The fifth ‘great ‘O’ antiphon in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word calls on Christ as the ‘Oriens’, the Morning Star, the Dayspring, and it comes as an answer to the sense of darkness and captivity in the fourth antiphon, O Clavis‘ I find the idea of Christ as rising light in the East very moving, for he is Alpha, the ‘Beginning’. The Translation which gives ‘Dayspring’ for Oriens I especially love, both because ‘Dayspring’ suggests at one and the same time, both light and water, two primal goods in life which I love in combination, especially light reflected on water, and also because ‘Dayspring’ was the name of a ship my great grandfather built for Scottish missionaries and also the name of the little gaff cutter, from whose deck I saw the dawn rise after a long period of darkness. Many of these senses of ‘Dayspring’ are at play in the sonnet I have given below. I should also mention that the line from Dante means “I saw light in the form of a river’ another touchstone moment for me in the Paradiso You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Lancia Smith. you can see this and more on her excellent Website Cultivating the True the Good and the Beautiful.. You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
During this last Lent Term I preached a series of seven sermons at Girton College, exploring the theme of pilgrimage, first in scripture and then in the writings of Dante, Chaucer, Raleigh, Herbert, Bunyan, and CS Lewis. These are now up on the college website as audio clips you can listen to onsite or download for later listening. Here are links to all seven.
Unfortunately the final one o Lewis is cut off about half way through as the recorder stopped functioning or ran out of space. But you will probably see where I was going with is
Having been through Hell (as it were), climbed together the steep terraces of the Holy Mountain of Purgatory and danced through the fire at its summit, back into the garden of our beginnings, we come now to the final section of my Dante Sequence. This is the first of my three poems responding to the Paradiso the poem in which, reunited with his beloved Beatrice, Dante ascends through the spheres of the heavens to attain at last a mystical vision of the God who is all in all, three in one and yet looks on us with a human face.
In some ways Inferno and Purgatorio are easier to read because they chart, with harrowing honesty, the familiar territory of our own experience, whereas Paradiso challenges us with a way of seeing reality, utterly itself, in all its variety and particularity, and bathed in the light of Love, which we have not yet attained. But the key I think is to recognise that just sometimes, and by sheer grace, we get a glimpse of the Paradisal or Beatific view of things, as the disciples did at the transfiguration, and from there we can begin to imagine, and so learn to love and grow into our paradise.
The key verbs throughout the Paradiso are ‘Look’ and ‘Love’; Dante is gradually transformed by learning to look at everything, himself and Beatrice included with the gaze of Love with which God beholds his creation and this prepares him gradually for the final look, the beatific vision in which he himself, together with the sun and the other stars becomes and is moved by the Love he beholds.
7 Look up!
In this first poem I reflect on Dante’s ascent through the first three spheres of heaven, the Moon, Mercury and finally the third Heaven, Venus, the sphere in which our Eros is perfected by Agape.
As Dante and Beatrice rise through the traditional seven heavens of mediaeval astronomy, the experience of each is lovelier and more intense, each sphere as it were prepares and trains Dante’s sight for the holiness and beauty of the next.
For Dante the Heaven of the Sun represents and embodies the light and life of the mind, the sheer joy of pursuing and apprhehending truth. It is in that sphere that he meets the great masters of Christian intellectual life from Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy through to to the great Dominican and Franciscan masters of thought St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. For Dante the life of mind, the pursuit of truth and the interweaving of intellectual exchange, are seen not as contention or rivalry, as they might be in some places, but as a kind of glorious circle dance, centred on the Logos who is the light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. The theologians whirl around Dante and Beatrice in sheer joy and energy. That is the true vision of the life of the mind!
When I came up to Cambridge as a young man I was on my second read-through of the Commedia and I was delighted to discover that almost all the philosophers whom Dante meets in the Heaven of the Sun were still on my syllabus to read! Starting with Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy still remans one of the most important books in my life. Though earthly universities are not always an earthly paradise, I still enjoy in my Cambridge life some glimpses of Dante’s vision of the dancing and illuminated life of the mind!
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button.
A sun-warmed sapling, opening each leaf,
My soul unfolded in your quickening ray,
‘the inner brought the outer into life’;
I found the light within the light of day,
The Consolation of Philosophy,
Turning a page in Cambridge, found my way,
My mind delighting in discovery,
As love of learning turned to learning love
And explanation deepened mystery,
Drawing me out beyond what I could prove
Towards the next adventure, every chance
Discovery a sweet come-hither wave,
Philosophy a kind of circle dance,
Weaving between the present and the past,
The whole truth present in a single glance
That looked on me and everything in Christ!
Threefold Beholding, look me into being,
Make me in Love again from first to last
And let me still partake your holy seeing
Beyond the shifting shadow of the earth,
Minute particulars, eternal in their being,
Forming themselves into a single path
From heaven to earth and back again to heaven,
All patterned and perfected, from each birth
To each fruition, and all freely given
To glory in and give the glory back!
Call me again to set out from this haven
And follow Truth along her shining track.
9 The Rose
I come now to the final part my sequence of nine poems reflecting on the exprerience of reading, and re-reading Dante’s Commedia. By the end of the Paradiso Dante has taken us to the very limits of human thought and expression, to the brink of a reality which is beyond language, and yet which is the true source of all reality. That source is Love, ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’, and the whole purpose of the poem is that we learn and choose also to be moved by, and find our peace, in that Love.
To describe his journey, Dante used the astronomy of his day, but the truth of his message does not depend on one scientific model, or another, but on what lies behind the reality they model. In this poem I have tried to hint at the exprerience of reading Dante with our own, equally marvelous and mysterious cosmology in mind.
as usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button.
Botticelli illustrates Purgatorio 27, Dancing through the Fire
‘From wrong to wrong the exasperated sprit proceeds/ unless restored by that refining fire/ where you must move in measure like a dancer’
These words from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding have always struck a chord with me. They allude, of course, to the moment near the end of the Purgatorio when the pilgrims ascend towards the Earthly Paradise, the garden of our origins and of our restored humanity, at the summit of the Holy Mountain. But Eden is surrounded by a circle of fire. The poet-pilgrims must pass through that fire, in which the last of love’s imperfections will be purified. Desire for the beloved must be redeemed from the possessive lust which makes a person an object, and restored to that wholeness of love in which the beloved is desired and loved, body and soul, for herself as person. It is only when Virgil reminds Dante that his beloved Beatrice is waiting for him beyond the fire that he has the courage to enter the flame.
This poem is also set for this Saturday in The Word in the wilderness. Here’s what I wrote about it there:
So, at the end of this ‘Dante’ week, I give you my own poetic response to Friday’s passage from the Purgatorio. And I take occasion in this poem to thank God for the poets, the warm-hearted poets whose strength, and yes, sometimes weakness too, was in their service of Eros, but who always gave me, as the pagan Virgil gave Dante, a new kindling of hope and longing; a vision, even through the warmth of earthly love, of the eternal Love of Heaven. Through them I learned that the right response to Eros is not to ask for less desire, but for more, to deepen my desires until nothing but Heaven can satisfy them. I also take occasion here to think about the art of poetry itself. There is a parallel, I think between our love-life and the making of poetry. In both there is an initial gift and inspiration, a subtle and all-transforming intuition of beauty. But in both this might easily be frittered away or corrupted. The first glimpse, the intuition, which as it did for Yeats’s Wandering Aengus, should lead to a life-times quest, can be lost or dissipated in the pursuit of one will’o’the wisp after another. Or we can be faithful to it: that first intuition, that graceful gift of love can be attended to, and shaped. We can craft for it a steady reliable form and a home. We can bring it, in poetry and in love-life through slow growth to fruition. So I praise the poets, among them Dante himself, who
taught me by example how to bring
The slow growth of a poem to fruition
And let it be itself, a living thing,
And we can do more than that. Poetry must begin with specific and loving attention to the particular and the earthly, but it doesn’t end there. And so I praise the poets who
Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition
And still to try the tautness of each line,
Taught me to taste the grace of transformation
And trace in dust the face of the divine,
Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian,
That drawing water turns it into wine.
The lines, the images, the sounds and rhythms of a poem are all physical things of this world, and yet, somehow in them and through them, another light shines. George Herbert put it perfectly when he said
A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the Heavens espy.
And all this, that is true of poetry, is also true of the transformation of Eros in our lives. The familiar face of the person we live with, the quality of their steadfast covenant love can suddenly become a window through which the face of the God, who loves us in and through them, shines. Marriage itself is intended as the sacrament in which that transformation can happen, and that is why the marriage service alludes to our Lord’s presence ‘at a wedding in Cana of Galillee’. For the miracle that was wrought there, in which the very act of drawing water in Christ’s presence has turned it into wine, is a sign of what can happen to all we love and make in this world, poems and relationships, if we open them up to Christ.
This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent. In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence.
Yesterday, with De Magistro we began the ascent of Mount Purgatory. As he begins his ascent of the Holy Mountain, Dante runs into, indeed nearly trips over, an old friend called Belaqua, a Florentine lute-maker and musician. Dante is delighted to see him there as one of the redeemed, since in Florence he seemed, as many musicians seem to their friends now, to spend alot of his time just ‘hanging out’ with other musicians and not getting on with anything in particular. Then Dante is disturbed to notice that that is exactly what Belaqua still seems to be doing on the Holy Mountain, just lounging around, until Belaqua explains that this is actually his penance! He is obliged to hang around waiting for the exact amount of time he wasted on earth, before he can begin his true his ascent. What was previously just ‘time wasting’ is now being converted by grace into ‘otium sacrum’ that holy leisure, that pause and patience, that long wait in which at last we let God be God. It’s no wonder that Samuel Becket, who was to invest so much imagination into what it means to wait, was very drawn to this passage and that the hero of his semi-autobiographical short stories is called Belaqua. I wrote this poem over thirty years ago, influenced as much by Becket as by Dante, towards the end of an apparently fruitless period of lostness and indolence. Placing it now in this new sequence is itself a parable of what I understand redemption to be.
This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent. In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the third of them Vexilla Regis, today I am posting the Fourth, De Magistro.’ This poem is set for Thursday ion The Word in the wilderness and the introduction is taken from that book.
Many of us can probably point to a figure like Virgil in our lives, not only an author, but a living friend and teacher, who meets us at the right moment, sets us on a good path and guides on our journey. In this poem, I celebrate someone who did that for me, the teacher, in fact, with whom I first read Dante. My poem takes its point of departure from the moment of transition we considered in Wednesday’s end of the Inferno when the poets emerge at last from the dark and see again the sky and stars, and their preparation to begin the painful and yet joyful ascent of Mount Purgatory.
Again and again I find Dante’s poem gives me glimpses of places I have been, and places I may well yet find myself, and in doing so it gives me a map, and with the map, a way forward. When I wrote this poem I was emerging from period of depression. I was grateful to be past the worst but I realized that I had work to do, things to redeem, an ascent to make. To do so I had to call to mind all the resources available to me, and I found myself summoning the powers of the poetry I had read, the insights and example of the teachers who had guided me, and above all concentrating, as they had done, on the joyful task of teaching itself. The title of this poem, ‘De Magistro’, means ‘Of the Teacher’ and it is also the title of a little book by St Augustine, co-written as a dialogue with his beloved son Adeodatus, in which father and son explore together what it means to learn and to teach and come to the conclusion that at any moment when we suddenly ‘recognize’ a truth, and make a glad, inner assent to it, it is not the outward and visible teacher, the person in the room, who is the ultimate source of that truth and that assent, but rather an ‘inner’ teacher, deep within us, a source of light and truth to whom we have brought each proposition for confirmation, and that teacher, said Augustine is Christ, himself, the Logos, the Word in each of us, who guides us through the wilderness. At such moments of joyful recognition both teacher and pupil discern the Word in and through one another, and in and through the words they share.
Dante’s poem begins ‘in a dark wood’ in ‘midmost of the path of this life’. Sometimes words themselves can seem like a tangled wood, but a good teacher can show us the path, and guide us gradually to find the true source of all language and meaning in Christ the logos, and I have tried to evoke that experience in this poem, in the lines:
In mid-most of the word-wood is a path
That leads back to the springs of truth in speech.
You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,
You showed me how my halting words might reach
To the mind’s maker, to the source of Love,
And so you taught me what it means to teach.
Perhaps, in the midst of this Lenten journey this is a good time to remember, give thanks and pray for those teachers, official and unofficial, through whom Christ has ‘brought us safe thus far’.
This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent. In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the second of them Through the Gate, today I am posting the Third, Vexilla Regis.’
In this third reflection on on my pilgrim/reader’s journey through Dante’s Commedia, I come to the end of the Inferno and the wonderful moment of reversal/renewal when, having sunk to the lowest depths, the very centre of the earth’s gravity, they realise that if they can just keep going and not give up or give in at this point, then everything will be upended,they will pass the centre and be climbing again on the journey back to light, proving what a later mystic, John of the Cross wrote, that ‘the way down is the way up’.
One other thing I might note by way of background to my poem is that ‘Vexilla Regis‘, which means the Royal Banner or Standard is a wonderful early mediaeval hymn about the cross of Christ, the apparent tree of defeat, becoming truly the tree of victory, the flag that rallies every faint and falling Christian back to the battle, back to hope and triumph in their true Captain. In Hell Dante hears a hideous parody of this hymn applied to Satan, so in my own poem about recovery I take up the true version as my witness to the saving power of the cross.
This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent. In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the first of them In Medias Res, today I am posting the second, ‘Through the Gate.’ Here is the commentary with which I introduced it in The Word in the wilderness and then the poem itself:
So Dante begins again, accompanied by Virgil and they come to the very gate of Hell, with its famous inscription ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’! But they don’t abandon hope, and that is the whole point. It is hope that leads and draws them on, hope inspired by love. For Virgil has revealed to Dante that it is Beatrice, the woman with whom he had fallen so completely in love as a young man, now in the bliss of Heaven, who has herself ‘ventured down the dark descent’ (to borrow Milton’s phrase) to find Virgil and ask for his help in rescuing Dante, so that she and Dante can meet again and rise together through the spheres of Heaven. Like Jesus, who went to the cross, not for pain in itself, but ‘for the joys that were set before him’, so we are to make this journey through the memories of pain and darkness, not to stay with these things but to redeem them and move beyond them. And the journey is itself made possible because Christ himself has gone before. ‘He descended into Hell.’ Throughout the journey into the Inferno we are shown signs that Christ has been this way before and broken down the strongholds. Dante is here alluding to one of the great lost Christian stories, which we need to recover today; ‘The Harrowing of Hell’. We, who build so many Hells on earth, need to know that there is no place so dark, no situation so seemingly hopeless, that cannot be opened to the light of Christ for rescue and redemption.
This is the theme I have born in mind in the following poem, which is my own ‘reader response’ to Dante’s journey. Throughout I have been mindful that the Inferno is really ‘in here and right now’ not ‘out there and back then’, and emphatically not, if we trust in Christ, some inevitable end awaiting us. In that knowledge we must have the courage to expose our own personal Hell’s to Christ and let him harrow them with us, and that is precisely what Dante’s great poem allows us to do. The great statesman and Dante enthusiast, W. E. Gladstone said: ‘The reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole man’.
For all of us, somewhere within, there is a threshold or a gate beyond which we feel we dare not go, but it is sometimes just past that threshold that our real healing and restoration needs to take place. Sometimes the best way to get through that gate, and let Christ in, is in a companioned inner journey, with a trusted ‘soul friend’, a spiritual director, or a priest to whom we can make confession in complete confidence. I have deliberately echoed the phrase, from the form of confession ‘All I cannot call to mind’ as a way of suggesting that this journey with Dante down the dark spirals; one sin leading to another, one wound inflicting the next, can itself be an invitation to confession, and so to absolution and release.
Readers of The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent, will know that all this coming week we are sharing our Lenten Pilgrimage with Dante. Now in that book I have alternated 3 passages from Robin Kirkpatrick’s brilliant new translation of the Commedia with 3 poems from my own sequence of nine poems ‘On Reading the Comedia’, which comes at the end of my book The Singing Bowl. As readers of The Word in the Wilderness make that journey this week I thought some of them might be interested in the full sequence from which my three poems were taken and would perhaps like to hear me read them, so I am reposting that sequence on this blog, starting today with the opening poem In Medias Res, itself a response to the opening of Dante’s poem, which opens ‘in the middle of the path of our life’
The 21st of December brings us to the fifth ‘great ‘O’ antiphon which calls on Christ as the ‘Oriens’, the Morning Star, the Dayspring. This antiphon comes as an answer to the sense of darkness and captivity in the fourth antiphon,O Clavis‘ I find the idea of Christ as rising light in the East very moving, for he is Alpha, the ‘Beginning’. The Translation which gives ‘Dayspring’ for Oriens I especially love, both because ‘Dayspring’ suggests at one and the same time, both light and water, two primal goods in life which I love in combination, especially light reflected on water, and also because ‘Dayspring’ was the name of a ship my great grandfather built for Scottish missionaries and also the name of the little gaff cutter, from whose deck I saw the dawn rise after a long period of darkness. Many of these senses of ‘Dayspring’ are at play in the sonnet I have given below. I should also mention that the line from Dante means “I saw light in the form of a river’ another touchstone moment for me in the Paradiso As before you can either click the play button to hear the antiphon and sonnet, otr click the hyperlink on the title to go to my audioboo page and hear all the sonnets in turn. You can read more about the antiphons on Julia Holloway’s lovely site Umilita
This Advent sequence of sonnets is now part of my larger Sequence, Sounding the Seasons which goes right through the Christian Year from Advent to the Feast of Christ the King. You can obtain it directly from Canterbury Press, FromBlackwell’s or from Amazon, or order it in to your local bookstore.
The rather blurry picture above is a photo of a watercolour I was painting at the time I wrote the sonnet.
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.