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

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Fathers of the Church by Mike Aquilina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 24, 2019

Comments to Dante’s Paradiso, Cantos XXIII thru XXVI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second simile describes how Christ brightens all around him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly, what beauty.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

Matthew Monday: School Concert and Lip Synch Show

Matthew’s school put on their annual show for the school families.  It’s a combination orchestral performances and lip synch dancing.  Matthew participated in both this year. 

I got there late, so I didn’t get a very good seat.  I’m in the back and the pictures didn’t come ut the best.  Here’s a picture of violin orchestra.  Matthew is there on the left in the front.

Now here is a clip I was able to video.  It’s called Allegro from some composer named Suzuki.  That will be their music teacher who will lead the class, and at about the 59 second mark she will point to Matthew for a solo.  The solo is only about five seconds long and then she’ll point to a couple of others.

So cute.

As to the lip synch, I have no clue what song they were performing.  I lost the program.  I didn’t get any video but here are a few pictures.  Matthew is the boy on the right.

Personally I didn’t care for any of the lip synch performances but the kids had fun.  Isn’t he cute?  My little boy is growing too fast!  

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Dante's Paradiso Cantos XXIII - XXVI, Summary


In the Starry Sphere, Dante (the character) is overwhelmed with Beatrice’s beauty.  As she stares at the heavens, he compares her to a mother bird awaiting the sun to rise.  Suddenly she directs Dante to the sky for him to see Christ passing in a triumph.  He notices that Beatrice’s face is aflame from the brightness that is blazing that is Christ.  The brightness is so intense that Dante cannot endure it.  Beatrice explains that this light is that which redeemed mankind.  She then instructs him to open his eyes, and now not only can he see, but he can withstand to see her smile.  Dante is so overcome that he cannot find the words to represent the immensity of it all.  Beatrice then points to Virgin Mary, also in the sky, described as a rose, and around her the apostles that are described as lilies.  Again, Dante has to close his eyes from the intensity.  When he opens he sees a star circling around the head of the Blessed Mother, making it appear that a crown was about her head.  The light is the angel Gabriel, and he and all the other lights sing in homage to her.  Mary and the triumph march higher, rising up beyond Dante’s sight into the next sphere, the Primum Mobile, the final sphere.  As Mary disappears, the lights that were the apostles sing Regina Celi in praise.  Dante too offers praise to Christ and Mary.  St. Peter, then, comes before him.

Canto XXIV

Still at the Starry Sphere, Beatrice addresses the spinning lights that are the apostles.  These lights dance about full of joy.  One light circles Beatrice three times, and Dante is again lost for words to describe it.  The light addresses Beatrice since it is her love that has drawn him close.  She asks him, who though unnamed we know is St. Peter, to test Dante on his faith.  So just as a college student standing before professors, Dante must undergo an oral examination for him to pass through.  The first question that St. Peter asks Dante is, what is faith?  Dante responds that it is the substance of things hoped for.  Second question: from where did you get your faith?  Answer: the Holy Spirit provided it from reading the Old and New Testaments.  Third question: why do you believe what they say?  Answer: Because of the miracles that substantiate the claims.  Fourth question: what makes you believe in those miracles?  Answer; because the world turned to Christ in subsequent generations.  Fifth question: what exactly is it you have faith in?  Answer: The creed, I believe in one God who moves the universe through His love, who through His prophets revealed, who through His incarnation redeemed and further revealed the Trinity within His single Essence.  St. Peter satisfied blesses Dante, circling him three times.

Canto XXV

Dante (the author) opens with contemplation that one day this poem may allow him back to the city of his birth where he will receive the laurel crown.  Still in Starry Sphere, another light approaches them.  Beatrice identifies him as St. James as St. Peter greets the new light warmly.  Beatrice, as she did previously with St. Peter, asks St. James to test Dante, this time on the virtue of hope.  St. James then asks Dante, what is hope, how does it grow in your mind, and from where did it come from?  Before Dante can answer, it is Beatrice that testifies for him, that she knows of no other person with greater hope than Dante.  Dante then answers that hope is the expectation of heavenly glory and that it comes from heavenly grace.  In approval, St. James flashes brightly several times like lightning.  He then asks, what promises does hope hold for you?  Dante replies that his hope is in the promise of the resurrection and of the glorified body that is to come.  Upon that a hymn of hope is heard from above and an even brighter light moves toward the group.  Beatrice explains that this is St. John.  The brightness of St. John completely overwhelms Dante’s eyes, and he goes momentarily blind.  He had tried to see if St. John was before him bodily as a legend had suggested, but St. John’s first words were of chastisement.  Only Christ and His Blessed Mother have their bodies in heaven.  Dante, troubled, looks back for Beatrice, but he still cannot see.

Canto XXVI

Still in the Starry Sphere and still unable to see, Dante hears the voice of St. John, who now takes his turn to interrogate him, his exam on the virtue of love.  His first question, what is the goal of your soul?  Dante answers that the goal of his soul is to satisfy itself in the love that comes from God.  Second question, what made your soul reach for that goal?  Dante replies, philosophic reasoning that love moves all and from the prophets in the Old and New Testaments.  Third question, what is it exactly that moves you to love?  Dante answers that there is a divine imprint on the soul which moves us to love and that all beauty gifted from above elicits that love to come out.  He adds that the creation, the Redemption, and the hope of future glory arouses that love.  Upon his final words, he hears all souls including Beatrice chanting “Holy, holy, holy.”  Through Beatrice he is now able to see again, and see sharper and further than he ever did before.  He now sees a fourth light shining in their company and Beatrice explains that this is Adam, the first human being, Dante overcome with emotion finally implores Adam to speak to him, and that Adam knows the questions he wishes to ask.  Four questions are in Dante’s mind, how long has passed since Adam was in Eden, how long has he been there now, what caused God’s anger to expel him, and what language did he speak then?  Adam answers that God exiled him for trespassing a boundary, that he lived on earth 950 years, that there was another 4302 years before he was returned to heaven, and the language that he spoke has long been extinct.  Nothing of human construction lasts forever.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Life of Saint Dominic by Augusta Theodosia Drane

I completed reading The Life of Saint Dominic by Augusta Theodosia Drane, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  

This is an excellent biography of the famous saint which includes many of the events that led to the institution of the Order of Preachers, otherwise unofficially known as the Dominican Order, and the early members that shaped what is probably the most intellectual of all the religious orders. The book has a nice mix of solid historical facts and what I would say are hagiographic facts (super natural miracles), which I guess you can believe or not. Augusta Theodosia Drane’s prose is quite good though at times reflects the Victorian style – originally published in 1857 – of her day. What she captures most is the humility of the saint – he refused to have the order named after himself – and the sort of magnetic attraction his followers had for him. It is sometimes said St. Dominic “befriended” an order rather than found it. The explosion of Dominican friars after the 1216 founding is remarkable and can be attributed to St. Dominic himself on the strength of his humble charisma. And St. Dominic understood the dire need for a religious order that would engage the general population, preach the Word, and evangelize the fallen away. We are in such a need today. Not as much is known of St. Dominic as for instance his contemporary and counterpart, St. Francis of Assisi, but what is known Drane skillfully weaves into a narrative.

One of the hallmarks of the Order of Preachers is that they are a mendicant order, but yet Dominic, who insisted on committed poverty, came from a noble and well-to-do family.  Here’s how Drane opens the biography with his family background.

It was in the year 1170, during the pontificate of Alexander III, that Dominic Guzman, the founder of the order of Friars Preachers, was born at his father’s castle of Calaroga, in old Castile.  The history of a genealogy, however illustrious, seems scarcely to find its place in the biography of a saint; though indeed few families can boast of one more honorable than that of the Castilia Guzmans.  But if their long line of chivalrous ancestors, and the royal privileges granted to them by the kings of Spain, have no claim to be noticed here, the immediate ancestors of St. Dominic possessed at least one distinction which had a more powerful influence on his life.  They were a family of saints.

Indeed, his mother, Joana de Aza, and one of his brothers are both beatified.  His mother experienced a vision while pregnant with him that would follow him through his life and all the way to today.

The future greatness of her younger son was announced to Joanna even before his birth.  The mysterious vision of a dog, bearing in his mouth a lighted torch which would set fire to the world, appeared to indicate the power of that doctrine which should kindle and illuminate men’s hearts through the ministry of his words. 

That dog carrying a torch in its mouth is one of the icons that is associated with the Dominican order.  In fact, if one breaks “Dominican” into fragments of Latin, it translates into “Hounds of the Lord.”  There is another story of his infancy, one pertaining to his baptism.

The noble lady who held him at the font saw, as the water was poured on his head, a brilliant star shinning on the infant’s forehead; and this circumstance, which is mentioned in the earliest life which we have of the saint (that of Blessed Jordan), bears a singular connection with the beautiful description of his appearance in after-life, left by his spiritual daughter, the Blessed Cecelia; in which she says, among other things, that “from his forehead, and between his brows, there shone forth a kind of radiant light, which filled men with respect and love.”

Those are two icons associated with St. Dominic, the dog carrying a torch in its mouth and a bright star shinning from his forehead.  From these images are what his followers are committed to do, brighten the world with the torch of truth and shine forth with a loving light.

Apparently he was a young genius, so much so that he was sent to the University of Polencia at the age of fourteen.  One of the characteristics that would serve him so well was his lack of attachment to worldly things.  The world of study was precious to him, but not precious enough allow suffering.  At the university there was a famine in the region.  He sold all he had to give to the poor but there was one thing left.

His dear and precious books were all that remained to give; and even those he parted with that their rice might be distributed to the starving multitudes.  To estimate the cost of such an act, we must remember the rarity and costliness of manuscripts in those days, many having probably been laboriously copied out of his own hands.  Yet when one of his companions expressed astonishment that he should deprive himself of the means of pursuing his studies, he replied in words preserved by Theodoric of Apoldia and treasured by after-writers as the first which have come down to posterity, “Would you have me study off those dead parchments when there are men dying of hunger?”

There are many other events that can be highlighted.  His ability to speak to people and convert them.  His conversion among the Albigenses.  Setting up of convents for the women converts.  Receiving the rosary from our Blessed Mother.  Instituting the Order of Preachers with its study and preach.  Transforming his order into a western world wide group.  Attracting through the power of his personality and sacrifice wonderful men that rivaled the Franciscans as an order.

Though Dominic would probably deny it, I think it cannot be emphasized enough that the his persona was initially at the heart of what made him successful in converting souls and attracting dedicated followers.  And that persona was formed and grounded through his life of prayer.  Here is how Drane describes it.

St. Dominic was pre-eminently a man of prayer; it is the feature above all others which we find traced upon his life.  By night or by day, whether alone or with others, silent in contemplation, or surrounded by the distractions of an active apostolic vocation, his heart never stirred from the true and steady center it had so early found in God; and in this one fact lay the secret of all the graces which adorned his most beautiful soul.  It was the source of that interior tranquility which fitted him to be called “the rose of patience,” as well as of the exterior and gracious sweetness to which all have borne testimony, and which with him was nothing else than the fragrant odor preceding from the abiding presence of God.

Some other quotes from the book that provide insight in the character of this noble saint.

"Dominic was anxious to provide for the preservation of another essential of his institute, the pursuit of sacred learning." p. 194

“Gathered from all states of life--knights, courtiers, professors, men of the world, penitents, and saints--the novices of Dominic, as soon as his spirit has breathed over them, display to our gaze and many varieties, one trait of which has the indescribable peculiarity of a family likeness: Sweetness" (p.184)

“The holy joy which shone in him had something singular about it, which drew all men's affections to him so soon as they had looked upon his face. He embraced all in great charity, and so was loved by all; and his rule was to rejoice them that rejoiced, and to weep with them that wept." (p. 143)

“He devoted himself entirely to the salvation of souls by the ministry of preaching, and he bore with a great heart a multitude of affronts, ignominies, and sufferings for the name of Jesus Christ.”  (p. 26)

“But if ever a man possessed the art of persuasion it was the blessed Dominic, whom, as it was said, ‘none ever resist;’ or rather persuasion with him was not art, but nature.  It was the effect of that admirable union of patience, prudence, and firmness, tempered with the charm of a sweet and tranquil gaiety, which gave so wonderful a magic to his intercourse.”  (p. 112)

“Dominic’s idea included a much wider field than any of the more modern founders had attempted.  He had designed an order for preaching and teaching; which for that purpose should apply itself to the study of sacred letters, with the express object of the salvation of souls.”  (p. 61)

So far this might be the best biography of this wonderful saint I've seen. Don't forget St. Dominic's feast day is August 8th.

St. Dominic de Guzman, pray for us.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Comments to Dante’s Paradiso, Cantos XIX thru XXII

Here are some random thoughts and observations on the Jupiter cantos.

Going back to Canto XVIII, the way the lights scroll across the sky, forming letters which spell words, suddenly coalesce, and then forming shapes is, if you think on it, an incredible feat of imagination for someone in Dante’s time.  This is like a video game playing itself out on a “screen” in front of Dante.  We can easily conceptualize it today, but how could someone in the Middle Ages conceptualize such visuals is stunning.  And then Dante (the author) takes it a step further in the visual “technology.”  A full bodied bird image forms then morphs into a fleur de lily, and then morphs again into the head of the eagle.  Dante is actually visualizing the morphing of shapes.  Amazing!

The eagle, if you missed it, is symbolic for the Roman Empire, and represents human justice.  When the eagle speaks, it is each individual light speaking in unison, and this has particular significance when considering the notion of justice.  What is justice but the application of a society’s values, and each individual member of that society contributes his input to establishing justice.  Think of it as a jury of twelve coming to a single verdict.  The verdict is the single, unified voice of the jury group, each member having contributed to that voice.

Notice the wonderful imagery Dante (the author) uses to describe that amalgamation of voices into one.

Just as from many coals we feel a single heat,
so from that image there came forth
the undivided sound of many loves. (XIX.19-21)

Each single coal individually provides heat, but the amalgamation of each coal’s contribution is felt as a single heat source.  And then in the following tercet, Dante addresses the eagle as an amalgamation of a variety of scents:

And I then answered: 'O everlasting blossoms
of eternal bliss, you make all odors
blend into what seems a single fragrance…(22-24)

In some of the other instances when a holy soul or Beatrice reads Dante’s mind about a question, they articulate the question and then answer it.  In this section, when Dante (the character) has his mind read on the doubt that has formulated, unlike the previous instances the eagle starts answering the question before it is articulated.  I think this might confuse some readers.  In Canto XIX, from lines 22 through 33, Dante (the character) tells the eagle he has something on his mind.  From lines 40 through 69 the eagle starts answering the question which has not been articulated.  In essence what the eagle is saying is that Dante cannot see, does not have the vision to see, the entire creation.  Finally from lines 70 to 78 the eagle articulates the hypothetical about a man born in India who can never know the faith.  Where is the justice in not having the means to salvation?

It is fitting that in the sphere of Jupiter, that of just rulers, the eagle turns judgement back at Dante (the character).  When Dante questions the justice of a pagan incapable of achieving salvation, the eagle says:

            'Now, who are you to sit upon the bench,
             judging from a thousand miles away
             with eyesight that is shorter than a span? (XIX.79-81)

To paraphrase, “Who are you with your limited eyesight to judge God?”  It’s not just questioning God; it’s judging God.

Dante (the author) seems to associate proper justice with eyesight.  Here he contextualizes Dante (the character)’s incorrect judgement of God with limited sight, but when in Canto XX the eagle catalogues six great rulers who were just, their points of light were the ones that made up the eagle’s eye.  Indeed, the eagle was known in the middle ages as the creature with the sharpest eyesight.

How ingenious of Dante to formulate an acrostic (a series of lines or verses in which the first, last, or other particular letters when taken in order spell out a word, phrase, etc.) when cataloguing the bad twelve kings that are living in Dante’s time.  The acrostic spells lue, which means plague.  These kings are a plague. 

Again Dante (the author) shows his contempt for his contemporary world by locating the good kings in the distant past and the bad ones in the present.  When you look over the geographic span of the bad rulers—from England to Spain to France to Italy to Germany to eastern Europe, he’s identifying a good three quarters, if not more) of his known world as ruled by bad kings.  You can’t have more of a condemnation of his existing world than this.

Dante (the character) is taken aback when he hears Trajan and Ripheus are saved.  He had just been told that only baptized Christians and Old Testament worthies can be saved.  How could this be?  The eagle answers:

'For from Hell, where no one may return
to righteous will, the one came back into his bones --
this his reward for living hope,

'the living hope that furnished power to the prayers
addressed to God to raise him from the dead
so that his will might find its moving force. (XX.106-111)

First the eagle alludes to hell where if you recall there was a sign “Abandon hope all who enter here.”  Second the eagle says that through the “living hope” of prayer—and notice “living hope is repeated twice—God’s will can find a way to save all righteous people.  They still must be baptized—God’s word cannot be a lie—but our limited sight cannot envision every formulation of God’s workings.  So never give up hope and never stop praying for anyone you love.

So why Trajan?  Trajan was mentioned in Purgatorio as an example of humility.  It alludes to the story of Trajan and the widow.  Trajan has gathered an army of a million men and are about to set off on campaign when a widow stops the column and asks for justice for her murdered son.  Trajan wants to ignore her but the widow is persistent, and Trajan with pity gets off his horse and stops the march until he can assess justice.  He brings justice to a sorrowful woman, a mater delorosa, over her murdered son.  Well I think you can see the allusion now. 

So why Ripheus?  Who is Ripheus?  Ripheus is a less than minor character from Vergil’s Aeneid, who is briefly mentioned as a righteous king who dies during the sack of Troy.  He is less than obscure.  So who can be saved?  Everyone from Trajan, the greatest emperor of the greatest empire, to an obscure, inconsequential name from a thousand years before the birth of Christ.  Who can be saved?  Everyone within the scope of God’s expansive arms.


Some thoughts on the Saturn cantos. 

Saturn is the final planet in the spheres.  After Saturn will come the sphere of the fixed stars, followed by Prima Mobile, the sphere from which God controls the universe, and finally the heart of heaven, the Empyrean. 

Saturn contains those who excelled at mystical contemplation.  But didn’t we encounter a group of souls who were mystics in the second garland under the sphere of the sun?  Yes, led by St. Bonaventure, but the distinction is that those at the sun were intellectual mystics.  The mystics at Saturn were those who lived their lives under total mystical immersion into God.  The distinction is a subtle one perhaps.  The souls at Saturn tend to be monastics, not friars.

The central image in the realm of Saturn is a ladder stretching all the way up to the Empyrean (if I read correctly) with souls streaming up and down the ladder.  It’s a fantastic image and worthy of quoting the entire passage. 

Within the crystal, circling our earth,
that bears the name of the world's belovèd king,
under whose rule all wickedness lay dead,

the color of gold in a ray of sunlight,
I saw a ladder, rising to so great a height
my eyesight could not rise along with it.

I also saw, descending on its rungs,
so many splendors that I thought that every light
shining in the heavens was pouring down.

And as, following their native instinct,
rooks rise up together at the break of day,
warming their feathers, stiffened by the cold,

and some of them fly off, not to return,
while some turn back to where they had set out,
and some keep wheeling overhead,

just such varied motions did I observe
within that sparkling throng, which came as one,
as soon as it had reached a certain rung. (XXI.25-42)

The image of the ladder comes from Genesis—Jacob’s ladder—where in a dream Jacob sees angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth.  Here Dante (the author) has souls instead of angels traversing up and down, and, since they are already in heaven, Dante has the ladder stretch from Saturn up beyond eyesight toward the end of heaven, possibly to the Empyrean where God and all souls in heaven reside.  The ladder is described as the color of gold and either emits or reflects sunlight.  The souls going up and down also shine bright, so it makes for a stunning image.

The ladder is a perfect image for those immersed in mystic contemplation.  What does a contemplative do but rise up to heaven when in mystical exaltation and return back to earth to share the fruits of his contemplation?  Here at the planet closest to God, we find souls who minimize rational thought and enjoy God’s intense grace.

We see this ever increasing grace through Beatrice’s increasing beauty.  If you’ve notice, at each station Beatrice appears more intensely beautiful, and that’s because the closer the pilgrim’s travel toward God, the more intense the light that shines, which is allegorical for increasing grace.  Beatrice’s “cup” filled with grace, is getting filled higher, which was the image I provided in my comments back in Canto IV to describe a soul’s capacity to receive grace. 

So, to answer that question I had back in Canto IV, a soul may not be able to enlarge his cup, but it can get more filled. 

Two saints are featured at Saturn.  First is Peter Damian, a monastic, who was known for his asceticism and self-mortification.  Perhaps an implication can be drawn that through the self-denial and extreme penance, one climbs the ladder toward heaven.  It’s interesting he doesn’t come to greet Dante out of willingness but because ultimately he serves the Lord.

'I have come down the sacred ladder's rungs this far
only to bid you welcome with my words
and with the light that wraps me in its glow.

'It was not greater love that made me come more swiftly,
for as much and more love burns above,
as that flaming luminescence shows,

'but the profound affection prompting us
to serve the Wisdom governing the world
has brought about the outcome you perceive.' (XXI.64-72)

The mystical ecstasy he feels in God’s bosom overrides his love of neighbor, but he obeys the Will that moves the world.  That’s a pretty amazing statement, and if you think about it, monastics is doing just that—separating themselves from society for love of God.  But just as in his real life where Damian was compelled to leave the monastery to become a bishop for society, here too he leaves the Empyrean to greet the travelers.

The other featured saint is St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Benedictine Order, the first major monastic order in the west, and creator of  rule that balanced work and prayer.  At a time of collapsing civilization the Benedictines preserved civilization through their monasteries and through copying of ancient texts.  It is the fruits of contemplation that Dante wishes to emphasize with Benedict.

'I am he who first brought up the slope
the name of Him who carried down to earth
the truth that so exalts us to the heights.

'And such abundant grace shone down on me
I led the neighboring towns away
from impious worship that misled the world.

'All these other flames spent their lives in contemplation,
kindled by that warmth which brings
both holy flowers and holy fruits to birth. (XXII. 40-48)

He was first to bring Christ up the slope of Monte Cassino and provided the truth to the neighboring towns for their conversion.  His fellow contemplatives brought down both flowers and fruits from up above.  So Peter Damian emphasizes the trip up the ladder to spiritual ecstasy, St. Benedict emphasizes the trip down the ladder to bring graces to earth.

Finally something should be said of the remarkable image of Beatrice and Dante looking down from high above and first seeing the entire solar system below them and then finally the little planet earth.  This is akin to the images of space probes we send out to the far reaches of the solar system to take pictures.  Indeed, the image of the planet earth is equivalent to the famous photos taken by early space missions where for the first time we had a picture of the earth from the outside.  Dante (the author) was over six hundred and fifty years ahead of that.