Evelyn Underhill on the Creed

“”Lord,” said St. Thomas Aquinas, “set my life in order; making me to know what I ought to do and do it in the way that I should.” The civilized world seems now to have reached the point at which only this prayer can save it; and the answer is already given us in the Christian creed. We talk much of reconstruction; but no one has yet dared to take the Christian’s profound beliefs about Reality as the basis of a reconditioned world. We treat them as dwellers in the plain treat the mountains. We lift up our eyes to their solemn beauty with respect; but refuse to acknowledge that plain and mountain are part of the same world. Yet the Creed is no mere academic document, no mere list of “dogmas.” It is an account of that which is; and every word it contains has a meaning at once universal, practical, and spiritual within the particular experience of each soul. It irradiates and harmonizes every level of our life, not one alone. All great spiritual literature does this to some extent; but the Creed, the condensed hand-list of those deep truths from which spiritual literature is built up, does it supremely. Continue reading “Evelyn Underhill on the Creed”

Dante and the Eagle

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“At the hour near morning when the swallow begins her plaintive songs, in remembrance, perhaps, of her ancient woes, and when our mind, more a pilgrim from the flesh and less held by thoughts, is in its visions almost prophetic, I seemed to see in a dream an eagle poised in the sky, with feathers of gold, with open wings, and prepared to swoop. And I seemed to be in the place where his own people were left behind by Ganymede when he was caught up to the supreme conclave; and I thought within myself,–perhaps it is used to strike here and disdains, perhaps, to carry off any in its claws from elsewhere. Then it seemed to me that, after wheeling a while, it descended, terrible as lightning, and caught me up as far as the fire; there it seemed that it and I burned together, and the imagined fire so scorched that perforce my sleep was broken.

Even as Achilles started up, turning his awakened eyes about him and not knowing where he was, when his mother carried him off sleeping in her arms from Chiron to Scyros, whence later the Greeks took him away, so I started, as soon as sleep left my eyes and turned pale, like one that is chilled with fear. Beside me was my comfort alone, and the sun was already more than two hours high, and my face was turned to the sea.

‘Have no fear,’ said my Lord ‘take confidence, for it is well with us, do not relax but put out all they strength. Now thou art come to Purgatory'” (Dante, Purgatory, Canto IX, trans. J D Sinclair).

“When the Eagle snatches him up to the fire, he is so scorched that the agony awakes him, and instead of the highest heaven, he finds himself outside the Gate of Purgatory, with the whole long journey and purifying discipline before him. Continue reading “Dante and the Eagle”

Dante: repentance and Purgatory

“Dante believed that genuine and passionate conversion or repentance is in any case necessary to salvation. If a man is not so repentant at the moment of death his way lies to Acheron, and repentance is for ever impossible. But if, at that moment of death, not only his aspirations and resolves but his affections and impulses are directed aright, then there is no going back for him, and his dispositions, secure from all change or slackening, become irrevocable as he passes into the world of spirits. When Dante had seen Hell he felt that whatever weakness or fluctuation there might still be in his life the vision itself could never wax dim. Henceforth he would always know sin for what it was; and when the decisive moment came the rush of his affections would inevitably sweep him towards that which is good; just as when we are most chilled or even embittered in our feelings towards those we love, we know in our heart that if, at that instant, our whole relation to them were collectively and conclusively at stake our trivial sense of alienation would be utterly consumed in the flame of all-embracing love; and this very knowledge makes us ashamed of the momentary disproportions which our distorted vision has imposed upon the things that matter and the things that do not. It was to secure men to this condition of underlying certainty of affection, even amid the rise and fall of random impulses not yet under full control, that Dante deliver his message to “remove those living in this life from the state of misery and bring them to the state of bliss.” Thus, if the Inferno is a study of unrepentant sin, the Purgatorio is a study of the state of true penitence wherever and whenever it may exist. Continue reading “Dante: repentance and Purgatory”

Dante: The Wrathful

“A marsh there is called Styx, which the sad stream
Forms when it finds the end of its descent
Under the grey, malignant rock-foot grim;And I, staring about with eyes intent,
Saw mud-stained figures in the mire beneath,
Naked, with looks of savage discontent,At fisticuffs–not with fists alone, but with
Their heads and heels, and with their bodies too,
And tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.”Son,” the kind master said, “here may’st though view
The souls of those who yielded them to wrath;
Further, I’d have thee know and hold for true 

That others lie plunged deep in this vile broth,
Whose sighs–see there, wherever one may look-
Come bubbling up to the top and make it froth.

Bogged there they say: ‘Sullen were we–we took
No joy of the pleasant air, no joy of the good
Sun; our hearts smouldered with a sulky smoke;

Sullen we lie here now in the black mud.’
This hymn they gurgle in their throats, for whole
Words they can nowise frame.” Thus we pursued

Our path round a wide arc of that ghast pool,
Between the soggy marsh and arid shore,
Still eyeing those who gulp the marish foul,

And reached at length the foot of a tall tower.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto VII, Sayers trans)

From the lustful mutual self-indulgence to a radical self-isolation, unable now even to communicate. Acedia is also wrath directed inwards on the self.

The Marsh. Both kinds of Wrath are figured as a muddy slough; on its surface, the active hatreds rend and snarl at one another; at the bottom, the sullen hatreds lie gurgling, unable even to express themselves for the rage that chokes them. This is the last of the Circles of Incontinence. This savage self-frustration is the end of that which had its tender and romantic beginnings in the dalliance of indulged passion” (Dante, Inferno, Canto VII, Sayers notes p 114).

Dante: Reading the Inferno and the Purgatorio in the light of the Paradiso

“The poetic splendor of the Inferno breaks upon the reader as soon as he opens the first pages of the Comedy; but it is often obscured by historical allusions, astronomical circumlocutions, and terms of mediaeval science or philosophy, which darken and at times quench its light. These obstacles, however, soon begin to yield to patient study, and what threatened to choke the flame catches fire from it and in its turn flings light into every corner of the world in which Dante lived and thought.

Meanwhile, earlier or later as the case may be, the reader becomes aware of an underlying purpose and significance, seldom obtruded but always present, that gives unity and direction to the movement of the whole poem, breathing into it a vital spirit of its own and appealing for its interpretation to no other lore than such as knowledge of ourselves and observation of life can give us.

Presently, when we grow familiar with the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, the Inferno, in spite of its direct and arresting grip upon our imagination, reveals itself as a beginning that must be read in the light of the middle and the end if we are to understand it truly; and we begin to feel, perhaps gropingly, for the organic relation of the parts to the whole. The misleading suggestion will probably present itself to us, at this point, that the first Cantica of the Comedy is the foundation on which the whole structure stands, and that the way to heaven lies through hell. There is indeed a sense in which this is true, but we can never rightly grasp it till we have realized the deeper sense in which it is false. This is the first point to which we must turn our attention” (P. H. Wickstead, From Vita Nuova to Paradiso p 3-4).

Pelikan’s commentary on Acts 9 — The first “conversion”

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In the context of the larger account of Luke-Acts, the singular “conversion” story with which that entire account begins is the annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-28), which the Greek Orthodox liturgy and the Greek church fathers called her “evangelization”. Although the annunciation demonstrated, according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, that “the power of the Godhead is an immense and immeasurable thing, while man is a weak atom,” and although the Virgin Mary was divinely predestined and chosen to become the Theotokos, the Mother of God, nevertheless the incarnation took place at her voluntary and unconstrained response to the angel: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). That was why, according to Dante and the Florentine tradition, the beginning of the new age of human history was to be dated from the annunciation rather than from the nativity. In the words of Irenaeus about Eve and Mary, “If the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness of the virgin Eve” (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible).