Despite the high-sounding title, my blog is meant to be both serious and light-hearted, full of sadness and mirth, and reflecting the human condition. Join in the pilgrimmage and be surprised and maybe even astonished and humbled.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dante's "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso": Surprise, Wonder, and Ecstasy (3)

Finally, I am able to free myself from self-imposed delays to conclude my comments about liminal themes I am attempting to illustrate through Dante’s Commedia. The first two posts dealt primarily with the first third of the fourteenth-century epic poem, commonly titled "Inferno." The second and the third portions are commonly titled, "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso." Common to both posts are themes having to do with (prayerful) imagination, creativity, and male-female sources of inspiration. This third post will use the "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso" to consider where we cross a threshold because of moments of surprise, wonder, and ecstasy.

I confess that my thoughts about this post came about as a serendipity. As I was concluding my first post, I came across Joan Acocella’s thoughtful “New Yorker” magazine review of Robert and Jean Hollander’s translation of "Paradiso." Acocella states what I had said about the popularity of the "Inferno" and "Purgatorio" and the general neglect of "Paradiso." Our reasons for that are different. She points to the “concrete,” language connecting to human experience. I argue that we choose the first and the second because they provide “safe” connections with fear, suffering, struggle, and arrival.

But with "Paradiso" we are in agreement. We avoid "Paradiso" because language cannot make human the heavenly realm. Try as we might, our metaphors fall short. Hell and Purgatory are easier to understand if not frightening and painful. But Heaven without tears, work, confusion, and suffering and with its goodness and bliss and peace and love and very God present is a realm difficult to experience, imagine, and put into words. Consider St. John’s Revelation or St. Paul’s: “Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to face.”

God and Heaven stagger the imagination and bring the mind up short. But not our longing heart. We long for the other side of the threshold and, briefly, out of ourselves, we experience ourselves leaping across the threshold to embrace surprise, wonder, and ecstasy—only to be brought back to “ordinary” experience. Acocella points out that Dante spins out metaphor after metaphor (like St. John in “Revelation”) to describe the experience of being in Paradise. She writes: “Of the bliss that is Heaven, Dante makes sublime images: flames and roses, rivers and rainbows. Heaven’s light is seen ‘sparking everywhere, / like liquid iron flowing from the fire.’ Created things move ‘toward different harbors / upon the vastness of the sea of being.’” Dante is no longer pilgrim, she says, but an inspired poet.

She then quotes these lines:

"My memory of that moment is more lost than five and twenty centuries make dim that enterprise when, in wonder, Neptune at the Argo’s shadow stared."

Then Acocella explains: “Focus only on the image. Jason and the Argonauts, in the first ship ever made, are sailing across the ocean on a dangerous mission, to capture the Golden Fleece. Neptune, the god of the ocean, looks up from the seafloor. Through the fathomless depths, he sees a shadow—the boat—and stares at it in wonder. Though he is a god, he has never seen anything like this.”

Does God respond like Neptune, in surprise and wonder at our ecstatic crossing of a threshold? Over eight years ago I held my nine-month old grand-son in my arms as I stood along with my congregation to sing a capella the Hallelujah Chorus. He joined in and sang his infant song with us. I crossed a momentary threshold and was overwhelmed. Tears filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Was God surprised by him? By me? Is God surprised by you? Is that how radically free wonder is?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dante's "Inferno": Evil and Death, and the Masculine and Feminine as Face to Face Inspiration (2)

Accompanying this post is the painting by Marc Chagall titled, "Adam and Eve." It speaks in modern terms about the joys and the dangers of being face to face with the "other" and, not only a product of inspiration, it speaks to the reality of inspiration as found in Dante's Commedia. Gregorian's version of the Roberta Flack classic, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," echoes the face to face theme.

English translations of Dante's Commedia commonly divide it into three more manageable parts--"Inferno," "Purgatorio," and "Paradiso." "Inferno" is more generally studied in high school or undergraduate settings because it is deemed more "interesting," more captivating. Why is that so? And does it suggest that evil and death is more "interesting" than life and beauty and goodness?

I believe that such "interest" comes from the "safe" imaginative encounter with the forbidden, with taboo, with terror, with evil, with death--in contrast to an actual encounter with evil. It is why "horror movies" entertain even though they trigger fear and a rush of adrenaline. It underlies the proverbial "moth drawn to the flame" imagery.

A little evil in imaginative form, death made larger than life with metaphor and symbol and personification, is a psychological and social anodyne. It is a kind of vaccination against the actual fear, suffering, disruption, and chaos caused by evil and death. Imaginative forms, symbols, totems, rituals, stories, song, imagery--in short, art and artifice--shield us. They are a kind of curtain protecting us from existential fear and trembling as we face suffering, the abyss and death.

Personal and social repetition, feedback, and looping of the symbols and metaphors maintain the warp and woof of the curtain. Nietzsche means precisely this when he says, "We have art in order not to perish from truth." With repetition and looping, such forms grow old and tired and lose their effectiveness and meaning in the face of new and incredible terrors, new avenues to fear, pain, and death. Bluntly put, they freeze up and die as in the deepest part of Dante's Hell. In the largest sense, when that happens, as Nietzsche has more famously stated, "God is dead." After that, according to Nietzsche, we must become our own god and develop our own means of protection against fear and trembling before a Godless universe. But is God dead and are we naked, exiled, and dead? Not so with Dante.

What is it, then, that creates and inspires new language, metaphor, vision, taboo, and ritual? Dante's Commedia is instructive. A masculine poet and guide, Virgil, leads Dante through Hell and out and on in to Purgatory. But the feminine Beatrice inspires Dante and brings him out of Purgatory and on into Paradise. Dante encountered Virgil through Virgil's poetry, specifically his epic, The Aeneid. It is chiefly an epic born out of violence and war and telling of anger and violence as Aeneas goes on to establish Rome through violence.

But Dante first encountered Beatrice in Florence face to face when he was almost nine years old (1274) and she was barely eight. She was dressed in soft crimson and wore a girdle about her waist. Dante fell in love with his vision of her which he later believed was divine. He sought her out, hoping to meet her and to speak with her, but she never spoke to him until nine years later. Then one afternoon (1283) he saw her dressed in white, walking down a street in Florence. Accompanied by two older women, Beatrice greeted him. Overwhelmed, he later had a dream that "inspired" the first sonnet in his "La Vita Nuova" ("The New Life"), a marvelous poem of romantic love. In "Purgatorio," XXX, Dante encounters Beatrice in Eden “with a white veil and a wreath of olive” and is directed by her toward the bright ecstasy and beauty of Paradise.

Heroic tales of battles won and lost and exalted visions of beauty and joy, male and female polarities in language, society, and biology, the light and darkness of our universe--things looped and repeated and intertwined--all provide the stuff of both inspiration for life and of protection against boredom, dread, death, and loss of God.

So the questions for me are these: How is life and language possible without both male and female perspectives, actions, and creations? How is humanity fully possible without its uniquely masculine and feminine qualities? Indeed, how is God possible without Adam and Eve?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Dante's "Inferno": War, Inertia, and the Prayerful Imagination (1)

For my first post, I want to begin with the word "inertia." The English word "inertia" derives from the French inars through the Latin inert/inertia, meaning, roughly, "idle," "idleness," or "without art, work, or power." Inertia--absolute zero ice--is at the center of Dante's Hell. When General William T. Sherman bluntly stated, "War is Hell," he had in mind Milton's Hell of burning sulphur and "darkness visible" and not Dante's with its cold, heartless inertia. Sadly, it seems to me that inertia in thinking and its corollary, reaction, lead to the torture and destruction Sherman attempted to describe. James Hillman in his recent thoughtful and imaginative book, A Terrible Love of War, writes:
If we want war's horror to be abated so that life may go on, it is necessary to understand and imagine. We humans are the species privileged in regard to understanding, Only we have the faculty and scope for comprehending the planet's quandaries. Perhaps that is what we are here for: to bring appreciative understanding to the phenomena that have no need to understand themselves. It may even be a moral obligation to try to comprehend war. That famous phrase of William James, "the moral equivalent of war," with which he meant the mobilization of moral effort, today means the effort of the imagination . . . . Is it war's fault that we have not grasped its meanings? (5)
Loreena McKennitt's haunting music combines a Russian Orthodox Easter hymn with her own music and imaginative lyrics about a prayer Dante might have uttered after he and Virgil had left Hell's icy center and were journeying close to the threshold between Hell and Purgatory. I have placed just above this post a creation combining her song and a video about American soldiers in the Iraqi war--it is a creation within my creation (this blog) which is located within a creation we call cyberspace. Listen and watch. Read the lyrics as she sings them. The melody and the words melt frozen inertia and transform the vision of war, thus moving us across a threshold to an active, engaged imagination. Words and music separately and together move us, give us new life after frozen death, altering our suffering and memory. When we cross a threshold, we are changed.
How have you responded to this cyber creation? How have you crossed a threshold? Has some of your inertia melted? How have you changed? I invite you to tell your story.

Lyrics to "Dante's Prayer"


When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone
I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Then the mountain rose before me
By the deep well of desire
From the fountain of forgiveness
Beyond the ice and the fire
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars
Breathe life into this feeble heart
Lift this mortal veil of fear
Take these crumbled hopes, etched with tears
We'll rise above these earthly cares
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Please remember me
Please remember me . . . .

-Loreena McKennitt

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the empty skies, my love,
To the dark and the empty skies.

The first time ever I kissed your mouth
And felt your heart beat close to mine
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command, my love
That was there at my command.

And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last till the end of time my love
It would last till the end of time my love

The first time ever I saw your face,
your face, your face, your face

Roberta Flack