us there is left but one question: “declare what you believe.”

We might rattle off the Apostles Creed or some other piece of Christendom. It’s not a bad strategy, but you might not always have Dante’s assurance. I certainly don’t.

Or we might remember that the inquisitor is he who thrice denied our Lord yet still bears the Keys.

Dante thought of God like a clock. Not like the clocks and clockmakers of our Deistic Founding Fathers, but rather as a harmonious unit compelled in its functioning toward one end. In life we are pushed toward God. Our faith and belief certainly matter, but they cannot be the end. The end is the three Eternal Persons who call the cosmos to its motion—who are not, as Dante and Aristotle may believe, unmoved movers, but rather condescend to move among us, to die for us, and to defeat death for us.

Revelation comes not by sight or sense but through the “spark which then dilates to a living flame and like a star in heaven shines within me”.  Faith is not about creed. It is about hope. And as much as Lent is a season of penitence, it must also be one of hope—a season of Springtime Awakenings to new life, to the light which shines on the Revealed if only we have the joy to see it. We may not always have faith. Peter didn’t. But all is not lost. The Lord is far more faithful than we.


Paradiso Canto 23: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

Spring is here.  Certainly here in Ohio where I write.  The forsythia’s twiggy blaze in the backyard and the daffodils poking up around the shed:  it’s the bright scattering of yellow that makes me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s description of spring as the time when thrush eggs make ‘little low heavens.’  I also think of the vernal metaphor for the starry sky he places at the conclusion of “The Starlight Night”:

 

  Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house

The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse

  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

 

Sallows are pussy willows, and Hopkins wants us to see constellations swaying with a bright powder of blossoms like cornmeal.  And—one of my favorite moments in the poetry of Hopkins—the following two lines use rural puns to encase the divine presence.  We are asked to identify the spread of stars as the walls of ‘the barn’, an image of the tabernacle.  Behind the wall, inside, are stored the shocks—sheaves—of corn; within the tabernacle, the electrifying presence of God.  In a second pun the stars are ‘piece-bright paling’, a paint-chipped fence enclosing Christ, Mary, and the saints.  I love how the other sense of ‘paling’ chimes with ‘piece-bright’: both qualities of a dimmer radiance containing what is too shocking and bright for human senses.

And now the poet has leapt the paling to stand among the fixed stars.  And like Hopkins throwing the barnyard into the heavens to help the reader’s eyes adjust to his enthralling vision, the poet introduces the eighth sphere with an extended natural metaphor.  Beatrice is compared to a bird, which has shielded her young throughout the long night and now waits patiently on the branch for the light of dawn and the moment she can leave the nest to look for food.  Perhaps this is one of the most startling aspects of The Paradiso:  the conveyance of the world below, of bird and branch and dawn, the transport of mortal memory, into the luminous heights.  The poet must use language, planked with memory, as a paling, piece-bright at its best, to house the shocks and hallows.

When the poet has seen—or rather been blinded by—the Radiant Substance, the vision of the triumphant Christ, his poetry again steers toward natural imagery.  But it’s reflexive.  The poet cannot describe what he sees, only what it does to him.  His mind is likened to a thunderhead swelling with so much condensed light that it bursts and erupts bolts of lightning into the ether.  And then, when he is conditioned by the radiant blast of Christ to see Beatrice’s smile for the first time, he cannot find the words to describe it.  Only the poet’s inadequacy stirs up the metaphorical imagination, invoking Polyhymnia and the Muses, and those wonderful images of a traveler leaping a crevice, Atlas shouldering his burden, and the ardent prow of verse plowing the rough seas of the beatific.  These waters are not for frail rafts but a craft that can leap when it wants to.  It’s the old poetic coping:  When words fail, word the failure.

After vaulting the ineffable the poet returns to his paling art, comparing, with the ‘feeble lids’ of memory and imagination, the array of hallows—saints or apostles—as a field of flowers struck by a cloud-breaking ray of sunlight.  Again the perishable world is bootlegged into the imperishable.  Even crowns and sapphires, though they glow ethereally, are earthly contraband, stashed under the poet’s robe to give him a hand with the brilliance of Mary and Gabriel.

In a journal entry for July 5, 1872, Hopkins relates this epiphany:

 

“Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timberframe—principals (?) and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big A’s with the cross-bar high up—I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again…”

 

While Hopkins sees dark alphas in the hayloft, the poet in paradise sees the hayloft in the Alpha.  To me, the beauty of the Commedia, the perception of which is heightened as one ascends into the empyrean, is the poet’s method of reverse inscape.  He doesn’t show heaven on earth, but earth in heaven, even if inadvertently.  He’s not interested in writing about little low heavens or God’s grandeur deep down things.  Brazenly situating himself in heaven, he finds the barn in the tabernacle and flowers in the firmament.  Does he know that he’s smuggled a nest in with the angels?


Paradiso Canto 16: The Guelph, The Ghibelline, War and Fortitude

The sixteenth part of the Paradise of Dante Alighieri takes place in the sphere of Mars, where reside the spirits of those who fought and died for the faith

It seems quite strange to this reader, having been to war, though most certainly NOT a “Holy One” (Is any war truly Holy? Mine was the Second Indochina War), to find in the central canto of the central triptych of Paradise to be the “Fifth Heaven of Mars.”
We are in the heaven of Holy Warriors.

Stranger still, to find the canto revolve around a discourse on Florentine politics and a replay of the struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines (both Black and White) as proxies for the papacy and Dante’s beloved Holy Roman Emperor. Between the powers “spiritual” and “temporal” as it were.
Perhaps it strikes a strong chord with this reader because he was in Vietnam at the turning point (the Tet Offensive of 1968), which he has always considered the second Triptych of that war.
How the past confronts one, whether with Cacciaguida for Dante, or Dante for the reader.

Or, perhaps, Not — Not so strange.

Indeed are not these forces ever present in the realm of man? The duel between mind and body? Between spirit and reason?

Yes, true, but this is halfway up to the empyrean!
This is IN paradise.

But, then, we are in THIS world, trying to perceive THAT one with Dante’s help.

This is man’s projection of his concept of order upon the otherwise imperceptible.
We are back once again to the mystery of the incarnation; to the paradox of the Trinity.

God is God, but God is also human and God is spirit. How else are we to understand? How else are we to explain? How are we to accept God’s Will, even while we have Free Will? How are we to accept judgment, rather than to judge?

And so, we meet Cacciaguida in the sphere of Mars.

And in the second Cacciaguidan Canto, we find out that the Earth, too, is, in some respects a part of heaven. Or at least, so it must seem to us who cannot truly perceive it all until we are with the Lord.

So, … Warriors.
And where there are warriors, there has been strife – war; and often the worst type – internal unrest – civil war.

In Dante’s case, a war that has been heightened by the very powers entrusted with the welfare of its people: the supreme earthly Powers Spiritual (The Papacy) and Temporal (the Holy Roman Emperor).

Dante, himself, was no stranger to war, to combat on the field (he had fought in the Guelph cavalry at the Battle of Campaldino, 1289), and political infighting (as Cacciaguida predicts, Dante is exiled from his beloved Florence during the G & G infighting). As both Guelphs and Ghibellines (both black and white) play their parts in bringing the city low.

And so our pilgrim finds himself overjoyed, saddened, angered, perplexed as he hears his great grandfather relate the rise and fall of the Florentines in history. And, even Dante realizes “All are punished,” but “All can also be blessed. “

“With such as these I saw there in my past
so valiant and so just a populace
that none had ever seized the ensign’s mast
and hung the lily on it upside down.
Nor was the red dye of its division known.

– 151 – 155, Ciardi

OR, in another version:

“ For justice fam’d, but terrible in war,
Their military glory spread afar;
No Conqu’ror then their banner bore away
From the lost field ; the hours had not arriv’d,
When, in their fury, all the Fiends contriv’d
To stain it’s fold with blood in civil fray.

It would seem Dante allows some pride to be found in Heaven

[Dedicated to Henry Elwood Fullerton,
My “Father,” A “Reluctant, Gentle Warrior” ]


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 11: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

 

Pedant of incandescence, parser of brilliancies—the poet in paradise tunes his eye to gradations of radiance.  Here is the poet as heliologist.  Light steps forward from light, light separates and light dances, dervishes into chandeliers, files into candelabras.  Light is identified, named.  Light speaks.  The poet listens.   The poet sees.

 

It’s easier for the eye to distinguish darknesses, to untangle shadows, and to adjust to night vision.  But staring at the sun who adjusts?  Who does not flinch and turn away with a proliferation of suns burning in front of them, all of which look the same?  Stare at the sun long enough and a garland of souls appears on your eyelid.  Can you name them?

 

Remember Thomas Merton’s Louisville epiphany:  “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

 

Solar attentiveness.

 

Oh the insensata cura of mortals!  The senseless strivings, the insensate concerns, the vocations, the careers, the careering of the mortal round!  Why do we do what we do?  Why do we not do what we not do?  O, angelic Aquinas, why can’t we all just rocket up here and be a segment in the resplendent scholastic glowworm?  What kind of sun shall I be?

 

We waver between the Franciscan and the Dominican, between seraphic ardor and cherubic splendor, between fiery action and illuminating reason, between passion and order.  (Are these the tonsured equivalents to Apollo and Dionysius?)  Torn, I ask, “If I agree to give up all of my possessions, does that mean the books, too?”  Torn I ask, “If I agree to illuminate the Word for my fellow men and women, will I be able to preach to the birds, too?”  Will brother wolf bend its knee to a professor?  Will stigmata come to Dominic?

 

All are born a sun rising (XI:50-51).  There’s just a lack of solar attentiveness.


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 7: When Punishment or Mercy Won’t Do

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

Yes, Brother. Amen, Brother.

Justinian departing at the beginning of Canto 7

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

Half the class members somnolently raised their hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paradiso Canto 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