Saturday, September 19, 2009

Paradiso, St Bernard of Clairvaux and Deus Caritas Est

Philippe Quantin (c. 1600 -.1636)
Saint Bernard éc rivant/Saint Bernard writing
Oil on canvas
H. 181.1 ; L. 120.4
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon
The work was originally commissioned for the Church of the Collège des Godrans, in Dijon. It was seized by the French State in 1799

Francisco Ribalta 1565- 1628
Cristo abrazando a San Bernardo/ Christ embracing St Bernard 1626
Oil on Canvas 158 cm x 113 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Christ leaves the cross for an instant in order to embrace Saint Bernard, founder of the Cistercian Order. The scene is based on one of the saint's mystical visions, drawn from one of the most popular religious books of the Baroque era: Pedro de Ribadeneyra's Flos Sanctorum or Book of the Lives of the Saints, published in 1599. The painting, one of the triumphs of Spanish Baroque, was probably originally commissioned for the Charterhouse of Porta Coeli in Valencia

The Inferno and Purgatorio carry the reader along entertainingly; the Paradiso by comparison seems bloodless, impalpable and dauntingly scholastic.

The Paradiso is low on human interest: its inhabitants neither want nor regret anything

Amongst other things, we are instructed in the theological intricacies of free will, gravity and the soul.

In the Inferno and Purgatorio, we can join in the criticism of the failings of the souls who inhabit these regions. The viewpoint of the reader is firmly based on a human being with feet firmly planted on the Earth.

In Paradiso, Earth is left far behind. The laws of nature do not apply. Love is the overwhelming force which unites the inhabitants of this realm. There is no conflict. There is therefore no drama.

The climax is Dante`s vision: in the moment of supreme stillness, beyond time, is of a universal unity, bound together by Love in a simplicity of Light. Within it is the concentrated and perfect Good, the object of will and desire, which the eye cannot turn away from to another sight. Outside it all things are in some way defective in their goodness.

The vision of Heaven is amongst other things based on the Vision of St Bernard of Clairvaux. He is Dante`s guide to the final Beatific Vision.

From his many writings here is one passage when St Bernard discusses “the four degrees of love” and the vision of heaven.

Chapter XV. Of the four degrees of love, and of the blessed state of the heavenly fatherland
From On Loving God by St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

“Nevertheless, since we are carnal and are born of the lust of the flesh, it must be that our desire and our love shall have its beginning in the flesh. But rightly guided by the grace of God through these degrees, it will have its consummation in the spirit: for that was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual (I Cor. 15:46).

And we must bear the image of the earthy first, before we can bear the image of the heavenly.

At first, man loves himself for his own sake. That is the flesh, which can appreciate nothing beyond itself.

Next, he perceives that he cannot exist by himself, and so begins by faith to seek after God, and to love Him as something necessary to his own welfare. That is the second degree, to love God, not for God's sake, but selfishly. But when he has learned to worship God and to seek Him aright, meditating on God, reading God's Word, praying and obeying His commandments, he comes gradually to know what God is, and finds Him altogether lovely.

So, having tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is (Ps. 34:8), he advances to the third degree, when he loves God, not merely as his benefactor but as God. Surely he must remain long in this state; and I know not whether it would be possible to make further progress in this life to that fourth degree and perfect condition wherein man loves himself solely for God's sake. Let any who have attained so far bear record; I confess it seems beyond my powers.

Doubtless it will be reached when the good and faithful servant shall have entered into the joy of his Lord (Matt. 25:21), and been satisfied with the plenteousness of God's house (Ps. 36:8). For then in wondrous wise he will forget himself and as if delivered from self, he will grow wholly God's. Joined unto the Lord, he will then be one spirit with Him (I Cor. 6:17).

This was what the prophet meant, I think, when he said: ' I will go forth in the strength of the Lord God: and will make mention of Thy righteousness only' (Ps. 71:16). Surely he knew that when he should go forth in the spiritual strength of the Lord, he would have been freed from the infirmities of the flesh, and would have nothing carnal to think of, but would be wholly filled in his spirit with the righteousness of the Lord.

In that day the members of Christ can say of themselves what St. Paul testified concerning their Head: 'Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more' (II Cor. 5:16). None shall thereafter know himself after the flesh; for 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God' (I Cor. 15:50).

Not that there will be no true substance of the flesh, but all carnal needs will be taken away, and the love of the flesh will be swallowed up in the love of the spirit, so that our weak human affections will be made divinely strong.

Then the net of charity which as it is drawn through the great and wide sea doth not cease to gather every kind of fish, will be drawn to the shore; and the bad will be cast away, while only the good will be kept (Matt. 13:48). In this life the net of all-including love gathers every kind of fish into its wide folds, becoming all things to all men, sharing adversity or prosperity, rejoicing with them that do rejoice, and weeping with them that weep (Rom. 12:15).

But when the net is drawn to shore, whatever causes pain will be rejected, like the bad fish, while only what is pleasant and joyous will be kept. Do you not recall how St. Paul said: 'Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is offended and I burn not?' And yet weakness and offense were far from him. So too he bewailed many which had sinned already and had not repented, though he was neither the sinner nor the penitent. But there is a city made glad by the rivers of the flood of grace (Ps. 46:4), and whose gates the Lord loveth more than all the dwellings of Jacob (Ps. 87:2).

In it is no place for lamentation over those condemned to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). In these earthly dwellings, though men may rejoice, yet they have still other battles to fight, other mortal perils to undergo.

But in the heavenly Fatherland no sorrow nor sadness can enter: as it is written, 'The habitation of all rejoicing ones is in Thee' (Ps. 87:7, Vulg.); and again, 'Everlasting joy shall be unto them' (Isa. 61:7). Nor could they recall things piteous, for then they will make mention of God's righteousness only. Accordingly, there will be no need for the exercise of compassion, for no misery will be there to inspire pity.”

On 23rd January 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave an address in the Sala Clementina to the participants of a meeting held by the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”. In the address he discussed the final Vision of Dante in the Paradiso, Love and his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est:

“The cosmic excursion in which Dante, in his "Divine Comedy", wishes to involve the reader, ends in front of the perennial Light that is God himself, before that Light which is at the same time "the love that moves the sun and the other stars" (Par. XXXIII, v. 145). Light and love are one and the same. They are the primordial creative powers that move the universe.

If these words in Dante's Paradiso betray the thought of Aristotle, who saw in the eros the power that moves the world, Dante nevertheless perceives something completely new and inconceivable for the Greek philosopher. Not only that the eternal Light is shown in three circles which Dante addresses using those terse verses familiar to us: "O everlasting Light, you dwell alone/In yourself, know yourself alone, and known/And knowing, love and smile upon yourself!" (Par. XXXIII, vv. 124-126).

As a matter of fact, even more overwhelming than this revelation of God as a trinitarian circle of knowledge and love, is the perception of a human face - the face of Jesus Christ - which, to Dante, appears in the central circle of the Light. God, infinite Light, whose immeasurable mystery the Greek philosopher perceived, this God has a human face and - we may add - a human heart.

This vision of Dante reveals, on the one hand, the continuity between Christian faith in God and the search developed by reason and by the world of religions; on the other, however, a novelty appears that surpasses all human research, the novelty that only God himself can reveal to us: the novelty of a love that moved God to take on a human face, even to take on flesh and blood, the entire human being.

The eros of God is not only a primordial cosmic power; it is love that created man and that bows down over him, as the Good Samaritan bent down to the wounded and robbed man, lying on the side of the road that went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Today, the word "love" is so spoiled, worn out and abused that one almost fears to pronounce it. And yet, it is a fundamental word, an expression of the primordial reality. We cannot simply abandon it, but we must take it up again, purify it and bring it to its original splendour so that it can illumine our life and guide it on the right path.

This is the understanding that led me to choose "love" as the theme of my first Encyclical. I wanted to try to express for our time and our existence some of what Dante boldly summed up in his vision. He tells of a "sight" that "was altering" as he "gazed on" it and was being interiorly changed (cf. Par. XXXIII, vv. 112-114).

It is precisely this: faith becomes a vision-understanding that transforms us. It was my aim to shed light on the centrality of faith in God; in that God who took on a human face and heart.

Faith is not a theory that can be personalized or even set aside. It is something very concrete: it is the criteria that determines our lifestyle. In an epoch where hostility and greed have become superpowers, an epoch where we support the abuse of religion to the point of deifying hatred, neutral rationality alone cannot protect us.

We need the living God, who loved us even to death. And so, in this Encyclical, the themes "God", "Christ" and "Love" are fused together as the central guide of Christian faith. I wanted to reveal the humanity of faith, of which eros is a part; the "yes" of man to his bodiliness created by God, a "yes" that in an indissoluble matrimony between man and woman finds its form rooted in creation.

And here it also happens that the eros is transformed into agape: that love for the other which is no longer self-seeking but becomes concern for the other, ready to sacrifice for him or her and also open to the gift of a new human life.

Christian agape, love of neighbour in the following of Christ, is nothing foreign to, situated alongside of or even against the eros; on the contrary, in the sacrifice that Christ made of himself for man he discovered a new dimension which, in the history of charitable dedication of Christians to the poor and suffering, it has developed all the more.

A first reading of the Encyclical could possibly give the impression that it is divided into two parts that are not very connected: a first part, theoretical, which speaks about the essence of love, and a second, which speaks of ecclesial charity and charitable organizations.

I was particularly interested, however, in the unity of the two themes that are well understood only if seen as a whole. From the beginning it was necessary to speak of the essence of love as it is presented to us in the light of biblical testimony.

Starting from the Christian image of God, it was necessary to show how man is created for love and how this love, which initially appears above all as the eros between man and woman, must then be interiorly transformed into agape, into gift of self to the other; and this, precisely to respond to the true nature of the eros.

On this basis, then, the essence of the love of God and neighbour as described in the Bible is shown to be the centre of Christian existence, the result of faith.

Subsequently, however, in the second part it became necessary to stress that the totally personal act of agape can never remain as something isolated, but must instead become also an essential act of the Church as community: meaning that it also requires an institutional form which is expressed in the communal working of the Church.

The ecclesial organization of charity is not a form of social assistance that is casually added to the Church's reality, an initiative that could also be left to others. Instead, it is part of the nature of the Church.

As the divine Logos corresponds to the human announcement, the word of faith, so must the Agape, who is God, correspond to the agape of the Church, her charitable activity. This activity, beyond the first very concrete meaning of helping one's neighbour, also essentially means that of communicating to others God's love, which we ourselves have received. It must make the living God in some way visible.

In charitable organization, God and Christ must not be foreign words; in reality, they indicate the original source of ecclesial charity. The strength of Caritas depends on the strength of the faith of all the members and collaborators.

The sight of a suffering human being touches our heart. But charitable commitment has a meaning that goes well beyond simple philanthropy. It is God himself who moves us interiorly to relieve misery. And so, after all, it is he himself whom we bring to the suffering world.

The more consciously and clearly we bring him as a gift, the more effectively will our love change the world and reawaken hope: a hope that goes beyond death. And only in this way is it true hope for man. “