Francis the Fool: Contemplating the Sign of the Two Popes

Francis the Fool: Contemplating the Sign of the Two Popes

On the occasion of a new friend having entered into the Catholic Church this past Christmas and in gratitude to another new friend who has been like a nagging little brother to me, I wanted to compose this little letter to my aforementioned new brother in faith. While this is addressed to him, I have told him of my intention to publish it here for the sake of anyone else of good will and who is not already in the rigid electric chair of polemics or sclerotic death throes of ideology.

Dear Brother,

While most of the attention surrounding the Papacy is usually focused on the ways in which Pope Francis is steering the Church, it is almost an afterthought that, for the first time in centuries, we have a case of a Pope who has renounced the Seat of Saint Peter. For individuals at the time of the renunciation, including myself, at first it was a big shock. For many Catholics at the time, Benedict was the standard bearer of a more “reverent” Church. After all, wasn’t that what Catholics—at least in America and in “traditional” circles around the world—were clamouring for? Wasn’t a stricter, more “conservative” Church part of the hopes and dreams of the New Evangelization in the face of modern secularism?

For some or perhaps many, this dream was shattered. Instead, Francis is looked upon with suspicion and dismay. “Where did the Holy Spirit go wrong?” almost seems like it could have been on the lips of “radical traditionalists” around the world. “We already had a good Pope… why did it have to change?” Indeed, “why” is a good question. Naturally, a lot of these concerns and urges stem from a terrible misunderstanding of how the Church operates in the world. If Catholic men are looking for action in the world, then they must do it for the Church like a son, who, seeing his father killed by brigands, should not hide behind his mother’s skirt and complain that mummy isn’t doing anything to protect him but fights the men himself so that his mother can live. I shall not go into it again since I have already written at length about it before. Nevertheless, if we, for now, dispense with the concerns of individuals who are merely looking for someone to do their fighting for them, we are still left with a kind of miasma about how to approach looking at Francis and the Papacy presently.

Should we give in to pessimism? Is this simply our lot to have a Papacy that is surrounded by vicious and malignant polities and men in the secular world, and, thus, like a captive princess, must demurely endure the ignominy of being forced to watch what she says while the cowards do nothing to liberate her? Naturally, the Aristocratic minded should already have their own activities for attempting to liberate the Church, but in the meanwhile and concurrently, is there something to be gained or understood from the Papacy as it is now?

If one approaches Francis, dear brother, with a heart open to what he might represent, what can we say are his best qualities? Perhaps it is “spirituality”? Perhaps it is “love”? His genuine caring for individuals is palpable, even to the most cynical. And as for Benedict, we already love him for his intense intellectuality. So many find these two currents to be in great opposition in the Church today. This is noteworthy, since this is precisely the beginnings of spiritual development:

This means to say that the individual soul begins initially with the experience of the separation and opposition of the spiritual and intellectual elements within it, then advances to—or resigns itself to—parallelism, i.e. a kind of “peaceful coexistence” of these two elements within it. Subsequently it arrives at cooperation between spirituality and intellectuality which, proving to be fruitful, eventually becomes the complete fusion of these two elements in a third element […] The beginning of this final stage is announced by the fact that logic becomes transformed from formal logic (i.e. general and abstract logic)–passing through the intermediary stage of “organic logic”–into moral logic (i.e. material and essential logic). […]

Moral logic, in contrast to formal logic and organic logic, operates with values instead of notions of grammar, mathematics, or biological functions […]

Moral logic, as we have stated, is the logic of the head and heart united. (Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey Into Christian Hermeticism, Letter XXI: The Fool).

Thus, dear brother, what an opportunity we have in this modern age: to work within ourselves to achieve the understanding of uniting Francis and Benedict. If we do this, we would be able to participate in the great work of uniting intellectuality and spirituality. Indeed, we need only look as far as St. Ignatius of Loyola—one of the greatest saints venerated in the Church—to see a sign of the real fruits of unity between intellectuality and spirituality regardless of how the vulgar masses and so called intellectuals ignore his Order! For how much stronger of a Catholic faith can we have if we resolve the seeming contradiction and achieve the marriage of these opposites: to unite the horizontal hospitality of Francis with the whole world with the vertical isolation of Benedict. To unite the warm and natural spirituality of Francis which is like his horizontally open arms with the great stalwart uprightness of Benedict. This works in converse as well, for what great fruit can be attained from uniting Benedict’s clarity, with the depth of Francis? Thus, uniting the two, intuiting the two, and meditating on how these two are present in the world today form a meditation on the cross for it is their horizontalities and their verticalities that form the axes.

Indeed, we must move past the initial stage of setting these two against each other and embrace them for who they are. For what complaints, really, do people have against Francis, for example? Is it that he teaches heresy or lives like a debauched Pope of old? Absolutely not. Was he illegally elected? No. Indeed, the Supreme Pontiff is one of the last legitimately appointed supreme offices left on the planet! Unlike presidents or token monarchs who have no Emperor to legitimize their reigns, Catholics cannot assail Francis’s selection without being in a state of rebellion. Is it just that he is not “wise to the world”? Indeed, many complain that his teachings of love and generosity are not compliant with the “necessary” rhetoric of power and control. They expect an inquisitor to save the Church! You could almost hear the foolish complaints I have written about before: “God forbid, Lord, that your body [The Church] should suffer mutilation and death.” Obviously, the only answer to such complaints is “vade retro me Satana.”

It is no wonder, perhaps, that the discourse on the movement from simply formal logic to a higher, moral, logic based on quality is found in the meditation on the Arcanum “The Fool” for it is exactly what people accuse Francis of being. Yet, what beauty to be able to proclaim mercy in a time of hardness! Like Don Quixote, Francis is accused of tilting against windmills, but a wise man said of Don Quixote and “The Fool”:

One can meet you often in historically difficult situations […] where hearts have become hardened and heads have become obstinate. It is you… it is your voice which resounded more loudly than the beating of drums around the guillotine, one day in the month of Thermidor or Fructidor in the year II or III (of the French Republican calendar), with a cry from the top of the scaffolding, “Long live the King!” before your chopped-off head rolled to the ground. It is you also who, in the presence of the jubilant revolutionary populace, tore down the wall and ripped up a red placard announcing to the people of St. Petersburg the dawn of a New Era in Russia… and who was promptly run through by the bayonets of the red guards present. It is you again who declared openly to the German military authorities of the invaded and occupied Netherlands in 1941 that Germany, by occupying the land, was infringing on the Hague Conventions that Germany herself had signed thirty years previously… (Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Letter XXI, “The Fool”.)

And here we have Francis, whom Benedict was wise enough to step aside for and obey, who proclaims at the very center of the world: “Love your enemy!” when the masses are baying for blood! Do you think, dear brother, that when Saint Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, “God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”, and, “for the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God” that he only meant liberals? That he only meant non-Catholics? No, how often do we keep our worldly wisdom even after we have been baptized and confirmed? Look around you and at yourself, brother, and ask if you, too, have become obstinate, cold, and hardened by intellectuality alone. For ultimately, what is the implication behind the complaints about Francis? The implication is that there is nothing to gain from him; nothing to learn. Instead, we have turned the Papacy into an ideological tool rather than a focus for anagoge and guidance. We have profaned the seat of Saint Peter by assuming it serves our agendas; whether right or left.

I heard a young man say once, “Francis makes it hard to be Catholic.” I’m sure he does. But, dear brother, we have to ask ourselves why it’s difficult. Is it because we have only achieved the most basic depth of spirituality? I wonder, dear brother, how many of the ninety-nine sheep doubted they had a Good Shepherd when he left them in the desert to go find the single lost one. And how many today grumble at Francis searching for the lost sheep and instead scream to Francis “break the sheeps’ legs, Holy Father!” See what happens when we have intellectuality and spirituality fight? Instead, we have to understand on the level of value. Something which only comes through practicing this cooperation between intellectuality and spirituality. Thus, dear brother, meditate on the cross that we must bear. Meditate on the cross of Francis and Benedict. We must be ready and willing to accept the difficulty of being “The Fool”. Embrace the difficulty of being a Catholic who transcends both right and left. I understand that you and I may have thought we have found a “home” in the “right.” But this is yet just another step on our way upwards, brother. Without dishonouring where we came from, we must also realize the limitations we have walked into and then be willing to move beyond. For some of us, we have walked the length of left and right. It is time to start ascending. May the work of uniting the Two Popes be fruitful for you as it has been for me. I look forward to speaking with you more as I move on to the next part of my journey and I am thankful to have any fellow pilgrims on the path of achieving morality.

Sincerely,

James

New Year’s Dante Resolution

New Year’s Dante Resolution

I haven’t been posting much since I’ve been continuing to work on my Dante book that I’ve mentioned before and have resolved to work on it until the end of March at the very least. Although I’ll still find time to blog, I will be focusing a lot more time on the meditations and writing. I wanted to share a little bit of my musings on the first chapter. It’s only a first draft so it’s still rather rough but I’ve been very pleased with the results so far. If anyone wishes to discuss or join me in any study of Dante feel free to contact me. Admittedly it will lose some of its impact without an introduction as the introduction would also serve to reiterate how amateur I am at Dante studies and how I do not wish to assume some mantle that is beyond me, but I hope that my tiny little contributions might be helpful to someone who wishes to better understand The Sublime Poet’s greatest work.


Canto I: The Dark Wood

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In the middle of the journey of our life

I came to myself within a dark wood

where the straight way was lost.

Dear Friend,

I think that if there is one thing that marks the state of the modern world, it is “dissolution.” We have never really felt more divided than we do in this modern age whether it’s between races, religions, spouses, ideologies, our families or even our own psyches. Any attempt at universality is met with resistance—any semblance of unity is construed as control. And yet there is this yearning deep within mankind to feel united to each other. How often do we lighten just a little when we receive the empathy and resonance that another human soul brings? For Dante, his medieval world was constantly in search of “unity.” But this was not the unity of “commonality” or the “lowest common denominator.” It was not a subtractive unity, but an additive one; it was the harmony of all hierarchies and levels—a symbol which will perpetuate in the very architecture of his poem. Nonetheless, the very first brick of this massive structural message is found in the ownership he takes as representative of man: “in the middle of the journey of our life,” he says.

In this statement, Dante advances the claim that the universe deals in the mode of macrocosm and microcosm: that reality is a series of concentric circles. To understand Dante—to understand man in his journey—is to understand mankind and its journey and vice versa. Just as his concentric rings of his landscape will demonstrate the same shape but in different sizes. Dante, therefore, begins his poem with one of the most ancient and primary of insights: the second item of the Emerald Tablet which states: “quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius,”1 or, as Isaac Newton translated it: “that which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below.” His drama, therefore, is all of man’s. The drama of one man is a miniature of the drama of all of reality and an ability to understand our journey is also an expansion of consciousness to be able to understand all life. This connection of macrocosm and microcosm is immediately apparent in the fact that while Dante uses “nostra,” he immediately follows it up with “mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.”; he follows it with “mi”. He shows that his poetic consciousness flows from the communal and superindividual to the individual; from the universe to his person; from the universal to the particular. Thus, he incarnates the universal into himself like the LOGOS in His universality incarnates into the particular of the Christ. Appropriately, after the first two lines establish the “above” and the “below,” the third line establishes the “left” and the “right” for “the straight way” that had been lost is a horizontal dimension. It denotes the spiritual movement attested to in salvation history by the era of the Holy Spirit. After the concentration of the universal into the particular, this particular spread out once again to the universal on the horizontal plane. In other words, from LOGOS to the Incarnation and then through the subsequent Evangelization inspired by the Holy Spirit of the Universe; the universal Church. Thus, in the very first three lines of his poem, Dante begins as all prayers do: from the top, to the bottom, and then from left to right: “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”

Paul Piehler once commented that, “in allegory, as Foster Provost has noted, each fragmentary image contains or implies the total cosmos in potential form.”2 Thus, the whole genre of allegory, of which the Commedia is the preeminent example, can be thought of as an exercise in microcosm and macrocosm. As I mentioned in the introduction, no formal academic “proof” of this assertion is given. Instead, Dante relies strictly on the compelling power of intuiting beauty and harmony. His “art” will be his proof. Dante’s mysticism shines so brightly that the preoccupation with finding academic proofs may be detrimental to the assimilation and intuition of the “meaning” of the work. In other words, the academic world is replete with G. H. Hardy’s rigour but it requires the intuition of a Ramanujan to be “best friends” with the terza rima of the Commedia.

Thus, Dante begins his work with the implicit understanding that truth is to be intuited rather than proved a mode which he adopts by not saying anything of it at all. Like the LOGOS coming in the form of a babe on a Silent Night so that He can be understood intimately and intuitively, so, too, does Dante deploy his Art as the personal teacher which does not seek to illuminate through dialectic or Socratic discourse, but through humanity, personality, and love. Thus, Dante does not skip over the first item of the Emerald Tablet: “Verum, sine mendacio, certum et verissimum.” “Tis true without error, certain and most true.” In other words, the truth will be revealed and the mode of this revelation with Dante shall be the emanation of the sacred into the world; it will be, as Mircea Eliade would put it, a “hierophany,” such that the truth of it will be accepted in the very encounter itself.

Having established the universality of person, Dante also sets about his temporal dimension in similarly universal tones. While many excellent footnotes would reveal that “halfway” through Dante’s life would put his age at thirty five, his qualitative rather than quantitative vocabulary asks the reader to examine this “halfway” point through the dimension of depth. After all, what does it mean when the action occurs in media res? For Dante, this is beckoning to a reading of depth is indicative of “polar” thinking since depth is associated with the vertical dimension. “Polar” thinking can also be thought of as “Axial” thinking and it is this image of an Axis or Pole around which the world turns which can be thought of as a “turning point.” This “turning point” is, thus, another image of the “midway” point. These two ideas support each other although in a kind of freeform structure. Dante’s implicit request to read with “depth” or “polar thinking” rather than “discrete numbers” or “horizontal thinking” creates a trajectory for the reader to follow. Simultaneously, temporally setting his age at the halfway point also creates a “turning point.” These two trajectories follow each other and point towards the same thing and through this movement support each other at the higher level—in other words, like a free standing arch. Thus, through the column and curve of personality on one side and the temporal turning point of universal history on the other, Dante opens his poem by beckoning the reader to enter through the arch of his poetic cathedral.

1 Tabula Smaragdina

2 “The Rehabilitation of Prophecy: On Dante’s Three Beasts,” Paul Piehler, Florilegium vol. 7 (1985), pp. 186