Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Balthasar & Dante: compassion and a sacrament sans grace

Yesterday evening I finished reading the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy. After completing the Inferno, I read Hans Urs Balthsar's theological commentary on it in the third volume of Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. As one might expect, both Dante's poem and Balthasar's theological reflection were magnificent. By "magnificent" I mean both "excellent" and "impressively beautiful, elaborate, or extravagant; striking."

Referring to a work by German literary scholar Hugo Friedrich, in English entitled The Metaphysics of Law in the Divine Comedy, which seems to supply the basis for his look at the Inferno, Balthasar, after noting that Friedrich sought to demonstrate that Dante is dependent upon the same cosmology ("of order and law") as Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas, observed: "Guilt or sin is contrary to right, and because it is the disruption of that ordered right or right order (rectitudo) implanted by the Creator in the nature of things, it contains its own punishment" (83). Hence, "the sinner himself presses toward the place of his punishment and eagerly embraces its particular form" (86). To support this, Balthasar cited Canto III, lines 124-126. I think it makes sense to back up to line 121:
"My son," the gentle master [the Roman poet Virgil, his guide through hell] said to me,
"all those who perish in the wrath of God
assemble here from all parts of the earth;

they want to cross the river [presumably Styx], they are eager;
it is Divine justice that spurs them on,
turning the fear they have into desire"
(all translations of the Inferno by Mark Musa from The Portable Dante)
"This," Balthasar insisted, "is why there is a confessional at the entrance of Hell [Canto V, lines 4-9]: "for the acknowledgement of one's own guilt... before the judge of Hell, Minos, and the apportioning of suitable punishment [instead of penance]; confession in the full sense, but without any love or absolution, a sacrament without grace" (86).

La Porte de l'Enfer (i.e., Gates of Hell), by Auguste Rodin (uncompleted)-
began in 1885 and worked on until the sculptor's death in 1917

Because it is the subject of much imaginative distortion, perhaps even including Dante's, Hell is difficult to contemplate."For Dante," Balthasar went on, "progress through Hell would... mean initiation into pure objectivity and his weaning away from an excessively human [as opposed to Divine, not Vulcan] compassion not yet in conformity with the supreme order of of the world" (87). Pointing once more to Friedrich, who, Balthasar observed, showed that compassion, which, for Augustine, is "subordinated" to "and rigorously brought into line by reason" (87), he insisted that, for Dante, compassion is only truly compassion "when the movements of the passions correspond to law and justice" (87). On this view, as a feeling, or emotion, "compassion in itself is neither good nor evil" (87). To be true, or truly good, compassion "must first allow itself to be guided by the cor rectum ["right heart"] to the rectitudo [literally "rightness," but better "right order"] of divine order."

As Balthasar went on to highlight, Virgil upbraided Dante for feeling pity for the damned in Canto XX, lines 25-30:
Indeed I did weep, as I leaned my body
against a jut of rugged rock. My guide:
"So you are still like all the other fools?

In this place piety lives when pity is dead,
for who could be more wicked than that man
who tries to bend divine will to his own
"The standard by which all these emotions are measured," Balthasar explained, "remains the will of God ruling over the damned. It is into the mystery of that [divine] will that the poet is initiated, and it is there that every human emotion finds its measure and limit. This is apatheia, which surpasses the apatheia of the Buddhist, for whom compassion is the supreme norm of morality..." (89).

It's interesting that yesterday I also came across this insight written by theologian Paul Evdokimov in his book Orthodoxy on Fr Kimel's blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, in a post entitled "Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was"- "The question remains open, the answer depending perhaps on human charity. St Anthony’s explanation is one of the most profound: apocatastasis, the salvation of all, is not a doctrine, but a prayer for the salvation of all except me, for whom alone hell exists." Of course this echoes Balthasar's own view set forth in Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, which, at least in my view, has rightly been described as "one of the most misunderstood works of Catholic theology of our time."

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