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Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Dante

VISION

For what did Dante climb the winding stair?

A burning and a piercing Charity

That flamed with geometric clarity—

Not Beatrice, but what she wished to share.

She was the first, but not the Final Vision;

Although her face was what had fueled his flight,

Her purpose was to help him to prepare

‘Til, in the deepest bosom of the night,

With certain and inexorable precision,

He saw the Point of unrelenting Light,

Infinitely small—and infinitely bright.

Beatrice

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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What is YOUR Quest?

leatherbooks

So many books . . . so little time!

Whether we know it or not, life our lives and the stories we know so well are linked.  A good friend and I were recently discussing how to help a mutual acquaintance whose life seems to have gone off the rails.  We realized that he had taken on a “life narrative” of victimization and betrayal.  Everything that happens to him is interpreted from within the context of this story line; innocent acts by his friends are seen as betrayals because that is the default setting for how he understands his life, not because there is any objective reason to think they actually are.  The results are self-destructive, as you can well imagine.

The conversation moved on to the importance of establishing a healthy life story to live by.  We can only write the story of our own lives up to a point, but a central component of a healthy self-concept is the life narrative we adopt.  It has a powerful influence on how we interpret our life events and on how we make decisions that affect the way our lives actually do unfold.  This realization leads to the importance of exposure to good literature from a young age, powerful stories that model for us who we are and lay out quest trajectories by which we create a vision for understanding our purpose and calling.

JacksonFrodo

What is your quest?

The Bible is of course the most important.  It has the ultimate hero, the ultimate knight in shining armor, Christ.  It has the classic villain, Satan, and the classic damsel in distress, the human race.  The Hero goes on an epic journey, at great personal sacrifice defeats the Villain, and the Hero and the Damsel then ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.  That metanarrative actually happened, indeed, is happening.  Therefore, if it defines your life story, you live in hope and meaning.  Adopt any other narrative and you will have nothing but arbitrary choices standing between you and futility, nothing but arbitrary values between you and boredom, nothing but lies and false hopes between you and despair.

Illum-Ms

Illuminated Manuscript of the Bible. (Yes, it deserves to be treated like this!)

Other good literature can help too, by reinforcing the biblical narrative and fleshing it out in our imaginations.  Is life a meaningless, self-centered ramble or a purposeful quest?  We need Oddyseus’s journey home to Ithaca,Aeneas’s journey to find a new homeland for his people, Dante’s journey through Hell and Heaven, Frodo’s journey to the Cracks of Doom, Reepicheep’s journey to the Utter East, and Puddleglum’s journey back to Overland, to help keep us fresh and focused.  Is this world our home, or are we just a-passing through?  If so, to what end?  The choices we make and the quality of our experience will depend on how we conceptualize the journey of life.  We need the Bible as a foundation and other good literature to reinforce it in order to be travelers who will arrive at our destined end and be healthy and productive along the way.

Dante-Satan

Slide from Dante’s trip to Hell.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College and the author of eight books, including three from Lantern Hollow Press: Stars Through the Clouds (his collected poetry), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave.  To order, go to

https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

books bookshelf

Dante – The Beastly and Absurd

It has been a while since I have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but I was looking at some of my old papers and I came across this response I had to write for a course. I thought I’d share…

            No matter how much of Dante I read, I am constantly moved by the use of the beastliest animals and creatures to identify with sin. To be human is to be made in the image of God.  To be a beastly is to deny or infringe upon the image of God.  What makes Dante’s Hell so hellish is how he describes the beastliness and monstrous nature of the souls that he meets there.   The souls are so grotesque that they border on the ridiculous, such as the diviners with their heads on backwards.  The scene is horrific and yet comical.  The thieves morphing into snakes are vile.  But simultaneously the description of the arms disappearing and the legs fusing together is so absurd.

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            The grotesque and the preposterous nature of the punishment of the sins are like sin itself.  Sin denies the image of God; it is to go against our natures and our God give gift.  The image of God, as Dante the author describes it, is divine intellect. The intellect reveals sins’ absurdity.  Unfortunately, Dante the character does not understand this.  He cries when he sees the diviners in their cruel state.  He cries out of pity, when he should be crying for the joy of perfect justice.  The diviners looked too far into the future.  Now with their heads on backwards, they can only look behind.  Their punishment is a beastly distortion of their true nature because of what their sin has done to their souls.  The same thing has happened to the thieves. They stole and therefore, their bodies are stolen from them.  They are constantly changing from snake to man and back again.  The wood of suicides is an interesting twist on the beastliness of sin.  Here the suicides are deprived of even beastly vestures.  Their sin was to deprive themselves of their bodies and so their souls do not even have the privilege of taking on a human form.  The suicides are condemned to trees and shrubs.

Sin ruins the image of God.  The scriptures use the beastly form to indicate the sinfulness of man.  Nebakanezer is a classic example. Taking the form of a man and distorting it is a beastly representation of a man’s soul consumed by sin.  What was once good is now corrupt.  The further Dante descends into Hell the more grotesque and ridiculous the images; for the deep the sin, the uglier the punishment. Yet for reasons I have not quiet comprehended, the uglier the punishment the more ridiculous it appears.  Part of me wants to say that this is because sin is on one level completely absurd.  It goes against God and nature and that by definition is absurd.  Another part of me thinks that this images Dante describes appear to be preposterous because I do not want them to be real.  They are too grotesque to be real and their reality is too appalling for me to actually understand, so I laugh at them.  A third part wonders at the fact that these other views are not mutually exclusive. Sin is both gross and incongruous; its punishment is both real and horrible.

How We Love God and Man

On this lovely Sunday I’d like to share with you all something I have been ruminating on since I’ve been rereading the Four Loves by C. S. Lewis.  (If you know nothing about the book: Lewis in his brilliantly conversational way explains the difference between Need-Love, Appreciative-Love and Give-Love.  He divides them into four categories: Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity).

As I was reading, I was struck by the way in which Lewis describes Friendship. It is not necessary for survival but it is part of surviving well. Friendship is the essence of what makes life more bearable. But it cannot be forced.  A man who wants friends will always be striving for something he cannot gain because “Friendship is utterly free from Affection’s need to be needed” (Lewis 69). And as soon as a man “wants/needs” friendship, he will search in vain for it.  Friendship is formed through mutual appreciation and camaraderie of shared interest and perspective. This is what makes a true Friendship so rare and fine.  It doesn’t need to be needed; it just is.  It builds affection and creates bonds with each other that beyond social convention, race, status, money, and a great many things.

Lewis went on to say that some people have even likened true friendship with a sort of divine quality, something that we would expect the angels in Heaven to experience.  Friendship welcomes with open arms the idea of sharing its love with others who share the same views. The body of Christ, the church, is an example of this sort of friendship – a shared faith with a common purpose.  In Heaven we can express this shared love, this friendship perfectly and divinely – as Dante describes it in his Divine Comedy.

But Lewis was quick to remind us that the Scriptures very rarely refers to this kind of Love in regards to our relationship with God. “Affection is taken as the image when God is represented as our Father; Eros, when Christ is represented as the Bridegroom of the Church” (78).  This comment really got me thinking about the importance of our understanding of how God relates to us and the value we place on friendship.  By necessity, the church needs to foster friendship within itself; however that same necessity ought to foster an understanding that our Love for God must not be the same because our relationship with God is vastly different.

God it Father. Christ is Brother. Christ is Bridegroom.

There was a time, and perhaps it is still now, when the song “I Am a Friend of God” was particularly popular.  The song repeated this phrase, “I am a friend of God, He has called me friend.”  Though there is scriptural truth to that statement, it neglects the greater concepts of the type of Love we ought to have for and towards our God.  Lewis talks about how Affection and Eros do have aspects of Friendship, but Affection and Eros come first.  They are the primary forms of Love in which God relates to Man and conversely Man to God. But Friendship is how Man relates to his fellow Man.

Seeing: the Light of Intellect and Desire to Ascend

– A little discussion on Dante’s Purgitorio 
Augustine teaches that believing is seeing, while Aquinas teaching that seeing is believing. The difference between these two philosophies is at once subtle and yet very distinct. Augustine’s concept relies on faith or what also could be called desire—the desire to draw near to God. If faith comes first, then it is a person’s desire that compels them to the truth of sight. However, Aquinas emphasizes sight or what could be called intellect—the truth about God. If sight comes first, then it is a person’s intellect that draws them to God and faith in him. In both instances, seeing is associated with intellect and belief is desire. Although Augustine’s view is more popular in modern circles, it is not the case with Dante. Dante uses the concept of seeing is believing in the Divine Comedy, employing it most effectively in Purgatorio as a means of describing the process of penitence “through lack or excess of light or distance, obliquity of vision, movement of the object of vision or its background, similarity of colour between the object and its background” (Rutledge 152). Light becomes synonymous with sight, and the higher up Dante climbs, the more light he sees and the more understanding he has. Dante uses three different elements of light and sight—the light of the stars and other natural light, the sight of the penitence, and the light of the angels—to reveal that seeing is the way to belief and desire.
To truly understand all of the uses of light in Purgatorio, it is necessary to explore the larger picture of the Divine Comedy and how it uses light. The three different sections of the Divine ComedyInferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso—are reflections of three different kinds of light as Scott explains:

[W]e learn from St. Thomas Aquinas that each of these three lights is natural to some order of existence. The first represents the vision of Truth attainable by the natural light of man’s intellect (philosophical contemplation); the second, the perception given by the light of Faith to the saints in this life; and the third, that contemplation of the glory and essence of God which is only to be enjoyed by the blessed in Heaven. (Scott 169)

As is seen in Inferno, man’s intellect devoid of God’s intellect is only darkness and despair. Those souls in Limbo can only contemplate the limits of their human understanding without the hope of receiving any truth. This is where Virgil suffers his eternity. The second type of light, the light of Faith through penitence, is slightly out of Virgil’s grasp as a guide but it is something he can still relate to because the suffering and the process is not unlike the philosophers pursuit. The advantage is that the saints have seen the light of God. The final light is beyond Virgil’s comprehension and since he did not know God while he lived he cannot know God know that he is dead. The contemplation of the divine truth requires a holy guide and Beatrice is that light for Dante.

Without the light of the guides, Dante would be lost in the dark wood. The light is the intellect which draws Dante out of himself and into the truth. He cannot ascend the mountain of Purgatory by himself or by his own sheer will power. His desire to ascend cannot compel him alone. Dante needs his desire to have sight and purpose. The intellect gives the desire or will purpose and direction. If the intellect is God’s intellect, it will cause a person to desire God and his good intellect as opposed to the dark meaningless intellect of man. Dante’s journey through Hell showed him the blindness of man’s intellect and man’s perverse desire. Dante’s climb through Purgatory is a reconciliation of man’s desire and intellect with God’s perfect intellect and will (Purgatorio i.4-6).

  • Hollander, Jean & Robert. Trans. Purgatorio. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
  • Scott, J. A. “Allegory in the Purgatorio.” Italica 37.3 (1960): 167-184. Web. JSTOR. 9 April 2011.
  • Rutledge, Monica. “Dante, the Body and Light.” Dante Studies 113 (1995): 151-165. Web. JSTOR. 9 April 2011.