IMAGES OF PILGRIMAGE:

PARADISE AND WILDERNESS IN CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY


CONTENTS
CHAPTER I: BIBLICAL AND PAGAN IMAGES
CHAPTER II: THE OLD TESTAMENT
CHAPTER III: THE NEW TESTAMENT
CHAPTER IV: ST. AUGUSTINE
CHAPTER V: DANTE
CHAPTER VI: RECONCILIATION


Art and architecture, and, indeed, all the forms of Christian culture in the Middle Ages, abound in images of pilgrimage. One of the most striking architectural illustrations of our theme is the great twelfth-century basilica, l'eglise de la Madeleine, at Vezelay, in Burgundy. It was literally a pilgrimage church, both as the goal of pilgrimage, and as an assembly point for the great pilgrimage to St. James at Compostella.[vezelay.jpg] It was there that St. Bernard preached the Second Crusade, in 1147, and it was there that King Philip Augustus and Richard "Coeur de Lion" mustered their forces for the journey to Jerusalem.

But the building speaks also of the inner pilgrimage of the Christian mind and heart, the soul's journey from darkness into light. Above the western portal of the nave, there is a great carved tympanum, announcing to the pilgrim the meaning of this place. The central figure is the cosmic Christ, surrounded by foliage and water, flanked by twelve apostles and St. Paul, upon whom the Holy Spirit's rays descend from the outstretched hands of Christ, commissioning them to go forth into all the world. A border shows all the varied peoples of the earth; and outside that, another border shows the signs of the zodiac, with all the varied forms of human labour.

Below that announcement of the meaning of the place, there is the figure of St. John the Baptist, indicating the path of entrance. With astonishing architectural skill, the building is so oriented in its construction, that on St. John the Baptist's Day, the light from the clerestory windows makes a path of blocks of light precisely in the centre of the central aisle, from the dark-'narthex, right up the long and rather dimly lighted nave, straight to the altar, bathed in brilliant light. The pilgrim moves from darkness into light, from wilderness into paradise. The very structure of the building is an outward sign of the inner pilgrimage of spirit. As Abbot Suger put it, speaking of the dedication of the Abbey Church of St.-Denis, in Paris, in 1140, "That which is signified pleases more than that which signifies". Inscribed upon the golden doors of St.-Denis were the lines:

Bright is the noble work; but being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel
through the true lights
To the True Light where Christ is the True Door.
[1]
In the works of Honorius Augustodunensis, one of the most popular of medieval authors, the symbolism of pilgrimage is thoroughly explicit and all-encompassing. Sojourning man, forsaking Egypt for the Promised Land, leaving Babylon for Jerusalem, following a ten-fold path of all the liberal and practical arts, comes to his true homeland, the wisdom of the Scriptures. He attains that superna civitas, the Heavenly Jerusalem, where wisdom has prepared a banquet for her pilgrims, where the studiosi ascend the mount of contemplation, there to look upon Christ, with Moses and Elias, clad in garments radiant as the sun. [2]

Medieval art and literature tell us much about the spirit of the age. There is a light of glory there, in those images of pilgrimage. It is true, of course, that those who study Medieval Christendom will see that there is also darkness there, and spiritual wickedness in both high and low places; and when we look at Dante, "..the voice (as Carlyle called him) of ten silent centuries", [3] we see both the dark and the light of it, thes onward with greedy eyes. [5]

All that is implicit in the opening stanzas of the first Canto of the "Inferno", when the poet discovers himself, "in the middle of our life's road", lost in a dark forest, . wilderness (selva selvaggia), where the true way ha. been abandoned. The goal still lies before him, and he sees it in the distance: a mountain mantled in the rays of' morning sunlight; but as he tries to make his way up the desert slope, he is hindered and driven backward by a succession of wild beasts - a leopard, a lion and a wolf, symbols,.of the carelessness, violence and malice which impede the progress of his soul. These beasts represent not external force or circumstances, but passions of the soul, fantasies of vices, images of the wilderness within. [6]

The ghost of Virgil now appears upon the scene to aid the medieval poet in his desperation. Virgil, the voice of human reason and moral philosophy, explains to his frightened pupil that he cannot evade the beasts and climb directly up the mountain, but must approach it by another way, which will require a journey through the underworld, the wilderness of hell within his soul; he must come to understand the nature and the implications of his spiritual condition, symbolised by those beasts, those fantasies of vices. But the voice of reason will not move the pilgrim. He stands irresolute, until he hears that Virgil has been sent by Beatrice, who is the image of romantic love, and, ultimately, of the divine love. Only the knowledge of that love will permit the pilgrim to confront the reality of sin in all its implications.

The journey through the "Inferno" is the story of the degradation already implicit in the poet's soul, but now spelled out, with penetrating logic, as he descends through ever-narrowing circles of hopelessness, carelessness, violence and malice. Nothing there is arbitrary: it is all the explication of his own condition. The Journey ends with one of the most startling and brilliant of all of Dante'.images: the very pit of hell, at the very centre of the earth, is not a fire, but a frozen lake, surrounded by giants (the ancient Titans), monstrous perversions of humanity. The wretched denizens who dwell within that final circle are those who have betrayed all ties of love, personal and social, now eternally consumed by Satan, represented as a monstrous perversion of the Holy Trinity.

The image of perdition as a frozen waste at the very centre of the earth serves the poet well: it is the image of the death of love. This is the point, says Dante, "towards which all weight bears down from everywhere;" [7] at the centre of gravity, all weight is external. There is, then, no longer any inner weight of amor, no inner spring of personality. The "good of intellect" is lost, and personality is dead. Surely no one in the whole history of literature has given so fiercely logical, so psychologically penetrating, so concretely illustrated a. account of the nature and consequence of sin.

But if the lesson of the "Inferno" is a weighty one, the "Purgatorio" holds a still more weighty lesson. It begins on Easter morning, and its story is the story of the rebirth of love. The poetic image is a mountain, marked by seven cornices, representing the seven deadly sins, of which the pilgrim must be purged, as he pursues his quest for liberty, following commandment and example, and doing penance. It is the path of moral effort, attended by rigorous discipline, and many sermons.

At the summit of the mountain lies the "Earthly Paradise". It is, the "golden age" of Virgil', and the Eden of the Bible; it is the utopian dream of poets and philosophers, the harmony of man with man, and of man with nature. But remarkably, it has no residents; everything there has the form of allegory. It is the place of dreams and visions, and the place of revelation, but it is no resting-place. Eden is not, and cannot be the end of human aspiration. At best, it is only a beginning; at worst, it is a false and contradictory conclusion. "Earthly Paradise" cannot substitute for heaven.

In this judgement, Dante stands clearly in the tradition of Western Christian spirituality. In melius renovabimur, said St. Augustine.- "we shall be changed into something better", and St. Thomas, who was Dante's chief spiritual guide, makes the same point, in the very first question of The Summa Theologiae, when he explains the necessity of supernatural revelation, on the grounds that human life is ordained toward. God, as towards an end which exceeds the competence of human reason. [8] There is no intermediate stopping-place: amor which does not find its rest in God is everlastingly frustrated, and that is the spiritual condition described in the "Inferno".

An original and striking feature of Dante's "Earthly Paradise" is the presence of two rivers there. First, there is the stream of 'Lethe', the waters of forgetfulness, familiar from the Elysium of Virgil, and of Plato; the waters which the souls must drink so as to forget the bliss of paradise and return to earthly life, in the endless cyclic pattern of aspiration and descent. For Dante, 'Lethe' has a different purpose: its point is to put away the stains of earthly sins. But even more remarkable is the meaning of the second stream, ‘Eunoe'.

Commentators generally tell us that this word as coined by Dante from two Greek words, and means 'good memory', reversing the effect of 'Lethe'. But that must certainly be wrong. The word is rather Dante's adaptation of Aristotle'. term eunoia, which Scholastic commentaries the Nicomachean Ethics, with which Dante was certainly familiar, rendered as ‘benevolentia'. And as in Aristotle eunoia is the principle or starting-point of friendships here 'Eunoe' means divine benevolence, which is the principle of that divine and human friendship which St. Thomas identifies as charity. [10] 'Eunoe' means the mediation of divine love in Christ, grace and revelation, first adumbrated for Dante in the love of Beatrice. Thus, the waters of 'Eunoe' must be the pilgrim's divinely-given preparation for the ascent to "Paradiso":

From those most holy waters, born anew
I came, like trees by change of calendars
Renewed with new-sprung foliage through and through,
Pure and prepared to leap up to the stars.
[11]

The "Paradiso" represents, of course, the life of heaven. But, as with the "Inferno" and the "Purgatorio", it is not just a vision of the "after-life", but a description of a spiritual condition in this life: a description of the pilgrim's road to heaven, and a representation of the heavenly life (the life of charity) on earth. Only the final cantos are a vision of the life of heaven as such.

The poetic image of the "Paradiso" is astronomical: it is the system of the planetary and starry spheres, each with its specific grace and virtue, in a harmony of balance and reciprocity. The key to understanding its order and arrangement is the conception of charity as friendship. I must illustrate that point with reference to just one sphere, the heaven of the sun (symbol of intellectual light), in which we find the "doctors", the teachers of sacred doctrine. [12]The doctors are arranged in two concentric circles, of twelve members each, captained, respectively, by St. Thomas, the Dominican, and St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan, whom Dante's contemporaries would recognise at once as representing rival orders, and different theological perspectives. The charity, the friendship and reciprocity of the arrangement is evident, as Dante gives to St. Thomas the praises of St. Francis, and to St. Bonaventure the praises of St. Dominic. The same point is emphasised within each circle, too. Thomas' circle includes, as its twelfth and last member (and therefore at his side) his notorious theological opponent, Sigier of Brabant. That speculative opposition within Thomas' circle is echoed in Bonaventure's circle by the presence there, in similar position, of Joachim of Fiore, whose spiritual teachings inspired the "Spiritual Franciscans", and created immense practical difficulties for the Franciscan order, of which Bonaventure was Minister General. There are many other subtle balances and oppositions within the circles, [13] and between the circles, and between the different spheres of "Paradiso".

Dante's point is not to say that the differences are unimportant; but rather that in Christian intellectual and spiritual life, under the providence of God, the oppositions, embraced by charity, are essential to the harmony of the whole, just as in the musical scale (the music of the spheres [14]), both dissonance and consonance are essential. He employs the analogy of the 'Horloge' - the great astronomical clock, which was a new invention in Dante's time - in which the push and pullof weight and counter-weight are essential to the working of the whole. [15]

And therefore,

No one should ever be too self-assured
In judgement like a farmer reckoning
His gains before the corn-crop is matured,
For I have seen the briar a prickly thing
And tough the winter through, and on its tip
Bearing the very rose at close of spring.
[16]
Faith and hope and charity, which are the pilgrim virtues, must see the differences sub specie aeternitatis, - in the perspective of eternity.

Thus, as Dante approaches the last and broadest, all-inclusive sphere, "the heaven of God's own quietude", his standpoint is reversed: he sees it as a burning point of light; [17] centre and circumference are one. That, and not the pit of hell, is the true centre of the universe. "In that abyss", says Dante,

I beheld how love held bound
Into one volume all the leaves whose flight
Is scattered through the universe around....
For everything the will has ever sought
Is gathered there, and there is every quest
Made perfect, which apart from it falls short.
[18]
Thus the "Paradiso" ends with the poet's vision of the end of pilgrimage, in the love of God himself, the Holy Trinity:
O thou eternal light, who dwellest in thyself alone,
Alone self-knowing; joy and love proceed
From thee, thy knower and thy known.
[19]
And the poet sees this vision of the love of God pinta de lo nostra effige, "painted with our (human) image"; it is the image of humanity, by virtue of the Incarnation, taken into God, into that love which, as the final line puts it, "moves the sun and the other stars".

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Notes: Chapter V
1. Abbot Suger of the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures, ed. E. Panofsky, 2 ed. Gerda Panofsky-Soergal, Princeton, 1979, p. 47. See also W. Beierwaltes, "Negati Affirmatio, or the World as Metaphor", Dionysius, 1 (1977), pp. 127-159.

2. Honorius Augustodunensis, De animae exsilio et patria (P. L., 172, 1241-1246); cf. R. D. Crouse, "Honorius Augustodunensis: The Arts as via ad patriam", in Arts Liberaux et philosophie au moyen age (Paris and Montreal, 1969), pp. 531-539.

3. Thomas Carlyle, "The Hero as Poet. Dante; Shakespeare", in W. Peacock, ed., Selected English Essays (Oxford, 1903), p. 366.

4. Cf. Divine Comedy, "Purgatorio", II, 46, with its reference to the Easter Psalm (114), In exitu Israel de, Aegypta; and Dante's exegesis of that Psalm in his "Letter to Can Grande", Epistola, VI XIII), 7.

5. Dante, Convivio, IV, 12 (tr. R. D. C.).

6. See, for instance, Honorius Augustodunensis, op. cit., col. 1246: "those who are devoted to transitory things will remain in exile, they will go into outer darkness, and, as with wounded eyes, flee eternal light eternally. But they encounter many and various fantasies of vices, as fierce beasts, which they wish always to escape, but never can avoid, because one after another they come upon them, and push them down into a vast pit of sorrow and desperation". (tr. R. D. C.).

7. "Inferno", XXXIV, 111.

8. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol., 1, 1, 1, resp.

9. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IX, 5, 1167a.

10. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol., II, II, 23, 1, resp.

11. "Purgatorio", XXXIII, 142-145 (tr. Dorothy Sayers, in the Penguin edition of the Divine Comedy, which I take to be the most satisfactory of the many English translations, and most useful also for Dorothy Sayers' theologically astute notes).

12. "Paradiso", X - XIV.

13. On the complex arrangement of doctors within the circles, see J.A. Doull, "Dante on Averroism", Actas del V Congeso Internacional de Filosofia Medieval, I (Madrid, 1979), pp. 669-676; M. Bourbeau, "La doppia danza du Paradis", Dionysius, 8 (1984), 105-130.

14. "Paradiso", 1, 76-78.

15. "Paradiso", X, 139-148.

16. "Paradiso", XIII, 130-135 (tr. Sayers, op. cit.).

17. "Paradiso", XXVIII, 16-18; XXIX, 7-12.

18. "Paradiso", XXXIII, 85-87, 103-105 (tr. Sayers, op. cit.).

19. "Paradiso", XXXIII, 124-126 (tr. R. D. C.).

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