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?

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