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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Personal Note: My Broken Nose

No I didn’t get into a fight, nor get into a car accident, nor was I drunk when I fell. 

I was sitting on the couch reading and it had turned one in the morning.  The wife and child were both sleeping upstairs.  I said to myself it’s time to get to bed.  I had been fighting bronchitis for a month and my medication was on the TV furniture (It’s more of an entertainment center) across from the couch.  I got up to get the medication when I went into a coughing fit, lost my balance, fell over, and struck my nose against the corner edge of the very hard TV Center.  Next thing I know, I’m falling down to the ground, my hands cupped over my nose, and my head vibrating like a tuning fork.  Laying on my back, I could feel the blood coming out of my nose. 

I got up, ran to the kitchen to get towels, and tried to stop the overwhelming blood from rushing all over the place.  I put my head over the sink and tried to use the faucet to wash it clean.  There was a lot of blood.  I quickly looked in the bathroom mirror and could see a good gash across the top of the nose.  It needed immediate attention.  I ran upstairs, got my wife out of bed, got Matthew dressed, and off to the Emergency Room, all the while holding my nose in a towel. 

As it turns out, the nose was broken and I needed ten stitches.  We got home at 4:30 in the morning.  All in all, it could have been worse.  I didn’t hit my mouth, or I would probably have lost teeth.  My eye glasses have a scuff mark on it that won’t come out.  I think they might have prevented my eye from hitting the edge, and that could have caused me a lot of damage. 

Here’s a picture of it, if you can stomach it. 

Matthew has started calling me Dr. Scar, and that I should be a villain fighting some super hero.  And every time we play or horse around together, something keeps hitting me in the nose.  Urrgh. 

Stitches to come out tomorrow if the snow storm that’s expected doesn’t shut everything down.

Between the bronchitis and this, it’s been a hard Lent.  But Lent should be hard. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Matthew Monday: 2017-18 Basketball Season

Matthew played basketball for his school team this winter, and it was really enjoyable, both for Matthew and us parents.  Matthew played for the second and third grade level team in the Catholic Youth Organization that ran the league.  On balance they were an average team, but they did seem to get better as the season went on.  They started the season losing and half way into the season were three wins and five losses.  A couple were close losses, but some of them were blowouts.  Then their team, the St. Rita Jaguars (his school is St. Rita’s Church), ran off five victories in a row, but unfortunately closed the season with three losses, for an overall record of eight and eight.  Still the first twelve teams make the playoffs and St. Rita’s came in eleventh.

Playoffs are elimination rounds, so if you lose, you’re out.  Their playoff game was against St. Patrick’s Church.  During the season the two teams had played a marathon of a game.  It was tied at the end of regulation time, and they had to play double overtime, both teams grabbing leads but losing it by the end of the quarter.  In the third overtime, St. Patrick’s squeezed out a victory.  So both teams were both evenly matched.

The playoff game was again evenly matched.  St. Rita took a lead but St. Patrick came back, but ultimately St. Rita held on by one basket, 14-12.  It was exciting because St. Patrick’s could have tied it at the end, but the ball failed to go into the hoop.  Amazingly the Jaguars had won their playoff game, and got to move on.  Here is a video clip from that game.  Matthew is #44, they are in their road uniform in black, and Matthew tends to wear a white undershirt beneath the tank top.  He is mostly on the far end of the camera.

Next up was another team that had beaten St. Rita’s during the regular season, Our Lady Help of Christians.  Though they lost it was still a close game, and another evenly opponent.  In this game, St. Rita was mostly down during most of the game, trailing as much as by six points.  But they tied in in the fourth quarter and with three seconds to go their point guard, Jackson, drove for the basket and was fouled.  All he needed to do was make a foul shot for the lead, and he sunk it!  St. Rita won 15-14. 

Here is a photo of Matthew trapping one of the opponents by the edge of the court and trying to take the ball.  Again St. Rita is wearing the road black. 

By the way, they wore the road black throughout the playoffs because their opponents all had better records during the season.  With this second playoff win, they were in the Quarter Finals.  Winner would go on to the championship game.  This time, however, their opponent would not be an evenly matched one, but one that routed them easily, Church of Sacred Heart.  There were two kids on Sacred Heart’s team that were just superior.  One of them was a full head and shoulders taller than any of the kids.  I wonder if he had gotten left back to be in third grade.  But St. Rita scored the first point off a foul shot, and actually took a 1-0 lead.  Sadly though, that was St. Rita’s only lead as Sacred Heart ran off 23 consecutive, unanswered points.  The final score was 23-3.  But what a glorious run.  St. Rita got better as the season went on and far exceeded the expectations.

Here is a video clip from that last game.  Matthew sees quite a bit of action in this clip.  You’ll see him run behind one of the Sacred Heart players and steal the ball, unfortunately he passes it errantly back to them, the Sacred Heart kid drives for the basket, Matthew blocks his shot but fouls him.  After the foul shots, Matthew is back in the St. Rita end of the court, gets a pass in the far corner, tries to take a shot but gets blocked.  Here:

Here is a team photo, though incomplete; a few players somehow didn’t get in.

Finally here is Matthew with his participation trophy.

Did I already say this was a lot of fun for the parents too?  I guess I did!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Faith Filled Friday: The First Station

Excerpt from Caryll Hollander’s The Way of the Cross.  You can read about the book at last week’s post, here.  

Jesus is Condemned to Death


He is a man of sorrows. He is covered in bruises and stripes. He is made a laughing stock. He is crowned with a crown of thorns. A reed is put into His hand for a sceptre, a tattered soldier’s cloak is thrown over His naked shoulders. His eyes are blindfolded. His face is covered with spittings. He is bound like a dangerous criminal. His own people have chosen a murderer before Him. His friends have forsaken Him. The kiss of treason burns on His cheek.

“He has no comeliness whereby we shall desire him!”

“He is a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people.”

And He is condemned to death.

“Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” 

“Behold the man!”

“Behold the Son of God!”

Behold the man abiding in mankind!

He had put on our humanity. He has put you on—and me. He had covered Himself with our shame, blindfolded His eyes with our blindness, bound Himself with our slavery to self. He is bruised by our falls. He bleeds from our wounds. He sheds our tears. He has made Himself weak with our weakness. Faint with our faintheartedness. He is going to die our death.

All men are condemned to die, but He is condemned to die not only His own death, but yours and mine, and that of every man whom He will indwell through all the ages to come.

“Behold the Son of God!”

“This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!”

He alone, of all men born, need not have died; but because things are as they are, because we have to pay the price of our sins, and our life on this earth must inevitably be a journey through suffering to death, Christ has chosen to give Himself to every man who will receive Him, so that each man who wills can tread that road with the feet of Christ, and at the end of it he can, if he wills, die not his own death but Christ’s.

That is why death is the choice of Divine Love: “Dost thou doubt that if I call on my Father, even now, he will send more than twelve legions of angels to my side? But how, were it so, should the scriptures be fulfilled, which have prophesied that all must be as it is?” (Matt. xxvi.53–54). His bound hands hold back the legions of angels.

He has chosen our impotence in order to give us the power of His love, our weakness to give us His strength, our fear to give us His courage, our ignominy to give us His majesty, our pain to give us His peace, our wounds to give us His power to heal, our dying to give us His life; our interdependence that we may give Him to one another.

“Behold the man.”

In Him behold mankind!  (pp. 6-8)

All quotes taken from the 2015 reprint edition by Angelico Press, which is a republication of the original work published by Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1955.

And here is a wonderful exegesis on the first station by a young friar from my favorite of the religious orders, a Matthew Jarvis OP from the Dominican Order, Province of England.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

From Islam to Christ by Derya Little, Part 1

Conversion stories usually are interesting if the converter converts to your faith.  Derya Little’s conversion story, documented in her wonderful book, From Islam to Christ: One Woman’s Path through the Riddles of God, is perhaps a more extraordinary than most, and so perhaps might interest more than just Catholics.  First off she was born and raised to Muslim parents in a country that claims to be 99.8% Islamic, the Republic of Turkey.  Perhaps that claim might be exaggerated, but nonetheless the Muslim religion is probably near universal in the country.  That she went from Muslim to atheist to Protestant Christian to Roman Catholic is also rather extraordinary, especially when you consider how few Christians are even in Turkey.  Also interesting is the passionate adherence to each of her shifts.  So when she became an atheist, she was of the virulent variety; when a Protestant Christian, a staunch one; and when a Roman Catholic, a convicted one.  That Derya Little is incredibly intelligent (if I read correctly she has a Ph.D in international politics) means that her transitions took place with intellectual examination, and in this, her confessional memoir, she walks us through the intellectual transitions, filtered through her life experiences, in much the way of St. Augustine in his Confessions.  This is an extraordinary book.

The only way to do this book justice is try to capture the key transitional moments.  She grew up in what I take to be a relatively typical Turkish household.  Turkey is not the strict Islamic country as its Islamic neighbors, so the faith was not adhered to with a fundamentalist discipline, but still she went through Islamic education and learned the rudiments as any child in a western country goes through catechesis.  It was a nuclear family in that there was a mother, father, son, and daughter, with the only somewhat atypical element being that the mother worked, somewhat unusual, but more common in the large city Derya grew up.  The problem began in her pre-teen years when her father decided he was happier with other women, and ultimately wanted an open relationship with a mistress.  This was not acceptable to the mother, and so they divorced, which left the mother and the children in some financial difficulty. 

The divorce was shattering to the pre-teen child, and the disillusionment spread out into other parts of her life.  If the father she had put so much faith in could dissolve her family just like that, what other things she had put faith in were questionable.  She had not lost her faith, but her faith became nominal, if not perfunctory.  She turned to reading, a rather intellectual sort of reading for a teenager.  Through a friend, who had similar reading interests, though she was raised atheist, she was introduced to Turan Dursun, a Muslim scholar who had spent years understanding religion, only to come to the conclusion that it was false.  Ultimately Darsun was murdered by the fundamentalists, but he had written a number of books which Derya devoured.  Here’s an excerpt:

In the first book…God and the Quran, Dursun laid out the shortcomings and contradictions of Allah and Muhammed.  By that time, I had not read the Quran in Turkish, nor did I have the desire to read the numerous hadith, or traditions left behind by Muhammed.  In contrast, Dursun had devoted his formative years and a significant part of his adult life to the study of Islam…

[The book] begins by explaining Muhammed’s sexual deviancy and how new verses supposedly sent by Allah happened to accommodate his sexual whims.  For instance, at first Muhammed was supposed to sleep with as many wives in an orderly fashion so as to not skip anyone.  But then he received a revelation from Allah that he could sleep with whichever wife he wanted.  Allah so accommodated Muhammed’s carnal desires that if the prophet wanted a woman, her husband was required to divorce his wife so that she could be Muhammed’s.  This

One of the many other examples of Muhammed's sexual life that Dursun dwelled on, which had disturbed me even before I came to know Dursun's writings, was the prophet's betrothal to a six-year old child, Aisha.  Even though Muhammad did not have intercourse with her until she was nine years old and he was fifty-two, in the Sunnah Aisha recounts the day she was taken to his bed chamber, a day she had to leave her friends behind while they played on the swing and the teeter-totter.  I felt sick as I read the account of Aisha.  I thought of my sweet little neighbor who was almost nine and pictured her being married to a middle-aged man.  Instead of finding Muhammed's behavior disturbing, Islamist theologians have reasoned that since a girl of nine could cause lust in man, nine years old must be a marriageable age.  Hence the child brides in Muslim countries.  To this day this abhorrent practice steals the childhood of many girls, and it was started and sanctioned by Muhammed.

Muhammed's sexual conduct had many more elements that are repulsive.  Muhammed's legitimization of polygamy, child brides, domestic rape, and rape of women captured during battle were enough for me to take another step away from a religion founded by this kind of man.

So the first disillusionment with Islam had to do with the realization that Muhammed was far from the "perfect man" as claimed when it came to his private life.  Derya doesn't say but one wonders if the disillusionment with her father's behavior had made her more sensitive to seeing these ugly warts.  The second disillusionment had to do with what Islam itself stood for, and perhaps this was much more damaging. 

Alongside Ottoman history, the history of Islam is taught in Turkish elementary, middle, and high schools.  Textbooks chronicle the conquests of Muhammed and those of Islamic countries.  They claim that the holy prophet was trying to save stubborn and sinful people by bringing them under the rule of Islam, the only true religion.  Islam's expansion was good not only for the new territories that "willingly" came under its rule but also for Muhammed and for the glory of Allah.  I do not remember ever questioning whether the people of these strange lands wanted to become Muslims, or in what manner they agreed to come under Islamic rule.  Since there was no mention of bloody conquests or forced conversions, we assumed in our childhood innocence that all went smoothly as people joined the Islamic ranks with chants of bliss.

To me that sounds like the communist indoctrination of their people as they distort the facts and gloss over the details to make the immoral sound moral.  Derya went on to learn in excruciating detail of cutthroat strategies, the mercilessness of the warriors, and the viciousness with those that surrendered.

In book after book I read about Muhammed's life.  Since the naiveté and the submission of my previous years had left me long ago, I understood that not all who converted to Islam had the option to refuse.  For many, it was a choice between life and death.  If people were convicted enough to hold on to their own beliefs, such as the Jews of Mecca, available options under Islam were exile, alienation, and many times the bloody edge of the sword.  Muhammed could never claim that the killing he did and the wars he waged were for self-defense.  He became a warrior through and through, craving power over men and women alike.

It was hard to believe that I had been so blinded to the truth that Muhammed was yet another power-hungry man who was willing to do whatever it took to expand his empire…The veil was lifted.  After having read these accounts with fresh eyes, I was appalled at how so many people, including myself, could blindly follow this man.  He was not much worse than many kings, emperors, and sultans as far as his military affairs were concerned, but his claim to having been entrusted with bringing the one and only religion to the people was reprehensible.  How could I follow a man who had no conscience?  Muhammed not only wielded the sword, but also approved and encouraged the use of force to expand the kingdom of Allah.  The verses the Angel Gabriel supposedly brought him varied according to his political agenda.  As the Islamic state grew, Muhammed's power, wealth, and influence reached new heights.  He claimed what he wanted for himself.

Now does that sound like a "perfect man?”  Sex and power and wealth are not attributes that come with spiritual people, or with those that desire spirituality.  Derya's characterization as "the veil was lifted" is a perfect metaphor.  Derya goes on to summarize her complete loss of faith.

In Muhammed's life, I saw blood, destruction, and selfishness, not the acts of a sinless man, as the Muslims claim him to be.  I realized that the exalted founder of Islam was only a sinful man who used his influence to further himself.  I could not even respect him for his accomplishments.  Thus I completely turned my back on Islam.  I could not possibly follow a man so violent and selfish.  If there were someone I would be willing to lay my life down for, he would have to be willing to sacrifice himself for me and to promote selflessness and peace instead of chasing after the pleasures of this world.  As far as I knew, there was no such man.

After Muhammed's time, the reign of bloodshed did not diminish.  Muslim leaders continued to wage wars and to subjugate other peoples in the name of Allah.  By reading the history of Islam from the seventh century until the present day, one can see that Islam is not a religion of peace but of submission.  Thus, I came to the conclusion that religion was nothing more than an effective way for power-hungry men to manipulate people.  There was no authenticity or genuineness to be found in any religion, I decided.  I wholeheartedly believed that all religions started in the same way that Islam did and likewise evolved into a means to control the masses.  I therefore wanted nothing to do with any of them.

It would probably be an understatement to say Derya was a preconscious teenager.  While going from faith to atheism is actually an easy transition—young adults seem to do it all the time—Derya’s transition required the absorption of quite a lot of theology and history and a real look in at the core of her culture to find her faith on its face value didn’t pass an inner, moral test.  That is quite a leap for a teen, but especially so for a teen coming from a religion where social pressures are especially controlling.  She rebelled, and with the rebellion came a certain freedom, and alongside the dissolution of her family led to troublesome early teen and young adulthood years.

There I was, barely a teenager, with little parental supervision and even less moral guidance.  Needless to say, things went downhill for a while.  Since I had surrounded myself with similarly minded and misguided friends, as I drifted away from Islam, I started to embrace forbidden practices.  First in line was alcohol.

It didn’t stop with alcohol.  She went on to pills and smoking, but through it all she kept reading.  She read Freud and Marx and Nietzsche, which hardened her heart in atheism.  But she built up an impressive basis of knowledge, learned French and English, and scored in the top one percent in the academic tests of whole country and was accepted in the University of Istanbul.  Now free completely of her household she lived with boyfriends and got pregnant and twice had an abortion.

This already got long, so stay tuned for Part 2.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos XXX thru XXXIV

Some random thoughts.  Ice is the final state for the worst sinners in Cocytus.  Why ice?  Flame is the sign of the Holy Spirit, and one burns with the love of God.  One is purged by fire in Purgatory.  The Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost as a breath of flame, but Satan in Cocytus whips up the winds that freeze as a frigid breath.  Ice freezes one into a final state, preserving the final state of the heart.  In physics, cold is the absence of heat, not really its own condition.  Dante could not have known that, but as it turns out evil is the absence of good, again not its own condition.  I think Dante would have been happy to make the analogy.

Back in Canto XXI, when the leader of the Malebranche blew a fart, I had said that Hollander pointed out that the critic Gian Roberto Saroli said the fart and the razzes by the other Malebranche were only musical notes in hell.  Well isn't the horn blast in XXXI by Nimrod a musical note?  Maybe Saroli meant the only musical notes in the Malebolge, not all of hell?  I don't know.  It seems to me the horn is a musical note.  It's not important.

The incoherence of Nimrod's unartful speech accentuates the theme of building the language and poetry that praises God.  Dante follows the belief that God created the beauty of language that got degenerated into a babel of tongues, and Nimrod is supposed to have been the legendary cause of it.

I'm not sure it was clear in the last Canto, but a time scheme is provided.  If you break through the hints, you can deduce two 24 hour periods between when Dante starts his journey back in Canto I and when he exits the underground of hell at the end of Canto XXXIV, but the perception of time is greatly distorted.  It takes 24 hours to go through all of hell, which is the thirty-three and a half cantos before they go into that crevice and 24 hours to walk through the underground in the second half of the last canto to reach the purgatory island.  How can they have gone through all of hell in 24 hours?  Dante is just as adept with time distortion as the modernist writers.

Dante's hell is portrayed as a funnel of concentric, descending circles.  But with all the ravenous eating that happens, especially here in the lower reaches (tenth bolge where the sinners rip into each other, Ugolino eating the brains of Ruggieri, Satan munching on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, perhaps one can look at hell as a digestive tract.  Eating is definitely a motif here, and I think it's meant to be a parody of eating the body of Christ. 

Such mimic parody of sacred activities and ideas run throughout, as I have pointed out with the three sinners in Satan’s mouth as parodies of the three crucified at Golgotha.  Such parodies run throughout literature, but mostly in modern literature.  I can't think of another literary work prior to the modernist movement that relied on parodies of Christian theology.  Can anyone think of any?  Did Dante invent this?  I like to think of such parodies as the inverse of that which they parody. 

Irene was surprised that alongside Judas are two Romans from antiquity, Brutus and Cassius.  Yes, they are subordinate in importance to Judas Iscariot.  Remember Judas is in the middle and the region of hell, Judecca, is named after him, which is kind of odd since Brutus and Cassius died chronologically before Judas and would have been in hell before him.  But despite being ancillary to Judas, their importance is still paramount.  Remember the three themes that are overarching to the Comedia: man's relationship to God, man's relationship to society, and building the language that reflects the beauty of the Divine.  Brutus and Cassius assassinated the just lord of what would be the Roman Empire, and the Empire to Dante was the proper arrangement of society.  Ideally Dante probably would have wanted an evil poet who betrayed someone to be placed in one of Satan's mouths, and therefore represent each one of his overarching themes.  I guess there was no one, and so he doubled up with two Romans.

That Dante selected two Romans from antiquity is important for more reasons.  Throughout the Inferno you kept seeing characters from the classical world as well as those surely in Christendom.  Dante is knitting together the two worlds as complementary and continuous.  The early days of Christianity struggled with how to understand their classical roots, but ultimately they came to accept them.  Dante clearly does, but this is over a thousand years after the start of Christianity.  Personally I find the mythical characters incorporated rather hokey, one of my minor criticisms.  Though legendary characters such as Ulysses might have been real in Dante's mind, surely he knew the Minotaur wasn't real.  Hell is the only part of the Comedia he can use pagan world persons, so he does maximize interspersing them.  Remember one can only be saved if you're a noble Jew or a Christian, so classical world persons do not figure much in Purgatorio and Paradisio, though by hook and by crook Dante does sneak a few in. 

The Roman world was also important because it was through the Roman Empire that God spread Christianity.  If God had given Constantine a sign to conquer, then the integration of Christianity with the Roman Empire was divinely sanctioned.  So Brutus' and Cassius' assassination was an attempt to thwart the will of God that would have established the best of secular government possible.  To Dante, the Roman secular government was a check on the clergy and set up a rational organization of society.  If you look at the trend in the severity of sins - in increase of severity: sins of appetite, sins of heresy, sins of violence, the Malebolge which are sins of undermining society, sins of treachery - they represent a trend toward the greater dissolution of community.  The tenth bolge, that for counterfeiters where now it's not demons exacting punishment but other sinners on each other, shows Dante's view that the undermining of community is the greatest sin because it creates cynicism and doubts to its legitimacy.  Dante stresses, therefore, that the community takes precedence over the individual. 

Finally one last trend we see culminate in the last cantos is Dante's loss of pity for those in hell.  Remember at the beginning he had such compassion for Francesca and Ciacco in those early circles, but his sense of pity seems to attenuate as the journey progresses, and finally in these last cantos he is hardened and willing to exact justice himself.  He feels nothing for the suffering and the slapstick violence of those in the tenth bolge, no compassion or even contrition for the face he accidently (or divinely guided) kicks, no compassion for the traitor Bocca - indeed he tries to pull out his hair - no compassion, except for the children, for Ugolino's tragic story, and no compassion for Fra Alberigo, even reneging on a promise to him.  One can say that this loss of compassion for those in hell is the lesson that Dante the pilgrim learns as he goes on his journey.  Today we might be taken aback by that.  There are those today that pray for those in hell, and personally I think Christians should have compassion for all, even those undergoing eternal punishment.  But here's Dante's view.  Those in hell have come to God's divine justice, and to hope otherwise is to work against God's will. 

One other point I forgot to make.  As I said in my summary, being inverted while traveling out of hell is his imaginative understanding of what it means to pass from the northern hemisphere to the southern.  Notice when he passes what I think is the midpoint of Satan, he crossed the equator.  When the pilgrims come to the outside world again, they find themselves on the shores of an island, which they will discover when the sun comes out that it’s the island of purgatory.  Dante’s geology is interesting and will be further explained in the Purgatorio.  I’ve never completely understood it, but the critics say it makes sense.  Notice though, Dante in the early 1300’s knows the earth is round.  Don’t let people tell you that it was only with Columbus that people realized the earth was not flat.  It was known before hand.  The one thing Dante seems to get wrong I think is that he believes there is a 12 hour time difference between the northern and southern hemisphere.  Time differences work across longitudinal lines, not latitudinal lines.  There would be no time difference if Dante had just traveled due south on the same longitudinal line.


Since the Ugolino scene, spanning Cantos XXXII and XXXIII, is so famous I should examine it in some detail.  The pilgrims have just left the traitorous Bocca behind when they stumble onto two souls locked together.

We had left him behind when I took note
of two souls so frozen in a single hole
the head of one served as the other's hat.  (XXXII. l. 124-6)

Describing Ugolino as Ruggieri’s cap is I think meant to be funny, though we will see it’s dark, ghastly humor.  The top man is gnawing on the brain of the bottom man, and Dante gets rather specific:

As a famished man will bite into his bread,
the one above had set his teeth into the other
just where the brain's stem leaves the spinal cord. (127-129)

Apparently Ugolino’s mouth is right at the base of the skull, just above the neck.  And Dante asks him, 'O you, who by so bestial a sign/show loathing for the one whom you devour,/tell me why’ (133-5).  The “bestial” significance is clearly emphasized and shows how when community breaks down man returns to a savage state.  It is also meant to recall the three beasts that were chasing Dante at the beginning of the Inferno in Canto I.  If one of the beasts had caught Dante, would he be in Ruggieri’s position?  We were never told what was the cause of Dante’s midlife crises.  Was it something as sinful as Ruggieri?  Probably not, nonetheless there is a parallel.  Side note: isn’t it stunning that a bishop, a man of religion, would be as cunning and viscious as Ruggieri? 

With skillful use of suspense, Dante holds off Ugolino’s response until the next canto.

He raised his mouth from his atrocious meal,
that sinner, and wiped it on the hair
of the very head he had been ravaging.

Then he began: 'You ask me to revive
the desperate grief that racks my heart
even in thought, before I tell it.

'But if my words shall be the seeds that bear
infamous fruit to the traitor I am gnawing,
then you will see me speak and weep together. (XXXIII.l. 1-9)

Hollander points out that Ugolino’s first words 'You ask me to revive/the desperate grief that racks my heart’ echo Aeneas’ words in The Aeneid when he is asked to tell the story of the fall of Troy and his escape from the burning city.  It is a memory most painful as he had witnessed the slaughter of his friends and relatives.  Ugolino too is dealing with a painful memory.  It’s interesting to contrast that Aeneas heroically saves his father and children at his horrific moment while Ugolino indirectly causes his children’s deaths.  Memory will be an important theme in Purgatorio in that we are presented with the problem of how do sinners who repent clean away a sinful memory, since memory is almost a reliving of that sin.  Ugolino’s punishment, and actually all the sinners in hell, includes the eternal memory of their sin.

Dante takes it for granted that his reader knows the Ugolino/Ruggieri story, which I outlined in my summary for this canto.  The two had colluded on a series of betrayals with ultimately Ruggieri betraying Ugolino by locking him and his children in a tower and starving them to death.  Ugolino’s story focuses on the starvation inside the tower.  First, before food was withheld, he tells how he had a premonition of his future, ‘when, in a dreadful dream,/the veil was rent, and I foresaw the future’ (26-7).  “The veil was rent” connects with the Christ’s crucifixion, the veil in the temple being split (Matt 27:51).  His dream is of a lord (standing for Ruggieri) hunting a wolf and wolfcubs (Ugolino and his children) with hounds, and the hounds ripping at the wolf’s flesh. 

Ugolino next turns to Dante and realizes Dante is unmoved by the story.

'You are cruel indeed, thinking what my heart
foretold, if you remain untouched by grief,
and if you weep not, what can make you weep? (40-2)

He is looking for pity it seems, and when he doesn’t receive any he ups the ante on his story.  He tells of when he wakes and at the hour he would normally have been fed, instead of food he heard the nailing shut of the door.  His reaction was of being stunned: 'I was so turned to stone inside I did not weep’ (49).  How should we take that?  A heart of stone tends to imply a lack of compassion.  He doesn’t weep but his children weep.  They don’t have a heart of stone.  Ugolino says that he gnawed his hands in sorrow, while the children thought he did it out of hunger.  Should we believe him?  Many of the souls encountered in Inferno have not been completely straight with the truth.  The children offer themselves for food.  He doesn’t offer himself as food for them.  Is there a selfish motive here for not telling the full truth?  I suspect so. 

Ugolino goes on to tell on how one by one his children died in front of him.  And he concludes his story, the bodies of his children in front of him, with enigmatic line, “Then fasting had more power than grief” (75).  Are we to read it as because of his grief he was able to fast from eating his children, or the hunger from not having eaten overwhelmed his grief and he ate his children to survive as long as possible?  Hollander goes on to explain both readings have at various times been in vogue, and that the historical evidence probably, though not conclusively, showed he did not eat his children.  However, this is a work of fiction, and Dante has at times altered history for his use.  But it’s unclear if Dante even knew the reality; tales have a way acclimating barnacles.  Look at the very next lines.

Having said this, with maddened eyes he seized
that wretched skull again between his teeth
and clenched them on the bone just like a dog. (76-8)

Ugolino seized with rage returns to gnawing on Ruggieri.  The memory of gnawing on his children is what I think overwhelms him.  And the cannibalism on Ruggieri becomes poetic justice as eternal punishment.  And the feeding upon other human beings is an ongoing motif in these latter cantos.  Why would Dante not go as far with it as possible?  I believe Ugolino did eat the bodies of his children, until he too died.

With that I conclude this survey of Dante’s Inferno.  I hope you got something out of it.  The book club will be taking up Purgatorio in a few months, probably around June.  Currently we are reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.  I should have a few posts on that, but come and join the Catholic Thought Book Club at Goodreads.  It’s free and filled with good discussion.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Faith Filled Friday: The Way of the Cross by Caryll Houselander, Via Crucis

I have seen many a devotional passage from Caryll Houslander, but this is the first book I’ve read by her.  This was a perfect Lenten read with some of her characteristic insights and lovely prose.  Houselander was a British Catholic artist, mystic, and writer during the first half of the twentieth century.  In The Way of the Cross, she walks us through the Stations of the Cross, each chapter being one of the stations.  At each station she puts you in the scene of Christ’s suffering, moves to some theological point, connects that station to our lives, and concludes with a prayer poem.  In what stands for an introduction, titled Via Crucis, she walks you into a church where a group is praying the Stations.

Three o’clock on a grey afternoon. Outside, a steady drizzle of rain; inside the church, an odd motley of people.

A smartly dressed woman, side by side with one who is shabby and threadbare. A boy and girl who appear to be in love. A very old man, so bowed that he is permanently in an attitude of adoration. A stalwart young soldier whose polished buttons glitter like gems in the candlelight. A couple of students, shabbily but elegantly dressed in corduroys and bright scarves, rubbing shoulders with a gaunt, round-shouldered man who looks like a tramp. A sprinkle of small children. And behind them all, as if he felt himself to be the modern Publican, though there is no reason why he should, a thickset, square-shouldered business man. And a few seconds before the priest, in come a couple of rather flustered little nuns, like birds shaking the rain off their black feathers.

What a diversity of places these people must have come from—luxury flats, tenements, small boardinghouses, institutions, barracks, studios, colleges, doss houses, schools, offices, convents. What sharp contrast there must be between their different lives and circumstances! But they seem to be strangely at one here, gathered round a crude coloured picture on the wall of the church, “The First Station of the Cross,” and it seems to come naturally to them to join together in the same prayer:

“We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee.”

“Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.”

The tender rhythmic prayer that has been on the lips of men all through the ages is repeated fourteen times as they move slowly around the church, following the priest from station to station, until they reach the last of all, “Jesus Laid in the Tomb.” (pp. 1-2)

All quotes taken from the 2015 reprint edition by Angelico Press, which is a republication of the original work published by Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1955.

Houselander goes on to explain what the Stations are and their significance, but she ultimately comes to connect them in us:

Different though each human being is from every other, uniquely his own though each one’s experience is, there are certain inevitable experiences which are common to all men and from which none can escape. One of these is death. Another is love. Every human being alive is on the road to death. Every one is capable of love for someone, even if it is only for himself, and the price of love, perhaps particularly of self-love, is suffering. But the power of love, and this does not apply to self-love, is to transform suffering, to heal its inevitable wounds.

Now it is easier to understand what it is that brings the incongruous motley of people together to “make the Way of the Cross.” Each one meets himself on the Via Crucis, which is the road through death to life. In Christ he finds the meaning of his own suffering, the power of his own capacity for love. He finds the explanation of himself in Our Lady too, the Mother of Christ in whose soul He is formed perfectly, as He was once formed perfectly in her body. And in those others too, who are taking part in the Passion of the Son of Man—Simon of Cyrene, Magdalen and John, Veronica, the Women of Jerusalem, the Good Thief, the Centurion, the man who lent his tomb, the scattered apostles who crept back, and ran to the empty tomb on the morning of resurrection. Those in whom, through grace and mercy, Christ is being formed, and growing from the darkness of the buried seed to His full flowering.  (pp. 4-5)

I’m going to try to give you a sample on each Friday coming up to Easter from a particular station.  During Lent I try to pray the Stations every night, with a success rate of two out of three nights.  I encourage everyone to pray them, even if it’s occasional.  I probably get the most spiritual uplift from praying the Stations than from any other single prayer or devotional.  If you don’t know how to pray them, you can read about it here.  If it’s easier to do it in community, I’m sure your local Catholic Church prays them frequently during Lent, but there are many youtube clips to pray along to.  They tend to be filled with meditations that you want to simplify.  It doesn’t need take more than fifteen minutes.  Here is one.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Dante's Inferno, Cantos XXX thru XXXIV

Continuing on with the summary of Dante's Inferno.  First installment was here. Second installment here. Third installment here.  Fourth installment here.  Fifth installment here.  

The pilgrims continue on in the 10th bolge of the Malebolge, where the sinners of counterfeiters reside, their flesh and bowels rotting away as they caused the body of society to rot.  They are still standing beside Griffolino and Capocchio, when suddenly another sinner, Gianni Schicchi, who impersonated a dead man to alter the real dead man’s will, grasped Capocchio, sunk his teeth in him, and dragged him away.  The pilgrims then encounter a man bloated with dropsy, Master Adam, a counterfeiter of the Florin, who now wishes to just have a drop of water.  He identifies the wretches who are about, speaking disparagingly of them, especially of Sinon, the Greek, who faked surrender to the Trojans so that he could persuade them to take in the Trojan Horse.  Sinon, insulted, strikes Master Adam, who strikes back and the two engage in slapstick violence on each other.  (Canto XXX)

The pilgrims proceed out of the Malebolge into a sort of interspace before reaching the pit of Cocytus where they hear a horn blast.  What at first appear to be towers of a city surrounding the pit are in fact a series of giants that protect it.  The first of the giants they pass is Nimrod, who tradition holds was the builder of the Tower of Babel and responsible for variety of the languages across the earth.  He can neither understand what you say nor speak coherently, but he does have a horn hanging from his neck.  Next is the giant Ephialtes, who joined in the attack to depose the Greek gods.  He is bound in chains.  Finally they arrive at Antaeus, who had faught and lost to Hercules, and Virgil conjures him to lift and place them down to the floor of Cocytus.  The two pilgrims holding on to each other are taken in the Giant’s hand and placed down below.  (Canto XXXI)

Dante has a look about him on Cocytus and finds a frozen world where souls are embedded in ice to the head.  Cocytus is divided into four parts but without any demarcation between them.  The souls are just in a different position to indicate four gradations of treachery.  The first is Caina, named after Cain, the killer of his brother Able.  This section is reserved for those that were treacherous against their family.  In Caina the sinners heads are tilted downward, and so the tears from their eyes freeze against the ground and lock their heads into a fixed position.  He comes across the Alberti brothers who in life were of opposite political parties, and killed each other.  He meets Camiciaone de’ Pazzi, who, treacherous in life, treacherously identifies several souls.  The then pilgrims cross over Antenora, the next section, named after the Trojan traitor Antenor, the place where traitors of homeland reside.  Here Dante stubs his foot against a soul and asks him who he is.  The soul refuses to answer but because he has mentioned the Battle of Monteparti, Dante tries to force him to squeal by pulling his hair out.  The screams from the soul cause a ruckus in which neighboring souls identify him as Bocca degli Abati, the Guelph who cooperated to give the Ghibellines the victory.  In retaliation, Bocca identifies all the other souls.  Finally the pilgrims see two souls frozen together, one gnawing on the brain of the other.  (Canto XXXII)

The soul gnawing on the brain of the other stops to tell his tale, wiping his mouth clean on the other’s hair.  He is Count Ugolino and the  other is Archbishop Ruggieri.  Ugolino had been a Pisan Ghibelline, but betrayed them by joining up with the Archbishop who was a Guelph.  Then in turn the two betrayed another Guelph Nino Visconti.  Finally the Archbishop betrayed Ugolino by locking him and his four sons in a tower and nailing the door shut so that they would starve to death.  Ugolino tells of the most piteous tale of how his four children offered themselves to be eaten to save the father.  But they all died.  With that Ugolino returns to gnawing on the Archbishop’s head.  The pilgrims move on to the third section of Cocytus, Ptolomea, the place where those who were treacherous to their guests reside, and where the souls heads are facing upward, so the tears freeze in a pool that shuts their eyes.  They meet Fra Alberigo, another friar from the Jovial Order, Alberigo had invited two of his relatives who he had had a dispute for dinner and had them slaughtered.  But Dante is surprised because he knows of Alberigo still to be alive.  Just when you might have thought Dante had run out of ideas, Alberigo explains that those that commit this heinous sin sometimes have their soul stripped out of their living body and sent to hell while their body lives on with a demon in it.  (Canto XXXIII)

The pilgrims advance to the final section of Cocytus, Judecca, named after Judas Iscariot, for those that betrayed just lords.  Virgil announces it by sardonically misquoting the Vexilla regis by stating the standards of the king of Hell advance.  “Behold Dis,’ he parodies the Ecco homo and Dante beholds Satan who is 2000 feet high, has three heads (a red, a yellow, and a black) each with a sinner in its mouth, Judas Isacriot and on each side the two Romans who betrayed Julius Ceasar, Brutus and Cassius.  Satan has six bat-like wings on his body impotently trying to gather flight but unable, and causing the wind that freezes Cocytus.  The souls in Judecca are completely submerged and frozen in place, so there is no way to identify anyone else.  Virgil says it is time to go, and so climbing down Satan, and being inverted when they reach his mid point, they enter a crevice in the rock (or is it ice?) that leads them out.  When they were inverted it meant they had passed to the southern hemisphere, where Dante imagines the gravity to have changed direction.  Through the underground passage they reach the exit and can now once again see the beauty of the stars.  (Canto XXXIV)