I’ve uploaded Episode 2 of Vocatio and this month we have been discussing Mary and the Divine Comedy. As usual, I wanted to post my presentation notes here in a blog post although I don’t have a transcript of the rather beautiful responses that my guests had so I encourage all of you to get the full picture by listening along.
Here is the video itself:
And here are the excerpts:
The Blessed Virgin and the Divine Comedy: A Short Meditation on the Presence of Mary at the Start of Dante’s Spiritual Journey
Welcome everyone to today’s symposium which is titled The Blessed Virgin and the Divine Comedy: A Short Meditation on the Presence of Mary at the Start of Dante’s Spiritual Journey. Most of what I shall be presenting today will be Taken from excerpts of my upcoming book The Infernal Arcana: A Journey into the Christian Esotericism of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy
Part I: Introduction
There is an interesting connection, I would say, between Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and The Blessed Virgin Mary. For one, the Comedy is something more than simply a beautiful construction and a work of art. This is not so dissimilar from the controversies in the world surrounding Mary. For Catholic and Orthodox Christians, she is so much more than simply being Jesus’s mother. She is not simply just another woman—or even just “quite a very good woman” at that. She is the Theotokos and the co-redemptrix of Man. Contemplation of Mary is at the root of so many authentic spiritual experiences that it is hard to imagine that she was born a mortal. It is to her that we have attached the titles “Holy” and “Mother” or “Blessed Virgin”. Analogously, when Boccaccio attached the honorific Divina onto the Commedia, this was not idle praise. In the Comedy we will find the most perfect reflection of Sacred Scripture that literature could offer. In a very real sense, if “Literature” has a guiding spirit and soul which has been working through the centuries awaiting the culmination to be able to bear the message of Christ to its literary world, then the sacred and immaculate vessel that it has chosen to be incarnated is Dante’s Comedy.
It is a great pity that the preoccupation of Theology and Philosophy—and science contained therein, have all but ignored the depths of the Comedy. It is not so dissimilar to the treatment of Mary for even in the loftiest theological discourses on The Blessed Virgin, her position is almost a begrudging anomaly that is both celebrated and is wrought with peril. For the Christian is ever wary lest he forgets to avoid idolatry. Philosophy, even more so, seems to want nothing to do with Mary and study both in theological and philosophical circles seem to dwell more on answering the question of who the Divine person is—rightly so, and we certainly owe both our strict obedience—at the expense of any joy in delving into the mysteries of The Virgin. It is the same with the Comedy. In the circles of theology, the primary study is on the writings of the Apostles and the Saints; on Scripture. In philosophy, too, even in Christian philosophy, it is Aristotle and Aquinas that are just some of the preoccupations. The Comedy, therefore, just like Mary, sits at a point which is neither/or and both/and. The Comedy is not Scripture, yet the guiding intercession of its verses can lead men most beautifully to Christ. The Comedy is not philosophy or science, and yet its pages unfold the very metaphysical workings of the cosmos through intuitive beauty.
I shall remind everyone of what Pope Benedict XV said of the Comedy:
Indeed, while there is no lack of great Catholic poets who combine the useful with the enjoyable, Dante has the singular merit that while he fascinates the reader with wonderful variety of pictures, with marvellously lifelike colouring, with supreme expression and thought, he draws him also to the love of Christian knowledge, and all know how he said openly that he composed his poem to bring to all “vital nourishment.” And we know now too how, through God’s grace, even in recent times, many who were far from, though not averse to Jesus Christ, and studied with affection the Divina Commedia, began by admiring the truths of the Catholic Faith and finished by throwing themselves with enthusiasm into the arms of the Church. (In Praeclara Summorum, Benedict XV, 1921)
I am thankful that I did not intend this text to be read as an academic paper for I can say proudly with tearful gratitude how these very words have been, are, and will be true for myself. Like the Blessed Virgin always inviting me with warm embraces to gaze upon her Son, the Commedia so proudly, lovingly, and tenderly points towards the spiritual life and to Sacred Scripture with such grace and beauty that, like Dante meeting Beatrice, I could only describe it as amore.
Indeed, this is at the heart of what it means to read the Comedy for it is no longer the head which reads, but the heart. No, it is better to say that it is both head and heart which read united. It is the Sacred Heart living within us that guides all the faculties of the body, soul, and spirit to understand, touch, and beat with the Sacred Heart of the Poem like the unity of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. It is the ability to read with intellect and heart united—through the mystery of the crown of thorns surrounding the sacred heart that holds the very key to understanding, intuiting, and touching the heart of the poem.
How can this be practically done? Reading the Commedia is difficult, but it is not because of some gnostic ideal of secrecy. No, there is nothing hidden from the reader. The entire text is there in plain sight. One need not even be a magister from some university or hold degrees in comparative literature—in fact these might be hindrances. One need not have been initiated by some society or rule in order to attain the fruits of contemplating the poem. Dante did not write for academics or strictly for seekers of spirituality, rather, he wrote for the academic of the soul; he wrote for the synthesis of the two. Indeed, if one wishes to properly read Dante, one need only look as far as Dante’s journey to understand how to begin: one must first descend in order to ascend. The reader must appreciate a new type of reading. Similar to the way ancient icons were “written” rather than painted. One meditates on icons rather than appreciate their artistic quality only. The mere ability to read—and, indeed, the mere ability to analyze literature—which may please academics in lecture halls—is to merely remain at the lowest possible appreciation for the Commedia. To read Dante for the didactic teachings of religious dogma may please our priests, but it still remains at the lower tier of understanding. The beauty of Dante’s Poem is to achieve the goals of these two currents without disobeying them. Mary, after all, was completely obedient to the Apostles even while being superiour to all of them. Saint John was obedient to Peter even when it was he whom Jesus loved. The lover of Dante, too, is supremely obedient to philosophy and religion. For the Medieval mind like that of Dante, nothing stands apart from anything else; nothing is divorced or set in opposition. There is a harmonic unity to reality; a marriage—even of opposites. To learn the Commedia is to also learn reality—to read reality with the eye of Poetry—the ideal meaning of Poetry that transcends meter and rhyme without annihilating the beauty of meter and rhyme. Therefore, the reader must transmute his regular ways of reading and analyzing. Even the caterpillar must disintegrate before it can achieve the vertical dimension. Just as a human is superior to the stone, but does not abandon the stone’s materiality, so, too, is the lover of Dante not divorced from the student of Dante, but transmutes him. Dante himself experienced this transformation when he says to Virgil: “’O glory and light of all other poets,/ let my long study and great love avail/ that made me delve so deep into your volume.’” (Inferno I, 82-4).
This is why, Dear Friends, I address you as “Friends” because I am no master or initiator or scholar or poet. I hope to merely be a “friend”; a fellow pilgrim who walks with you on this journey through the poem in good faith. I do not claim to hold any secret knowledge of the universe but wish only to share the pitiful depths I have achieved reading through this poem myself and hope that perhaps we may share in that unity of the dimension of depth. Thus, unlike the unforgiving academics, or the coldness of inquisitors, I ask you to forgive me, as a friend would, if I may be mistaken and do what you can to correct where I am wrong. But, also like a friend, to listen to what I may say so as to confirm within yourself if I am trying to do good by you and see what fruits you may achieve through our communion together. Think for yourselves, Dear Friends, of the difference when you speak between friends and between colleagues. The former, you are free to say what you will without fear knowing that you do so with sincerity, authenticity, and with the good of the other in mind. In the latter, it is merely a question of what is right and wrong. In the former, it is the dialogue of the head and heart united, in the latter it is only the head. Thus, if there is anything scary at first or perhaps you have been taught to be wary of it from the start of your spiritual life, approach it as one would approach the nuance of a friend.
Part II: The Great Lady of Canto II
Just to serve as one example of Mary’s presence in the Comedy, I would like to examine Beatrice’s mention of her in Canto II where Dante is having doubts about his journey and Virgil informs him that he is being aided by heavenly ladies. Beatrice says to Virgil:
“’”There is a gracious lady in Heaven so moved by pity at his peril, she breaks stern judgment there above and lets me send you to him. She summoned Lucy and made this request: ‘Your faithful one is now in need of you and I commend him to your care.’”
John Sinclair mentions in his translation how the “gracious lady” is the Virgin and he attributes to her the saying in the Letter of Saint James: “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). The power that the Virgin possesses to “break stern judgment” is rooted in the promise God made: “I will put enmities between you [the serpent] and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel” (Genesis 3:15). For what does it mean that the Virgin is able to break stern judgment? It means that the serpent is allotted his due. By all right of judgment, each person is worthy of damnation. The devil has a proper claim on all of our souls. Thus, the serpent is the apt symbol for this “balancing” of our infinite crime against our infinite soul for the serpent is the horizontal bar of a balance of judgment. The domain of the world has operated with this balancing and equalizing act before the coming of the saviour. After all, the law in the Torah states: “and if a man maim his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him: breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24:19-20). Since all men sin, all men deserve death for this is the wage of sin.1 Thus, the devil is the chief prosecutor for it is he who is “the great accuser”2 and, left to the law of the world of which he is the prince, the balance of the scales demands a hefty price.
The Virgin, however, is not a horizontal creature. Indeed, woman was created upright as the image in Genesis exposes. The serpent can only attack her heel for she is a vertical creature. Thus, the figure of the scale is incomplete for any crossbar still requires a vertical element to support the horizontal. In essence, it is yet another cross that is created. The supreme verticality of the Virgin allows her to break the hold of the accuser on the world. Her superiority as representing the vertical of the balance countermands the horizontal. She is fulfilling her role as the New Eve and this is the perfect remedy to Dante’s present situation for he is undergoing, in fact, the various stages of The Fall. Thus, just as man’s fall was brought about from the disobedience of one woman, so does man’s redemption come from the Fiat of one woman. In Dante’s case, his redemption also starts from the intercession of one woman—the same woman of the Fiat: the Holy Virgin. To all of us, then, we owe great devotion to our Mother in Heaven.
We follow the motion of this great love from the Virgin Mother to Saint Lucy whose name has obvious connections with “Light” and then Lucy’s communication with Beatrice who descends to earth to bring the good news to Virgil. It is in the movement of these three ladies that creates the human mirror of the Holy Trinity. They are the feminine response to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus, Dante presents his salvation as being aided by the handmaid of the Lord: by the Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Soul! Let us unpackage this intensely important group of three Ladies with courage. A wise man once provided quite a compelling explanation of the principle at work:
Judeo-Christian Hermeticism is thus the sustained effort across the centuries to know and understand the three luminaries in their unity, i.e. to know and understand “the great portent which appeared in the heaven—a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation xii, 1). It is the woman in this apocalyptic vision who unites the three “luminaries”—the moon, the sun, and the stars, i.e. the luminaries of night, day, and eternity.
It is she—the “Virgin of light” of the Pistis Sophia, the Wisdom sung of by Solomon, the Shekinah of the Cabbala, the Mother, the Virgin, the pure celestial Mary—who is the soul of the light of the three luminaries, and who is both the source and aim of Hermeticism. For Hermeticism is, as a whole, the aspiration to participation in knowledge of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Mother, Daughter, and Holy Soul. It is not a matter of seeing the Holy Trinity with human eyes, but rather of seeing with the eyes—and in the light—of Mary-Sophia. For just as no one comes to the Father but by Jesus Christ (John xiv, 6), so does no one understand the Holy Trinity but by Mary-Sophia. And just as the Holy Trinity manifests itself through Jesus Christ, so understanding of this manifestation is possible only through intuitive apprehension of what the virgin mother of Jesus Christ understands of it, who not only bore him and brought him to the light of day, but who also was present—present as mother—at his death on the Cross. (Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, Letter XIX, 1984, pp. 546-547)
While we may be right to save the fullest of these meditations for how Dante frames the Blessed Virgin in Heaven, it must be seen now just how important she is in the very beginning of man’s spiritual journey. It was always The Virgin, our Mother, who has aided us. Her will in Heaven—which is always a mirror of the Divine Will—is manifested through the “light” she brings forth in Lucy and in the Revelation that Beatrice carries. These women represent her eternal fiat. They are all the highest human answers to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in so far as Lucy and Beatrice are emanations from The Virgin’s feminine obedience. This universal conception of the celestial Virgin is exactly the way in which Dante respectfully declines to call her by her particular name at this present time, but rather recalls once again the portent in Revelation which does not call The Virgin by her name.
It is quite appropriate that Dante is aided by this great triangle of ladies for the task of humanity in general, who has walked away from the true path, must be of an “alternate” but more “glorious” route. This way is the route of intuiting the Godhead; i.e. to become more Christlike. The greatest achievement of created man in imitating the perfect union of Jesus Christ was in Mary for she held God in her womb and she understood him more perfectly than any other creature as His mother; knowing full well His power at the wedding feast, being present at the Cross, etc. One need only meditate on the Rosary in order to recognize the great truth of this closeness and intuition that the Blessed Virgin had for the Trinity. This is why we insist she is not Christokos or merely Christ-bearer, but THEOTOKOS: God-bearer. Dante does not hesitate to grant to Mary the highest of honours for any creature for it is in imitating her that we may imitate Christ. His path of intuiting the Godhead in poetry comes through direct aid from her. How appropriate is this Trinitarian intuition in Mary that she projects out the mission of her love to Saint Lucy who, as light, is the humble imitation of the LOGOS. Beatrice, thus, in her role as Revelation is the function of Mary as spouse of the Holy Spirit for she brings to Dante the fruits of Revelation especially as she assimilates into herself the intellect in Virgil.
Thus we can see the assault heaped upon The Virgin and women in general not just in the modern world, but even in Christian circles since the Reformation which have sought to alienate man from God and create a fundamental barrier between them. For Dante’s image here is eminently mystical and traditional and not at all fundamental and Protestant. In his lines, he reveals the dogma of the intercessory power of the saints and the highest exaltation of Mary who can “break stern judgment” without the need for dogmatism, but in the organic and superorganic nature of love. He is showing that just as man has a created lower trinity, he also has a created higher trinity, united at the heart, which can respond to the Trinity above. Thus, what is true for a single man is also true for all of humanity. At the highest point of man is the mystical crown of Mary Queen of Heaven for she is the topmost point of created man who assists in the direct intuition of the Trinity above for she has lived that entire experience.
At this point, I will beg your indulgence, Dear Friend, if we return back to Canto I. In the previous Canto, Dante encounters a hill which is also clothed in the sun and is, thus, a hint of Mary. Here, it is worth comparing why it was that the image or reference to Mary was made in the hill of Canto I so “covertly”. Indeed, why did not a Marian apparition or a statue of Mary or mention of Mary suffice to symbolize the path towards God, but, instead, a hill was made to infer to her? I would suggest that this hints at the Comedy being a poem about consciousness. Any presence of the verticality of Mary in the first half of Canto I must be made in “terrestrial” terms for direct intellectual understanding of how Mary leads all men to Christ was not yet attained by pre-Virgil Dante. Indeed, the idea of a terrestrial formation pointing towards the Sun is the “primitive” or “pre-intellectual” conception of who Mary is. For Mary is the culmination of nature pointing towards the divine. Thus, only after Virgil has attended to Dante do we see any reference to Mary being received on an intellectual level rather than simply being felt in the yearning of nature to reach upward. The hill as the Marian expression of the whole world groaning for a saviour cannot be understated. The whole course of human history playing out as Fall in the Garden, the barren wastelands, and then the yearning upwards at the Marian hill cannot be denied as some animating natural force reaching towards its creator. Let us be even more courageous and bring upon the correspondence with the words of the wise man:
The Blessed Virgin is therefore virgin Nature, virgin soul, and virgin spirit since the dawn of the world, united and manifesting in a human person—Mary, daughter of Joachim and Anne. The Virgin Mary is therefore at one and the same time a human person and a cosmic entity: Wisdom (CHOKMAH חכמה Sophia Σοφία Sapientia) according to Solomon […] The dialogue between the Archangel Gabriel and Mary at the Annunciation has therefore, outside of human and Angelic significance, a cosmic significance. It was in the name of the divine Holy Trinity that the Archangel announced the Incarnation to come and it was in the name of the threefold holy virgin Nature – Mother, Daughter, and Holy Soul—that Mary gave the response which was the turning point of the history of the history of the world: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord: let it be done to me according to your word” – Luke I, 38). It was natura naturans and non-fallen natura naturata which gave their reply at the same time that Mary pronounced these words. The eternal dialogue between creative will and executive will—where divine fire becomes light, where light becomes movement, and where movement becomes form—was projected in time and concentrated in the dialogue between the Archangel and Mary! (Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, Letter XX, 1984, pp. 582-583).
The wise man and Solomon are not alone in identifying the significance of Wisdom working in the world. Mystics have understood this for centuries from Saint Hildegard of Bingen who had said that Sophia is she who “quicken[s] the world”3 to the great devotion of the Orthodox churches to Hagia Sophia. Thus, this is the soul of nature untouched by the Fall and it is in Mary that she finds expression, manifestation, and incarnation. Thus, the primitive understanding of Mary as the hill is consonant with this primal natural force as it reaches towards the divine. The intellectual realization of Mary as the celestial person is only accomplished after Dante engages Virgil-Intellect.
More than this, however, how much more precise of a correlation can we have when we see this “dialogue between creative will and executive will” than with the flow of aid coming to Dante? The turning point of mankind was reached through Mary’s fiat just as Dante’s turning point is now addressed through this same process. “Divine fire becomes light” is the love of the Celestial Mary conscripting the light of Saint Lucy. “Light becomes movement” is the swiftness by which Beatrice descended from her seat to Virgil at the behest of Lucy’s illuminations. “Movement becomes form” culminates in the recruitment of Virgil and the undertaking of this trek through the world of forms in Hell. The correspondence is undeniable. While writers such as the wise man catalogue these truths, it is for an artist like Dante to incarnate it in the body of beauty.
[Some Interlude Questions and then Adam presents a report on Dante’s fears in undergoing the journey for the group I continue on from where he leaves off after I ask the group to examine what is causing Dante’s fear and introducing the presence of the “Superman”]
For now, it is important to say that Dante’s appeal to Virgil’s reason and wisdom and his fear of the madness of the trek is the beginning of the step of his inversion of the Fall narrative where doubt turns into disobedience. The essence of the disobedience of Adam and Eve was in the usurpation of God’s direct guidance of their lives and gaze with that of their ego. It was the prideful wish of deciding for themselves what is good and evil. For Dante, he takes the converse route. Already knowledgeable of good and evil through the fall, he succumbs to the injustice of the pendulum swinging in the other extreme: he asserts the unworthiness of his ego. He wishes for Virgil to judge him; but not with any peace in Virgil’s objectivity and wisdom, but as confirmation of what he believes is his own unworthiness. It is here, too, that we can finally see the very root of why the Genesis narrative and that of Dante differ. The very essence of this difference is found in the faith that the serpent attacks. For the man of pre-fall, the enemy attacks faith in God. In Post-fall, the serpent attacks faith in man. For, indeed, if one looks upon any disruption of faith in the modern world, it is rooted in doubt in man’s own spiritual nature. Better yet, it is the doubt that he is made in the image and likeness of God. Throughout time, the enemy of faith has always attacked only one single person: the LOGOS. For it is in Christ where the fullness of divinity and the fullness of humanity reside.
Thus, the serpent attacks faith by attacking the two natures of Jesus Christ: man and God.
Now, Adam, we didn’t find any serpents in Canto II, did we?
Perhaps it would be apt to ask here where the serpent is present in Dante’s narrative since it seems to be a missing element from this parallel with the Fall in Paradise. If we take the model that it is rebellion of two different kinds when faced with Adam-Eve and Dante: one being an attack on divinity and the other an attack on humanity, this may have implications on the presence of the serpent. If Canto II is the humanist analogue of rebellion against the divine instigated by the serpent, then what is the humanist analogue of the serpent? If one follows the rebellious relationship of serpent-God on a divine level, then what would fit into _____-Man on the human level? If we take the serpent to be Satan, the “old serpent”1, then the antagonist against the faith in man must be an entity who has the same derivative relationship as Satan has to God. Satan, once Lucifer, was one of God’s greatest servants who rebelled out of envy.2 Thus, the antagonist to man in this case would be a man-made creation meant to serve him.
I’d like to ask the group in general if they have any hypotheses on as to what this entity is—aside from Matteo of course since he and I have already shared this together. Imagine us like detectives attempting to find the culprit. Does anyone have any suggestions? And please be wrong.
My Friends, I hypothesize that this is filled by the role of the Antichrist. I must appeal again to one wiser than I for an explanation of how this is appropriate:
Antichrist, the ideal of biological and historical evolution without grace, is not an individual or entity created by God, but rather the egregore or phantom generated through the biological and historical evolution opened up by the serpent, who is the author and master of the biological and historical evolution that science studies and teaches. The antichrist is the ultimate product of this evolution without grace and not an entity created by God […] He is therefore an egregore, an artificial being who owes his existence to collective generations from below. […]
Regarding the antichrist, this is the phantom of the whole of mankind, the being engendered through the whole historical evolution of humanity. He is the “superman” who haunts the consciousness of all those who seek to elevate themselves through their own effort, without grace. He appeared to Freidrich Nietzsche and showed him “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world” which have existed, exist, and will exist, in the circle of eternal return (die ewige Wiederkehr); he invited him to cast himself down into the domain which is beyond good and evil (jenseits von Gut und Böse), and to embrace and announce the gospel of evolution, the gospel of the will-to-power (Wille zur Macht)—this, and this alone (“Gott ist tot…”, i.e. “God is dead”), transforms stone (inorganic matter) into bread (organic matter), and organic matter into animal, and animal into man, and man into superman (Ubermensch), who is beyond good and evil and who obeys only his own will (“O mein Wille, meine Notwedigkeit, du bist mein Gesetz…”). (Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, Letter VI, 1984, pp. 139, 141).
What haunts Dante now, therefore, is not the serpent that opposed God, but, analogous, his own personal serpent: the evolutionary culmination to will-to-power that has been so useful for the material rise and domination of mankind.
How much more, then, is the vitriol of the Antichrist against Our Lady for she stands in opposition to the wailings of the “Superman” that the Anti-Christ represents. She stands, not as a man but as a receptive woman who, in her receptivity, brings forth the divine. How much more of a glorious light could we need to dispel the miasma of the “Superman” than a “handmaiden” who was humble, meek, and receptive rather than proud, strong, and dominating? God demonstrated through Mary that to receive Him one must require a spiritual birth and a spiritual womb. To place the Virginal Womb at the highest point of the human mind: to receive the spiritual seed from above into the Virginal Womb of the crown, gestate this and translate this seed through the illumination of the insightful mind, and then to express and speak this Holiness through our throat. Mary, Lucy, and Beatrice, then, present Dante the opportunity for a new life based not on biological evolution, but on spiritual evolution.
1 Revelation 12:9.
2 Wisdom 2:24.
1 Romans 6:23
2 Revelation 12:10
3 Symphonia, Hildegard of Bingen, 2nd Edition, Cornell University Press, 1998, pp. 101.