"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Letters of St. John, Part 1

Here are some thoughts from my reading the three Letters of John.  We are also reading them at my Goodreads Catholic Thought book club, so you might see some back and forth exchanges.

What strikes me early on in the first letter is how the motifs are similar with John’s Gospel.  Here’s the first chapter.

1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life— 
2 for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us—
3 what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 
4 We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.  God is Light. 
5 Now this is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
6 If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. 
7 But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin. 
8 If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 
9 If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. 
10 If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Compare with the opening lines of John’s Gospel:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 
2 He was in the beginning with God. 
3 All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.  What came to be 
4 through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;
5 the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

“Beginning,” “Word,” “light,” “darkness,” “God is light.”  The words overlap.  I’m not going to copy back and forth, but read chapters 15 and 17 where Jesus gives his discourses and see how many themes and phrasing are shared between the Gospel and this letter.  Now this is in translation, so one can't be definitive about rhythm, but even the rhythm of the language seems to be very similar. 

Presumably there are always questions to who actually wrote the Gospels, and of course we don’t know for sure that the author of the fourth Gospel and these letters was actually St. John, but I don’t think there can be any doubt that it’s one and the same person.  By the way, I’m convinced it’s St. John the Evangelist.

Rhetorically I find that first chapter fascinating.  Here’s that sentence without any line breaks:

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”

Four parallel noun phrases beginning with “what” starts the sentence.  The last three emphasize that “we”—and who “we” is supposed to include is undetermined—physically knew and can testify to the “Word” having come to earth and was made “visible.”  And then tells you why: so that “you” too—and “you” also being undetermined—may have fellowship with God.  He actually testifies three times in that sentence.  The first leading up to the dashed off section, the second inside the dashed section, and then even a third time at the beginning of the clause after the dashed section.

Indeed, repetition is a wonderful, poetic device here.  How many times does he repeat phrasings and words: “heard,” “seen,” “visible,” “fellowship,” “light,” “darkness,” “God is light,” “sin,” and so on.  And yet it never feels like boring writing.


The first letter is just packed with theological points. I tend to reduce John’s letters down to love, love, love. And rightly so because love is at the central part of his theology. Love is so central, he could have been one of the Beatles. “All you need is love.” Haha, but that’s simplifying. John makes some complex theological points, and I’m probably not qualified to fully elucidate them. Look at the opening verses from chapter three.

1 See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
3 Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.

Through our baptism—or perhaps something less formal, such as identifying ourselves as Christians—we have become children of God, which elsewhere I think is referred to as adoption. We then become the heirs of God and ultimately joined with Him.

It is said that in John (both the Gospel and Letters) creates strict demarcations, perhaps even polarized dichotomies. Here he divides children of God with those who are not, those that know Him and those that don’t, those that are pure and those that are not.

4 Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness.
5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
6 No one who remains in him sins; no one who sins has seen him or known him.
7 Children, let no one deceive you. The person who acts in righteousness is righteous, just as he is righteous.
8 Whoever sins belongs to the devil, because the devil has sinned from the beginning. Indeed, the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil.
9 No one who is begotten by God commits sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot sin because he is begotten by God.
10 In this way, the children of God and the children of the devil are made plain; no one who fails to act in righteousness belongs to God, nor anyone who does not love his brother.
11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: we should love one another,
12 unlike Cain who belonged to the evil one and slaughtered his brother. Why did he slaughter him? Because his own works were evil, and those of his brother righteous.

Look at the demarcations here: Those who commit sins and those that do not. Those who were privileged to have Him revealed and those who were not. Those who are righteous and those who are not. Those who belong to the devil (because they sin) and those who do not. Those who love one another and those who do not. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. I don’t know about you, but I still sin. Perhaps he’s referring to mortal sin. He goes on to augment his point.

13 Do not be amazed, [then,] brothers, if the world hates you.
14 We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love remains in death.
15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.
16 The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
17 If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him?
18 Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.

There is another dichotomy: those who are in death (because they do not love) and those that are in life. And that leads to his central point.

19 [Now] this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts before him
20 in whatever our hearts condemn, for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.
21 Beloved, if [our] hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God
22 and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.
24 Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us.

How do we know if we are children of God? Because if we have love in our hearts, then we will follow His commandment to love one another as He loved in the world. We will know this through the Holy Spirit.

I’m not sure if my exegesis is correct or complete, but I hope I’ve at least highlighted the complexity of John’s thought. It’s more complicated than a Beatles song. ;)

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Comments to Dante’s Paradiso, Cantos XXVII thru XXX

These four cantos fill in Dante’s (the author) vision of the cosmos.  Let’s walk through this to see how stunning and beautiful it actually is. 

The Crystalline Sphere comprises the ninth circlet of either orbits of celestial planets (moon through Saturn) or circumscribing regions such as the Starry Sphere, which are constellations of stars, and the Crystalline Sphere.  The earth is the center of the physical universe as commonly thought then.  What is the Crystalline Sphere?  We learn it is the swiftest circling of the spheres (XXVII.99) and Beatrice explains its nature.

'This heaven has no other where
but in the mind of God, in which is kindled
the love that turns it and the power it pours down.

'Light and love enclose it in a circle,
as it contains the others. Of that girding
He that girds it is the sole Intelligence. (XXVII.109-114)

It doesn’t have a physical existence and exists in the mind of God.  It’s made up of light and love and it wraps the entire universe into a sort of encompassing ball if you can imagine it three dimensionally.  Dante uses the metaphor of a flowerpot to describe how it wraps the entrails of the physical universe.  While it is in the mind of God, I think the implication is that is actually part of the mind of God. 

If the Crystalline Sphere is part of the mind of God, in the next canto Dante is allowed to see God Himself, albeit from a far distance.  At first Dante sees God reflected in Beatrice’s two eyes.  It is a beam of light which he refers to as a “double-candle lamp’ (XXVIII.4).  It’s double because it’s reflecting in each eye, but when he turns around he can see it’s a single pinpoint beam of light.

When I turned back and my eyes were struck
by what appears on that revolving sphere --
if one but contemplates its circling –

I saw a point that flashed a beam of light
so sharp the eye on which it burns
must close against its piercing brightness.  (13-18)

He goes on to describe the size of that point.  He says if you take the smallest star that one sees and puts it beside this point, the star would seem the size of our moon relative to the point (19-20).  In other words, that point is infinitesimally small.

Now contemplate the wonder of this.  God is simultaneously an infinitesimal point—which is one dimensional, not even two and certainly not three—and infinitely huge when you consider that the mind of God, the Crystalline Sphere, enwraps the entire universe.  Dante has conceptualized the infinite from both ends of size simultaneously in God.  Next time a snotty atheist ridicules you for believing in an “old man in the sky,” present this as the nature of God.

That pin point which is God also has nine ringlets around it, just like the physical universe.  Each ring is made up of a multitude of angels, a huge number, gathered in a queue and circling about the point which is God.  There are nine types of angels and each ring is comprised of a particular type.  From the inner ring to the out, they are Seraphim, Cheraphim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.  I don’t understand enough about angels to understand the progression, but I am sure there is a logic to the progression. 

While the concentric circles of the physical universe increase in rotating speed the further you go out, the concentric circles surrounding God increase in speed the further in toward God you go.  It is explained that the inner circle is “spurred on by flaming love” (XXVIII.45).  The outer circle of angels is in contact with Crystalline Sphere, and the motion of the angels drives the motion of the physical universe.  It’s almost as if it is two gears are in contact with each other, one driving the other.  So God at the center propels the energy of its gear wheel which drives the second gear wheel.  God’s bursting love is the energy that makes the cosmos move.

Side note.  T. S. Eliot in his great The Four Quartets, refers to a “still point point of the turning world.”  This is what he is alluding to, Dante’s vision of God as a point in the center of the universe that propels everything.

I’m not completely sure, but I don’t think the Crystalline Sphere and the Primum Mobile are the same thing.  Or perhaps the Primum Mobile may be a subset of the Crystalline Sphere.  I’m speculating a little here, but I think the contact surface between the outer ring of angels and the Crystalline Sphere is Dante’s conception of the Primum Mobile.  The Primum Mobile was not a Dantean invention but something conceptualized as far back as classical astronomy.  It is the point from which God moves the universe, the first cause of a link of causes that enacts God’s will.  So here is Dante’s total cosmic conception: God causes the angels to metaphysically enact His will which transfers to a physical act at the Primum Mobile, which effects events down at the earth.  Beatrice explains it thus:

'Greater goodness makes for greater blessedness,
and greater bliss takes on a greater body
when all its parts are equal in perfection.

'This sphere, therefore, which sweeps into its motion
the rest of the universe, must correspond
to the ring that loves and knows the most,

'so that, if you apply your measure,
not to their appearances but to the powers themselves
of the angels that appear to you as circles,

'you will see a marvelous congruence,
larger with more, smaller with less, in each sphere
according to its celestial Intelligence. (XXVIII.67-78)

Now one can fully picture the journey through Paradiso that Dante (the character) has been on.  There are two groups of concentric circles, almost as if two pebbles have been dropped in a lake, each having ripples of circles emanating outward.  Dante starts at the center of the first, the earth, and traverses outward until he reaches the end and has to traverse into the other group of ripples.  And from there he is projected into the center of the second group, the center which is God.  This is not only Dante’s journey, but the journey of all saved souls who will come to rest in heaven.

It is a vision of cosmic creation, function, and harmony worthy of any mystic.  It is beautiful and complete.


These are very rich cantos.  Let me provide some more thoughts.

Canto XXIX is almost entirely spent on the creation and nature of angels.  It reminds me of medieval philosophical arguments on angels, the common joke being that they argued over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, It is pointed out that God did not need to create angels to enact His will.  He can do it through His word.  So why did He?  Beatrice explains:

'Not to increase His store of goodness,
a thing impossible, but that His splendor,
shining back, might say Subsisto,

'in His eternity, beyond time, beyond
any other limit, as it pleased Him,
in these new loves, Eternal Love unfolded. (XXIX.13-18)

Through the creative act, God unfolded the love that He is into other substances, so that shining back they gave existence to love, all for His pleasure.  How many angels did He create?  Dante (through Beatrice) decidedly stipulates that it is a finite number but a number that is huge.  It’s greater than two to the sixty-fourth power (a doubling of each square of a chess board) which amounts to 18 followed by 18 zeros.  Why so many?  Because God in His abundant love creates abundantly.  Cureently it’s spring time here and all the little buds and leaves are starting to open green, and when one steps back one can see such an abundance of new life.  That’s God in action creating angels, like the blossoming of every new bud or leaf or blade.

It is interesting that the rebellion and defeat of the bad angels happened almost immediately after their creation.  Time seems to always be conflated in Dante’s heaven.  Remember that Adam back in Canto XXVI says that his fall from grace happened six hours after creation.  Dante’s (the character) trip through Paradiso amounts to a single day.  Is eternity in the Dantean cosmology the living out of a single day forever?  I don’t know.

While these four cantos capture the most sublime visions and conceptions of God and the heavens, there are several moments where Dante (the author) contrasts such beauty and divine with the fallen and sordid.  In Canto XXVII we see St. Peter, the first Pope, angrily rant against Pope Boniface VIII, Dante's nemesis. 

'He who on earth usurps my place,
my place, my place, which in the eyes
of God's own Son is vacant,

'has made my tomb a sewer of blood and filth,
so that the Evil One, who fell from here above,
takes satisfaction there below.' (22-27)

St. Peter says it three times, Boniface VIII has desecrated "my place/my place, my place,"  making it a sewer.  Putting the words in the mouth of the most important Holy Father ever makes the condemnation of Boniface even more forceful. 

Later in Canto XXVII, when Beatrice and Dante are half way up the Crystalline Sphere and they stop to look back on earth, Dante (the character) identifies not some noble earthly spot but the locations where some disreputable events occurred.

Since the last time I looked down
I saw I had traversed all of the arc
from the midpoint of the first clime to its end,

so that on the one side I could see, beyond Gades,
the mad track of Ulysses, on the other, nearly
to the shore where Europa made sweet burden of herself. (79-84)

The "mad track of Ulysses" beyond Gades refers to Ulysses' last voyage to penetrate God's domain (see Inferno, Canto XXVI) and the shore where Zeus seduced Europa.  Both these stories trace back to the earliest roots of civilization, perhaps indicating intrinsic qualities to mankind, pride for Ulysses and lust for Europa.

Other examples of contrasting baseness are the fallen angels, the bad preachers who in their pride drift into heresy and buffoonery (XXIX.83-117), and Beatrice's last words where once again Pope Boniface is denigrated:

'But short shall be the time God suffers him
in holy office, for he shall be thrust
down there where Simon Magus gets what he deserves,
and push that fellow from Anagni deeper down.' (XXX.145-148)

The contrast for the fallen is just as important as the sublime.  It accentuates the sublime. 

Allow me this one personal opinion.  Far be it from me to tell Dante how to write the greatest work of literature, but at this point in heaven I think it would have been best for Dante to let go the bitterness of Boniface VIII's treacherous actions that led to Dante being exiled, but if he could not forgive him, at least be at peace with him.  He is before the Divine Being, where forgiveness is mandated for Christians.  Consider this.  If it wasn't for Dante being exiled, he would most likely not have written the Divine Comedy.  He would probably be remembered as a good poet who was a bureaucrat in the Florentine government.  The Commedia would never have existed.

When Dante (the character) passes into the Primmum Mobile, he goes blind again.  When his eyes adjust he sees a flowing river of light.  Beatrice explains his final baptism: 'But you must drink first of these waters before your great thirst may be satisfied’ (XXX.74-75).  Notice the echo of Christ words to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).  Dante creates that spring in the Empyrean. 

When Dante lifts his head out of the flowing light, he now can see everything.  He sees the river actually flows circularly.  He sees what he thought were flowers to be saints and what he thought to be sparks to be angels.  He sees the light of God above and vast court of heaven beyond him, which is in the shape of a rose. 

There is a light above that makes the Creator
visible to every creature
that finds its only peace in seeing Him.

It spreads itself into so vast a circle
that its circumference would be larger
than the sphere that is the sun. (XXX.100-105)

Beatrice welcomes him to the rose where the blessed reside.

I, like a man who is silent but would speak,
was led by Beatrice, and she said: 'Behold
how vast the white-robed gathering!

'See our city, with its vast expanse!
See how many are the seats already filled --
few are the souls still absent there! (127-132)

This city is akin to a huge stadium where each of the blessed have a seat, and at the center, equidistant to any seat is God. 

It is striking how many images of circles we have been given in heaven, with a crescendo of circlets here at the inner regions; the planetary orbits, the crystalline sphere, the rose, the pinpoint that is God, the nine circles of angels rotating about God, the universe circling about the pinpoint, the circular river of light.  The circle is the symbol of eternity, of perfection, and of wholeness.  The circle makes things complete, which is what heaven does to us.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Matthew Monday: Father’s Day Adventure, Bear Mountain

Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I may have mentioned this before but Matthew and I have a tradition of going on what we call our “Father’s Day adventure” together.  This year we decided to go for a real adventure, a hike on a real hiking trail.  We went to Bear Mountain, a state park with lots of hiking trails.   The park is part of the Hudson River valley, about an hour and a half drive north from Staten Island.    

Part of the fun for this was planning the trip and getting the gear together.  We planned this out for a week, gathering our pocket knives, whistles, knapsacks, and handy tools.  They were calling for rain, so we also got some rain ponchos.  We packed some sandwiched, some bottles of water, and right after this morning’s Mass we hit the road.  We got there by mid day.

It took us a little bit to get oriented, and figure out where the trails were. We had planned to do a moderate trail that circled the mountain.  It was classified as a trail moderate in difficulty.  Frankly I would have been glad to do an easy trail but little Mister insisted on the moderate.  Well, after about a 100 yards of inclined slope on the moderate, Matthew changed his mind and we turned around and hiked the easy.  The easy trail is called the Hessian lake Loop, and it just circles Hessian lake at the base of the mountain.

Here are some pictures.  Matthew with all his gear.  That’s his whistle in his mouth.

He insisted on wearing camouflage—“camo” as he called it.

Well, it did rain for a good forty-five minutes, so we did have to pull put the ponchos.

He insisted on taking a picture of me.

Matthew the scout.

Matthew looking like a tough guy.

And finally just being a little boy.

That rock cliff on the other side of the lake is where we sat and ate lunch.  We had a lot of fun.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Dante's Paradiso Cantos XXVII - XXX, Summary


Still in the Starry Sphere and Adam having completed his explanation of his transgression, all the souls in Paradise sing the Glory Be.  The beauty of the song fills Date (the character) with immense joy and peace.  The four souls in front of him (Peter, James, John, and Adam) are now aflame like four torches, and Peter stepping forward turns red.  He angrily goes into an invective on the corruption of the current holder of the See of Rome, Dante’s arch enemy Pope Boniface VIII.  St. Peter is so angry that even the heavens turn red, and Beatrice too turns color.  Peter goes on to further deplore Boniface, calling him a ravenous wolf and prophesies that Providence will soon punish him.  He tells Dante directly that Dante has a burden to tell the world the truth about Boniface.  Once Peter is finished, Dante and Beatrice start rising to the next sphere—the Crystalline Sphere—and half way there Beatrice has Dante once again look back to see the smallness of the earth and remnants of  past sins.  When they finally reach the Crystalline Sphere, Beatrice reading Dante’s mind, answers his questions on the nature of the universe.  She explains that the Crystalline Sphere does not have a physical existence but resides as part of the mind of God.  It is this light and love that wraps around the physical universe like a “flowerpot.”  Beatrice goes on to decry the sinful state of man that fails to realize the love of God, mostly because of failed human leadership.


Now in the Crystalline Sphere, Dante looks into Beatrice’s eyes and sees reflected the center point of the revolving universe.  When he turns to look at the point directly, the beam of light is so sharp, bright, and piercing that he momentarily goes blind again.  The point of light, so incredibly small but so intensely bright, is God.  Around the pinpoint which is God are nine circles, and each circle is comprised of a queue of angels burning bright and rotating around the center point.  Each circle is made up of a particular type of angel.  The innermost is made up of Seraphim; the next Cheraphim followed by Thrones, then Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.  Beatrice divines Dante’s befuddlement and explains.  The innermost circle spins the fastest because it is powered by flaming love.  Each subsequent circle spins slower than the previous, the outermost the slowest.  Dante (the character) responds that this runs counter to earthbound spinning wheels where the farthest from the center, the faster the velocity.  Finally Dante understands that the speed is relational to love.  At this the circles sparkle with flame.  All these angels look upward toward God, though their actions effect those below.

Canto XXIX

Still in the Crystalline Sphere, Beatrice perceives that Dante wonders how many angels there are, why did God feel the need to create angels, and why so many?  Beatrice explains the number of angels is finite, answering a long debated question, but of an astronomical number (two the 64th power) and that God didn't need to make angels but made them to express and expand love.  The more one creates with abundant love, the more abundant is love, and so God shows his creative generosity in the large number.  She goes on to explain the nature of angels.  She says that St. Jerome was wrong about angels being created before the universe.  All creation happened in a flash of light at the same time.  At that time things of only form, things of only matter, and things of mixed form and matter were all created.  Angels are of form only.  She explains that the bad angels fell almost immediately through their pride.  Good angels are humble.  Similar to the fallen angels, Beatrice explains that bad preachers on earth concoct some new, trendy theology to impress people and attract followers.  She says that this is a violation of Christ's mandate to humbly preach the Gospel, not idle nonsense.  It's precisely because of this foolishness that people on earth have lost their way.  She redirects his attention back to the angels.  She points out how God's love is what causes them to glow.

Canto XXX

Still at the Crystalline Sphere and at mid-day, the pilgrims begin rising upward toward the Empyrean.  Dante (the character) unable to look at the center light, turns his eyes toward Beatrice.  Her beauty has once again increased and now transcends to a level that only God could fully appreciate it.  Dante as a poet cannot capture it in words.  He realizes that he has been trying to capture her beauty since he first saw her at nine years old, but now, defeated as a writer, he has to quit.  She explains that the Empyrean is a place of pure light, of love, of joy, and of sweetness.  As Dante enters, he is once again blinded.  In his blindness he sees a flowing river of light with sparks flying off onto the flowers on the banks.  He is told his eyes must drink of this light, and he places his face into it so that his eye lashes are washed.  When he lifts his head, he can now see and sharper than ever.  He can now see that the river runs in a circle and all those sparks flying off are angels and all those flowers on the banks are human souls.  He can now see all.  He can see the creator's light, reflected across the heavens from which moves all motion.  He sees across the Empyrean a structure that is in the form of a rose, with the point of light that is God at the center.  With her last words, Beatrice invites him to see the City of God with all its heavenly goodness, which, she says, contrasts with Florence, that city of greed and strife.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Matthew Monday: Memorial Day, Fleet Week

Memorial Day (last Monday in May) is the day we honor fallen troops, and Fleet Week is the week the Navy brings in some ship into New York City for civilian visitation.  They coincide.  I took Matthew in Manhattan to look at some ships.  We had a nice time.  Took the Staten Island Ferry over, passing the Statue of Liberty.  We stopped in down town and took some pictures of the World Trade Liberty Tower, and then went up to the piers to look at some Navy vessels.  Here are a couple of pictures.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Fathers of the Church by Mike Aquilina

We read The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers by Mike Aquilina at our parish Bible class this past year.  This was my first year with the Bible group, and to my surprise they don’t just read the Bible.  What the group typically does is read a book and meet once a week to discuss it.  The read seems to run about nine months.  The summer is off. 

You have probably seen Mike Aqulina on EWTN, and his expertise is the patristics.  The following is my review of the book at Goodreads.

This is a solid book that surveys the Church Fathers (and a few Mothers too) from the very early days - shortly after the New Testament documents were written (first century) to the eighth century.  It spans St. Clement of Rome, who was probably a disciple of St. Peter, to St. John of Damascus, who was part of the refutation of the iconoclastic heresies in the eighth century.  There are fifty-four different Church Fathers represented, and what is particularly excellent is the background information.  Where the Acts of the Apostles leaves off, the Church Fathers pick up to provide the history, theology, and apologetics of Christian thinking.  Aquilina states:
"As heirs to the Apostles, the leaders and teachers of the early Church - the Fathers of the Church - were intensely concerned with preserving the unity and integrity of the "company of those who believed," even as that company grew from a small band of several hundred to encompass millions of people speaking dozens of languages and dispersed throughout the Roman Empire."

Aquilina discusses each of the Fathers and provides excerpts of key texts and important biographical information.  Take for instance the first paragraph on St. Polycarp of Smyrna:

"St. Polycarp (c. 69-155) could be called the most well-connected man in the ancient Church.  At one end of his long life, he was a young disciple of St. John the Apostle.  At middle age, he was a bishop-colleague of St. Ignatius of Antioch.  As an old man, he was master to the young boy who would grow up to be St. Irenaeus of Lyons.  By his longevity, St. Polycarp was able to teach many how to live as the Apostles had taught him to live.  By his death as a martyr, at age eighty-six, he taught generations of persecuted Christians after him how to die."

Aquilina concisely explains the shifting political situations as the centuries roll by and the key arguments and heresies of the times.  He provides a handy list of the councils and the evolution of the creeds.  Mostly Aqulina lets the Fathers speak in their own voice.  All the well-known fathers are represented: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen, St. Anthanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and so on.  I can't name them all, but it includes both east and west traditions.  It also includes many that are less well known, ones I never heard of: Hermas, Lactantius, St. Pacian of Barcelona, St. Ramanus the Singer, Theodore of Mopsuestia. 

What kind of works are represented?  We see in the writings all the Church doctrines we have now.  We have an excerpt of St. Aristedes of Athens' apologetic letter to the Greco-Roman pagan (actually addressed to the Emperor Hadrian) world explaining the nature of the Christian deity.  Then in a different era with Christianity now the prominent religion, we have St. Ambrose's letter to his emperor explaining how it was out of place for him, a secular leader, to intrude on Christian doctrine.  We have a nativity hymn composed by St. Ephrem of Syria in the middle of the fourth century and a Christmas carol from Prudentius composed a century later.  We have from St. Irenaeus in the second century a discourse on Mary as the new Eve and from St. Jerome in the fourth or early fifth centuries on Mary's perpetual virginity.  We have from St. Basil "On the Holy Spirit" and from St. Augustine "On the Trinity."  We have recounts of martyrdoms from an anonymous letter recounting the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, from St. Perpeuta herself leading up to her martyrdom, and the heroic martyrdoms witnessed by St. Dionysius the Great.  We have refutations of heresies from St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus, St. Clement of Alexandria, and others.  We have pastoral texts on how to live the Christian life, how to understand the Church and the sacraments, and how to read and understand sacred scripture.  What we have in these excerpts is the complete faith in microcosm. 

This is a handy reference for one's bookshelf.  If not this book, you should have one just like it.

I gave the book four stars I think.  I enjoyed the read and the discussions at the Bible class.  I’m looking forward to next year’s read.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Comments to Dante’s Paradiso, Cantos XXIII thru XXVI

Canto XXIII may be the most beautiful canto in the entire Commedia, and that’s saying a lot.  It’s worth looking at it in a close reading.  It’s a canto known for its seven similes, two simple comparisons, and I’ve noticed a metaphor or two as well.  First let me highlight a few of the narrative details and then I’ll look at each of the seven similes. 

We start the canto with Beatrice suspended in the sky and looking heavenward.  She points to Christ above who is in a triumph.  A triumph is a specific ancient Roman victory celebration where the victorious general is given a public commemoration.  As part of the ceremony, the man of honor was given a laurel for his head, and, dressed in a golden toga, took a victory lap in a chariot.  That is how to picture Christ’s triumph.  It is a triumphant ride across the sky, and it also represents the Church Triumphant.  This is one of the three Church aspects, Militant (in its role to combat sin and heresy), Penitent (in its role to forgive sins), and Triumphant (in its role to celebrate salvation).  Both Church Militant and Penitent are roles the Church has on earth; Triumphant is a role in heaven.  The closing quatrain of the canto summarizes this.

Beneath the exalted Son of God and Mary,
up there he triumphs in his victory,
with souls of the covenants old and new,
the one who holds the keys to such great glory.  (XXIII.136-139)

Christ, in the triumph, is portrayed as bright as the sun.  Dante (the character) looking at the intense brightness goes momentarily blind.  This is the first of the several instances of Dante going blind in this group of cantos.  I’ll have more to say on the various times he goes blind when I comment on the other cantos, but here the intensity of Christ’s light is emphasized.  It is notable that it is Christ’s light that illuminates the other souls, just as the sun illuminates the world. 

Beatrice implores Dante to open his eyes and see her fully.  “The things that you have witnessed,” she says, “have given you strength to bear my smile!”  So since he couldn’t see her smile a few cantos back or he would burnt up, here Dante has graduated to a greater ability to withstand God’s intensity.  He too has been increasing in grace.

Beatrice then points to a rose in the heavens, which is the Blessed Virgin.  Associated with the rose because of the flower’s beauty and complexity, the Holy Queen is sometimes called the Mystic Rose.  When the archangel Gabriel comes down as a lit torch and circles the head of the Blessed Mother, we have the enactment of her coronation.  Is this a dramatization for Dante’s sake or is this a constant, eternal drama?  It doesn’t say, but now every time I get to the fifth mystery of the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary, I will forever have this image in mind.

The drama in this canto is stunning, but let’s look at the poetry through the seven similes.  The first is right at the opening of the canto describing Beatrice staring at the sky.

As the bird among the leafy branches that she loves,
perched on the nest with her sweet brood
all through the night, which keeps things veiled from us,

who in her longing to look upon their eyes and beaks
and to find the food to nourish them --
a task, though difficult, that gives her joy –

now, on an open bough, anticipates that time
and, in her ardent expectation of the sun,
watches intently for the dawn to break,

so was my lady, erect and vigilant,
seeking out the region of the sky
in which the sun reveals less haste. (1-12)

Now that is a Homeric type of simile, one sentence of one hundred words (in English) spanning four tercets.  Dante does not typically write long sentences.  Here we have the bird imagery, which has been a frequent motif throughout the Commedia, with Beatrice compared to a mother bird—perhaps foreshadowing the Blessed Mother who will shortly appear—looking for the sun, which becomes associated with Christ.  The mother bird is looking to nourish her chicks, and Dante is her chick that needs spiritual nourishment.

The second simile describes how Christ brightens all around him.

As, on clear nights when the moon is full,
Trivia smiles among the eternal nymphs
that deck the sky through all its depths,

I saw, above the many thousand lamps,
a Sun that kindled each and every one
as ours lights up the sights we see above us,

and through that living light poured down
a shining substance.  (25-32)

In what should be dark night, the sun reflects across to the moon and lights her up, so Christ lights up all that is around him.  Trivia is an ancient Roman goddess, but I have to admit I don’t get the allusion and Hollander doesn’t explain it.

The third simile compares a thought in his mind to a flash of lightning (lines 40-45).  The fourth simile compares Dante’s inability to fully poetically represent Paradise and so requiring a leap like man walking and needing to leap over an obstruction (61-63).  The fifth simile describes how the throng of souls are lit up like the sun lights up a field of flowers (79-84).

The sixth simile describes the transcendent beauty of the heavenly music.  During the Coronation, heavenly music is heard and Dante (the author) describes it in an inverse way.

The sweetest melody, heard here below,
that most attracts our souls,
would seem a burst of cloud-torn thunder

compared with the reverberation of that lyre
with which the lovely sapphire that so ensapphires
the brightest heaven was encrowned.  (97-102)

So the sweetest melody heard on earth would sound like a thunder clap compared to the beauty of the Paradisic melody.  Notice Dante also adds a metaphor as an extension to the simile.  That heavenly hymn is a sapphire which encrowns heaven.  The hymn which is a sapphire which is a crown connects with the crown which circles the Blessed Mother.

Finally the seventh simile describes the apostles reaching out to Mother Mary as infants reaching for their mother.

And, like a baby reaching out its arms
to mamma after it has drunk her milk,
its inner impulse kindled into outward flame,

all these white splendors were reaching upward
with their fiery tips, so that their deep affection
for Mary was made clear to me. (121-126)

The fiery tips of the splendors, which are souls, are like the arms of a babe reaching for its mother.  Dante brings mother down to the colloquial, “mamma.”  And what began the canto as a mother bird awaiting to nourish her brood, it ends with a mother having nourished her babe. 

Truly, what beauty.


Here are some thoughts and comments on the cantos concerning the Starry Sphere.

The oral examination under which Dante (the character) is subjected is a brilliant narrative innovation.  I can't recall any other writer writing before Dante to have used it.  First off, it captures the university experience of the medieval world.  Next, it captures the flow of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theolgiae in which the Commedia owes much philosophically.  Here it reproduces it narratively.  Also think of the far reaching influence of this narrative technique.  We see such interrogative dramatizations all the time, most noticeably in crime dramas and legal suspense stories. 

The oral examination captures the mediaeval university experience so well that it makes me wonder if Dante (the author) actually attended a university.  No such event is recorded.  Presumably then Dante had access to many university texts, especially that of Thomas Aquinas. 

The oral exam also brings one of the ongoing motifs to a conclusion.  Throughout the Commedia, Dante (the character) has been learning.  He is on a journey to acquire knowledge, and before he can complete the journey we see what he has learned put to the test.  When lost in the woods of life as seen way back before he entered the underworld, Dante (the character) was in a spiritual crises, and what we have seen is that despite having gain great knowledge of all sorts of things, when Beatrice died he lost his understanding of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  Through his journey he has seen what the three virtues mean, either because they are absent in some (Inferno), struggling to regain in others (Purgatorio), or celebrated in still others (Paradiso).

The spirits that test Dante are the three apostles of Christ's inner circle, saints Peter, James, and John.  Dante appropriately picks the apostle who in some way was associated with the virtue they question Dante on.  Peter, who famously denied Christ but had faith enough to walk on water, at least momentarily, wrote a magnificent letter (First Epistle) on the perseverance of faith under suffering.  St. James, on whose burial place in Compostella pilgrims go to pray with petitions, examines Dante on hope, which is what prayer expresses.  And St. John the Evangelist wrote several letters on the virtue of love.

It is interesting how Beatrice interacts within all three of Dante’s examinations.  In her exchange with Peter, she acknowledges that Peter already knows Dante’s knowledge on faith, hope, and love, but he should be made to articulate it for God’s glory:

And she: 'O everlasting light of that great man
with whom our Lord did leave the keys,
which He brought down from this astounding joy,

'test this man as you see fit on points,
both minor and essential, about the faith
by which you walked upon the sea.

'Whether his love is just, and just his hope and faith,
is not concealed from you because your sight
can reach the place where all things are revealed.

'But since this realm elects its citizens
by measure of true faith, it surely is his lot
to speak of it, that he may praise its glory.' (XXIV.34-45)

Peter’s questioning is capped off with a mini credo at the end of the canto (XXIV.130-147), but the last two tercets capture Dante’s exam answers in two wonderful metaphors.

The profound truth of God's own state of which I speak
is many times imprinted in my mind
by the true instructions of the Gospel.

'This is the beginning, this the living spark
that swells into a living flame
and shines within me like a star in heaven.' (142-147)

God is imprinted in his mind through the Gospels, and from that little spark his faith grows into a flame which shines within him like a star in heaven.  Beautiful.

The canto where Dante (the character) is quizzed on hope, Dante (the author), intruding into the narrative, begins with an earthly hope.

Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem,
to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand
so that it has made me lean for many years,

should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
foe of the wolves at war with it,

with another voice then, with another fleece,
shall I return a poet and, at the font
where I was baptized, take the laurel crown. (XXV.1-9)

He hopes that the beauty of this poem, the Divine Comedy, will someday allow Florence to renounce his exile and allow him back to receive a laurel crown as poet.  This can be seen in at least two ways.  First, it foreshadows and echoes the canto’s theme of things hoped for, but it also contrasts his earthly hope with the spiritual hope of salvation.  In fact, it makes the earthly hope appear so much less in comparison.  When Dante is writing these lines, it is well into his exile and toward the end of his life.  He probably realized that such a hope would never materialize, and so in a way he is belittling his pride that he would have such a hope when the hope of eternal salvation is at hand.  Heavenly glory is by far more important than this earthly glory.

St. James quizzes Dante on hope.  The New Testament identifies three men as James.  There is James Zebedee, the brother of John, there is another apostle with the name James, and he is usually referred to as James the Lesser.  And in Acts there is James the head of the church in Jerusalem, who is referred to as James the Brother of Jesus.  James the Lesser and James the Brother of Jesus are to some considered the same person.  But nonetheless this James is not the brother of John.  The James here in the canto is identified as the one whose bones are in Compostella (18), which indicates that he is James Zebedee.  But when Beatrice addresses him, as the one “who wrote/of the abundant gifts of our heavenly court” (29-30), which indicates this is the James who wrote the New Testament Epistle under his name.  But the epistle was written by the other James if you count two or the Brother of Jesus if you count three.  So Dante is either ignorant of the distinction or has something in mind by conflating the two.  I fail to see any reason for the conflation, so I lean to a mistake.

Before Dante provides an answer on what rests his hope, Beatrice interjects that she knows no other person so filled with hope as Dante (52-54).  On what basis does she make this assertion?  Well, think about it.  Dante first fell in love with Beatrice when he was nine years old.  He has been hoping for the fulfillment of this love for many years and across earthly life and the afterlife.  Yes, he has certainly demonstrated such hope.

Throughout the questioning from St. John on love, Dante is unable to see.  This is the culmination of several instances of loss of sight while in the Starry Sphere.  The closer Dante journeys to God, the more intense the light.  Each time he loses his sight, when he regains it his eyes are stronger for the next vision.  Each instance is a strengthening, like an exercise. 

The first time he loses his sight in the Starry Sphere is in Canto XXIII when he looks up to see a vision of Christ triumphant.  When he regains that sight, his eyes are now strong enough to see Beatrice’s smile.  The second time is in Canto XXV when saints Peter and James stand together and their collective light overwhelms Dante.  James tells Dante to look up and take hope, and that restores his sight.  The third loss of sight in Starry Sphere is when John approaches and Dante tries to discern if John is in the glory of a body.  The blindness begins at the end of Canto XXV and stretches all the way through the middle of Canto XXVI when Dante completes his exam on love without being able to see.  It is through the power of Beatrice’s voice that Dante then regains his sight.

As soon as I was silent, the sweetest song
resounded through that heaven, and my lady
chanted with the others: 'Holy, holy, holy!'

As sleep is broken by a piercing light
when the spirit of sight runs to meet the brightness
that passes through its filmy membranes,

and the awakened man recoils from what he sees,
his senses stunned in that abrupt awakening
until his judgment rushes to his aid –

exactly thus did Beatrice drive away each mote
from my eyes with the radiance of her own,
which could be seen a thousand miles away,

so that I then saw better than I had before. (XXVI.67-79)

Upon completing his answer, the heavens sound with the Sanctus hymn, and Beatrice’s voice singing along stimulates his vision like a person being awakened.  The scene alludes to Saul’s transformation to Paul. Just as Ananias of Damascus was used to restore Saul’s sight (Acts 9:10-18), Beatrice is used to restore Dante’s sight, whereby now he can see “better” than ever.

The first thing he sees when he regains his sight is another spirit approaching, this time Adam.  It’s not clear why narratively Adam approaches now.  He seems out of place with the three apostles, but Dante makes thematic use of it.  The first thing Dante sees is the first human being, and so Dante (the author) gives us a breadth of scope from the beginning of all time to the present, from the first man to the current.  Now only is the timeline linear, but also circular.  Dante’s questions of Adam’s time seem to emphasize this. 

Dante’s question on the original language is certainly one that would concern a poet, especially a poet who is writing in the vernacular.  Apparently Dante had once believed that Hebrew was the original language spoken by Adam and Eve, but here we are now told differently.  That original language has gone extinct, and as Adam implies so does language.  This connects with Dante’s vernacular Italian being the outgrowth of its Latin roots.  Just as Adam is Dante’s “father” here, Adam’s language is ultimately progenitor to the contemporary languages.

Finally, Dante’s question of why Adam was expelled from heaven seems curious, since the Biblical story is well known, but Adam’s answer is even more peculiar.  Adam doesn’t say he was expelled for disobeying God or for eating the apple, which is what we would expect.  He says he was expelled for “trespassing” (XXVI.117).  In effect he trespassed on God’s prerogative.  This echoes back to Inferno where Ulysses sails beyond human boundaries to God’s ire.  Adam also refers to his time away from heaven as an “exile” (116).  This connects the two men in their dislocated histories.