These two cantos are radiant testimonies to the ideal of harmony, of God’s will working itself out in the world not in a single way, but in a multitude of ways, all in synchrony, if we desire to join the chorus. They are cantos of freedom in holiness.
Canto XI begins with the poet chastising the people of the world for putting their minds only on worldly things, both good and bad, instead of reflecting on heavenly harmonies:
O foolish cares of mortals, how flawed
Are all the arguments that make you flap
Your wings in downward flight!
He goes on to equate those engaged in upbuilding activities with those do discreditable things, e.g., those “set on plunder,” and those concerned with “the public weal.” What unites them is that they are both engaged in actions that draw their attention away from heaven (“flap your wings in downward flight”)
while I, set free from all these things,
was, high in heaven with Beatrice,
thus gloriously received.
Read this carefully. Dante is not being arrogant here, but only saying that the perspective he has in heaven has freed him from the bondage of the world and its concerns, allowing him (as we will see) to grasp the fundamental unity in diversity, through harmony, of reality. This is the gift of his otherworldly vision, the fruit of the veil being lifted. I am reminded of the Cherubic Hymn (listen here) that the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom features at the Great Entrance, which is the beginning of the Eucharistic liturgy. Here’s the text, which was added to the liturgy in the sixth century:
We who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic orders.
The idea is that this hymn transports us all out of time into the presence of God, with the angels. All “earthly cares” include caring for the good and the bad. None of it matters anymore in the presence of the King of All. Earthly distinctions are to be laid down as we enter into eternity. Dante, in the opening lines of Canto XI, seems to be making the same point. And since the point of our lives on earth is to work toward achieving unity with God, it follows that doing so requires laying aside the “earthly cares” that separate us would-be laborers in the vineyard.
Reading these lines this morning, I remembered a conversation I had with my father last week. We were talking about death, and I said what a blessing it was to him to have had his father come to him after his 1994 death, and to ask forgiveness. “You had this amazing chance to square accounts with your dad,” I said. “I wish I had had something like that with Ruthie.”
Daddy answered me in a trembling voice. “Maybe she will come to you,” he said, looking at the photograph of Ruthie he keeps on his coffee table next to his armchair.
Julie has been telling me for a couple of years that in whatever state of brokenness Ruthie left this world, regarding the way she saw me, she is now in a place where she can see more clearly, and the illusions of the divisions she and I, and all of us, insisted on as part of our mortal lives have dissipated in the light of God and His eternity. Reading Dante this morning, I understood my wife’s point in a deeper way. Dante here is making the point that not only are rival human goods reconciled in God’s plan, but the more radical claim that even human ideas of good and bad amount to little or nothing from the vantage point of heaven. He’s not, it seems clear to me, saying that there is no ultimate distinction between good and evil; if this were the case, there would be no need for Hell or Purgatory. Rather, he’s saying that the divisions between us in our mortal lives are far less important than we think they are, from the perspective of eternity. And furthermore, we can’t properly reach our own destination, which is theosis, complete unity with God and His will, if we insist on maintaining earthly distinctions, and holding on to earthly cares.
I think about how in the days and weeks after 9/11, all the everyday anxiety and hostility between us New Yorkers seemed to evaporate. What we had seen on that day revealed the thick walls of division we erected between ourselves to be made of onion-skin paper. Of course we fell back into everydayness in time, but I believe being faced with the profundity of death offered to those with eyes to see a glimpse of our true collective condition. This is what Dante is talking about here.
Last night, I had a dream in which someone I know but don’t much care for was sick and in prison, and in which God told me to go visit him. When I woke up from this dream, I realized instantly that this person, who seems so blind and arrogant to me, is probably suffering from some pretty serious setbacks, and what looks to me like blindness and arrogance may in truth be manifestations of metaphorical sickness and imprisonment. I understood instantly that I need to put aside my pride and go visit this person. My second thought was, “No, I don’t want to do this!” But it was too late. I had been convicted. Reading these cantos later in the morning only drove home the point: I cannot serve God if I insist, in my pride, on maintaining these earthly cares, in holding on to resentment over what this person may think of me. Perhaps it is all an illusion. Or perhaps this person really does dislike me. Nevertheless, I am not freed from the obligation to make the effort, because by faith, I know the division is an illusion, even if my frenemy doesn’t.
Canto XI then returns to St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian, who tells the pilgrim that the Bridegroom (Christ) gave to his Bride (the Church)
“… two princes,
one on this side, one on that, to serve as guides.
“One was all seraphic in his ardor,
the other, by his wisdom, was on earth
resplendent with cherubic light.
“I shall speak of one, since praising one,
whichever one we choose, is to speak of both,
for they labored to a single end.”
Aquinas is talking about St. Francis, founder of the Franciscans, and St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans, the two great Catholic religious orders of the Middle Ages. Francis was a saint of the heart, while Dominic was a saint of the intellect. Aquinas is saying that neither one is superior to the other, that God ordained both saints to work toward “a single end,” though in their own proper spheres.
This is a commentary on contemporary relations between the Dominicans and Franciscans, because in Dante’s time, the Dominicans and the Franciscans were rivals. The poet is telling his readers — including Franciscans and Dominicans — that their rivalry is an earthly vanity, because if they saw as God sees, they would realize they are made to work in harmony, cultivating the fields according to their own particular charisms. What looks like a clash — the way of the heart versus the way of the mind — is in fact a symphony from God’s perspective, which we should strive to share.
Can I tell you what a personal challenge this is to me? Longtime readers, and readers of my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, know that the source of so much tension between my late sister and myself came from this heart vs. mind antagonism. Hers was very much the way of the heart, so much so that she had something just short of contempt for the way of the head. I was not so ardent for the opposite view, but I was no slouch, either, so caught up in my own ideas that I couldn’t relate to her. This canto is about freedom: the liberty God gives us to be free from earthly rivalries. The reality of God is so great that it cannot be contained in formulas, or encompassed by a single way of life, e.g., a life of the heart, or a life of the mind. As we have learned over and over in the Commedia, God created us all with different gifts, and if we are to use them properly, we ought not to oppose them to each other, enviously or otherwise, but rather realize them in harmonious relationship to each other, through God.
To underscore the point, Dante gives to the Dominican Aquinas a discourse praising the life of St. Francis; in Canto XII, he will grant to St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan, the honor of extolling the virtues of St. Dominic. In Canto XI, Aquinas portrays Francis as having “married” poverty. Yale scholar Giuseppe Mazzotta says that here, Dante emphasizes the radicalism of Francis’s critique of the values of the world. It is an incarnate theology of negation; that is, Francis embraces nothingness for the sake of the Kingdom. Francis turns away from all things, even good things (like marriage), to embrace nothing, and all things, for the love of God.
This is radical humility. It calls to mind the Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” By emptying oneself out in unity with Christ, one gains the Kingdom. Mazzotta writes that those who live out this mystery of total renunciation become totally free, because they
acknowledge that we cannot own the world, that the world is a world of gifts, and that the more you give and the less you have for yourself, the more you are free and the more productive your own acts can become, as was the case for Francis.
Remember that Dante wrote these lines from his own unchosen exile. He was stripped of all his wealth and power, and made a fugitive. Francis chose his own radical poverty; Dante had his poverty thrust upon him. But now, Dante begins to see his own lack, his own suffering, as a source of blessing, when united to Christ. He begins to understand that from his own impoverishment, great blessing can come, if he regards it through the eyes of God. It cannot be a coincidence that Dante’s poetry before his fall from grace was good, but not great. Yet out of his suffering came the greatest work of poetry ever written in the Christian era, a poem that has led countless people out of the dark wood, including me. Mazzotta says of the blessed in this sphere of Paradise:
All of them understand that this kind of poverty is really a description of the human condition to begin with. We are all poor, we are all born defective and in need, and some of us go on being needy. The other side of that shared lack is that it’s actually a blessing because it permits our universal state of freedom.
Think of what you lack. Poverty is not only a material lack. There are people who lack love and companionship. There are people who lack respect. There are people unappreciated by their spouses, ignored by their children, neglected by their parents. There are people who have been exiled from their homes and cannot return, and who dwell in emotional poverty as well, perhaps, in material poverty. The woman who has lost her religious faith and mourns its absence, she too is poor. Wherever there is a lack of peace and justice and joy, there is poverty, which is to say, we are all poor, in our way. Dante says the way out of this kind of poverty is to embrace it, and find a way to let God use it to transform us. Don’t run from it, but rather take it on, and let God purify you through it.
I hadn’t quite thought of my own situation in this way until re-reading these cantos this morning. I’ve been able to say in all truth this year that I rejoice in the emotional turmoil and physical suffering I’ve endured since shortly after coming back to Louisiana, and realizing that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, and hoped it would be. I never would have come home had I known what to expect, but if I hadn’t come home, I would be ambling around a wood that I didn’t know was as dark as it really was. The difficulties I had thrust upon me here, and that I had no choice but to embrace at first, led to a much deeper repentance and healing and relationship with God than I could have imagined. I can now see green shoots rising from the soil, and can in all candor wonder what on earth would have become of me if life had not poleaxed me, first by the untimely death of my sister, and all that followed. It seems that every week, I see again the wisdom of Ruthie’s words of hope and encouragement to me, spoken from the depths of her cancer: “We just don’t know what God is going to do with this.”
The key is to get your ego out of the way and to make yourself available for His use. Mazzotta calls Dante’s way “the spirituality of the desert,” because it is to the desert he goes in search of enlightenment, of true communion with the Holy Spirit, and renewal. After his baptism, Jesus went into the desert to dwell in great poverty, including hunger (he fasted for 40 days, recall), and there was tempted by the Devil. He three times refused the easy way, and then returned to the world, knowing what His mission was. Think back to Purgatorio, Canto XIX, and how the Siren of Death tempted the pilgrim Dante by promising him a comfortable, restful life if he would just abandon the quest and settle down with her. This was a lie. Beatrice and Virgil shook Dante out of this false enchantment. The message of the Commedia is that our deliverance can only come through the Cross, that is, through suffering, and uniting our suffering mystically to His suffering. To choose relief when it is not what God would have chosen for us at that moment is to choose falsely. It is possible — possible — that God is using our suffering to work symphonically for our salvation, and the greater good of ourselves and all people, and that He is calling us to cooperate with Him, not resist Him.
This is a mystery, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Dante could have spent the rest of his life raging at the injustice of his exile. Or he could have embraced it, and opened himself to letting the Way work itself out through him and his life. Because he chose as he did, look at the fruit he bore.
Back to the canto. Dante says that the marriage of Francis and Poverty bore spiritual fruit (compare this to the “marriage” of Brunetto Latini and Fame, which was sterile) in conversions:
Their sweet accord, their faces spread with bliss,
The love, the mystery, their tender looks
Gave rise in others’ hearts to holy thoughts;
The venerable Bernard was the first
To cast aside his shoes and run, and running
Towards such great peace, it seemed to him he lagged.
O unsuspected wealth! O fruitful good!
Giles throws his shoes off, then Sylvester too –
They love the bride so much, they seek the groom.
See how this works? By choosing radical poverty for the love of Christ, holiness shined forth through Francis, such that others were moved to embrace holy poverty for the sake of the Groom. If we too surrender to God, and allow ourselves to become transparent mediators of His light, others will seek to imitate us, and in so doing find their way back home to God.
Just as it is extraordinary that a great Dominican praises St. Francis, so is it extraordinary that he denounces the worldliness and corruption of the Dominican order in the world today (I mean, in Dante’s day). Aquinas tells the pilgrim that there are so few holy men left in his own order that “it wouldn’t take much cloth to make their cowls.” The standard of judgment is not set by loyalty to anything but holiness.
In Canto XII, Aquinas recedes while Bonaventure, a Franciscan, comes forward — but the poet takes care to observe that they are moving in perfect harmony. Bonaventure’s task in this canto is to sing the praises of St. Dominic, who came from “that region where the sweet west wind comes blowing.” Aquinas has described Francis as like a sun rising in the East; Bonaventure in this canto likens Dominic to a setting sun. This is not a negative image, but rather meant to show that the Church is bookended by both saints. In one we see the work of the Holy Spirit through the heart, and in the other the work of the Holy Spirit through the mind.
Mindful of Aquinas’s use of marriage imagery to discuss Francis’s embrace of Poverty, Bonaventure says Dominic’s “marriage” to Faith came at the baptismal font. And:
“he soon became a mighty theologian,
a diligent inspector of the vineyard,
where the vine withers if the keeper fails”
The Dominicans focused on theology, and on fighting heresy. Dante here compares them to a wise vintner, who knows that bringing the grapes to full fruition will require pruning. So too does the ardor of the will require channeling through reason to bear fruit. This has been a theme of the Commedia from the very beginning of Dante’s journey through Inferno. The rest of Canto XII follows the order Aquinas set in Canto XI, ending with Bonaventure denouncing corruption in the latter-day Franciscans, his own order, who have fallen away from the ideals of their founder just as the contemporary Dominicans have.
The final lines of Canto XII have Bonaventure introducing the other saints who dwell with him in his circle. Just as Aquinas included his rival (and possible heretic), Siger of Brabant, so does Bonaventure include the
somewhat unorthodox Franciscan Cistercian Joachim of Flora, whose teachings made trouble for the Franciscans later, in heaven. The poet’s point is one of peace, reconciliation, and yes, harmony here in Paradise. If you dwell in heaven, you will have by definition been purified of all the sin and error that separated you from God. Dante is not saying that Truth isn’t important, but that in God’s time, after our purification, even those who did not agree on earth may find fellowship and perfect harmony in God and through God, in Paradise. It is a beautiful vision, one we can begin to realize here in this life if we allow love to overwhelm false distinctions among us, and if we allow that same love to turn our misfortune into blessing. As the blessèd Piccarda said, “In His will is our peace.”
My sister Ruthie knew there was no adequate explanation for why God allowed her cancer to consume her life. She suffered greatly, but she held on to her joy, believing that He would bless others through her ordeal. I wish I could recall how many people have said to me or written to me that Ruthie’s story in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming brought them to greater faith, or harmony with their family members, or blessed them in some other way. As I wrote in the book, and as I’ve observed on this blog, bringing that good news to others has not been easy for me, because it has forced me to deal with some wrongs in her life and in the life of my family. And yet, reading Dante really has given me a new perspective on these things, and helped me to see how embracing pain and suffering is the only way to transform it and to defeat it. I don’t mean to compare the poverty of rejection with the poverty of having one’s health and life taken from one, as Ruthie did, but none of us escape pain, suffering, and poverty.
If, however, we are to redeem the time in which we’ve been given, we’ve got to go into the desert of poverty and overcome the temptations to despair, to rage, or to take the easy way out. The easy way is almost never the straight way, or the way to healing, to wholeness, to God.