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

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Comments to Dante's Purgatorio, Cantos I thru V

One of the first things we should notice as we enter Dante's Purgatory is how different in texture and tone this is from hell. 

Sweet color of oriental sapphire,                                            
hovering in the calm and peaceful aspect
of intervening air, pure to the horizon,          
pleased my eyes once more                                                               
as soon as I had left the morbid air                                                                t
that had afflicted both my chest and eyes.

The fair planet that emboldens love,
smiling, lit up the east,
veiling the Fishes in her train.

I turned to the right and, fixing my attention
on the other pole, I saw four stars
not seen but by those first on earth.

The very sky seemed to rejoice
in their bright glittering. O widowed
region of the north, denied that sight!  (Pur, I, 13-27)

(Quotes are taken from the Hollander and Hollander translation.) 

We have color, we have light; we have stars and calm and peace.  The planet of love smiles; the sky rejoices.  When Cato approaches, “the rays of those four holy stars/adorned his face with so much light/he seemed to shine with the brightness of the sun” (37-39).  The guardian of purgatory—if you could consider him a guardian, he seems more of a glorified usher—is a venerable old man, not some demonic creature with a whip or other instrument of torture.  He doesn’t condemn or harass the pilgrims.  He essential asks how they got there.  He doesn’t assume some sort of trespassing but wonders if the divine laws have been altered, and once Virgil explains the situation he accepts it without assuming deception.  He treats them with dignity. 

Unlike the dark, claustrophobic passages of hell, purgatory has space and sight.  The sun shines.  There is a constant reference to the sun’s position.  Time is very important in purgatory—it is a temporal place—and the sun’s position in the sky is a cue to the pilgrim’s as to the time of day.  Also as they go up the corkscrew path, the sun shifts position as they circle, either in front of them or behind.  They have sight to the horizon, out into the ocean, what must be a lovely view.  Look at this lovely passage toward the end of Canto I:

Dawn was overtaking the darkness of the hour,
which fled before it, and I saw and knew
the distant trembling of the sea.

We went along the lonely plain,
like someone who has lost the way
and thinks he strays until he finds the road.

When we came to a place where the dew
can hold its own against the sun
because it is protected by a breeze,

my master spread his hands
gently upon the grass.  (I. 115-125)

There is dew, there is a breeze, there is grass.  Perhaps we take these things for granted, but after traversing hell, these are sweetness on the lips.  At the end of the canto, notice when Virgil pulls out a reed to use as a belt to adjust Dante’s tunic (134-6), another reed instantaneously grows in its place.  And so there is also fertility.  By the way that reminds me of how things grow in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, which represents heaven in his fictional series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  I bet he got the idea from here.

In addition to the natural loveliness, there is song in purgatory.  Remember in hell the only musical note was supposed to be the demon’s fart.  In purgatory the penitents sing psalms and hymns.  Coming off the boat the souls in Canto II, they sing 'In exitu Isräel de Aegypto' “with one voice.”  That’s the combined Psalms 114 and 115 in modern bibles, Psalm 113 in the Vulgate of Dante’s day.  In every section of purgatory, there is at least one psalm, and the one Dante selects accentuates the theme of that canto.  In Canto V, the section where the penitents are those who have been saved by being repentant just before their violent death, the souls sing the Miserere, Psalm 51 (50 in the Vulgate), “Have mercy on me, O God.”  Later on in the Purgatorio, there will also be art work, so purgatory is a place of beauty.  But note, the songs and the art are there for the therapy of the penitents.  They all work toward the training of the soul toward virtue.

Which brings us to the humorous scene in Canto II where off the boat of newly arrived penitents is Dante’s friend Casella.  After trying to hug each other—which they can’t do because one is a spirit and one has a body—Dante asks Casella to sing for him like old times.  Apparently Casella has a beautiful singing voice, and he holds Dante and the other penitents around them spell bound with a secular song.  But despite the beauty of the song, Cato pops out of nowhere to chastise them.  He calls them “laggards,” procrastinating when they should be focused on making progress toward their purgation.  So while a secular song may not be taboo, it is not productive toward one’s soul. 

But notice also what song Casella chooses.  He sets to song a poem that Dante the author wrote outside of the Divine Comedy.  As I said in one of my commentaries on Inferno, modern metafiction has nothing on Dante.  But why does Casella pick that song?  Besides the philosophic implications, which I won’t get into here, he picks it out of kindness.  He picks it because Dante is his friend and he wants to please him.  Here too then is another contrast to hell.  The spirits in purgatory care for each other, pray for each other, act kindly to each other.  In hell, souls were either irritated with other souls or even feasted on the pain of other souls.  In purgatory, souls offer each other help and kindly touch.


Another thing I’d like to bring up are the various characters that Dante and Virgil encounter in these first five cantos.  These characters and their situations I think provide insight to the Purgatrio

Let’s start with Cato, the venerable old man who is the guardian of Purgatory.  Marcus Porcius Cato (95 BC to 46 BC), also known as Cato of Utica or Cato the Younger.  He was the great opponent to Julius Caesar and did everything humanly possible to prevent Caesar from becoming a dictator.  Ultimately, rather than live under Caesar’s dictatorship, he committed suicide as a public statement against tyranny.  The question that has beguiled critics is what a pagan, who committed suicide no less, is doing in purgatory, a region for saved souls?  That he is the very first soul the pilgrims encounter is a statement that God is not constrained to the letter of the law if there is a valid reason.  (There has to be reason behind it, or God would be just an impulsive sovereign rather than a loving father.)  So what is the reason that Cato is there and in charge?  First, Dante considers him one of the most virtuous men to ever have lived.  The four stars that shine off is face in Purgatorio represent the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.  These come from the classical world, and Christianity would later add three more—faith, hope, and charity—to form the seven virtues.  The process of purgatory is to form these virtues into the soul if one did not form them in life.  Cato was a great example of the four in life.

But what about the suicide?  Doesn’t that prevent him from being saved?  Inferno had a section in circle seven set aside for suicides.  But Cato didn’t commit suicide out of despair.  In essence he did it as a statement of resistance.  He did it as a virtuous act.  I don’t think the Church makes such a distinction, but Dante does here.  Notice when Virgil speaks to him about Dante’s journey, he frames it in terms of freedom: “May if please you to welcome his arrival,/since he’s in search of liberty, which is so dear, as he well knows who gives his life for it” (I. 70-72).  Virgil is appealing to Cato to give Dante a break because, like Cato who gave his life for freedom—not just his personal freedom, but that of his countrymen—Dante is searching for freedom too.  Recall what the newly arriving souls are singing in Canto II: 'In exitu Isräel de Aegypto' a song of freedom from Egyptian slavery.  Another way to look at purgatory is as a journey from the human bondage of sin to the freedom of a perfected soul, a virtuous soul.  And while Cato didn’t have the grace of Christianity to achieve the three Christian virtues, he did perfect his sol to the four cardinal virtues.  He will not get to Paradise, but he is a worthy guardian of purgatory’s shores.

Another fascinating and insightful character in these early cantos is Manfred, the excommunicated son of the emperor Frederick II (who was briefly identified in hell) and appointed governing lord in southern Italy.  You can read about the political details in the notes, but what is important is that he died on the battlefield and everyone thought he was damned in hell because of a lifetime of grave sins.  Manfred speaks of what happened:

'After my body was riven
by two mortal blows, I turned
in tears to Him who freely pardons.

Horrible were my sins,
but Infinite Goodness with wide-open arms
receives whoever turns to it.

'If the pastor of Cosenza, sent by Clement
on the hunt to take me down,
had read that page in God with greater care,

'my body's bones would still be sheltered
at the head of the bridge near Benevento
under the cairn of heavy stones.  (III. 118-129)

Though excommunicated and having lived a lifetime of “horrible” sins, at the moment of death he turned to Christ, “Infinnite Goodness,” who received him with open arms.  While excommunication delays purgation—we are told that for every year excommunicated a soul will have to spend thirty in ante-purgatory—it does not damn one.  The human heart’s embrace of Christ is still the governing factor.  [Side note.  My name of Manny is not short for Manuel as some tend to think.  It’s actually short for Manfredi, which is what is in Dante’s Italian.  Manfredi is the Italian version of the Germanic/English Manfred.  This is probably the only place in literature where I have found my name.  Also, that city of Benevento where Manfred dies is not far from the little town where my family is from.  I’ve actually been to Benevento.  As you can imagine, I have a soft spot for this character.]

Another character that provides insight is Buonconte da Montefeltro in Canto V.  We met his father, Guido da Montefeltro in Canto XXVII of Inferno as one of the false councilors.  I think at the time in my commentaries I said I would hold off providing any analysis of his condition because it makes a nice comparison and contrast with his son.  So let’s look at them both now.  Guido was a Ghibelline ruler who was a devious commander and shrewd in a Machiavellian way.   Toward the end of his life, knowing he had lived a life of sin, he entered a friary and became a Franciscan in order to make up for his sins.  But Pope Boniface faced with a difficult battle in the siege of Palistrina asked Guido for advice.  Guido gave him some Machiavellian council with the provision the pope would absolve him of that sin.  The pope absolved him.  At his death Guido tells us in hell that St. Francis of Assisi came to take his soul to heaven, but a devil’s angel came with greater rights, and so Guido was bound to hell. 

His son Buonconte was also a devious ruler and military strategist.  He fought and died a violent death at the Battle of Campaldino, a battle Dante himself was supposed to have participated in for the opposite side.  Buonconte’s body was never found, and when asked how he ended so far from the battlefield, Buonconte describes his last hours:

            'Ah,' he replied, 'at Casentino's border
runs a stream called Archiano
that springs above the Hermitage among the Apennines.

'To where its name is lost I made my way,
wounded in the throat, fleeing on foot,
and dripping blood across the plain.

'There I lost sight and speech.
I ended on the name of Mary and there I fell,
and only my flesh remained.  (V. 94-102)

So we have an almost parallel situation between father and son, but the difference is that at the moment of death Buonconte murmurs the name of the Blessed Mother and is saved.  Guido tried to sly over God, but his heart wasn’t sincerely penitent, and so was doomed to hell.  Buonconte with an arrow in his throat, so he couldn’t even speak, sincerely appealed to Mary with just the bare minimum of mumbling on the lips, was saved.  And to continue the parallels further, Bunconte tells of two angels, one good and one evil, also coming for his soul, but this time the good angel has the winning rights. 

As with Manfred, here we again see how a sincere last moment of contrition alters the nature of salvation.  There is one other thing here that’s worth pointing out, and that is the cross textural integration within the Divine Comedy.  The Montefeltros cross texturally exchange themes between the two canticas.  That’s one example.  Here’s another.  At the end of Canto V we meet a humble lady named Pia who we know almost nothing about except that she too was killed and repented at the moment of death, killed by her husband.  Wait a second, didn’t we meet a lady in Canto V of the Inferno who was also murdered by her husband?  Yes, we heard the love story of Francesca and Paulo, where Francesca’s husband caught them in infidelity and murdered them.  Francesca’s heart was hardened toward her sin, but Pia apparently was contrite.  The cross textural integration isn’t always as obvious as this or corresponds from numerical canto to the same numerical canto, but it is there between the canticas.  The cross textural integration involves characters, themes, theology, poetry, history, and everything Dante is using to tell this story.  Such incredible virtuosity of storytelling is one of several reasons I consider this the greatest work in all of literature.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Matthew Monday: Venetian Mask

Matthew’s grandmother just went on a trip to Italy and one of her stops was Venice.  There she picked up a really nice Venetian mask, the link for their famous Carnival.  Here is a picture.

You can read about Carnival of Venice and their famous masks here.  

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Dante's Purgatorio, Cantos 1 - V, Summary

Canto I:
Having climbed out of hell and landed on the island that is the purgatorial mountain, the region where “the soul of man is cleansed,” Dante begins the second cantica with invocations to the muses.  As he looks about, the contrast to hell couldn’t be greater.  There is a peaceful sunrise, the color of sapphire.  The planet Venus lights up in the east, as well as the constellation of Pieces.  Four stars never seen by anyone other than human since Adam and Eve also shine.  An old man with a white beard, who is unnamed but we can deduce that he is ancient Roman Cato of Utica, stops the pilgrims.  He is the guardian of Purgatory, and in contrast to the guardians in hell, he politely questions them, wondering if the laws of Purgatory have changed to allow a living person to enter.  Virgil explains Dante’s pilgrimage of freedom, and upon the simple foundation that a lady in heaven directs this, Cato grants their request, but with the sole appeal that Dante wash off the grime of hell and fasten up his clothing, which had come undone, to be more respectable for the holy place they are entering.  And they do so.

Canto II:
Still morning, Dante sees a light over the sea moving toward the island.  When Virgil recognizes the white wings of the moving object he implores Dante to get down on his knees.  With the white light coming closer, it becomes apparent it is an angel pulling a boat of newly departed souls to the island.  The souls on board are singing psalm 114, the psalm of the Israelite’s freedom out of Egypt.  The angel blesses the souls with the sign of the cross as they disembark and departs.  The souls are left uncertain how they should proceed and ask Virgil, who tells them he too is a pilgrim and unsure.  The souls marvel at the living body of Dante, and one soul steps forward.  It is Dante’s friend, Casella, who had passed away three months prior, and upon recognizing him Dante attempts to give him a hug.  In a comic moment, Dante’s arms tree ties pass right through the bodiless form of Casella.  Dante asks Casella to sing him a song and Casella acknowledges by beautifully singing from one of Dante’s poems.  Cato suddenly reappears and implores the souls to stop procrastinating and move on to their journey of purgation.

Canto III:
And so the souls scattering about to climb the mountain go in various directions.  Virgil and Dante too go along and reach a particular steep slope, when Dante in a panic cannot see Virgil’s shadow as he sees his own and thinks Virgil has abandoned him.  But there is Virgil right behind him, no shadow because only bodies can cast shadows and Virgil is only spirit.  While Virgil tries to figure out the way through the rocks, Dante sees a group of souls moving very slowly.  They decide to approach them for guidance but they wince in apprehension because they can see Dante’s shadow, a full bodied person.  The leader of the group, Manfred, son of an emperor, a handsome man but with a cleft across his face from a blow, came forward and explained the group was of those who had been excommunicated and were required to linger longer on the ante-purgatorial section.  Manfred explains, that though a horrible sinner and excommunicated, he died in battle from the wounds that were visible, but having received mortal wounds turned to Christ who “freely pardons.”  His only request is that Dante return to tell his daughter he is not damned and is in need of prayers, which help along the souls in purgatory. 

Canto IV:
Virgil and Dante continue their climb, and Dante struggles with the steepness and difficulty.  Virgil implores him to not regress and points to a ledge from which they can rest and look about to the shore below.  Virgil explains that this mountain is directly opposite on the southern hemisphere from Jerusalem, which resides on the northern.  He also tells Dante that the bottom is the most difficult to climb and that it gets easier as one reaches the upper levels.  And so Purgatory is the complete opposite of hell, which corkscrewing down is more difficult as one goes deeper.  Purgatory spiraling upward gets less strenuous as one ascends.  Intruding into their conversation is a nearby soul, Belacqua, a contemporary Florentine of Dante’s.  He explains to them he is in no hurry to move on because he is fixed to spend a fair amount of time since he is a late repentant, that is who repented late in life by choice.  There seems to be a relationship between how much time one has to send in purgatory based on how late or early in life one repented.  Virgil realizes they must move on now since it is noon.

Canto V:

Having moved on from the late repentant, the two find another similar group, those who died from violence but having repented at the very moment of death.  These souls too marvel at Dante’s living, physical body.  As they move along they are chanting the Miserere, Psalm 50.  Virgil and Dante meet Jacopo del Cassera, a Guelph leader who was assassinated and implores they go back to tell his fellow countryman that they pray for his soul.  They meet Buonconte de Montefeltro, the son of Guido de Montefeltro, who we met in Canto XXVII of the Inferno.  The father and son make a nice contrast between one in hell and one in purgatory.  At the point of Buonconte’s death, he whispered the name of the Blessed Virgin, and was saved, even though a demon had come for his soul.  Finally we meet a woman named Pia, who was murdered by her husband, who simply asks for their prayers.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Dante's Purgatorio, Introduction

We are back to reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for my Catholic Thought Book Club at Goodreads where I’m one of the moderators, and we’re picking with the second cantica, Purgatorio.  Now I have written on Dante’s Purgatorio about four years ago when I read it and posted for this blog.  So some of what I say will draw from the posts from back then.  Here is what I wrote as an introduction for the book club.

Introduction and Reading Plan.

As an introduction to Dante’s Purgatorio I want to emphasize just how engrained in our Catholic consciousness Dante’s conception of the purgatorial state has become.  The Catholic conception of purgatory is strictly a cleansing, a burning off of dross.  Dante’s conception of a physical place where one has to travel toward heaven as a purifying journey.  Actually I said this already in one of my blog posts in 2014:

Perhaps a word should be given to the originality of Dante’s vision of purgatory.  The Roman Catholic understanding of purgatory is based on solely as a staging place for the souls to be purified before entering heaven.  It’s based on tradition which came from the Church Fathers (Saints Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Origin, Tertulian, etc) which was derived from Judaism’s praying for the dead, several references in the Old Testament, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10-15), where he states  

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it,11for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.12If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw,13the work of each will come to light, for the Day* will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work.14If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage.15But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved,* but only as through fire.

That purging fire cleanses the soul who then is made worthy for heaven.  Catholics situate the place which that occurs by the name of purgatory; Eastern Orthodox acknowledges the purgation but do not situate a locale; most Protestants don’t seem to acknowledge either.   So at best, purgatory is an amorphous notion without much detail.  That people have a vision of purgatory as a structured place where various types of sins are healed is solely a result of Dante’s creation.  It is a testament to how influential to its culture the Divine Comedy became.

You can read that blog post here.

As to the structure of Dante’s Purgatory, I said this:

Dante’s structure for purgatory in one respect mirrors the structure he gives hell.  Sins increase in severity as one corkscrews downward to the heart of hell; sins in purgatory decrease in gravity as one winds (also in corkscrew) up the mountain.  Purgatorio is located on an island in the southern hemisphere in polar opposition to Jerusalem.  But unlike hell, there is daylight on purgatory, perhaps its most significant difference, where sunshine and shadow metaphorically reflect the complex nature of life.  There is daytime and nighttime here, struggle and dreams of contemplation, song and suffering, acknowledgement of one’s transgressions and desire for refinement, and ultimately a desire for freedom, a freedom from one’s compulsions and disorders.  The journey here is a journey to growth in love, a love that unbinds the soul from human constrictions.  I personally find Purgatorio more interesting than either Inferno or Paradisio.  It’s the most human of the three canticas.

Dante divides the mountain of Purgatorio into three main sections: Ante-Purgatory, the lower ridges where the souls are slowed down based on their earthly apathy toward penitence; Purgatory proper where the seven terraces purify the seven deadly sins; and then Earthly Paradise where the Garden of Eden was situated for Adam and Eve.  Each is further subdivided, each in essence has a portal from which one enters, and each portal has an attendant who invites the soul in.  Contrast the attendants of Purgatorio, who welcome and guide, with the demon sentinels of Inferno, who punish and suppress the condemned. 

One other thing that must be emphasized is that Purgatory is not a place for punishment.  Yes, there is suffering and trial, but it is not retribution or even justice.  Purgatorial suffering is intended to retrain the soul to be in compliance with God’s order so that one can enter heaven.  It is a reshaping of the disordered parts of our being.  So if one has a fair element of pride in one’s soul, he has to undergo a mortification process to eliminate that disorder.  Many saints and holy people throughout the ages have used similar mortification processes (self-flagellation, hair shirts, abstinence, fasting) on earth in order to discipline their souls in preparation for divine acceptance.  That is what happens in a structured way in Dante’s Purgatorio.  I’ve used the words “retrain” and “reshape” to describe the process.  However, the best word I have heard used to describe it is “therapy.”  Therapy probably resonates better with our modern consciousness.  The souls are undergoing a therapeutic process of cleansing their compulsions.

Finally I should say that between the three canticas of the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio is my favorite.  As I said in my blog four years ago, it captures a complexity of humanity that the other two shows in the extreme. 

For the reading schedule, here’s what I propose:

8 – 14 July: Cantos 1 – 5 
15 – 21 July: Cantos 6 – 11
22 – 28 July: Cantos 12 – 17
29 July – 4 Aug: Cantos 18 – 23
5 - 11 Aug: Cantos 24 – 29
12 - 18 Aug: Cantos 30 – 33

Discussion will occur on the subsequent week of the read.  As I did with Inferno I will try to give a canto by canto summary, but bear with me if I get behind.  It is summer time. 

I already wrote up something about the translations over at the introduction and background for Inferno.  Let me reiterate, I consider the Robert and Jean Hollander (husband and wife team) to be the best poetic translation in English.  The Anthony Esolen translation is also very good, and I would also recommend the Robert M. Durling translation.  Actually the notes in the Durling translation might be the best but his poeticism is a bit compromised in the sense that it’s more prosaic.  If you don’t care about the translator capturing Dante’s poetic effects, then the Durling translation might be for you.

I hope many of you will join us.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Power of Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah, Part 3

You can find Part 1 post here
And Part 2 here

The following is my Goodreads review of Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise and some discussion from the board which I participated in. 

The Power of Silence is an important book for our age.  T.S. Eliot in is his masterpiece work, The Four Quartets summarized the state of humanity in the modern world as “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”  Cardinal Sarah has a variation on this theme: that in the modern world a dictatorship of noise has descended upon mankind and, indeed, has enslaved mankind.  This noise has altered our fundamental relationship with God and has led to the pernicious condition of our souls.   Eliot looks at the symptom, distraction; Sarah identifies the infecting virus, noise. 

There is something to be said of this.  I remember many years ago reading about the Native American’s first reaction to the sound of a firearm when first encountering Europeans.  They had never heard a sound so loud that it disturbed to their core.  It was a sound that felt like a cleaving slice.  Nature does not provide any such sound, at least not on a routine basis.  And the modern world is full of such sounds.  We are rarely without sound, rarely allowed to have a wholesome composed time to commute with the divine, and rarely allowed to hear the silence that is God Himself.  Sarah is most eloquent in his metaphors.  “Silence is this powerful dike that controls the tumultuous waters of the world and protects from noises and distractions of all sorts. Silence is a dam that restores a kind of dignity to mankind.”

That dignity is an integrity of being, a wholeness that resists the fragmenting jolts of contemporary life.  In the book, Cardinal Sarah takes us through the dictatorship of noise of our lives, through what it has done to us and to society, and what we can achieve by seeking silence. It is a little haphazardly written—or perhaps more accurately, not written in a linear fashion—and at times it feels he over stretches the argument.  It is not a perfectly written book, and so it may frustrate the reader at times.  But it does not diminish the book’s importance.  It makes a monumental argument against the dissipation of our times.

Some excerpts from our discussion board at Catholic Thought Book Club:

I thought I would hear something about the active and growing Catholic Church in Africa, as described by John Allen in “The Future Church” which we read here not long ago, as this is a book by an African prelate but alas this book sounds entirely European—a compendium of writings by mostly European and Bible land mystics and saints on escaping the world into contemplation and silence. Is it true that Cardinal Sarah left Africa in 2001 and is out of touch with what goes on in the active and growing Catholic Church in Africa?

Galicius, what made you think this would be about Africa? None of the book descriptions even remotely suggested it. Cardinal Sarah is way more than just an African Cardinal. He was on the short list for the Papacy, and I hold out hope that he may be the next Pope, though he is already 72. Cardinal Sarah has obviously absorbed the entire Catholic tradition.

Is the book European? The book is Catholic, and I don't think African Catholicism is any different, especially in its intellectual foundation. If anything African Catholicism is more traditional Catholic than what European Catholicism has evolved to. This book is of the contemplative tradition, which goes back to the Desert Fathers. However, the book it reminds me the most is Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. If you get a chance, compare the two. I should dig out my copy and compare as well.

Br. Stabin:
This book is really a challenge to me. To create a silence of the heart. We in the community keep the silence at certain times but how to shut the heart it is really challenging. I know unless keeping the heart and mind in silence we cannot be a prayerful person. We will be like chatterboxes in our prayers and masses.

I found what you were referring to, paragraphs 48 through 52.

Silence of the heart consists of quieting little by little our miserable human sentiments so as to become capable of having the same sentiments as those of Jesus. (P. 52)

I see what you mean. That is a challenge that I can't imagine I could do.

"163. I am certain that God gives to each believer a heart capable of hearing the language of creation."

This is a surprising and yet very profound insight:

"166...I am convinced that the problem of contemporary atheism lies first of all in a wrong interpretation of God’s silence about catastrophes and human sufferings. If man sees in the divine silence only a form of God’s abandonment, indifference, or powerlessness, it will be difficult to enter into his ineffable and inaccessible mystery. The more man rejects the silence of God, the more he will rebel against him."

Isn't this the age-old demand of "showing one more sign"; if only "one more sign" is miraculously produced, then I am willing the believe...

I agree with your comment on 163. I have no doubt on that either. However, given that God doesn't stand in front of us and declare Himself and given that science has developed theories of how the universe came into being, then I can understand how the atheists come to their conclusion. Those theories depend on huge, astronomical probabilities, which in my opinion aren't very likely. But the atheists go in with an outlook of skepticism, and so only weigh the probability based theories rather than a God who guided those probabilities to come to be.

In Sarah's section on silence in the liturgy, I appreciated how he pointed out the places in the rubric that calls for silence. My parish has tried to be more aware of keeping silence at various points such as after each reading or after "Let us pray: to encourage more reflection.

He also writes of wanting a reform of the liturgical reform. From some of his comments in this section, I get the impression that he wants to return to the style of liturgy prior to Vatican II. That would not be my hope. He wrote of the Eucharistic Prayer being prayed in silence by the presider. That would not enhance the liturgical experience for me. My mind wonders too easily. I need to hear the prayers to feel engaged.

While we can all use more silence in our contemplative moments, I can’t help feel that at times Cardinal Sarah is stretching the argument too far. How can you have liturgical service in total silence? And what’s wrong with music to accompany. Beauty is as important as silence and singing is praying twice as St. Augustine said. Yes I agree dancing down the aisle is not appropriate but even Cardinal Sarah acknowledges older people who are lonely should be able to converse after Mass. We are communicative beings. Expressing ourselves, with limitations of course, is not only necessary but human.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Poetry: The May Magnificat by Gerard Manly Hopkins, Part 2

This is the second time I’m posting this poem.  I’ve never posted the same poem twice.  I posted this back in October of 2014 but I never provided any analysis.  We recently discussed a few of Hopkins’ poems over at Catholic Thought Book Club and this was included.  I provided my analysis, which I’ll share, and I’ll post some of the discussion.

First the poem:

The May Magnificat
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary's month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature's motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

Let’s attempt to really understand this lovely poem.  There are twelve quatrain stanzas in the poem with an AA BB rhyme scheme and as far as I can tell an irregular rhythm.  Any particular line has anywhere from five to ten syllables and Hopkins irregularly varies the meter between iambic (unstressed/stressed), trochaic (stressed/unstressed), and spondaic (stressed/stressed).  You can read about meter hereI’m not sure there is any aesthetic connection between the irregularity and the theme of the poem, other than, perhaps, the natural flow of language seeks to emulate the irregularity of nature.  Perhaps the regularity of the stanzas suggest the consistent form of nature, while the irregularities of the line suggest the varieties of natural elements within its consistent form.  Perhaps I may be over intellectualizing that, but it’s there as a possibility.

The twelve stanzas perhaps are meant to recall the twelve stars in Mary’s crown as noted in Revelations 12:1: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”  The image of Mary in the poem emphasizes, I think holds in tension the mature enthroned Mary, Queen of Heaven as we look upon her and the youthful young lady of the Annunciation who is carrying the Christ child.

Let’s walk through the poem and try to get central theme.  The poem starts with the question, why is May the Blessed Virgin Mary’s month?  Is it just an opportunity to offer her flowers, as Hopkins muses in the third stanza?  So in the fourth stanza he asks her directly, and her reply is “Question: What is spring?—/Growth in everything.”  Stanzas five and six provide examples of the fecundity of the spring season, and are I think the most lyrical.

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

There you go, irregularity of meter within the regularity of form.  Very few poets can make that work so beautifully.  So what does this growth have to do with the Blessed Mother?  Stanzas seven and eight answer.  “Mary sees, sympathizing/With that world of good.”  No, she is not some pagan-esk Mother Nature goddess directing nature but as she sees life arising, she is in sympathy with it, and just as her being magnifies the Lord— “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” Luke 1:46, (King James Version emphasizes it better)—Hopkins tells us her sympathy magnifies nature.  Her blessings augment the beauty of the blossoming spring.  That would be enough of an observation and connection, but Hopkins goes further.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

Here we see it wasn’t Mary who controlled the spring, but the beauty and bliss of spring offers the month to her.  Why?  Because her joy at carrying the Lord in her womb brings her to overwhelming bliss.  Read the first lines of the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-49:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name…”

The lowly handmaid has been selected by God to carry the messiah.  How could one not be joyful?  And here she is with child, conception having occurred in March, growing within her as nature grows about her, and the two parallel growths further magnify each other.   Internal fecundity blesses external fecundity in a sort of synergy.  And that’s what is emphasized in the tenth, eleven, and twelfth stanzas.  And so, May is Mary’s month because nature and budding motherhood bless each other.

I have to admit there is one sentence in the poem which baffles me.  It comes in the first two lines of the tenth stanza: “When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple/Bloom lights the orchard-apple.”  I don’t get the reference to blood and foam.  Is that Christ’s blood and water coming from His side?  Doesn’t seem likely here, nor can I place it as a reference to some beautiful element of nature.  If anyone has thoughts on that, please respond. 

This is a beautiful poem though. 

Frances says:

Keeping this rhythm in mind, read the Hopkins' lines in question as phrases which build to a climax or conclusion. I'll type them out as if they are parts of sentences:

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple bloom lights the orchard-apple, and thicket and thorp are merry with silver-surfed cherry, and azuring-over greybell makes wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes, and magic cuckoo call caps, clears, and clinches all --

This ecstasy throughout nature speaks to Mary of the blood of Christ shed for human salvation. (Hopkins' final stanza, said plainly)

Does this make sense to you?

I respond:

Hi Frances. I would say that's as close to making sense as I've seen anywhere. I also just saw somewhere that the foam suggests the sea and Mary being Queen of the Seas or Star of the Seas. In Latin I believe it's Stella Maris. So perhaps a drop of blood for Christ, the foam of the seas for Mary dapple to bloom the apple trees. It's possible.

Leslie says:

I think he is alluding to the crucifixion and in metaphor, the tree of life with the reference to the apple orchard.

Kelly says:

Ah, I see what you mean. I guess I was only taking the words at face value. The drop of blood and foam, I was taking quite literally to mean the orchard blossom whose petals appear a pinkish/red tint on the outside and white when they open up. Thus their appearance of "blood" and "foam" brightens up the apple orchard with color and life.

I had not even considered that Hopkins was referring to an event in salvation history; very eye-opening! :) Maybe the "blood" red represents the seven sorrows of Our Lady and how Simeon had foretold "you yourself a sword will pierce" (Lk 2:35). Perhaps the white "foam" symbolizes her purity and the virginal birth of Christ. Both her sorrows and purity point to her Immaculate Heart.

I respond

Hey that's very possible Kelly. I like that. I guess we'll never know for sure, but now I lean toward your reading, some mixture of sorrow and purity.