Monday, 9 March 2009

Reflections on Paradiso

The glory of the One Who moves all things penetrates all the universe, reflecting in one part more and in another less. I have been in His brightest shining heaven and seen such things as no man , once returned from there, has wit or skill to tell about.

Well, I did it. I finally finished the Divine Comedy. I started when I was nine years old (or a month before Advent last year, depending on your perspective) and have finally finished the thing.

And behold, there was great rejoicing!

So, reflections. Or initial reactions, at any rate.

I must be frank and confess that Paradiso didn't grab me nearly as much as Purgatorio. Out of the three parts, Purgatorio remains my favourite and the one that moved and affected me the most. There is probably a good reason for this. Purgatorio is predominantly pre-occupied with the process of redemption and sanctification, and with the joyous prospect of being freed from sin, not simply forensically but really. That resonates with me because thats where I'm at. Paradiso, on the other hand, leaves that all behind and tries to penetrate and describe the bliss and joy and love and ecstasy of the Beautific Vision.

Dante is a poet and, I will readily say, having now read his great masterpiece, among the greatest who have ever lived (if I could ever attain to even a third of his talent in this life, I would never ask God for anything again). But he is therefore all the more ready to admit that what he is seeking to describe is ineffable, and therefore beyond even the greatest poet's talent. As Lewis points out in his introduction to the Screwtape Letters, the perspective of a devil is easy but the perspective of an unfallen angel is beyond the capacity of fallen man. Dante admits this limitation on several occasions throughout the Paradiso, but nonetheless attempts valiantly to do his best to describe the indescribable. This requires, at the very least, the vision and knowledge of a mystic, and fortunately Dante is one.

This may be part of the reason I could not fully enter into the Paradiso. Apart from its subject matter being utterly alien to my experience, the sad fact (made sadder because I too am a poet) is that I am not a mystic. I once tried reading St Catherine of Siena's Dialogue- I couldn't get past the first page. When I was reconciled with the Catholic Church five years ago, I was given a copy of St Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises- I never made it through that either. The closest I've gotten to the heights of the contemplative vocation is St Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, and that is a title far more didactic and practical than those above. I consider this to be a grave deficiency in my temperament.

Nonetheless, it would be utterly untrue to say I found the Paradiso inaccessible. There were many touches and many little episodes that touched me in various ways, and which I found moving or affecting. The poetry soars to great heights, a fact I can appreciate even if I find it difficult to climb after it. So, some highlights.

1. The delightful episode where Dante enters the Fourth Sphere and meets the theologians, and St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure (the brightest lights of the second generation Dominicans and Franciscans, respectively) tell the story of the founders of each other's orders. It is touching as a sign of fraternal love where on earth there is a certain rivalry between the two (present to this day, though generally friendly now), and also as a great testament to God's love incarnated in people's lives, where the good fortune of a brother moves one to genuine and unselfconscious joy and delight. It is a thing one rarely sees on earth, where good fortune in one usually brings about a veiled disappointment in the other, save amongst particularly holy people (who are rare). It must be very common amongst the souls of the sanctified departed.

2. The surprising episode where Dante meets, in the Sphere dedicated to crusaders and those who have died defending the Faith, his great-great-grandfather. Dante, purged of all vanity and pride, delights in the honour of his noble ancestry even so, and carries on a very lengthy conversation with his forebear. For me, this part tickled the imagination. It is a great thing to be able to hear stories and wisdom from one's grandparents because for most of us that is as far back as we can take a personal connection to our family's past. But imagine being able to converse with ancestors further back. The ones one has only seen in one's family tree, who are only names. What one might learn from them. What would they think of how their family history had proceeded after their departure from it? Would they be proud of me? Of my parents? Would there be rebukes or laments to be said? And would I be proud of them? Dante is fortified and strengthened in his faith upon learning of the faith and deeds of his ancestor. His great-great-grandfather then predicts Dante's exile but encourages him to stand fast and not be discouraged. These are poignant words, for Dante had been in exile some time as he wrote the Comedy, and in spite of all his hopes and his great love of Florence, in spite of all its corruption and the way it had treated him, he loved it dearly until the end.

"You shall be forced to leave behind those things you love most dearly, and this is the first arrow your exile shall shoot. And you will know how salty is the taste of others' bread how hard the road that takes you down and up the stairs of others' homes. ....all ungrateful, all completely mad and vicious, they shall turn on you, will be to your honour to have become a party alone."

3. Luther should have taken a page out of Dante's book. Two pages, in fact. I will say more about the second in a moment. In the Comedy, and in the Paradiso above all, one can find side by side the most magnificent odes to the Church, the most extraordinary fidelity and devotion to the See of Rome, and the most scathing and enraged condemnations of the present successor of Peter. Dante knew well (what Luther did not) how to distinguish the man and the office he held. And from his great respect for office of Steward of the Kingdom, he rains denunciation after denunciation upon Clement VIII and his predecessors. One cannot mistake Dante's rage at them. He lived in a time when, not only did the Pope own a substantial portion of Italy (the well-intentioned gift of King Pepin in the eighth century, which Satan subsequently got maximum mileage out of) but was also waging an ongoing war with the Ghibbeline faction, aligned with the Emperor, so that good Christians of Italy had to maintain religious respect and fidelity to the Pope as sucessor of Peter while at the same time fighting and dying in wars against him as a feudal ruler on the opposong side in a territorial war. Worse, the Pope would use religious measures such as excommunication and interdict as political tools to intimidate. And every Pope of this period was hopelessly corrupt, wallowing in luxury and amassing wealth like a big-company CEO. This was and is a great scandal to the Christian faith and Dante spared no wrath in denouncing it in the most angry terms, on several occasions.

It used to be that wars were waged with swords, but now one fights withholding here and there the Bread our Father's love denies to none. And you who write only to nullify, remember that Peter and Paul, who died to save the vineyard you despoil, still live.

Even Peter himself, when Dante meets him in the Eighth Sphere, has harsh words to say: "The Bride of Christ was not nourished on blood that came from me, from Linus, from Cletus, only that she be wooed for love of gold; it was for love of this delightful Life that Sixtus, Pius, Calixtus and Urban, after their tears of torment, spilled their blood. Never did we intend for Christendom to be divided, some to take their stand on this side or on that of our successors, not that the keys which were consigned to me become the emblem for a battleflag warring against the baptized of the land, not that my head become the seal to stamp those lying privileges bought and sold. I burn with rage and shame to think of it!From here we see down there in all your fields rapacious wolves who dress in shepherd's clothes. O power of God, why do You still hold back?...O sanctified beginning, to what foul ending are you doomed to sink! But that high Providence which saved for Rome the glory of the world through Scipio's hand, will once again, and soon, lend aid, I know."

Alas, that it was not as soon as all that. Not really until Paul III in the sixteenth century did the stewardship of the kingdom go to a man who understood what it required. And before that was the wretched stint in Avignon and the great shame of the Great Western Schism. One has to appreciate the great faith Dante had, and his clarity of vision, in separating in his mind the man from the office, and being able to condemn the one while maintaining utter devotion and submission to the other. That is not an easy thing to do. Mankind is far more likely to confuse the two. That was true in Luther's day, when so many (Luther in particular) condemned the very office of Peter's successor primarily because the man who held it was utterly unworthy of it. We in our own day are in danger of the same error, though in an opposite fashion, when we expect the Pope to be an excellent preacher, teacher and example simply because the last few Popes have been. If we place our faith in the man and not the office (which is what God instituted and promised to protect from teaching error), then when the man is unworthy, our faith in the office, and therefore in Christ's promise, will be shaken. We are fortunate that for the last century or so good men have been chosen to reign as God's Steward, men who have sought to follow Christ and to preach the Gospel in season and out. Some have been merely decent, some outstanding (I would place our present one in the latter category), none scandalous. That may not remain true forever.

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