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A bit more about Canto XXIX, in which Dante beheld an Edenic pageant. I agree with the opinion a couple of you have stated, to the effect that the pageant sequence is relatively dull. But late last night, I read a Peter Hawkins essay about it (in his book Dante’s Testaments) that gave me more to think about. Look:

In this elaborate Pageant of Revelation, Dante does more than remind us of Scripture and tradition. He conjures up a vision of the Bible itself, his own version of what Bonaventure speaks of as the “length” of Scripture: “it begins with the commencement of the world and of time, in the beginning of Genesis, and extends to the end of the world and of time, to the end of the Apocalypse.” In the file of elders, therefore, the Bible is spelled out, book by book.

More:

The emphasis on art is, in fact, striking. From the moment Matelda tells Dante to look and listen, we, too, become spectators of a theological masque, a drama framed by lightning and thunder, staged in discrete episodes, and marked by such phantasmagoric stagecraft as moving candlesticks that seem to the observer like giant paint brushes streaking the air with rainbows. In the company of a Virgil who is “carca di stupor non meno” (“charged no less with amazement”), Dante is all eyes and ears, fixed on the spectacle that plays before him — transfixed, that is, by the heavenly Creator’s artistry.

Hawkins’s essay made me take the Pageant more seriously, in context of all that came before it. Remember how on the various lower terraces of the mountain, Dante encountered examples of God’s art in shockingly lifelike tableaux carved into the mountain. God and His truth was mediated through art — that is, the harmonious, beautiful, and meaningful manipulation of matter — to Dante, and helped convert his imagination, and therefore his heart. Here, in the Pageant, we see God’s artifice in its supreme material expression. Here, not carved into the mountain but marching in a parade, gloriously alive, is the fullness of God’s revelation to man.

There’s something strange going on here. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is the summit of God’s revelation to humankind. Yet he’s not inside the triumphal chariot, as you would think; rather, in the guise of a Griffin, he is powering the chariot, which symbolizes His Church. Who is in the chariot?

We discover this in Canto XXX: it is, of course, Beatrice.

Before we see her face, one of the holy Prophets calls out a line from the Song of Solomon: “Come, bride, from Lebanon” — an allusion to Beatrice as a bride of Christ, but also a line that echoes the transformation of eros into something more holy. A hundred messengers of God shout, “Benedictus qui venis” — “Blessed is he who comes.” This is what the crowd welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem shouted. The commentators point out that even though these acclamations herald the arrival of Beatrice, Dante uses the masculine form of the Latin, directly quoting from the Gospel of Mark. The meaning is clear: Beatrice comes as a bearer of Christ. As a saint in heaven, she is perfected in Him, and is a mirror of His likeness. Where Beatrice is, there is Christ also.

The language Dante uses to describe Beatrice’s advent is rhapsodic:

Sometimes, as day approaches, I have seen

all of the eastern sky a glow of rose,

the rest of heaven beautifully clear,

 

the sun’s face rising in a misty veil

of tempering vapors that allow the eye

to look straight at it for a longer time:

 

even so, within a nebula of flowers

that flowed upward from angels’ hands and then

poured down, covering all the chariot,

 

appeared a lady — over her white veil

an olive crown and, under her green cloak,

her gown, the color of eternal flame.

A nebula of flowers flowing upward from angels’ hands. Can you imagine? Here’s a 2012 photo of the Ring Nebula, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope:

M57-HST-Subaru-Sxgendler

 

Dante continues:

And instantly — thought many years had passed

since last I stood trembling before her eyes,

captured by adoration, stunned by awe –

 

my soul, that could not see her perfectly,

still felt, succumbing to her mystery

and power, the strength of its enduring love.

Stop and re-read those tercets again, and let the intensity and potency of Dante’s expression sink in. This is Beatrice, the woman he had loved from afar since he first saw her on the streets of Florence when they were children. The woman who married another man, and who died young, at 24. She had become his muse. It was Beatrice who, grieving for Dante’s travail, came to Virgil to ask his help in saving her beloved. Note well: Dante could not see her perfectly, but he knew who she was and that she was there, and he yielded to the overwhelming reality of her undying love, in all its mystery and power. In other words, he could not comprehend her fully, but he could perceive her, and love her.

Dante the pilgrim turns to Virgil for comfort and help, paralyzed by the “signs of the ancient flame.”

But Virgil was not there. We found ourselves

without Virgil, sweet father, Virgil to whom

for my salvation I gave up my soul.

Virgil, the pagan poet denied Heaven but sent by Heaven to save a lost soul from the possibility of his own damnation, has departed. In the providence of God, it was Virgil who had the power to reach Dante, languishing in the dark wood. Might Heaven have sent someone else? Yes. But God used Virgil — and now, Virgil, having gone as far as he can go with Dante, disappears. Dante has left the realm of Reason entirely; now, he is in the realm of Faith — and he is overcome by grief.

Beatrice speaks to him for the first time:

“Dante, though Virgil leaves you, do not weep,

not yet, that is, for you shall have to weep

from yet another wound. Do not weep yet.”

The Dante scholar Robert Hollander calls that verse, “perhaps the climax of the entire poem.”

Beatrice reveals to him her name, but Dante, standing on the other side of the river Lethe and filled with shame, cannot meet her gaze. “The bonds of ice packed tight around my heart dissolved,” He sobs. Why? Beatrice, addressing the heavenly cohort in the pageant, explains to them her purpose: to inflict upon Dante a spiritual wound that may save his soul.

Beatrice tells them that she wants

“to make the one who weeps on that far bank

perceive the truth and match his guilt with grief.”

She explains that Dante was so gifted by natural ability and by divine grace that “had he allowed his gifts to bloom, he would have reaped abundantly.”

But the soil in him, so to speak, was so rich and filled with potential for life that, without Dante’s tilling it faithfully, the weeds overtook it. When she was alive, Beatrice said, simply looking into her eyes kept the young poet “on the straight path.” But then she died (“changed my life for Life”), entered the realm of the spirit, and became perfected in all ways — and Dante forgot her. He

“…wandered from the path that leads to truth,

pursuing simulacra of the good,

which promise more than they can ever give.”

Beatrice had been a true icon of Christ. According to Dante’s semi-autobiographical Vita nova, Beatrice in life spent 16 years trying to lead Dante to Christ. Ten years before this moment on the mountain, she died; Dante lost her image, and followed false icons. Turning from things of the spirit toward the passions of the flesh, and allowing his animal nature unrestrained by reason and grace to flourish, he became lost in the dark wood. So great was her love for him, in Christ, that she descended into the realm of the Dead to arrange for his rescue. Only by showing him the Damned, whose company he would join unless he repented, could she rouse him to conversion. And now, if he would cross the river Lethe into new life, with his sins truly forgiven and forgotten, Dante must make a final true repentance.

If you’re like me, you’re startled that the chariot contained not Jesus Christ, but Beatrice. Why? The poem makes clear that Beatrice is an icon of Christ, but why didn’t Dante, the poet, put Christ in her place? The answer, I think, has everything to do with the role art and beauty play in Dante’s moral and spiritual imagination. Let me explain.

We have seen throughout these past 30 days of climbing the Mount Purgatory that Dante always has to turn away or shield his eyes from the intense brilliance of the Angels. In his fallen state, he is incapable of looking directly upon holiness. Like most of us, he has to approach it indirectly. Just as the Virgin Mary deputized St. Lucy, who deputized Beatrice, who deputized Virgil, to minister to the lost Dante, God can use all manner of form and matter to call us to Himself.

The problem with this is that it is all too easy to worship the thing itself, rather than to see beyond the thing to the Reality that lies behind it. This, we will learn in Canto XXXI, is the mistake Dante made with regard to Beatrice in her mortal life. To understand better the framework for Dante’s reasoning, look at the work of Andrew Frisardi, who translated Dante’s pre-Commedia semi-autobiographical work, Vita nova (New Life). Frisardi — who is reading these blog entries, and who kindly sent me a copy of his translation — writes in it:

The Vita nova‘s basic storyline is actually quite simple. The narrator tells us that he fell in love when he was nine years old with a girl who was about a year younger than he and who was named Beatrice. His falling in love with her is so powerful that it leaves an indelible mark on his soul, a perception that is reinforced when she greets him in passing nine years later. Because of her, the personification of love—that same “Lord Love” all the love poets of the time wrote about—comes to dwell in his heart. It is not a peaceful residence. The protagonist’s feelings of love are so intense and private that he (following the conventions of his time) pretends to others that his love, which he cannot hide, is actually directed toward another woman besides Beatrice. When this woman moves out of the city, leaving the protagonist without his cover, he invents another “screen-woman.” Beatrice catches wind of malicious gossip regarding her admirer’s alleged unsavory comportment in relation to this second screen-woman, and consequently shuns him. She has no awareness of the effect this has on him. Eventually he finds peace for his unrequited love by resolving to praise her in his poetry independently of her responses to him.

A period follows during which the lover-protagonist vacillates between blissful ruminations on his lady’s beauty, spiritual radiance, and self-possession, and dreadful forebodings of death: that of Beatrice’s father, of her, and ultimately of him. When she actually does die, at age twenty-four, he tells us it was as if the entire city was widowed by her passing, and that he finally came to realize that there was always a mysterious but inexorable connection between Beatrice and the number nine. After her death, in mourning for her, he is briefly consoled by an anonymous beautiful woman who shows compassion for his grief. He becomes infatuated with her, and feels conflicted between this new movement of love and the loving memory of Beatrice—which, unlike the love for the new woman, is not reinforced by actual physical presence of the beloved. Finally, the protagonist renounces the new love and resolves to dedicate himself to the dead Beatrice, practicing his art and studying so that he can write about her as no woman has ever been written about. At the same time, his longing, which takes the form of a sigh, rises into the presence of her beatified spirit in heaven.

This, recall, is a book he wrote earlier in his life, before exile stripped him of everything, and suffering made him wise. This background is important, though, in helping us to understand all that comes next in the Commedia. Frisardi continues:

A principal theme of the Vita nova is the human tendency to confuse the visibility of things with their actuality. In medieval Christian thought, and indeed in the thought of most times and places, the “real world” was not the one of external phenomena, which was known as the world of appearances, but the eternal one of the gods or God. By “eternal” was meant that which is neither coming into existence nor going out of existence. What was considered most real was the essential being of things in the mind of God, self-subsistent Being-Intellect. Each thing that exists does so only as “a qualification or participation” in pure awareness or Intellect, which is not a “thing” but is “the active power to be everything and nothing.” Only God truly is, all else merely participates in this Reality. The world is radically contingent, dependent in every instant on what gives it being. The creation, then, was considered to be essentially knowledge, and the intelligibility of things was thought to be ontologically prior to their sensible manifestation. Modern thinking, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that the real is matter, which is the fundamental thing onto which all else is added. We see this, for example, in empirical science’s notion that we move toward what is essential when we reduce experience and things to matter, disregarding mind, intelligence, and being as merely accidental, subjective effects brought about by material causes. This is the reverse of the medieval view. For the medieval mind, that which is most knowing (God) is that which is most real or actual.

Frisardi continues, saying that even though Dante’s theological views had considerably deepened by the time he wrote the Commedia, we can still see in Vita nova that the young poet had been reflecting on the things of God:

Already in the Vita nova, Dante would have agreed with Hugh of St. Victor, when he wrote: “But just as some illiterate man who sees an open book, looks at the figures, but does not recognize the letters: just so the foolish and natural man, who does not perceive the things of God, sees outwardly in these visible creatures the appearance but does not inwardly understand the reason.” Augustine applies the same concept explicitly to love, making the Christian distinction between eros and agape or caritas: “I mean by caritas that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of oneself and one’s neighbor in subordination to God; by lust [cupiditas] I mean that movement of the soul which aims at enjoying oneself and one’s neighbor and other corporeal things without reference to God.” Dante and Marsilio Ficino and the Renaissance Neoplatonists bear witness to the fact that there is a tradition within Christianity that seeks a fusion of eros and agape, a Christian tantra of sorts, which attempts to channel and concentrate erotic desire for the sake of a Christ-centered spiritual intensity and focus. It is a spiritualization or interiorization of beauty and sensual pleasure, which in turn requires making a distinction between icon and idol. An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the intelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon — our approach to it is what makes the difference. [Emphasis mine -- RD] As William Blake expressed it, one can see through the eye rather than with it.

I could quote Frisardi’s book forever, but you get the point. He says that for Dante, erotic desire is what propels one toward God, and if properly channeled, meets agape/caritas descending from Heaven in the Earthly Paradise. The proper expression of erotic love is to mediate it through agape; we can only rightly love other people and other things insofar as we love them through the Holy Trinity — that is, by treating them as icons, not idols. That is, to see and to read all creation rightly is to see through it, to God shining brightly through all things, and to understand our own relation to people and things as mediated through the love of God.

It was necessary for Beatrice, and not the Lord, to appear to Dante here because it was his awe for and love of her image that drew him toward beauty, and to its divine Source — but his misunderstanding of her image that caused him to leave the straight path. We will learn more about this in the next canto. Here, though, it’s sufficient to say that Beatrice first appears to proclaim God’s judgment on Dante, and to call him to repentance. She has the personal authority to do this, because of the commanding role she plays in his imagination — in this canto, Dante, who has described his journey as like being in a boat crossing the ocean, calls her “the Admiral” — and because if Dante is to be healed at his core, re-ordering his imagination and reorient it to God, it has to be through her. She binds his erotic instinct to love of God, and raises it to the sublime.

In this and the following cantos, the Commedia revealed to me two fundamental errors I had made that distracted me from the straight path. I mentioned earlier that in this canto, Beatrice is hailed as a Bride of Christ — which is what the Church calls herself. It is Beatrice’s task to compel Dante to see her (and all creation) not as an idol, but as an icon, and to baptize, so to speak, his desire in the pure waters of divine love. Reading this, I thought of how, without realizing it, had seen the Roman Catholic Church as an idol instead of an icon. When my love for it was shattered by the scandal, it devastated me in ways that it might not have had I loved it rightly from the beginning — iconically, not idolatrously. Losing my Catholic faith was one of the most painful things ever to happen to me, but it shattered my intellectual pride in my religion, and ultimately worked to the salvation of my soul. Of that I’m convinced. I have been a very different Orthodox Christian than I was Catholic. I wasn’t a bad Catholic because of the Catholic Church; I was a bad Catholic because I desired Catholicism in an idolatrous way. Dante taught me that.

Which brings me to the second, and even more fundamental, lesson that Dante taught me. As you know, especially if you read The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, that I have always longed for family and home — or I should say, Family and Home. I felt the pain of exile from a childhood in which I increasingly grew far from my father, and then, because of bullying and other things, felt that I had to leave. (My mother desperately did not want me to leave, but her insisting to my dad that despite this, I had to go off to boarding school, or God knows what would happen to me, was one of the most generous things anybody has ever done for me.) I ended up spending much of my adult life longing for Family and Home, and wanting to come back, but not thinking it was possible. In fact, as I wrote in Little Way, I did come back home, in 1993, because I wanted to rejoin the family after my sister had her first child, but could not stay because I could not bear the pressure my dad put on me to conform to his expectations. Besides, through deep prayer and reflection, I came to believe that God had a calling on my life, elsewhere.

But I always wanted to come home. Always. As Matelda tells Dante after he first arrives in Eden, the poets of old wrote of a Golden Age because they longed for our ancestral paradise in the Garden. Similarly, I think I longed for Family and Home in this way. It’s all over my writing over the last 14 years or so.

As you know from Little Way, the death of my sister, and the amazing grace that shone forth through those events and the people who lived through them, changed my heart, and led me back home. If you read the book, you saw at the end that after I was back, there was a shocking revelation that confronted me with the fact that there was a foundational crack in my relationship to my sister, and to my family, that I had not imagined. What I could not have foreseen when I published the book was that this crack would become a chasm that I could not bridge, no matter how much I did. There’s no point in going into details; it’s enough to know that by last fall, I was in a very dark wood, physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted.

And into this wood came three Virgils: my priest, my therapist, and Dante. The story may be told one day, but what I want to tell here is my conviction: that God, working through all three of them — but most especially Dante — brought me up a mountain, at the summit of which I discovered that I was, without knowing it, an idolator. That I had made idols of Family and Home (and I wasn’t the only one). In fact, in Little Way, my father confesses that he had done the same, and lived to regret it. This unmasking was a purgation, a purgation I’m still going through, and probably will for some time more. But it was necessary, because I had made an idol of icons, and lost my capacity to see God as He really is — and that was an error that, I came to see, had been at the root of nearly all of my anxieties, fears, sins and failures. I wrote about my illumination and my repentance on the feast of Theophany. Excerpt:

Here’s what I saw this morning, so clearly. If it hadn’t been for my suffering, I never would have prayed like I did, never would have humbled myself enough to put my soul into Father Matthew’s hands. I never would have humbled myself enough to sit down with a therapist. And I never would have read past the first tercet in the Divine Comedy, never would have experienced the power of great art to change one’s life. And without those things, I would still be in exile in the dark wood of my heart from God the Father, who was there all along, though I could not and would not let Him see me. One day, when the time is right, I will tell the whole story. It is ultimately a story of the transformative power of Divine Love, communicated in prayer, wisdom, and art. I thought the tale I told in Little Way was the end of the story, but it was not. The story became even more beautiful, and redemptive. “But,” as Dante says, “if I would show the good that came of it, I must talk about things other than the good.”

From this day on, Theophany will always be the day I celebrate my homecoming.

Home: the Church, not as I once idealized her to be — as a substitute a blind and desiring pilgrim seized for an irrecoverable sense of Family and Home — but as she is. As with the Church, so too with Life: icons everywhere; idols nowhere.

As my wife told me just the other night, “You came home expecting to find something else, but what you really found was God.” Yes, exactly. Our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. This most of us who call ourselves Christian know. But do we know our own hearts? If we satisfy ourselves with comfort and rest, we may never know the truth about ourselves, and therefore never know true comfort, and true rest.