“In fashion then as of a snow-white rose
Displayed itself to me the saintly host…”(Canto XXXI)
In Canto XXXI, the Glory of Paradise, the snow-white rose is portrayed. It struck me immediately as being a representation of the Eucharist[i], though Dante’s depiction defines it as pedals of ancient believers (pre-Christ) and believer’s post-Christ. The snow-white rose presents a symbol within the larger poetical allegory of the continuity of our faith over the centuries as captured by innumerable references that Dante draws in from his many mentors, history, and theology of that time period. The power of the image was transformative for me, though not in the way Dante intended.[ii]
Why the complete work (The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradiso by Dante Alighieri) was recommended by Pope Francis for the Year of Mercy was a mystery for me personally. As I plowed through Inferno and Purgatorio, although impressed with the poetic masterpiece, I was rather under the impression of the Divine Comedy being a comedic joke on our ill-fated human temperament and meager attempts at holiness seemingly lacking in any humility. It is comedic if we are not blinded by tears of pain as we witness our lack of humanity every day.
However, The Divine Comedy is about stories that start poorly and end well. In Paradiso, Dante is able to bring his imaginative poetic license to life in his vision on the order and essence of heaven. Critically, it is limited by his humanity and human reference. The heavens he describes are staffed by saints and patrons that will be familiar. The unfolding of revelations and the struggle to comprehend what he sees and hears is meticulously detailed..
The three stories play with time. You can read them and see current day tragedy and comedy. You can read them and meditate on the past or the future or the celestial. Bishop Robert Baron wrote an article in The Catholic World Report on the work called “The Spiritual Master Pope Francis wants you to Read.”[iii] It is clear in that article that he supported the Pope’s recommendation. Gerard Korson wrote a similar recommendation in the Catholic Pulse.[iv] In that article he quotes Pope Francis:
“The aim of the Comedy is primarily practical and transformative. It does not only seek to be beautifully and morally good poetry, but effectively able to change man radically leading him from chaos to wisdom, from sin to holiness, from poverty to happiness, from contemplating the horrors of hell to the beatitudes of paradise.”
The expression of desire and human frailty, the yearning for the divine, the searching for eternal truths, and the quest for perfection is so beyond my reach that no human defined need can quench my hunger. They are bound to disappoint if I anoint them with idol power to define my happiness or being.
Love resides within me and outside of me, elusive and tangible, translucent and transparent, is mine and not mine. When it is truly authentic and divinely inspired, the odds are, I had very little to do with it except being able to receive it or give it away, for it was never mine to begin with since the beginning of time. It runs through you quicker than human recognition can grasp, leaving only an imprint of warmth, that something special has just touched your heart and your soul.
In the end, my review of the work will be a direct quote from Paradiso:
“The universal fashion of this knot
Methinks I saw, since more abundantly
In saying this I feel rejoice.” (Canto XXXIII)
[ii] Who defines the image: the writer or the artist, the viewer or art teacher, or perhaps even revelation individually defined?