St. Bernard: Guide to the Uncreated Light

In The Divine Comedy, Dante (saint of the week here) proceeds from Hell to the greatest height of Heaven with three guides. Virgil takes him through Inferno and Purgatorio. At the top of Mount Purgatory, he meets Beatrice (allegorically Divine Wisdom) who is to be his guide through Paradiso.

In Canto XXXI of Paradiso, Beatrice leaves Dante to join the saints in her place in the great Rose where they sit in their thrones, beholding and praising the Trinity. In her place, and for the last three Cantos of the Comedy, Dante’s guide is St. Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here).

When I saw that St. Bernard was to be Dante’s final guide, I smiled with glee and squirmed in my seat, so pleased with the choice. St. Bernard is known in Cistercian circles as ‘the last of the Fathers’ (indeed, such is the title of a book by Thomas Merton). He gains this title not simply for his role in helping establish the Cistercian Order but because of his mystical theology, for St. Bernard is one of the great contemplative theologians of the Middle Ages (although I first learned of him as the great expounder of Crusade theology in my secularist mediaeval history classes).

He stands within the exegetical tradition/trajectory of Origen in interpreting the Song of Songs mystically and allegorically. However, where Origen sees the Beloved as the Church, St. Bernard considers the Beloved to be the soul of the individual Christian. I believe both are valid interpretations of the book, despite the modern Orthodox claim that Bernard’s version has led to a ‘feminization’ of western Christianity. He expounds upon Song of Songs in several sermons available online here.

His other major mystical writing is On Loving God, wherein Bernard distinguishes the four loves (made popular by CS Lewis’ book of that name). The highest love we are to have is love for God, who first loved us and who sacrificed himself for us. If we love God fully, we will enter into the vision of the Divine in the Heavens.

This vision of the Divine St. Bernard is said to have beheld in this life now, having reached beatitude (purity of heart, I reckon — for ‘blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God’ — fulfilling John Cassian’s call upon the monastic life).

And so, in Cantos XXXI-XXXIII, Dante is shown by Bernard the throne room of God in the Primum Mobile, that point from which the spheres of the universe hanging and which moves them — or, rather, out of love for which all things move. And then Bernard turns his gaze upwards, to that vision of God reserved for the blessed:

And so my mind, bedazzled and amazed,
Stood fixed in wonder, motionless, intent,
And still my wonder kindled as I gazed.

That light doth so transform a man’s whole bent
That never to another sight or thought
Would he surrender, with his own consent;

For everything the will has ever sought
Is gathered there, and there is every quest
Made perfect, which apart from it falls short.

That light supreme, with its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept — which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame!

Eternal light, that in Thyself alone
Dwelling, alone dost know Thyself, and smile
On Thy self-love, so knowing and so known! (Canto XXXIII, ll. 97-105, 115-126; trans. Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds)

Would that we could all ascend from the depths of our sin (Inferno) through cleansing of our souls (Purgatorio) through to the heights of justice, wisdom, and then contemplation of God (Paradiso), rising upwards by prayer, good works, discipline, and — above all — the grace of God (as we learn in the Syriac Liber Graduum [post here] or St. John Climacus’ Ladder [saint of the week here]).

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Saint of Last Week: Dorothy L. Sayers

Sorry for not getting this up last week; I got busy with things I’m supposed to be doing …

When most people hear of Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), they probably more often think of her as one of the twentieth century’s great mystery writers, and not one of the many Wondrous Women of the Faith. She is, however, both.

One of the things, in fact, that makes Sayers one of the Wondrous Women is the fact that she wrote mystery novels. I mean, this alone does not qualify one for a place in that illustrious group, but far too many Christians worthy of renown have led cloistered lives or were clergy. Not Sayers. She was a Christian in the real world writing detective fiction — and detective fiction of high calibre and literary worth, to boot!

Of course, it’s not the detective fiction that really makes Sayers worthy of mention. Nor is it the fact that she was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford with a Master’s degree. Nor is it the fact that she was on friendly terms both with GK Chesterton and the Inklings. It is the fact that, alongside these factors, she was a devout Anglo-Catholic who believed that the Christian creed provided one with a framework for living and thinking that saves one from chaos.

To this end, she wrote her book Creed or Chaos? as well as her series of radio dramas on the life of Christ called The Man Born to Be King. I’ve never read the former, but the latter is magnificent, from the Magi to the Resurrection. The characters of the biblical narrative come to life under her skillful writing. She puts magnificent dialogue into their mouths, dialogue that brings out the fullness of the events and their theological significance in a way that other fictionalised accounts of the life of our Lord and Saviour fail to do.

She also wrote a wonderful piece called Catholic Tales and Christian Songs. This is a collection of  poems on various aspects and angles of Christianity. My favourite is ‘Christ the Companion’:

WHEN I’ve thrown my books aside, being petulant and weary,
And have turned down the gas, and the firelight has sufficed,
When my brain’s too stiff for prayer, and too indolent for theory,
Will You come and play with me, big Brother Christ?

Will You slip behind the book-case? Will you stir the window-curtain,
Peeping from the shadow with Your eyes like flame?
Set me staring at the alcove where the flicker’s so uncertain,
Then suddenly, at my elbow, leap up, catch me, call my name?

Or take the great arm-chair, help me set the chestnuts roasting,
And tell me quiet stories, while the brown skins pop,
Of wayfarers and merchantmen and tramp of Roman hosting,
And how Joseph dwelt with Mary in the carpenter’s shop?

When I drift away in dozing, will You softly light the candles
And touch the piano with Your kind, strong fingers,
Set stern fugues of Bach and stately themes of Handel’s
Stalking through the corners where the last disquiet lingers?

And when we say good-night, and You kiss me on the landing,
Will You promise faithfully and make a solemn tryst:
You’ll be just at hand if wanted, close by here where we are standing,
And be down in time for breakfast, big Brother Christ?

Another aspect of her work is the translation for Penguin Classics of some of the great poetry of the Middle Ages: The Song of Roland and Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the time of her passing, her translation of Dante’s La Vita Nuova was underway, and another had to complete it in her stead. Her notes and introductions for Dante are magnificent and help the reader get into the story and its images, helping the reader see below the surface of Dante’s magnificent creation.

And what lies beneath the surface?

Christ and the great Faith that stretches from the Apostles to ourselves.

This is what Dorothy Sayers presents to us, adorned in beauty. She gives us the Apostolic Faith, the Apostolic Truth, clothed in beauty and splendour. And it is a rich faith, a deep faith, a faith worth believing. The richness of the poetry she composed and translated gives this wondrous faith of ours greater texture and believability than any of the apologetics produced by any of her contemporaries.

One could argue, in fact, that this is exactly what Anglo-Catholicism is for — the clothing of the deep, abiding truths of Christianity in beauty, splendour, and light, drawing us common people into the mystery of the love of Christ, a mystery sometimes shrouded in the smoke of incense, often touched with a great intimacy.

So the next time you check out Lord Peter Wimsey, ask also if they have a copy of The Man Born to Be King available. It is well worth a read.

Saint of the Week: Dante Alighieri, Supreme Poet of Italy

The Salutation of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Throughout Christian history, two ways of living, praying, meditating have co-existed, generally peacefully.  One of these ways is the Way of Negation, the way of denial, of asceticism, of apophatic theology (to describe God only by what He isn’t).  The other is the Way of Affirmation (or something — apologies if I’m wrong; correct me in the comments!), the way of joyful living, of cataphatic theology (to describe God by the attributes revealed in Scripture & reasoned from the universe).  Both are needed, I believe, and most of us fall a little bit in each.

The latter type of believer includes such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, the other has St. Antony and Dionysius the Areopagite.  In his masterful history of the Spirit at work in the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams places Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321) amongst those who tread the Way of Affirmation.

Dante lived bountifully.  In La Vita Nuova we do see a little bit more swooning than would be appropriate in our culture or even in actual 13th-century Florence.  However, this swooning was because he was grasping life so fully, not denying what was there in Beatrice and thus living the earthly life given by Almighty God to its very fullest extent.

He is best known, however, not for swooning over Beatrice, but for La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy, a work in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.*  The first volume is the only I have yet to read; we begin with Dante’s journeys in Hell, right to Satan’s belly, with Virgil as guide.  Thence Virgil takes him to Purgatory; my friend Andrew finds Purgatory quite amusing — it is rumoured to be the most original of the three.  And Beatrice leads him through Paradise.

I know people who are obsessed with being lame, so they say things like, “Dante’s Inferno is just a really long version of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.“**  Yes, Dante reworks a lot of Virgil’s material.  But he does it in a thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Mediaeval way (since neither the Renaissance nor Florentine Renaissance actually happened [along with the “Dark Ages”], Dante is pure Mediaeval awesomeness).  Dante’s Hell is not simply the place where the wicked are punished in various curious ways.

It is you.

Yes, you are Dante’s Hell.  Don’t worry — you’re also Purgatory and Paradise.  A Christian story is not simply beautiful, but beauty that points to Truth.  And the Truth we see in Hell is the embodiment of all of our sins, from pettiness to treason.  The Inferno is an unveiling of the messy, unpleasant business we call “fallenness.”  Do what you will with Genesis 2-3 — there may be funnier, more “life-affirming” creation stories out there*** — but it relates a basic truth about our lives.  We are all screwed up.  We all have Hell within.

If all Dante did was moan about Hell and how to avoid it, then he would fall firmly in the category of “The Way of Negation.”  But he moves on from Hell, to Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise.  We have these places in us as well.  Made in the Image of the Living God, there is glory and beauty in the human race.  We are not designed to wallow in the filth of our own sin.  We are designed for the glory and beauty of Paradise, accessed through the work of Purgatory.

Thus, the Divine Comedy.  If this were all Dante Alighieri had written, he would deserve an account in every Church History textbook.  However, he was also a great scholar and populariser of the vernacular, as in De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin here).  He also got entangled in local politics, getting himself exiled.  Finally, he was a Third Order Franciscan (and we all know my love for St. Francis) — indeed, if we count Dante among the Great Franciscans, St. Francis died in 1226, St. Bonaventure lived from 1221 to 1274, and Dante was born in 1265.  They all overlapped and all have had a powerful impact upon the thoughtlife of the Christian world.

So read a little Dante today, for there you will find a man plugged into the Fountain of Life.  There you will find a man thoroughly engrossed in the world of his day — political, intellectual, poetic — yet who did not lose sight of the one God worthy of praise.

*In Dorothy L. Sayers’ translations for Penguin, that would be Hell, Purgatory, Paradise.

**This is the lame sort of person who can see nothing but political propaganda in the Aeneid.

***The Blackfoot one related by Tomson Highway in “Why Cree is the Funniest of All Languages,” (in Me Funny ed. Drew Hayden Taylor) is certainly funnier.

Christian Fiction

Ever since Joseph and Aseneth was a runaway second-century bestseller, Christians have been writing fiction.  Some of it has been among the world’s great literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, and many more.

My recent discussion of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young and its lack of certain heresies (read it here) has set me thinking about Christian novels worth recommending.  While The Shack was entertaining and thought-provoking, it won’t be in the following list.  The books I’m going to recommend have the following benefits: not only are they good novels but they express deep truths about the universe, God, humanity, and people who aren’t professing Christians could enjoy and read them as well.  Here are five, in alphabetical order by title:

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead.  This is a novelisation of the adventures of St. Aidan, an Irish monk who, in the Early Middle Ages sets off from Kells to Byzantium with a complaint about the behaviour of Western clerics on the Continent.  There are Vikings, Muslims, Byzantines, loss of faith and its recovery.  Aidan is very . . . real.  And the Vikings are fantastic (“Heya!”).

The Cosmic Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.  Many people find The Chronicles of Narnia their favourites; others applaud Till We Have Faces as a work of genius.  I’m not sure what my favourite work of Lewis’ fiction is.  The Cosmic Trilogy, however, is well worth a read.  These books centre on the adventures of Ransom, who in the first (Out of the Silent Planet) travels to Mars (Malacandra), the second (Perelandra) to Venus (Perelandra), and in the final volume (That Hideous Strength), the battle takes itself to Earth.  The stories are excellent, the characters compelling, and a whole gamut of “issues” is run throughout this trilogy.

Godric by Frederick Buechner.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Godric, an Anglo-Saxon hermit in the Middle Ages.  This well-written novel tells Godric’s life, including Godric’s struggles and doubts, his own humility and questioning of his vocation.  It is beautiful and wonderful.

Helena by Evelyn Waugh.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.  I believe that this book captures the spirit of the Late Antique world, especially in terms of philosophy and religion.  Waugh is not trying to make a historical reconstruction but simply telling the legend of St. Helena’s life.  I believe this is a masterpiece; it was Waugh’s favourite of his works.  Loyola Classics has a snazzy edition out.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  This, along with its companion novels, is among my favourite books.  It is a type of science fantasy, if such a genre exists.  It is about four children who set out across the universe to fight the Dark and to find their missing father; the Dark is taking over planets, extinguishing stars.  Their greatest weapon in the fight against the Dark?  Love.

Christian fiction I want to read:

All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams

Brenden by Frederick Buechner

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead (I’ve only read Taliesin)

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The Psychomachia by Prudentius

What Christian novels do you recommend?