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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Dante's Purgatorio Cantos XVIII – XXIII, Summary

Still sitting within the terrace of sloth, Dante asks Virgil to further explain what love is.  The mind, Virgil says, created to react to love moves toward what is pleasing.  The soul will never rest until it bends itself toward what it loves.  This is desire and it is innate.  Though it can appear that all things loved are good, this is not the case.  There is, however, within man the innate power of reason to restrain desire for what is not good.  Virgil tells him this is all based on philosophic reasoning, and that Beatrice will eventually further explain how faith of revelation will augment this understanding.  It is midnight now and rushing by are penitents who to be cured of sloth are required to be in constant running motion.  Here the countering virtue is spoken aloud by the penitents themselves, echoing Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Julius Caesar’s military quickness to Spain.  The Abbott of San Zeno rushes by, marveling at a living person.  More souls rush by, unable to stop, but giving examples of lack of zeal, those that were swallowed by the Red Sea because they did not rush through while it parted and those in Troy who did not flee when the city was burned to the ground.  Finally Dante overcome with drowsiness falls asleep.

Canto XIX
Still at the terrace of sloth and now asleep, Dante has a disturbing dream.  A siren came before him, a hideous woman stammering but filtered through his mind she appears beautiful and mellifluent.  She says she provides content to all those who dwell with her.  As Dante is about to be seduced by her charms, another woman, a holy one, exhorts Virgil to take action.  Virgil rips open the Siren’s garments, letting out a stench, which wakens Dante from the dream.  As they exit the terrace, the angel of the terrace beckons him to come and swooshes his face with his wing.  They enter the fifth terrace, that of avarice, where souls lay with their faces into the dirt, weeping.  They cry out the line from Psalm 118 about cleaving to the dust.  Dante meets Pope Adrian V, who explains the therapy of this terrace.  The penitents are to cleave to the dirt like they cleaved to material things in life to realize that cleaving to material things is turning your back to God.

Canto XX
The pilgrims leave Pope Adrian V, cursing the she-wolf that represents avarice.  As they proceed they hear one penitent cry out the positive proclamations of the terrace of greed, which are proclamations of generosity.  He cries out on Mary in her labor being taken in at the Inn, the ancient Roman statesman Fabricius, who lived in austerity over wealth, and St. Nicholas, who provided dowry for poor girls so they wouldn't have to go into prostitution.  They meet the soul of Hugh Capet, the Frankish king who founded the Capet dynasty in France.  Capet goes on a long screed to how France and his descendants to his throne had committed grave sins of avarice.  He further explains how during the day the penitents chant the positive proclamations while at night they chant the negative examples of greed.  He gives several examples of the negative proclamations from myth and Biblical history, culminating with the Roman general Crassus known for accumulating wealth.  Suddenly an earthquake is heard that rocks purgatorial island and all the penitents began shouting together, "Gloria in excelsis Deo." 

Canto XXI
Dante stood wondering the meaning of the earthquake and the shout of all the penitents, which had reached down to the shore below when a soul comes up to the pilgrims and gives them a holy greeting.  The soul is taken aback when he learns they are not penitent souls in purgatory.  Virgil asks about the tremor and the shouts, and the soul explains it occurs every time a soul in purgatory completes a purgation, and this earthquake was for his completion of the terrace.  The soul explains he has just completed five hundred years on the terrace of avarice and having had his will freed from the constraint of sin can now rise upward.  Virgil asks the penitent who he was in life, and the soul explains he was the first century Roman poet Statius and that he owes whatever he accomplished to his Roman predecessor, Virgil.  He says Virgil’s Aeneid was the flame that shone a light to the world.  Virgil finally gives Dante permission to say who is standing before him, and upon hearing it Statius drops to his knees at Virgil’s feet.

Canto XXII
After completing the terrace of avarice and after the angel of that terrace wiped another “P” off Dante’s forehead, the three souls continued on, Dante trailing behind while Virgil and Statius converse.  Dante hears Virgil ask Statius why he a man of such noble character suffered the vice of averice.  Statius explains that he was not there in the fifth terrace to cure him of greed but of its opposite, prodigality, the inability to control one’s spending.  Virgil then asks, how could Statius, a pagan, come to have true faith?  Statius explains that Virgil wasn’t just a poetic inspiration that shaped his poetry but that Virgil’s prophesy of Christ in the Eclogue and combined with the first century Christian preachers, led to a conversion and was baptized.  But he hid that baptism for fear, and so was not martyred with the early martyrs but had to spend four hundred years in the ante purgatory section.  The two continue discussing poetry with Dante listening when they came to a tree with fruit, “You shall not eat of this fruit,” the tree says.  Then the tree goes on to give positive proclamations countering the vice of gluttony, speaking of Mary more concerned with the newlyweds than of food at Cana, of ancient Roman women who were ascetic, Daniel who scorned food, and of John the Baptist eating honey and locust.


The pilgrims and Statius continue on into the terrace of gluttony when a penitent sings out “O Lord, open my lips.”  The penitent is emaciated, eyes sunken and skin tight against the bones.  The face shaped by the two eye sockets and cheek and nose bones formed into the word OMO, which is Italian for man.  Finally Dante recognizes the penitent.  It is Forese Donati, an old friend, and cousin to Dante’s wife.  Dante, shocked by his friend’s disfigurement, asks him what has happened.  Forese explains that all those on this terrace satisfied their appetites on earth beyond “all measure,” and so here are to learn the thirst and hunger of holiness.  Dante asks, since it’s only been five years since he passed away, how has he made it so far so fast on the mountain?  Forese explains that his wife Nella’s devoted prayers for him has sped his course.  He predicts that Florence will pass some laws to prevent women from immodest dress and cautions Dante to renounce that wild life they shared as young men.  Dante says it is now painful to recall those days and says that because of Virgil he has left all that behind.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Comments to Dante's Purgatorio, Cantos XII to XVII

Now that one has read a number of these cantos with the pilgrims going through the terraces of purgation, we can see several patterns.  Remember these terraces are for therapeutic conditioning of the soul toward virtue, so all things work toward that end.  When the pilgrims first enter the terrace, there is some form of positive proclamation presented in either an image or audio of the virtue.  Usually there are several but one will always be from the life of the Blessed Virgin.  The penitents on that terrace are usually singing or chanting a hymn, also selected to accentuate the virtue they need to learn.  Then undoubtedly the pilgrims meet the penitents, who are undergoing some form of mortification.  I think of it more as a mortification than a penance.  A penance implies one is trying to make up for something in the past; a mortification I would say implies a training to correct.  The penitents are usually in community, in groups helping each other.  In hell, souls were either solitary or when in groups in opposition or even antagonism with each other.  Souls undergoing the mortifications of these terraces usually ask for prayers.  Finally as the pilgrims leave the terrace, more images or audio are proclaimed, this time an example of a negative proclamation of the sin.  So the souls undergo both positive and negative reinforcement as they circle the terrace over and over.  Finally when Dante leaves the terrace, an angel responsible for that particular terrace removes one of the “P’s” on his forehead.  I don’t know if it’s actually said or not, but I believe all the souls have a “P’ removed when they have completed their temporal mortification, moving on to the next terrace.  Time on each terrace for the penitents depends on how engrained that sin is in their being.  Outside prayers seem to help along the process.

Let’s take one of the terraces and walk through these steps.  Let’s look at the Terrace of Envy which starts in Canto XIII and runs midway into Canto XV. 

The positive proclamations of the virtue—charity being the corresponding virtue to the sin of envy—are here in audio because the mortification for this terrace is that the souls have their eyes wired shut, and so can only hear.  We hear the Blessed Mother’s appeal to Christ at the wedding at Cana, “They have no wine.”  This is such a charitable appeal, putting herself in empathy with the celebrants.  A lesser person, such as myself, might scoff and say, “Ha!  I had plenty of wine at my wedding,” but the Blessed Mother with her Immaculate Heart feels for those in pain and perhaps more importantly tries to help remedy the situation.  We see an example from classical literature—Pylades saying he is Orestes to save his friend from execution—and Christ stating the beatitude, “Love him who has done you wrong.”  When Dante the character asks Virgil about these proclamations, Virgil describes them as “scourges,” and the voices act as a “cords of the scourge.”  That’s a fascinating metaphor.  I think it suggests mortification.

The hymn here is actually a chanted prayer, “Mary, pray for us,”/then “Michael,” “Peter,” and “All saints.”  It sounds like a Litany of All Saints, or some early version of it. 

The penitents in this terrace are actually the most touching to me.  Having their eyes sewn shut means they can only advance as the blind—literally the blind leading the blind.  I don’t know if you’ve ever had to help a blind person.  My father went blind from midlife on, and I’m so sensitive to it.  They need so much help in doing some of the very basic things we take for granted doing.  To walk in an unfamiliar area requires so much hesitation and consternation.  Each step is an unknown adventure wrought with anxiety, if not fear.  To move about the terrace requires coordination between the souls.  It forces them to act in charity with each other.  Dante the author emphasizes this by bringing political opposites, a Ghibelline and a Guelph, together as now cooperating friends.

The negative proclamations come from Cain, who murdered his brother in jealously, and from Aglaurus, the woman in classical mythology who was jealous of her sister’s relationship with the god Mercury.  Upon exiting, Dante is blinded but a light that turns out to be the angel.  I think it is the light that here wipes away the “P,” a fitting means since this terrace cures souls through blindness. 

#  #  #

Let’s ponder the theological discussions in the last three cantos and I’ll touch on the upcoming one next time.  On the terrace of envy (Canto XV), we get a dissertation on how earthly things are limited and so are reduced as people share them, but divine things multiply the more one shares.  Love breeds love, for instance.  Virgil tries to explain it to Dante after he chastises him for thinking in a limited way:

And he to me: 'Because you still
have your mind fixed on earthly things,
you harvest darkness from the light itself.

'That infinite and ineffable Good,
which dwells on high, speeds toward love
as a ray of sunlight to a shining body.

-'It returns the love it finds in equal measure,
so that, if more of ardor is extended,
eternal Goodness will augment Its own.

'And the more souls there are who love on high,
the more there is to love, the more of loving,
for like a mirror each returns it to the other.  (Purg. XV. 64-75)

The analogy is that as light through multiple mirrors augments, so does love.  It is not a coincidence that so much blinding light occurs in this canto, and it is contrasted against the sewn eyes of the penitents. 

In Canto XVI, the terrace of wrath, we get a dissertation on the nature of free will and how it perpetuates evil in the world.  Marco the Lombard explains:

To a greater power and a better nature you, free,
are subject, and these create the mind in you
the heavens have not in their charge.

'Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.
In this I will now be your informant. (XVI. 79-84)

The next couple of tercets explain why we perceive evil to come from heaven:

'From the hand of Him who looks on it with love
before it lives, comes forth, like a little girl
who weeps one moment and as quickly laughs,

'the simple infant soul that has no knowledge
but, moved by a joyous maker,
gladly turns to what delights it.

'At first it tastes the savor of a trifling good.
It is beguiled by that and follows in pursuit
if guide or rein do not deflect its love.  (XVI. 85-93)

A new soul being born in the midst of a world set in motion, does not perceive the evil that has been passed on to her day, and so identifies that evil to come from the metaphysical.  But that soul too enjoys the earthly things (“the savor of a trifling good”), pursues them, and is disordered by them, and through free will passes on the evil.  Notice how this part of the theology builds on the discussion of limited earthly goods from the previous canto.  Marco goes on to discuss why then civil authority is needed—to curb the bad choices made by our free will.

Then coming out of the fog, which is also a symbol for the wrath that swallows up those in that vice, Virgil explains the nature of love on which the whole divine order is based on.  First he explains how all things start from love:

'Neither Creator nor His creature, my dear son,
was ever without love, whether natural
or of the mind,' he began, 'and this you know. (XVII. 91-93)

So it starts with perfect love from the Creator (the natural love), and we humans take that natural love and have to filter it through our minds.  I think that’s what Dante is saying, though I admit it’s rather complicated and it’s possible I distorted the meaning.  But let’s go with that.  Virgil continues.

'The natural is always without error,
but the other may err in its chosen goal
or through excessive or deficient vigor.

While it is directed to the primal good,
knowing moderation in its lesser goals,
it cannot be the cause of wrongful pleasure.

'But when it bends to evil, or pursues the good
with more or less concern than needed,
then the creature works against his Maker. (XVII. 94-102)

So through the mind, man can either work toward the primal good with proper love or distort that love in opposition to the Divine in several ways.  Notice how here Dante is building upon the last canto’s discussion of free will.  I can’t say this enough, everything in the Divine Comedy is perfectly integrated and crafted.  Virgil explains then as I outlined in the summary of this canto, how this disordering can be a result of loving an improper thing, not loving enough of good things, or loving proper things in a distorted way.  I think you can see that without me spelling it out. 

But what’s important here is how these theological dissertations capture the nature of all that is physical and metaphysical.  Dante through his Christian understanding of the world has envisioned the totality of man and the universe.  Limited goods shape our earthly life; divine goods orient us toward God; free will requires curbing of our appetites through civil and theocratic authority; the use of our free will through our mental activity shapes our souls in either positive or negative ways.  And the way our souls are shaped leads to the structure of our afterlife.  Both purgatory and hell are shaped by the way we distort God’s natural love.  The sins shape the structure of hell in a descent, and shape the structure of purgatory in an ascent.  The difference is that those in hell have permanently distorted—twisted is a good way to think of it—their souls.  In purgatory, through repentance the process is to return to the soul you were meant to have, to untwist it into normalcy. 

The entire Divine Comedy is shaped by the theological underpinnings.  I find how Dante mirrors the intellectual underpinnings of his world view into this beautifully constructed epic to be of the utmost artistry.  I have said this is the greatest work in all of literature.  I hope I was able here to explain why.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Notable Quotes/Faith Filled Friday: Quotes from The Power of Silence

This is a combination “Notable Quotes” and “Faith Filled Friday.”

 A few months ago I had several posts from The Power of Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah.  You can find those posts here:
Part 1 here
Part 2 here
Part 3 here:

Cardinal Sarah was just so quotable I started jotting down some of the really great quotes out of his book.  I present them here for your enjoyment and moment of prayer.  Yes, reading spiritual quotes is a form of prayer.  At least I think so.

From Introduction:

This friendship was born in silence, it grew in silence, and continues to exist in silence.

Silence was the salt that seasoned this story.  Silence had the last word.  Silence was the elevator to heaven.

The silence of night is the most capable of crushing all the dictatorships of noise.

Silence is more important than any other human work.  For it expresses God.

From Chapter One:

There is one great question: how can man really be made in the image of God?  He must enter into silence.

At the heart of man is an innate silence, for God abides in the innermost part of every person.  God is silence, and this divine silence dwells in man.

If we observe the great works, the most powerful acts, the most extraordinary and striking interior transformations that God carries out in man, we are forced to admit that he works in silence. 

We listen in silence; man enters into a silence that is God.

Silence is not an absence.  On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.  

In silence man conquers his nobility and grandeur only if he is on his knees in order to hear and adore God.  It is in the silence of humiliation and self-mortification, by quieting the turmoil of the flesh, by successfully taming the noisy images, by keeping at a distance the dreams, imaginations, and roaring of the world that is always in a whirl, in order to purify himself of all that ruins the soul and separates it from contemplation, that man makes himself capable of looking at God and loving him.

God’s silence is a consuming fire for the man who approaches him.

This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder, and kneeling before God.

In silence there is a collaboration between man and God.

Persons who live in noise are like dust swept along by the wind.

Man must make a choice: God or nothing, silence or noise.

Lack of respect for silence is a form of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

From Chapter Two:

Creation itself is a silent word of God.

In heaven, speech does not exist.  There on high, the blessed communicate with each other without any words.  There is a great silence of contemplation, communion, and love.

The silence of Jesus’ death transforms, purifies, and appeases man.  It causes him to be in communion with the sufferings and death of Christ, to come back fully into the divine life.

From Chapter Three:

Sacred silence is therefore the only truly human and Christian reaction to God when he breaks into our lives.

Sacred silence, laden with the adored presence, opens the way to mystical silence, full of loving intimacy. 

Words bring with them the temptation of the golden calf!  Only silence leads man beyond words, to the mystery, to worship in spirit and in truth.

And how small would God be if we understood him.

From Chapter Four:

There is a time for human action, which is often uncertain, and a time for silence in God, which is truly victorious.  Far from vengeful, noisy, ideological rebellion, I believe in the fruitfulness of silence.  Prayer and silence will save the world.

Unless we seek to suppress all the superficial aspects of our lives, we will never be united with God.  By detaching ourselves from everything superfluous, we enter little by little into a form of silence.

 Modern existence is a propped-up life built entirely on noise, artificiality, and the tragic rejection of God.  From revolutions to conquests, from ideologies to political battles, from the frantic quest for equality to the obsessive cult of progress, silence is impossible.  What is worse: transparent societies are sworn to an implacable hatred of silence, which they regard as contemptible, backward defeat.

A man without silence is a stranger to God, exiled in a distant land that remains at the surface of the mystery of man and the world; but God is at the deepest part of man, in the silent regions his being.

When the soul is detached from the body of the departing person, it rises in an incomparable silence.  The great silence of death is the silence of the soul that travels toward another homeland: the land of eternal life.

All that is from God makes no noise.  Nothing is sudden, everything is delicate, pure, and silent.

From Chapter Five:

Silence is an extremely necessary element in the life of every man.  It enables the soul to be recollected.  It protects the soul against the loss of its identity.  It predisposes the soul to resist the temptation to turn away from itself to attend to things outside, far from God.

Man does not seek silence for the sake of silence.  The desire for silence for its own sake would be a sterile venture, a particularly exhausting aesthetic experience.  In the depths of his soul, man wants the presence and company of God, in the same way that Christ sought his Father in the desert, far from the cries and passions of the crowd. 

A Christian cannot fear silence because he is never alone.  He is with God.  He is in God.  He is for God.  In the silence, God gives me his eyes so as to contemplate him better.  Christian hope is the foundation of the true silent search of the believer.  Silence is not frightening; on the contrary, it is the assurance of meeting God.

Of course these are not all, and they may not even be the best quotes.  These are just some that caught my eye.  Try to set aside some silent time this weekend, and see if it moves you.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Dante's Purgatorio Cantos XII - XVII, Summary

Canto XII
The pilgrims continue onward in the terrace of pride and Virgil now points out engravings in the ground as if they are walking on a series of flat tombstones.  Unlike the wall reliefs at the beginning of the terrace that showed positive examples of humility, these engravings show negative examples of pride.  Remember that the penitents with the huge boulders on their necks are forced to bend down with their faces up against these images.  I’m sure your notes will identify each of the images, but it’s significant that Dante begins with the image of Lucifer falling from the sky, the original act of pride in the universe.  Also in this section of the canto (l. 25-63) each tercet starts with a specific letter, so that an acrostic is built, spelling “UOM” (the “v” having the flexibility of “u”), which is “man” in Italian.  Here Dante suggests that pride is the elemental sin within humanity, a striving to exceed God.  Upon exiting the terrace, an angel calls Dante forward, and the poet approaches in humility.  The angel brushes his wing across Dante’s forehead, wiping off one of the engraved Ps.  With one less P, Dante feels lighter as he continues upward.

Canto XIII
The pilgrims arrive on the second terrace, that of envy.  There are no images here but Dante hears voices chanting.  The first are the words of the Blessed Mother at the wedding of Cana, “They have no wine.”  The second says, “I am Orestes.”  The third, from the Beatitudes, “Love him who has done you wrong.”  We see then why there are no images but audio voices, almost as if through speakers if Dante could have imagine them, because the penitents of envy have their eyes sewn shut.  They walk around huddled together, helping each other, dependent on each other, as the blind need others for assistance.  Dante is taken back from the pity they instill.  They hear his voice and he speaks to a woman named Sapia, ironically meaning wisdom, which she says she had not.  She tells Dante how she in vengeance took great joy in watching her neighbors, some of which were her relations, at being slaughtered in a battle. She was only saved because toward the end of her life she felt compunction and then a holy man prayed for her soul.  She begs Dante to restore her name with her kin when he goes back.

Canto XIV
Two unidentified penitents overhear Dante and are amazed that he is alive in full flesh.  They ask him who he is and where he is from.  Dante answers circuitously by stating he comes from a place in Tuscany by a river.  They wonder why he doesn’t mention the river’s name and one says it is only fitting that he doesn’t since every city along the river is a place of swine and beasts.  One man identifies himself as Guido del Duca, a political Ghibelline, and he identifies his companion as Rinieri de Calboli, a political Guelph, opponents in life but here aiding each other.  Guido goes on to rant about the political figures and families in Tuscany, both Ghibelline and Guelph and their infighting and concludes with some positive examples.  As they depart, more audio voices are heard, this time of negative examples of envy.  We hear Cain’s words, Cain who was jealous of his brother Abel, and that of the mythological woman Agalauros, who was jealous of her sister’s affair with Mercury.

Canto XV
The pilgrims continue to walk up the mountain with the afternoon sun shining in their eyes when a more intense light moves toward them, an angel coming toward them.  The angel invites them to enter the next stairway, this one less steep, and as they continue they hear another Beatitude sung (“Blessed are the merciful”) and another hymn.  As they walk, Dante asks Virgil what the soul from the last canto meant about things that cannot be shared.  And so, a discussion on the nature of envy ensues.  Canto XV is the first of four cantos—right at the heart of Purgatorio, making it therefore at the center of the entire Divine Comedy—that formulates the theological vision of work.  Here Virgil explains that man focuses on temporal things that are finite, and so sharing makes each portion less, and so envy is the result from lack.  But if man would focus on infinite things—such as love or charity—then the more one shares, the more they increase.  Virgil reveals that a second “P” has been removed from Dante’s forehead.  As they continue, three scenes flash before them like movie snippets.  The first of Mary speaking to Jesus after finding him at the temple; the second of the ancient Athenian Pisistratus, who forgave a young man for grasping his daughter; and the stoning of St. Stephan who forgave his killers.  The pilgrims enter a thick smoke, the terrace of the wrathful. 

Canto XVI
The smoky air is darker than any night that Dante has experienced.  He walks as a blind man holding on to Virgil as a guide.  They can hear penitent souls chanting the Agnus Dei and other hymns.  A soul hears them and they can hear the soul, but they cannot see each other.  Dante asks for directions and the soul says he will go with him as far as he is allowed.  His name is Marco, the Lombard, and Dante asks him why the world is filled with evil that seems to be divinely fixed.  Marco explains the “world is blind” when it attributes the cause of evil to the divine.  Man, he explains, is given free will and from that freedom evil is chosen causing the world to go askew.  Then, because men choose evil, laws and morals need to be established, and two institutions need to work in harmony to create a better world.  One is the secular state to uphold earthly justice and the other the Papacy to show man the way to salvation.  It is the failure of the Papacy and secular governments to rule properly in their spheres that makes the world so degenerated.  Marco mentions several leaders who had the ability to bring the church/state functions into balance, especially “the good Gherardo,” who Dante does not know.

Canto XVII

The pilgrims start coming out of the fog and see that it is evening.  Images of negative examples of anger are seen.  They see Procne murdering her son, Haman’s anger at Mordecai from the Old Testament Book of Esther, and Amata upon Lavinia’s betrothal to Aeneas.  The images are dissolved by a great flash of light, the angel again striking his face and directing the pilgrims up the stairs.  They have reached the terrace of sloth and quite intentionally planned, Dante the pilgrim is overcome with great fatigue.  They rest here while Virgil explains the nature of love and how it emanating from God configures the whole universe.  Man is proper when he loves God and other things in proper measure.  Human sin, then he explains, is an error of love in three categorical ways.  The first is an error to love the proper things, either love of self (pride), love of other’s possessions (envy), or love of vengeance (wrath).  These are healed in the three terraces below them that they have just passed.  The second is not loving with enough zeal, sloth, the terrace they are about to enter.  The third is excessive love of proper things taken out of measure, for instance earthly possessions (avarice), appetites (gluttony), and love (lust).  Those will be healed in the terraces above.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Matthew Monday: Ninth Birthday

Saturday was Matthew’s ninth birthday.  We had a little party in the form of a BBQ at the house.  My wife put candles on two cakes and Matthew blew them out before I even had a chance to snap a picture.  This is the only picture I got.  After some of the cake was cut u.  You can see Matthew already has it in his mouth.  Silly boy.

That pitch back up against the wall was one of his gifts.  My little baby is growing so fast.  He will start fourth grade this week.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Matthew Monday: My Little Pitcher

We went to our third minor league ball game of this year Saturday night, and the fourth when you include one major league game.  The minor league games were at the Brooklyn Cyclones ball park and the one major league game was down in Baltimore.

Matthew has become skilled at getting a baseball.  He watches the players warm up before the game and as they head to the dugout he asks for a ball.  How can a ball player refuse to give a ball to a kid?  Not easily.  Matthew now claims he’s gotten a ball in four straight games.  Saturday night some young prospect for the Brooklyn Cyclones, Manny Rodriguez, tossed him this ball. 

Another thing we did at the ball park was try the pitching velocity radar.  It measures how fast you can throw.  Here’s a video clip of Matthew.  The highest he registers is 41 mph.

Not bad for an eight year old.  His father was only able to do 47 mph.  

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Literature in the News: St. Augustine On Why We Read

This is not really a news item but an essay I came across on why we read and thought it would interest my readers.  The essay comes from the website, The Catholic Thing, and the essay is by Aaron Urbanczyk, who I have never heard of before.  Mr. Urbanczyk laments the demise of reading great books, even at a university level. 

Teaching the great texts has diminished at an astonishing rate for numerous reasons, but two in particular stand out.  For many professional educators, reading is increasingly oriented toward the marketplace and getting a job.  Furthermore, humanistic learning has been dismantled by postmodern critiques, which maintain that texts are unstable, non-signifying, and without reference to truth.

I haven’t kept up with what goes on in literature departments at universities, but when I was going to college, many professors were already watering down their reading lists in the name of diversity.  There are only so many books one can assign for class, and if you have to spread the coursework to include recent works that have not met the test of time, then you can see how a coursework gets watered down.  He continues:

At universities, the great texts are often deconstructed along lines of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation.  After several decades of such ideological demolition, students and parents have reasonably concluded that the humanities are badly politicized and irrelevant, and en masse have migrated to more sensible, practical majors.

Yes, that was already going on some twenty years ago when I was in graduate school.  So what are we missing out?  Urbanczyk finds the answer in At. Augustine of Hippo.

But why should we study the great texts? St. Augustine of Hippo provides a coherent rationale.  The often touted reasons these days for reading great texts – being “well rounded,” or articulate, or culturally “sensitive” – Augustine regards as either irrelevant or a deception. For Augustine, we read great texts for one purpose:  to become wise.  Reading for any reason other than the sapiential motive is trivial.  The Confessions offers his clearest articulation of this view; he argues there that wisdom should lead to personal transformation – a matter of life and death.

The answer is for wisdom.  The classics have demonstrated in a time tested way that their message provides truth.  I’m just going to provide one more quote:

Human beings don’t read simply for information, rhetorical skill, know-how – our real reasons are deeper. Near the end of Confessions, Augustine exclaims, “Let me confess to you [Lord] what I find in your book.” This prayer is an interpretive key to Augustine’s autobiography.  Reading great texts over many years cultivated in Augustine the habit of wisdom, which equipped him to read the one book – the Word of God – which, read well, is the transformation and salvation of the soul.

You can read the rest of his very insightful essay, here.  

I hope here at this blog I am distilling some of the wisdom from the great books for you.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Comments to Dante's Purgatorio, Cantos VI to XI

One thing that should be pointed out is the thematic interconnectedness of cantos six, seven, and eight, all which contain Sordello as a supporting character.  In canto six Virgil and Dante stumble upon Sordello who is sitting solitary.  That he is solitary is odd and perhaps ironic given the theme of civic responsibility that is at the core of these three cantos but I do not think it was an accident as almost nothing in the Comedia is an accident.  Virgil approaches him for directions:

He did not speak to us
but let us approach, watching us
as would a couching lion.

Nevertheless, Virgil drew up closer,
asking him to point us to the best ascent.
To this request he gave no answer

but asked about our country and condition.
My gentle guide began: 'Mantua--'
-and the shade, who had seemed so withdrawn,

leaped toward him from his place, saying:
'O Mantuan, I am Sordello of your city.'
And the two of them embraced.  (VI. 67-75)

That he is compared to a lion suggests magnanimity, as most of the commentators note, but I think it also suggests a certain pride of place.  Notice he doesn’t answer Virgil’s question but returns with a question of his own on a completely different subject.  He asks from where they come, and not in respect to their journey as almost all ask, but from what country.  He asks about the homeland because he is fixated on people’s homelands, and, as we will see, his own.  Before Virgil is even able to finish the sentence—all he is able to get out is the name of his city, “Mantua”—and Sordello springs up and embraces him in an almost wild Italian burst of emotion, “O Mantuan, I am Sordello of your city.” 

Who is this Sordello?  He is a troubadour poet having died a just few years after the time Dante was born.  He wrote of love as most troubadour poets but he also wrote of government and leadership, and I think that is why he is noted here.  What’s interesting is that if you look at the details of his life he did not spend most of it in his home city of which he is so proud.  He lived in Provence and other Italian cities, but Dante has him here portray the role of a patriot. 

Then Dante the author goes onto his invective about Italian politics, contrasting the despicable infighting within each city-state and between the city states with Sordello’s simple love of one’s country.

Ah, Italy enslaved, abode of misery,
pilotless ship in a fierce tempest tossed,
no mistress over provinces but a harlot!

How eager was that noble soul,
only at the sweet name of his city,
to welcome there his fellow citizen!

Now your inhabitants are never free from war,
and those enclosed within a single wall and moat
are gnawing on each other.  (VI. 74-84)

Here patriotism is portrayed as love of fellow citizen, and Dante honors it.  It is not supercilious of others or exclusionary, but just as one has a special bond with one’s family members it is normal to have a special bond with one’s fellow countrymen.  I won’t get into the details of Dante’s invective; just let it suffice that wretched infighting is a result of political selfishness, zealously taking advantage of other city’s problems, the interference of the papacy into secular matters, the lack of Justice, and a lack of a centralizing authority to create a unified country.  In fact the one centralized authority that exists, the Holy Roman emperor, is situated outside Italy, has his own infighting to deal with in the German city-states, and has little interest in Italian problems.

All of this happens before Sordello even knows he is speaking with the great Latin poet Virgil.  Once he learns of it, Sordello who is a poet himself falls to the ground in reverence.  It is interesting that Dante delays this exchange between the two into the seventh Canto.  If you remember from my overview during Inferno, there are three main themes to the Commedia.  (1) The formation of Dante’s soul to be in harmony with God, achieved through the love of Beatrice.  (2) The understanding of a proper political order, which is delineated best by the exactness of God’s justice in the afterlife.  (3) The formation of a poetic work to reflect the beauty of God and His creation.  Sordello, both political figure and poet, inherently addresses themes two and three.  He takes the pilgrims into the Valley of the Princes, as it is sometimes called, and points out many of those rulers and administrators who in life were too busy with their governmental duties.  So civic responsibility is qualified here.  Yes, we have an obligation to our fellow citizens to support and govern properly, but it cannot be at the expense of shirking our duties to God.  There needs to be a balance.

And then in Canto VIII we meet specific rulers and administrators that Dante is familiar with.  The good judge, Nino Visconti.  (Side note: I always associate Judge Nino with the Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, who I believe was called Nino by friends.) Like many of the other penitents in purgatory, he asks to have his family pray for him back on earth, but we also get this description:

'The viper that leads the Milanese afield
will hardly ornament her tomb as handsomely
as the cock of Gallura would have done.'

He spoke these words, his face stamped
with a look of righteous indignation
that burns with proper measure in the heart. (VIII.79-84)

Notice his face is “stamped with righteous indignation,” a metaphor of stamping coins, which adds to the civic overtones of the character, and though indignant his heart burns with “proper measure,” the sort of balance of a good judge.  It should be noted that Judge Nino is the grandson of Count Ugolino who we met in hell eating on the brains of Bishop Ruggiere, and of course there is an implied contrast to Ugalino as a political conspirator and Nino as an honest judge.  And finally to cap off this sequence from Canto VI through VIII we come Corrado Malaspina, who their short exchange Dante exuberantly praises him and his family.

Oh,' I said to him, 'never have I been there,
in your country. But where do men dwell,
anywhere in Europe, that it is not renowned?

'The fame that crowns your house with honor
proclaims alike its lords and lands--
even those who have not been there know them,

'and, as I hope to go above, I swear to you
your honored race does not disgrace
the glory of its purse and of its sword.

'No matter how a wicked chief may warp the world,
privileged both by nature and by custom,
your race alone goes straight and scorns the evil path.'  (VIII.121-132)

High honor indeed.  So in these three cantos, Dante starts with simple patriotism, rants against the despicable Italian politics of his day, and ends with noble examples of how political figures should administer.


Here are some thoughts on Cantos IX through XI. 

The entrance into purgatory proper occurs in the tenth canto, which parallels the entrance into the City of Dis in the tenth canto of Inferno.  This again speaks to the high degree of integration within the work. 

In Canto IX, when the pilgrims approach purgatory’s gate, they climb three steps, hewn out of various stones.  I find the symbolism of these steps utterly fascinating.  First off, they are the same as the three steps that led to the altar in most pre-Vatican II church arrangements.  What do the three steps signify?  I can’t find an answer to that but the logical one would be the Trinity.  So Dante uses the same three steps to approach purgatory and as we see with the angel holding the keys, this is essentially the entrance to heaven.  So what else can these steps signify in Dante?  Hope, faith, and charity.  Hell, purgatory, heaven.  The first step is clear white, reflecting his image.  Some can consider this signifying sin but white is also innocence.  The second is dark and cracked, perhaps suggesting the man’s broken state.  The third is blood red signifying Christ’s redemption.  You can probably think of other things it can signify.  It’s a powerful image.

Each of the terraces will have a similar format in that there will be three images that are to work into the penitent’s soul as conditioning for holiness.   The one exception is the terrace of envy where the penitents are incapable of seeing, so there images are replaced with audio.  I should have been more specific in my summary.  The image from the New Testament is always from the live of the Blessed Mother.  Here in the terrace of pride is the image of the Annunciation, where she humbly accepts God’s will. 

The image from the secular world is a well-known story from the life of the emperor Trajan.  Preparing to go to fight his Dacian War, he is stopped by a widow whose son has been murder and she appeals to him to bring the murderer to justice.  He tries to put her off, but she says in her grief, what if you don’t return.  Trajan is supposed to have said, “My duty [must] be perform'd, ere I move hence: So justice wills; and pity bids me stay.”  The emperor at a moment of historical consequence, he is moved to compassion to fix an injustice of an almost insignificant person.  Dante considers Trajan the ideal ruler, so ideal that he is the only pagan that will be in heaven, as we will eventually see.

That the artist Oderisi, artist of miniature illuminations, is the penitent Dante meets in the terrace of pride is wonderfully ironic.  If an artist working in the smallest of scales can have such exuberant pride, what do artists working in large scale feel?  Or for Dante, who is writing an epic covering the full scope of Goad and man, life and after life, sin and redemption, what exuberance of pride must he overcome?   Pride is probably the sin that I personally feel is embedded in me the most.  As an engineer, one accomplishes many things, creating things from scratch.  Over time one’s ego gets inflated.  Many times I have pictured myself in this terrace.  I humbly pray that I can overcome my sin.