A further observation on Canto XXIII, which we discussed earlier this week: When Dante sees reality as it actually is, all his desires are fulfilled. This is what heaven is: the absence of desire, not because desire has been taken away, but because it has reached its goal. Just now, I was thinking about what the pilgrim Dante learned when he first arrived in Paradise, from the nun Piccàrda: that her joy comes from not wanting more than she has, and finding peace in accepting all as God’s will. Now that she is in Paradise, she doesn’t hope for that peace; she knows it. But for those making their way through the mortal life, they can only know that peace through faith.
But what does that mean? We learn in Canto XXIV, when Beatrice presents Dante to St. Peter, who will examine him to discover what he knows about the virtue of faith. Dante begins by quoting St. Paul, who defined faith in his letter to the Hebrews as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The pilgrim’s entire journey through the afterlife, from the gates of Hell to here, near the summit of Paradise, has been about his learning to see things as they really are. We cannot do that in the mortal realm, absent extraordinary revelation, like what God allowed the disciples to see in the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor. In heaven, the faith of Christians is fulfilled; what faith told them they would one day see, they actually do see. The mortal who has faith in the promises of God in some real sense already possesses the things promised. He already lives in eternity. He already lives in perfect justice, because he knows that the omniscient and omnipotent God will make things right, in His own time. Says Dante to St. Peter:
“The profound mysteries
that here so richly manifest themselves to me,
to our eyes below are so concealed
“that they exist there through belief alone,
on which is based our hope to rise above.
And therefore it assumes the name of substance.
“It is from this belief that we must argue,
when there is nothing else we can examine.
And it therefore has the name of evidence.”
Faith, then, is the assertion, in the absence of concrete, objective evidence, that something is true. It is the premise on which all of Christianity is based. If we had perfect knowledge of reality, as do the saints in heaven, we would have no need for faith, because we would see things as they are. Without faith, though, we mortals are more or less blind — more or less because one may still perceive some aspects of reality, but one cannot have full access to that vision, and one cannot be fully absorbed into the divine light, as the saints are through theosis. Faith is the prerequisite of all knowledge of God.
St. Peter then describes Dante’s faith as like a coin, and asks the pilgrim if he has it in his purse.
And I: ‘I do indeed, so bright and round
that of its coinage I am not in doubt.”
An interesting metaphor. What does it mean here? Christ said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” St. Peter wants to know if Dante’s faith is real, if it’s something he uses? Dante responds by saying, essentially, “My faith is not counterfeit. You can take it to the bank.”
The holy examiner then asks his pupil where this faith comes from. From the Bible, says Dante. Well then, says St. Peter, why do you believe the Bible is the word of God? Dante replies, because of the miracles of which it speaks. But how, continues the saint, do you know those miracles really happened?
Because, says Dante, of the conversion of the world. That so many believed in Christ and the Gospel without having seen a miracle is a testimony to the truth of the stories told to us in the Bible. Dante continues:
“This is the beginning, this the living spark
that swells into a living flame
and shines within me like a star in heaven.”
Notice the direct connection between the faith that is in Dante’s heart, and the farthest outpost of creation, the stars. There is unity between the cosmic and the intimate. The faith that moves Dante’s heart is the same faith that moves the stars. Notice too that Dante does not claim that faith is the end of the Christian journey, but only the beginning. And it is a “living spark,” a “living flame,” meaning it is imbued with personality — just like the flame that causes a star to shine. The distinction between the physical and the metaphysical dissolves here.
St. Peter is thrilled with these answers, and blesses Dante. It hardly needs saying, though, that these answers are not really satisfying to most of us today, or at least it is not readily apparent why they ought to be satisfying. I believe there are ways to approach the message here that are more fruitful to us moderns.
For one, Dante’s point about faith becoming plausible because of the works that are its fruit is solid. Works do not prove faith; after all, if something can be proven, no faith is needed. What works do, though, is give substantive testimony to the faith. Dr. Kent Brantly and Dr. Matthew Lukwiya could have fled when Ebola threatened to take their lives, but as Christians, they stayed and suffered with the people they were given to care for. Do their actions prove that the Christian faith is true? By no means. But the fact that they risked their lives — and in Dr. Lukwiya’s case, gave his — to serve their fellow man out of Christian conviction means that we ought to at least take seriously their commitment. It gives that commitment substance.
In the astonishing film Of Gods And Men, a dramatization of the true story of French Trappist monks living in Algeria, who were martyred there in the 1990s, the monastic community must decide if their faith requires them to remain there in Algeria, serving the Muslim poor, even though they have been warned that they may be killed by Islamic terrorists for doing so. Here is the wordless scene in which the monks ponder, over supper, their decision. This is the moment when the coinage of their faith is tested most severely.
We may find it more helpful to think of this canto in a more metaphysical than theological vein. In his book on Dante and metaphysics, Notre Dame’s Christian Moevs recalls that Dante compares his journey across “the ocean of pure being” — Paradise — to Ulysses’s failed attempt to reach the same in Canto XVI of Inferno. You may find it significant to note that Moevs is not a Christian, and he’s not writing as a theologian or apologist, but as someone interested in the metaphysics informing Dante’s vision. Here is Moevs:
We have seen that Ulysses sought understanding by “becoming a knower of the world,” seeking to devour the world in the few days left to his senses, without sacrificing his own ego or sense of self; he pursues the sun [the Light, God] in a voyage governed by the ephemeral reflected light of the moon, the light of finite created intelligence, which waxes and wanes five times, corresponding perhaps to the sense. Ulysses is presumptuous not for what he sought — deification, in Dante’s world, is the true goal of every human being — but for how he sought it: without turning in to know himself, without sacrificing his unquestioned identification with, and reliance on, a finite mind and body, without surrendering to the ground of his own being. The mind and senses he relied on could help him only with the familiar names and forms of the finite Mediterranean; they are of no use for navigating the deep.
The purpose of a miracle is to shock and stop the mind, not to give it more grist to process. To feel the impulse to “explain” a miracle is to be blind to its revelation, its function, which is to trigger an awakening to oneself, an awakening to the transcendent, the awakening of the divine to itself in us. To theorize about the eclipse at the Crucifixion [N.B., Something we will encounter later in Paradiso — RD] is itself an eclipse or Crucifixion: to think about revelation, instead of seeing what is revealed, is a failure to recognize or to know Christ. The self-revelation/self-eclipse of the divine, like the self-eclipse of the light of the sun at the Crucifixion, is a principle or event that transcends all names, forms, thoughts, concepts, philosophies, languages, and cultures: it is universal … . We may conclude that without their egos and wandering minds, all seekers of truth would come to the same revelation: either they would not argue, or they would fall into silence. The ground of being reveals itself only to those who sacrifice their attachment to themselves in its pursuit… .
We will return to the points made in this second passage when we take up Canto XXIX, in which the poet Dante talks about how all the theological and philosophical chatter about salvation misleads the seeker from the actual experience of it. I cite them both here to draw attention to faith as necessary to gain access to higher knowledge. In the same way that the Angel of the Lord tested Dante’s humility before allowing him to go any farther up the Mountain of Purgatory, so too does St. Peter test Dante’s faith. Symbolically, we readers are being instructed that we cannot hope to find unity with God — that is, we cannot perceive reality as it really is, and harmonize with it — without surrendering ourselves in faith to revelation. If we try to get there navigating by what we know through our own reason and experience alone, we not only will not make it, we may destroy ourselves, as Ulysses did. He had faith only in himself; it was an idol who was “of no use in navigating the deep.”
(It’s worth pondering that “the familiar names and forms of the finite Mediterranean” could also be our own religious training, which might well be inadequate for navigating anything more than the shallows of everydayness. You may think religion has nothing to offer you, and maybe the form of religion you were taught really does not. Maybe it’s dry and intellectual, or emotional but without substance, or legalistic and ritualistic. Maybe the problem, though, is you: you have rejected something without fully knowing what it is you are turning away from. Maybe you think you understand the faith, but you have been given a deformed version of it. Maybe you mistakenly take a deeply flawed part of something as the whole. I used to think Christianity was either boring and bourgeois, or passionate but anti-intellectual, neither of which I wanted. I was had no idea what I was talking about, but it took a revelation at the Chartres cathedral to knock me out of my trite certainty, and set me on my own authentic pilgrimage toward God.)
Dante, of course, was a believing Christian, but I think the lesson for all readers, Christians and otherwise, is that the deepest and most mysterious dimensions of our existence can only be known — that is, experienced and integrated into our own lives — through faith in revelation. We have to believe that there is Something beyond ourselves, a realm to be discovered by purifying our mind’s eye. We do not have the power to access this level of reality except by surrendering our total reliance on reason and sense perception; it’s not that reason and sense perception are useless, but only that they can only take us so far.
You must believe that you may understand. You must believe before you can see. This has a specific meaning in Christianity, but speaking more broadly, in a more metaphysical sense, you cannot have full access to reality unless you let go of your rationality, and open yourself at least to the possibility of revelation — that is, to the possibility that there are objective truths and realities that are real, and that you cannot know objectively.
As Rick Warren famously and bluntly said, in one of the best openings to any book ever: “It’s not about you.” In the Commedia, the damned, including Ulysses, lived as if all of reality was about them. They spend eternity alienated from God, from the divine light, and trapped within themselves. The saints in Paradise only know their true selves in relationship to God and to each other. This is not simply a suggestion for how to live more happily; it is a truth written into the substance of reality itself. If God is Love, and Love requires relationship and reciprocity, then the only way to live in truth, in harmony with the cosmos, is in a loving relationship with God and through Him, with others.
Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life would lose it,” a saying that has layers of meaning, but means at least this: if you want to find God, you have to open yourself to the possibility of faith. There is no other way. And to open yourself to the possibility of faith means to work to see the world with new eyes. It means to accept that you cannot get out of the dark wood by your own power, that you need help from those who see things that you cannot. Heaven sent Virgil to Dante as he languished in the dark wood, trapped inside himself. Virgil told Dante if he would save his life, he had better follow him. He didn’t require Dante to affirm all the truths of the Christian faith before taking those first steps out of the dark wood. In fact, Dante could not possibly have done that. His vision was too weak. He needed to walk through Hell, and climb the mountain of Purgatory, to learn to see reality. All Dante could see in that first moment, in his moment of crisis, was that a man whose authority he trusted, the poet Virgil, miraculously appeared to him and said, “Follow me, I know the way out.”
Dante didn’t stop and say, “Wait a minute, you died centuries ago. I must be having a hallucination. How do I know you are who you say you are. I have to think about this.” He didn’t say, “I should wait here; things might turn right again.” He didn’t say, “How can I trust that you, Virgil, know the way out? Maybe you are wrong. Maybe you will lead me to ruin. Maybe I should wait for an angel, or a philosopher.” He didn’t say, “Show me the whole picture, the entire map ahead, and then I will follow you.”
He said none of those things. He simply said, “I trust that you were sent to help me. Please, lead me out of this place. I will follow.” Those first steps the pilgrim Dante took were in reality a leap of faith.
Funny, but when I stood in the Barnes & Noble a year ago, and opened the Commedia to read the first canto, I did not know what was ahead. I could not have imagined that God would use a medieval poet to lead me out of the dark wood I was in. I did not know that when I bought the book and began to read it not for entertainment or for academic interest, but with the eyes of a lost traveler who has unexpectedly found a map and a guide, that I had committed an act of faith.
You have to be open to these revelations if you are going to receive them. You cannot hope to have faith if you don’t first have intellectual humility. Again, it’s not about you. As long as you think it’s about you, you will remain in the dark wood, a stranger to God and to yourself.