Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Further Thoughts on Paradiso

That post was getting a little long so I thought I'd break it up.

4. At one point in the Eighth Sphere, Dante loses his sight as he is questioned by St John on the nature of love (this has symbolic significance in regards to the content of his questioning). When he regains it, he is met by Adam. There is something slightly surreal about the concept of meeting the ancestor of us all. Of talking with the First Man; the Father of the Race. One wonders what it would be like. On the other hand, I considered that it would not be implausible that one would meet him in great bitterness and anger. After all, all the suffering and misfortune, all the ruined lives of the ages, are without exception his fault. All of it can be laid at his door and he would be without excuse. It occurred to me that that wonderful Holy Saturday sermon (found in the Office of Readings for that day) from that anonymous preacher from the first centuries is quite revolutionary if one pays attention. We are rightly gripped by indignation and a thirst for justice when confronted by some truly wicked member of society, a murderer or serial rapist or con artist. How much more indignant and furious would one be faced with the one man responsible for every evil act ever committed by human beings? And yet, for that man, who if he came before us we would demand his imprisonment for the rest of his days at the very least, the preacher pictures being visited by Christ in Hell, bearing the marks of evil and torture and death and ready with mercy to take him into blessedness. The Sacrifice of Christ truly does undo the knot of Adam's sin. A facile phrase until we grasp its full significance. There- there!- is mercy beyond the mind of man. There is forgiveness and grace utterly undeserved and offered freely and without resentment or expectation of repayment. Grace truly is gratuitous and we seldom fully grasp it.

On a slightly different note, I had to chuckle when Dante asked Adam about the nature of the language he spoke before the Fall. It is something I have often wondered, being a great student of language both academically and practically, and it is exactly what I would have asked our first father if I had found myself in Dante's position.

5. In the Ninth Sphere, Beatrice takes a slight tangent and, in a quite pertinent diatribe, proceeds to lament those who try to explain away things in the Scriptures. The example she gives is of those who claim the darkening of the sky at the crucifixion must have been a local eclipse of the moon, rather than anything supernaturally ordained- "such preachers lie!- For that light hid itself, and men in India as well as Spain shared this eclipse the same time as the Jew....So the poor sheep, who know no better, come from pasture fed on air." It reminded me very much of many liberal preachers and theologians I have heard. Pertinent words indeed, especially after the last forty years of absent or even anti-catechesis. Beatrice sums up with this memorable phrase, "Christ did not say to His first company: 'Go forth and preach garbage unto the world!' but gave them, rather, truth to build upon."

6.There is a beautiful affection in Dante's last words to Beatrice in the Empyrean as she takes her place amongst the souls of the blessed who gaze night and day on the glory of God and are constantly bathed in His love. He thanks her humbly for fetching him from his aimless meanderings and wanderings and organising his whole tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven so he might once more learn to seek after Christ in this life. There is admiration, humility and deep brotherly affection and love in his final address to her. Touchingly, she turns and smiles upon him one last time before turning her eyes back to the brilliance streaming from above. Now St Bernard must show him the last step of his journey- the direct vision and worship of God Almighty.

7. As an ex-Protestant, and not yet wholly unencumbered by the innate Protestant fear of Mary, I still recoil at times from the more florid Marian prayers and hymns. When one examines it reasonably, however, one cannot deny that what lies in the Protestant heart is fear. Despite the words of Scripture- "All generations shall call me blessed."- I rarely gave her, Whose flesh God took, a second thought, much less contemplated the glory and grace that God bestowed on her, above all creatures, in that her very DNA was taken on by God Himself, so she would have discerned her own features in the face of the Incarnate Word. I do not even remember her ever being mentioned in Mother's Day sermons. This is a negative and phobic response, borne more out of fear (not wholly unjustified) of idolatry. Yet it is fear, and to recognise it as such is simply to be honest and to name things for what they are. Here in the Paradiso, one sees neither too much nor too little honour being accorded the Mother of God Incarnate, but Marian piety in its proper measure. She stands at the head of the saintly assembly of both Old and New Testaments, gazing intently upon God and leading all of saved mankind to do the same. St Bernard instructs Dante to look to Mary for his example and help in the final step of true worship, and one cannot think she does not finally honour this request. For she, who enjoyed a closer relationship than any other to Jesus Christ, will always do what she always has done, and point all those who turn to her to her Divine Son, teaching those who ask her to love Him better. All of this is beautifully expressed in St Bernard's instructions to Dante, "Now look at that face which resembles Christ the most, for only in its radiance will you be made ready to look at Christ."

8. One of the things I am most grateful for from my Evangelical background is the great emphasis on the grace of God and a great sensitivity to anything that might impinge upon it, that might introduce the subtly putrid scent of merit or of earning anything. Being brought up in that milieu, one also imbibes the myth that such was unknown before the Reformation and that the Middle Ages were full of people despereately trying to get the smallest toehold on the Divine Mercy through charity, pilgrimages, crusades and who knows what else. It is nice to receive another reminder that it was not so; that the medievals (not to mention the Catholic Church consistently through the ages) were as concerned to emphasise the necessity of grace and the impossibility of earning salvation as I was as a Protestant Evangelical.

This, then, is the second page that Luther could take from Dante: the true nature and necessity of grace. Again in the Empyrean, Dante is acutely aware that only through grace is anything here possible, and he prays desperately for an increase of it so his vision might be strong enough to look upon God directly at last. Like Luther, he realises the central and vital necessity of grace and its true gratuitousness. However, it is worth noting that from this truth, he does not make Luther's mistakes. So, while he talks for several stanzas about the predestination of the Elect and how each of those in Paradise enjoy God's love and glory and bliss to the extent that God has predestined for that individual (in a completely arbitrary and gratuitous fashion), he does not cross the line and say that God has similarly arbitrarily and gratuitously predestined other individuals for Hell. Thus, Dante holds firmly with the one hand the doctrine of free grace but does not, with the other hand, let go of the doctrine of free will, as Luther and Calvin did. Interestingly, Dante cites the same passage from Romans 9 that Calvin twisted so spectacularly and tragically 200 years later. He avoids the Reformer's errors and summarises- "Thus, through no merit of their own good works are they ranked differently; the difference is only in God's gift of original grace."

In coming to the end of it, there can be no denial that the Divine Comedy is a work of extraordinary faith, a masterpiece of poetry, and I can hardly doubt, the fruit of countless days, months and years of intense prayer. My overall attitude, having reached the end, is one of thanksgiving and gratitude; gratitude to Dante for penning it and thanksgiving to God for what it speaks of and for the grace that has flowed to me as I have read it and it has moved me to prayer and meditation, and fopr the grace that will continue to flow as I continue to pray and ponder and meditate on it in days to come.

At this point power failed high fantasy but, like a wheel in perfect balance turning, I felt my will and my desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

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