Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Dante Alighieri and "esperienza"

More important than yesterday being "Star Wars Day" ("May the fourth be with you" and all that) was the fact that, in the Italian Senate, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who serves as President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, read a letter (currently available only in Italian- you can read the Vatican news story here) from Pope Francis commemorating the 750th anniversary of the birth of il Sommo Poeta (i.e., "the Supreme Poet"), Durante degli Alighieri, known simply as "Dante". Indeed, reckoning from the evidence that is available, it is believed that Dante was most likely born in 1265, but that is not certain.

I did not know until today that Pope Benedict XV wrote an entire encyclical on Dante: In Praeclara Summorum. This encyclical, subtitled, "On Dante to Professors and Students of Literature in the Catholic World," was promulgated 30 April 1921, to mark the 600th anniversary of the Supreme Poet's death (we're rapidly approaching the 700th anniversary in 2021). Then there was Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter Altissimi cantus (available only in Latin). Papa Montini promulgated this letter on 7 December 1965, the day before he formally closed the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

La Divina Commedia di Dante, by Domenico di Michelino, 1465, fresco in the cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore

In his letter, Pope Francis recommends reading the Divine Comedy as a way of observing the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy he will inaugurate on 8 December 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which, this year, will mark the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. In his letter to the Italian Senate, the Holy Father wrote, "the Comedy may be read as a great itinerary, or rather as a true pilgrimage, both personal and interior, and communal, ecclesial, social and historical. It represents the paradigm of every authentic journey in which humanity is called upon to leave what Dante defines as 'the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious' to attain a new condition, marked by harmony, peace and happiness. And this is the horizon of every true humanism."

So, with the help of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who began the third volume of his theological aesthetics, The Glory of the Lord: Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles, with Dante Alighieri, and Rod Dreher, whose recently published book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem, I just picked up, I plan to follow the Holy Father's recommendation and seriously re-engage The Divine Comedy. I am not going to wait until December, however.

It is worth citing Von Balthasar extensively on Dante:
Others may have been caught up to God in ecstasy, but no one else has undertaken a methodical exploration of Paradise or acquired esperienza of the hereafter. This last word - esperienza - recurs frequently, oscillating between its ancient meaning of 'mystical experience of God,' the even more ancient Irenaean sense of 'experience of grace through experience in the flesh of its opposite' and a third, new sense - 'experiential exploration of reality' - which looks towards modern times. There is, of course, a long tradition, both in Antiquity and in the Christian era, of journeys to the hereafter, of transcendental adventure stories and reports of ecstatic experience. However, Dante should be seen in stark contrast to this whole literary tradition because of his awareness, both theological and aesthetic, that he was setting down something that had never existed before and that in its own way is inimitable, a work that raises him high above his own age, plants him in the future (s'infutura la tua vita), in eternity itself (s'eterna) (Glory of the Lord, Vol III, 12)
This article from the Holy See's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, which appeared on St Patrick's Day this year, "The poet of theologians and the theologian of poets: Giovanni Battista Montini and his passion for Dante," noted, "A clear sign of Paul VI’s passion for Dante is the gift he gave to the conciliar Fathers at Vatican ii: a special edition of the Divine Comedy."

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