Mary and The Divine Comedy

Mary and The Divine Comedy

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.

 

Catholic Q&A: “The Lost Coin: Round 1”

Catholic Q&A: “The Lost Coin: Round 1”

I had a lovely time answering questions about the Catholic faith . I hope this has been helpful to all those walking this road with us !

I (who lean esoteric-or try to) was joined on the panel by my good friends Chris (who leans exoteric) , Tim (who is like a “holy fool” for me) , and Kevin (who is quite a regular rank and file Irish-American Catholic) . Those asking questions today were Adam , Duncan , Kathleen , Ryan , and John who wrote in a question for us . You can find the video below:

Vocatio Episode 1 Dante Presentation Notes

Vocatio Episode 1 Dante Presentation Notes

As promised, I wanted to upload the presentation notes that I read during the first Episode of Vocatio. Most of these notes are meant for voice formatting so a lot of my references are not included. If anyone wishes to know where certain things are cited from feel free to leave a comment and I’ll answer individual questions.


 

Notes for Dante and the Path of Initiation Presentation (Voice Format)

These are mostly excerpts from a series of essays I’ve been writing and compiling on the Comedy

PART I: Fourfold Reading of the Comedy

The venerable poet T. S. Eliot once said, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” He wasn’t alone in praise for “il Sommo Poeta” nor are his accomplishments merely the object of adoration amongst artists. This is just some of what Pope Benedict XV, for example, wrote of Dante in his encyclical IN PRAECLARA SUMMORUM :

Among the many celebrated geniuses of whom the Catholic faith can boast who have left undying fruits in literature and art especially, besides other fields of learning, and to whom civilization and religion are ever in debt, highest stands the name of Dante Alighieri

Dante ranged himself as disciple of that Prince of the school so distinguished for angelic temper of intellect, Saint Thomas Aquinas. From him he gained nearly all his philosophical and theological knowledge, and while he did not neglect any branch of human learning, at the same time he drank deeply at the founts of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers. Thus he learned almost all that could be known in his time, and nourished specially by Christian knowledge, it was on that field of religion he drew when he set himself to treat in verse of things so vast and deep.

So why is it that we do not hear much of Dante at all especially in the English speaking world? The problem one encounters is in treating the Comedy as just another piece of literature. Indeed, Guido di Giorgio said this of trying to read the Comedy:

The purely exterior literary merits that common men, the profanum vulgus [unholy rabble], admire in Dante have no importance and would nullify the value of the Comedy in the very eyes of Dante and of those who can and know how to understand the purpose for which the poem was composed.

It would be necessary to feel ashamed to still speak of, and only of, “art”, “poetry”, “brilliant construction”, in the modern sense of the word when one alludes to Dante’s work which is only and eminently sacred in spirit and structure,

This description can be most easily intuited when one watches tourists who visit the ancient churches in their denim shorts and smart phones. They feel themselves to have been edified by the immensity and grandness of the architecture, craftsmanship, and time it took to build the construction but they, ultimately, are unchanged by the experience. For them, there is no sacred element living in the rock, only the genius of men. Even academics who merely admire these churches for these same reasons albeit at a higher and more technically superiour level, are guilty of the same. There is no transformation of consciousness but merely an expansion of their horizontal sensibilities. Similarly, with the Comedy, it is not understood, for the most part, as a sacred exercise but as merely, at best, the highest expression of Western poetry.

The process of reading Dante can be a daunting enterprise and is certainly something which I profess little real mastery over. However, in good faith, I’d like to present a small sample of what little findings I have. I have chosen to attempt to follow Rene Guenon’s advice when he pointed to the 9th Canto of the Inferno where Dante says—and you’ll excuse me if I butcher the Old Italian: “O voi che’avete gl’intelleti sani, Mirate la dottrina che s’asconde Sotto il velame delli versi strani!” or to put it in John Ciardi’s translation: “Men of sound intellect and probity, weigh with good understanding what lies hidden behind the veil of my strange allegory!” Guenon goes on to say:

With these words, Dante points in a most explicit way to the hidden (or doctrinal, properly speaking) significance of his work, a work whose external and apparent meaning is only a veil; a significance that must be sought for those who would fathom it. Elsewhere the poet goes still further, stating that all writings, not only sacred ones, can be understood—and must be explicated—principally according to four levels of meaning. It is evidence, moreover that these diverse meanings cannot in any way contradict or oppose each other, but must on the contrary complete each other, harmonizing the parts within the whole as constituent elements of a unique synthesis. The difficulty begins only when it comes to determining these different meanings, especially the highest or the most profound, and it is here that different points of view naturally arise among commentators. They all agree on a literal sense in poetic narrative, and generally agree in recognizing a philosophical (or, rather, philosophical-theological) meaning, as well as a political and social one; however, counting the literal sense, this makes only three, and Dante advises us to look for a fourth meaning. For us, it can only be a strictly initiatic sense, metaphysical in its essence, though not of a purely metaphysical order, are nonetheless esoteric in character. It is precisely owing to its esoteric character that this profounder level of meaning has escaped most commentators. Yet if one ignores it (or perhaps fails to recognize it) the other levels of meaning can only be partially understood; for this esoteric or intrinsic sense stands to the others as their principle—within which their multiplicity is coordinated and unified. (Esoterism of Dante)

In short, what we are dealing with when looking at the Divine Comedy is not simply a literary masterpiece, but a very window to the depths of the worlds beyond in all of the meanings of that phrase. This level of consciousness towards what literature and even reading can be is rarely practiced nor do I present today to show anyone “the way” but recognizing our own insufficiency and inadequacy in the task, should we accept it, is the first step in raising our awareness in total; for it is this awakening into the dangers of our automatic and overgrown world that Dante begins his poem.

PART II: The Beginnings of the Spiritual Journey

Let us examine some ways in which initiation becomes a theme in Dante. I have chosen to focus on the theme of initiation as the journey of the soul to salvation and the increasing and spiraling degrees of consciousness that this journey brings. Obviously, this tiny, amateur presentation could not hope to exhaust even a small fraction of how this plays out in the Comedy, so it will be fruitful to simply focus on Dante’s journey ab initio. Dante begins his journey waking up in a Dark Wood where he had lost, through inebriation or sleep, the straight path. Interestingly, he says that it is midway through the journey of “our” lives; a key so vital to understanding the whole of his poem.

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. Dante, therefore, begins his poem with one of the most ancient and primary of insights which makes an appearance in 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 just as Dante’s concentric rings of his landscape will demonstrate the same shape but in different sizes. 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 spreads 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.”

Thus, the first three lines of the poem already initiate us: already baptize us into a new level of literary consciousness. Some of you here may already know in greater depth the possible meanings of the Dark Wood so you will forgive me if I simply gloss over most of it for the sake of the brevity of this presentation. We must suffer through saying that the dark wood is symbolic of the stifling overgrowth of undisciplined life. The memory of this wood gives Dante great pain to remember as he writes in lines 7-9. Just as Guenon said, the various layers find harmony and do not contradict each other. This principle is also present in how the theme of initiation and macrocosm/microcosm is not confined to the content of the poetry but can be found in the architecture of the poem itself so one must ask themselves why Dante decides at this point to “break the fourth wall” to tell us of the pains to write of the journey.

He is now speaking as Dante-Author. He mentions how despite how unpleasant it is to walk the path of writing the poem, he will do so “to give account of the good which I found there.” In other words, Dante the Author creates this tale—this reality and it is a bitter one due to the foolishness of his main character who is made in his image and yet he does not abandon the narrative. The bitterness of entering into the narrative does not deter him, for the sake of the good that will come. He could have chosen to forego the painful moments or to wipe away the sting of sin that weighs him down, but he chose, instead, to include everything from start to finish, one might even say, out of compassion for all humanity who may benefit from reading his poem.

This glimpse at the author is not coincidental or superfluous. Instead, Dante the Author demonstrates that even he is not outside the principles of macrocosm/microcosm. For Dante is pointing that every author is also a microcosm of the Divine Author for he has placed himself into the very heart of the drama that he created! And how much more appropriate that Dante proceeds, out of love, to complete the regeneration of the broken and bitter beginning! Thus, even Dante’s “meta-narrative” does not fall outside the laws of order and reality. His very existence as a writer rhymes with the existence of the Supreme Author who, in the fullness of the poetry of time, re-enters his creation in order to bring his image and likeness to salvation.

Escaping the woods, Dante finds himself upon a glorious little hill that points towards the sun, but only after having passed through a “valley” which could be just as easily be a “vale of tears.” However, the significance of such a small detail as the insertion of a valley should not be overlooked. Dante contains in microcosm even in these first lines the macrocosm of his entire work. After all, where else is the image of a negative space—a valley—is then proceeded by a positive, upward space and then the eye following that upward orientation towards the circular divine source above? Indeed, the whole poem in its three spatial dimensions of negative, positive, and superpositive are encapsulated in kernel by the first Canto showing again that each tiny step circulates and expands. In other words, the same pattern is repeated but the degree “increases” creating the infinite grandeur of a spiral—a spatial movement which Dante the pilgrim follows as he spirals downwards towards the center of Hell and spirals upwards towards the top of Purgatory. Thus, in the beginning, he shows the smallest of these cycles of valley, hill, and star before proceeding to the larger cycle of the pit of Hell, the mountain of Purgatory, and the Astral plane and beyond of Paradise. This law of the spiral is sabbatical. It is the repetition of a pattern but with degrees increasing in size reaching out towards infinity and the significance of this principle will be clear as it continues to be revisited throughout the poem. This is also the natural point at which one can see the spiral of Dante’s rhyming pattern of terza rima. This pattern which is ABA, BCB, CDC, DED etc is the linguistic practice of “spiraling” outward as it encapsulates within repeating movements the form of the next cycle. Dante’s poem, therefore, is essentially the song of the freedom of the soul as the spiral indicates a direction which is unbounded by a closed formation; it represents gradual and continual growth outward.

In his terza rima it is like each rhyme gives birth to the next rhyme. In ABA BCB CDC DED etc, one can see the succeeding generations as if the next rhyme is in gestation within the protective womb of the preceding rhyme. Thus, Dante’s poem is a living organism and points always to personhood and the development and growth of the self which is part of the reason why the Commedia can be seen as a series of spiritual exercises meant to gradually awaken the human being. This spiraling or infinite fecundity is also part of his initial prayer: for what else could be more fecund and generative than the creative power of the Trinity?

But what of Dante’s choice to use his native Italian? Does this, too, like his choice of rhyme, have a purpose? How can one understand the usage of such a local language for something as universal as the salvation of man’s soul? The birthing imagery is perhaps instructive here along with the already established movement of Dante entering his own work. Indeed, why would Dante choose to write in any other language than the local one for is this not the mode that God chose himself? God descended from the Eternal and Universal and decided to be born as a particular: a particular man in a particular time in a particular nation—the nation of Israel. He spoke a particular language and from that particularity he reached out to the infinite once again. God concentrated from eternity to particular in order to spread his love gradually—person to person—spiraling outward from himself. So, too, does Dante concentrate the Eternal truths of religion and the Christian faith into the particularity of his own journey and his own language; he is merely following God’s example. He is following the example of the cross which descends from the unitive universality of the Father to the particularity in love of the Son and spreads out from that point from man to man by the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles. His poetry both in its language and rhyme follow the path of salvation history just as much as the content of his lines.

After all, what is the geometry of the hill? Is it not also the marriage of the point of verticality and horizontality? Is it not just another image of the cross? For look at the hill and one finds that the top descends to the bottom and then the bottom spreads outward like the universality of Catholicity on the horizontal or mundane level. Then, it is the task of the Church to raise all of these horizontal elements upward to converge back to the starting point. Following these dimensions of line and circle and then back to the point where the line originated forms a cone—the very sign of the hill! The very sign of the mountain!

Unfortunately for Dante at the foot of this hill, however, his rapid and frantic climb leads him to face a Leopard, Lion, and She-wolf which bar his path and force him to run back down the hill. I will beg the indulgence of the Audience if we skip any reading of what these rich symbols of the hill and animals represent as we focus more on another initiative step for the Pilgrim as he descends into a place where “the sun is silent” and encounters Virgil whom he can see is “hoarse from being silent for so long.” The pilgrim soul is now able to see the dead and hear in silence.

First, it is necessary to look upon the figure of Virgil as essential in beginning to understand these strange lines. Again, to commit the crime of vulgar reduction, we shall for now accept the uncouth summary that Virgil is representative of human intellect. He guides Dante expertly through Hell, then participates in the climb of Purgatory, before leaving him to be guided by Beatrice, the very embodiment Revelation and spirituality in Dante’s cosmos. This pattern has been observed as a universal law of spiritual growth by a wise man when he wrote:

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 those two elements with in it. Subsequently, it arrives at cooperation between spirituality and intellectuality which, proving to be frutiful, 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. (Meditations on the Tarot)

Interestingly, just as he will be growing in his journey beyond the opposition of intellect and spirit towards cooperation and then union, so was Dante’s state before starting this process the inverse. On the climb up the hill and meeting the beasts, he was demonstrating the opposition of ignorance and death for it is ignorance which is the inverse of the intellect and death as the opposite of spirituality. Death struggles against ignorance in striking fear into Dante which stops him from rising higher whereas ignorance of the dangers of the beasts may have kept him moving forward. Death and ignorance cooperated in parallel in the desert as it set his entire spiritual life empty and barren such as in moralism. Lastly, death and ignorance were in complete synthesis in “sleep” which is the opposite of the philosopher’s stone. It is the point at which all intellect and all spirituality are suspended. Thus, following Dante’s journey from negative to positive, the introduction of Virgil is also a carefully coordinated step from the inversion of spiritual growth to the beginning of something authentic.

With this in mind, we can return to viewing the encounter with Virgil. It is here that one could say that Dante truly has his first “supernatural” experience. For while big cats and she-wolves truly exist as natural phenomenon (though I was told that the “leopard” Dante had in mind is now extinct), Virgil is long dead by Dante’s time. Thus, Dante is signaling that we have truly entered into the Eternal world; into the world of idea-beings. This is the world of ideals translated into poetic form. This is why Dante takes such great pains to signal to the reader to pay attention to the “silent” senses for it is no longer in the bodily senses that we shall be making this journey, but in the spiritual senses. Just as how Dante signals that the “sun” can “speak,” so, too, can Virgil’s “hoarseness” be “seen.” We can be assured that this is indeed the world of values—the morally logical world for, as was pointed out before, it is values that “moral logic” is concerned with. It is the method of discernment that is beyond the quantitative—it now becomes qualitative sensing. Thus, it is the qualities of Virgil that Dante is first able to see. It cannot be understated how this basic understanding of sense-phenomena in the Eternal World is essential for understanding all of Dante’s journey for every creature from here on will always display in bodily form their interior value. Dante’s great genius, then, is to “translate” the language of the invisible into the visible. It is to “incarnate” the idea-beings of the superworld so that we may touch, hear, smell, see, and even taste them! Indeed, even the word translated as the “weak voice” is “fioco which in itself is used both to mean something insubstantial in sound as well as in vision such as in the case of a ghost approaching. Thus, the word itself is a complete melding of Dante’s theme—it is the synthesis and union of the two. While different critics are content to remain in the formal debate of whether it is a visual or auditory expression, Dante’s purpose is to demonstrate the viability—nay the necessity—of paradox. He synthesizes the two in hypostasis like the paradox of the invisible God made visible in the flesh. It is Dante who is proclaiming so comprehensively: VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST.

Dante’s artistic genius is in the way he can make such horizontally constricted elements—such as words—invoke the fullness of verticality. Just as Bernini centuries later mastered the art of transforming marble into the supple delicacy of skin, Dante transmutes an entire cosmos out of basic words. Just as Dante’s hill reminds the reader of the union of the opposite dimensions in the cross, so, too, does Dante’s “translational” and “transmutive” art extol the symbols of uniting the horizontal with the vertical. For it is even in the cross that formal logic might see the death and weakness of God, but moral logic sees the victory of love. So, too, is Dante’s gaze upon Virgil steeped in the request by the Author to view the entirety of the work with the eyes of value and to thus practice the union of intellectuality and spirituality.

1 Tabula Smaragdina

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

Advent Meditations Part II: The Lesson of the Christmas Tree

Advent Meditations Part II: The Lesson of the Christmas Tree

I was quite happy to hear from my friend Adam the Northern European legend behind the Christmas Tree and how it became a symbol for that which points towards the light in the darkness—towards the Star. Trees were also the topic of this past Sunday’s gospel reading which spoke about the fruitless trees being cut down and how “the axe is laid to unto the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10) signifying the imminence in which judgment comes.

The tree itself is an interesting image to contemplate often as it shows up not just in Christmas but in religious symbolism in general. It is not my place since I am not a historian of religious symbols to point out all the examples of where this is so, but I like to ponder about what it is about the tree in particular that makes it compelling. I suppose one such consideration is how it is an organic, natural symbol of growth. Trees, in general, are the tallest organisms on the planet; they are the most vertical, spatially speaking. They also rely on four ingredients for their manifest growth: the invisibility of air, the “invisibility” of light, the nourishment of water, and the stability of earth. It’s not difficult to see the balance and harmony of the four elements here although one could argue that the regality of the solar contribution is more quintessential which leaves the destruction by forest fires—yet another necessity for forests—a viable alternative. Trees, therefore, are these mysterious creatures of spirit and light which grow towards heaven. They are vertical signposts towards the divine.

The growth in trees is something to be pondered as well. Unless one can be as stable and patient as a tree is, he cannot “see” the growth of the tree. It, too, is invisible. Only do we notice that the tree has grown another foot or meter a few months later does it become quite obvious that it is increasing. It is this slow and continuous pace that serves as a model for the kind of spiritual growth that I am looking to emulate. The tree endures seasons of great foliage and great barrenness throughout the year, but, year after year, without fail, it does grow. Barring some natural disaster or the natural cleansing of fire, one can even say that these are immortal creatures. The link of trees to proper spiritual growth is even more apparent when I was meditating on the wise tome I mentioned in last week’s Advent meditation. In it, the author speaks about the difference between the growth of a tree and that of a tower:

A tower is built; a tree grows. The two processes have this in common: that they present a gradual increase in volume with pronounced tendency upwards. But there is at the same time the difference that the tower rises by leaps and bounds, whilst the tree shows a continuous elevation. This is because bricks or hewn stones are put one on top of the other in the process of building the tower, whilst the microscopic bricks—the cells—of a tree multiply through division and growth in volume. It is the sap in the tree, rising from the roots into the trunks and branches, which renders growth of the tree possible and which makes it shoot up through the multiplication and growth in volume in its cells. Whilst the tower is dry, the tree is filled with sap in movement, which underlies both the division of its cells and their growth. In a word, it underlies the process of growth.

Growth is flowing whilst construction proceeds by leaps and bounds. And what is true of the artificial and the natural in the physical domain is also true in the psychic and spiritual domain. “The righteous flourish like the palm tree… they are ever full of sap and green…” (Psalm 92), “but a down cast spirit dries up the bones…” (Proverbs xviii, 22).i

In other words, it is the fluid, organic, and natural growth and evolution of the human spirit which is modeled in the physicality of the tree. A tower, in comparison, is that growth set in an artificial mode and while this may appear to be an advancement over the slow pace of the tree, the outburst of a tower usually entails a great “fall.” Whether this is Babel or whether it is the eventual collapse of the precarious system exemplified by the towers of the modern world (one does not even need to think up of the horror scenarios of terrorist attacks since modern towers are bulldozed and replaced almost every other day; the precariousness of the modern world should be obvious to anyone who observes towers spring up in major cities and ponders their titanic natures), a downfall—a destruction—is imminent.

So as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christmas, I also ask myself how much of my spiritual life is immortal and natural like the tree and how much has it been built artificially like the Tower of Babel or a modern skyscraper? How many times must I insist to myself that I must advance a certain amount every year and then get discouraged when I have obvious setbacks and corrections? Just like Advent allows us preparation-in-time for Christmas, so, too, is it an invitation to properly pace our spiritual lives. If we take our model of growth to be the tree—of expanding only when we have been filled by the grace, the sap, the agent of spiritual growth, then any other expansion is artificial; it is a Tower; and, without the sap, it is empty and ultimately fruitless as we await a “correction.”

Often our hewn stones or bricks of our spiritual life can also be heavy burdens and weights that easily get disturbed by the earthquakes and winds of the world around us. It is one indication that perhaps our spiritual achievements have not been of an immortal and organic nature when they are so easily snapped or broken by the changing currents of the world. After all, brick sinks in water while wood floats. It is the incorporation of the invisible spirituality of air in the very pores of the wood that allows it to rise above the element of water—the element of dissolution (water being such a universal solvent). When the flood came, the Ark was built of wood rather than stone. And how often, upon reflecting in my own spiritual journey, had I relied on the solid rocks of accumulating apologetics like a fortress I was making around me to avoid the high tide of the modern world’s dissolution. It may create islands and pockets of safety and orthodoxy for plenty of us—and it is sorely needed—but there is also a great freedom in relying on the spiritual wood; the Barque of a living spirituality rather than an ossified one.

This is part of the challenge I ask myself and my friends who seek to strengthen their faith. Do they strengthen it through leaps and bounds and the solidity of brick or do they accept the slow, organic, living, and merciful aspect of the tree. And yes, trees are merciful and resilient. We had some rather heavy winds the other day here in Southern California and I noted how the trees in front of the house bent low. Their living flexibility allowed them to weather the storm. They may have looked bent at the time, but anyone watching the tree bend and says, “what an idiotic tree, it’s not pointing towards Heaven,” would be laughed at like a fool. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people—though sometimes with good will—who point to the Barque of Peter and condemn it for steering along the waves of the flood in order to avoid capsizing or, through its living flexibility, for bending like a humble reed—like a humble tree—awaiting the promised return of calm weather and sunlight. I suppose for them, they prefer an artificial, plastic Christmas tree. One that is perfect in its pretend-green colour and looks un-scandalously upright…

This living flexibility of trees also brought me to a little epiphany I had. Thanks again to Adam, since he and I had been discussing Dante the other day, I thought about the trees in the Wood of the Suicides in the Inferno. This was a wood where those who had committed suicide were condemned to be barren trees for all of eternity. Their torment, too, was that they could not speak unless someone broke one of their branches or otherwise harmed their trunk. I have plenty of thoughts already on this beautiful contrapasso—everything from the inversion of the Cross to the meaning of why they could only speak while being hurt—but I thought of something new: about how suicide was the opposite of this flexibility and vitality that trees possess. It is no wonder, then, that those who killed themselves—those who would not adhere to the living truth of flexibility—are given that inflexibility in death.

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To live through life, therefore, is to also practice the art of flexibility—it is to be like the tree. It rarely snaps; it never betrays its vertical alignment by virtue of its organic and adaptable nature. It keeps growing despite the distractions and storms around it. Indeed, cell by cell and silently, a tree’s verdant bounds increase. Like many of the wise men of old, we could do well to understand our Christmas trees better and what they can offer as models for spiritual growth as well as the warning they possess to avoid the sclerosis of our spiritual lives.


i Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, Letter XVII: the Star.