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SANCTUM MUSINGS

THE MYSTICISM OF DANTE

[From The Rosicrucian Digest November 1934]
  
  
ALIGHIERI DANTE, one of the greatest of Italian poets, was born in Florence, May 1265, a descendant of a very ancient family whose real name was Durante. He was a great lover of literature, music and the fine arts and through his family heritage, at least, was greatly inclined toward religion, philosophy, and mysticism, and early in his youth began to master all of the philosophies of his time while maintaining a part in the social life and in touch with every aspect of Italian social activities. Through his writings and social as well as political activities, he was exiled and condemned to be buried alive should he attempt to reestablish any of the great social and political influence he had exerted in the past. Of all of his writings, he is known best by the one entitled, "The Divina Commedia."
 
He is looked upon by Rosicrucians as a follower of its doctrines and teachings and there is much to indicate that he had been either privately or partially initiated into some of its mysteries and was very familiar with its mystical ideals.
 
The following discourse upon the mysticism of Dante is from the work, Dante and the Mystics, by Edmund G. Gardner, who lectured on Dante in the University of London. This work may be obtained in America from E. P. Dutton and Company of New York City. It is highly recommended to all students of mysticism who are interested in the writings of the great Lights of literature.
 
Dante describes himself in the Paradiso as one who, while still in the flesh, all' eterno dal tempo era venuto, "had come from time to the eternal." Speaking generally, it may be said that a mystic is one who thus conceives of religion as an experience of eternity; one who holds that the soul, even in this life, can unite herself with the Divine, and who believes in the possibility and the actuality of certain experiences in which the mind is brought into contact with what it believes to be God, and enjoys fruition of what it takes as the ultimate reality.
 
We find admirable, though partial, expression of this in two of our own poets. Thus Henry Vaughan:--
 
"I saw eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
    All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
    Driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world
    And all her train were hurl'd."
 
And, again, a more modern poet, Francis Thompson:--
 
"I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity,
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again;
    But not ere him who summoneth
    I first have seen, enwound
With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith."
 
The famous author of Il Santo, Antonio Fogazzaro, has said: Dante e' mistico in amore, in religione e teologo. And a French writer, Dr. Albert Leclere, has argued that there is an inconsistency, however unconscious on the poet's part, between his love and his religion, and that, even in the Empyrean Heaven Dante does not really succeed in reconciling his worship of Christ with his worship of a creature, but simply makes his Christianity serve the supreme interest of his passion.
 
Such a representation of Dante's love and Dante's religion seems to me an erroneous one. Theology is, for the poet of the Divina Commedia, identical in the main with Scholasticism, and for him the distinction that we are frequently tempted to draw, between Scholasticism and Mysticism, hardly exists. They are but the two roads, of science and experience, along which the soul travels towards the same goal; and, at times, they merely present two aspects of the same truth, even as, in the Earthly Paradise, the double nature of the symbolical Gryphon is seen reflected in the eyes of Beatrice.
 
The relations of Scholasticism and Mysticism are singularly illustrated in the legend of St. Thomas Aquinas. This most typical and highest representative of the Schoolmen ended as a sheer mystic. In his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, Aminas had written: "We cannot in this present life attain to a knowledge of God Himself beyond the fact that He exists. And nevertheless, among those who know that He is, the one knows this more perfectly than the other." Again, in the Summa Theologica, discussing the question "whether any one in this life can see God in His essence," he answers with a somewhat qualified negative. God, he says, cannot be seen in His essence by a man unless he is severed from this mortal life; the soul, while we live in this life, has her being in corporeal matter, and cannot be so lifted up to the supreme of things intelligible which is the Divine Essence. But "even as God sometimes works supernaturally by a miracle in corporeal things, so also has He elevated the minds of some, while living in the flesh, but not making use of the senses of the flesh, supernaturally and beyond the common order, even to the vision of His essence; as Augustine says of Moses, who was the teacher of the Jews, and of Paul, who was the teacher of the Gentiles." Now it is precisely such a direct mystical experience that Guglielmo di Tocco, whose work is contemporaneous with the Divina Commedia, attributes to Aquinas himself, at the very end of his life, after he had abruptly laid down his pen, leaving the Summa Theologica to be completed by another hand. The Angelical Doctor, with his companion, Fra Rainaldo da Piperno, was staying at his sister's castle of San Severino, when he had a prolonged ecstasy, in which he seemed entirely alienated from his senses. When he returned to himself: "He said with sighs: Son Rainaldo, I will tell thee in secret, forbidding thee to disclose it to any while I live. The end of my writing has come, for such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written and taught seems to me very little; and from this I hope in my God that, even as my teaching is ended, so my life will soon close." And his biographer, remembering what St. Thomas himself had written about such ecstasies, adds: "For as God wondrously revealed many things above human understanding to those who were pre-eminent in the law of Moses, which brought the law of justice to the Jews, and to Paul who preached the law of grace to the Gentiles; so it pleased Him to reveal some supernatural light of mind to this blessed Thomas too, who, from the hand of Him that sat upon the throne, received the rolled-up book of both laws, and by his exposition offered it open to the whole Church--that he might believe that greater things remained which he saw not by natural understanding."
 
It may, indeed, be said that, while Scholasticism is the body of Dante's religion, Mysticism is the soul, and Love the animating spirit of both. Aquinas, discussing the question utrum charitas augeatur in infinitum, "whether charity is capable of infinite increase," declares that, even in this present life (in statu viae), no bounds can be set to the increase of charity: "Charity, by reason of its very nature, hath no limit to its increase, for it is a certain participation in the infinite charity, which is the Holy Spirit." Read "love" for "charity," as we may legitimately do, and it was such a love for a woman that first set Dante on the mystical road through time to eternity, and led him along to its supreme goal:--
 
"O donna, in cui la mia speranza vige,
E che soffristi per la mia salute
In inferno lasciar le tue vestige;
Di tante cose, quante io ho vedute;
Dal tuo potere e dalla tua bontate
Riconosco la grazia e la virtute.
Tu m'hai di servo tratto a libertate
Per tutte quelle vie, per tutti i modi,
Che di cio' fare avei la potestate.
La tua magnificenza in me custodi,
Si che l'anima mia, che fatta hai sana,
Piacente a te dal corpo si disnodi."
 
It has been finely said by George Tyrrell: "All love is mystical, in that it refuses the exact analysis of reason, which, without contradicting, it ineffably transcends." In the relations between Dante and Beatrice we have the key to the poet's mysticism, and the Vita Nuova already shows how his love for her became the guide to the fruition of the Divine.
 
A mystical note is struck at the outset of the Vita Nuova, in the first appearance of Beatrice to the poet's eyes, when he was "almost at the end of his ninth year":--
 
"From thenceforward I say that Love held lordship over my soul, which was so early wedded to him, and he began to exercise over me such great assurance and such great mastery, through the power that my imagination gave him, that it behoved me to do perfectly all that was his pleasure. He commanded me many times that I should seek to see this youngest of the Angels: wherefore I in my childhood often went seeking her; and I saw her of so noble and praiseworthy bearing, that certainly of her could be said that word of the poet Homer: She seemed not daughter of mortal man, but of God. And albeit her image, which continually abode with me, was an exultation of love to rule over me, nevertheless it was of so noble a virtue, that no time did it suffer that Love should sway me without the faithful counsel of Reason, there where such counsel were useful to hear."
 
This is closely analogous with that first revelation of the Divine in early childhood, which is related of so many mystical saints: a vision foreshadowing the spiritual espousals of the soul, and leaving her in like manner the handmaiden of celestial love. Thus St. Catherine of Siena saw, or thought in after life that she had seen, her first vision of her heavenly Bridegroom when she was six year old: "From that hour," writes her biographer and confessor, Fra Raimondo, who had heard the vision from her lips, "Catherine began to show herself no more a child, but adult in holy virtues, gravity of bearing, and ripeness of wisdom; in such sort that, in her actions, nothing of childishness nor immaturity was displayed, but rather an age inspiring veneration. For, already, the fire of divine love had taken hold of her heart, through the virtue of which her understanding was illumined, her will inflamed, her memory strengthened, and her outward actions showed themselves in everything in harmony with the rules of the divine law." Similarly, a fifteenth-century follower of St. Catherine, the beata Osanna Andreasi of Mantua, tells us of a religious experience that came to her in her sixth year, and completely coloured all her subsequent thought and action. In the form which her memory gave to this experience, as she wrote it down for Girolamo da Monteoliveto many years afterwards, a great voice said in her heart: Life and death consist in loving God; A vision followed, in which she was led by an Angel to behold the whole universe bound together by love and proclaiming the law of love, from the God of Love Himself and the Mother of the Incarnate Word, down to the beasts of land and sea, the plants and inanimate things. Then, in her own words, "she feared greatly because of the vision she had received, knowing herself not to be a true and perfect lover of God, as she needed to be"; she prayed for guidance along the way of love, and her "new life" began, in which (she says in a letter) "all things that I saw and heard represented God to me in my mind, with such great knowledge and taste, feeling, and sweetness of God, that many times my spirit was absorbed in Christ . . and it seemed to me that Christ ever discoursed in my heart, whether I walked, or stood, or conversed with others."
 
The first realization of the significance of beauty by the youthful Dante, the first more explicitly religious experience in the still younger Catherine and Osanna, leads in each to the revulsion or renovation of being which is the Vita Nuova--the "new life," in which in Crashaw's great phrase, Love is "absolute sole lord of life and death." In part, the apparent difference is one of degree rather than of kind; and in part, to adopt a scholastic expression, it is in the nature of the recipient--troubadour or saint.
 
For, among the many things to which Dante is heir, he is heir to the troubadour tradition. Throughout the Vita Nuova, the perfect troubadour and the incipient mystic are reacting upon each other; troubadour conventions and troubadour motives are receiving mystical colouring; mystical feeling, and, at the end, what seems mystical experience, are finding expression in troubadour phraseology. And, throughout, the mystic is gradually absorbing the troubadour.
 
This is very clearly seen when we compare the first with the last poem of the book. In the opening sonnet, A ciascun' alma presa e gentil core, "To each enamoured soul and gentle heart," with its invitation to the trovatori to a tenzone, a contest or correspondence in rhyme, written ostensibly in 1283 in the poet's eighteenth year, Dante is merely following the fashion of his age, a fashion that had been transplanted from Provence into Italy. And the dream which is the subject of the sonnet, the dream in which Beatrice at Love's bidding eats of the heart of her worshipper which Love holds aflame in his hand, is simply investing with poetical beauty and transforming with spiritual significance a troubadour tradition: a tradition that appears in many forms, in oriental as well as western literature, usually associated with a sordid and horrible tragedy of jealousy and revenge. The closing sonnet, Oltre la spera che piu larga gira, "Beyond the sphere that hath the widest circling," written apparently in 1292, nine years later, tells of a spiritual ascent in which a "new understanding," intelligenza nuova, implanted by love, draws the poet's thought as a "pilgrim spirit," beyond the last of the moving spheres, to look upon the glory of Beatrice in the Empyrean Heaven. This is, as it were, a poetical rendering, into the language of exalted human love, of the special theme of the mystics, according to the famous definition formerly attributed to St. Bonaventura, in which mystical theology is "the stretching out of the soul into God by the desire of love." It is the mystical subject of the Divina Commedia in germ. But, obviously, it is not yet mysticism in the fullest and truest sense of the term. It is an intellectual attempt on the poet's part to conceive of the glory of his lady in Paradise: not yet a personal experience of eternity. But now such a personal experience comes, on a totally different plane from anything which has preceded it in the Vita Nuova:--
 
"After this sonnet there appeared to me a wondrous vision, in which I saw things which made me purpose to speak no more of this blessed one, until such time as I could treat of her more worthily. And, to come to that, I labour all I can, even as she knoweth verily. So that, if it shall be the pleasure of Him, through whom all things live, that my life continue for some years, I hope to say of her what was never said of any woman. And then may it please Him, who is the lord of courtesy, that my soul may go hence to see the glory of her lady, to wit, of that blessed Beatrice, who gloriously looketh upon the face of Him who is blessed through all ages."
 
This mirabil visione, with which the Vita Nuova ends, is clearly no mere poetical phantasy, but a true religious experience, foreshadowing that greater vision which was to become the subject of the Divina Commedia.
 
The "stretching out of the soul into God by the desire of love," thus foreshadowed in the Vita Nuova, is the mystical theme of the Divina Commedia. But, between the composition of these two works, Dante began and left unfinished the Convivio.
   

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