Friday, May 15, 2015

Dante Alighieri: the poetics of an existential theology

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, in the third volume of his theological aesthetics, The Glory of the Lord, in which he treats lay theological styles, beginning with Dante, insisted that the Divine Comedy is "not just one of the transcendental adventure stories of the Middle Ages" (50). Why? Because, he asserted, "There is nothing about the Comedy of that curiosity found in the visionary literature of this and later periods" (50). Dante's Divine Comedy, he emphatically insisted, "is existential theology" (50).

Apart from how the Divine Comedy stands out from "the visionary literature" of Dante's time and what followed, Balthasar points to how it is by grace that the poet is granted "nothing less than that special grace of certainty of salvation" (49). The grace received is mediated to the Pilgrim by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Balthasar pointed to the prayer Dante placed on the lips of St Bernard, the Doctor Mellifluous, in the final Canto of the Comedy: "Thou, Lady, art so great and so prevailing that whoso would have grace and does not turn to thee his desire would fly without wings ... in thee is mercy, in thee pity, in thee great bounty, in thee is joined all goodness that is in any creature" (Paradisio, Canto XXXIII, lines 13-15 and 19-21). In addition to graces being mediated by "the mediatrix of graces," according to Balthasar, in the Divine Comedy, grace is also mediated by the whole of the 'Jerusalem above', by the community of saints, who were and are entirely real, historical human beings, and from whose midst arises a multitude of helpers, guides and intercessors, each of whom, in his own way, expresses the community of love in its totality" (50).

St Lucy

As a real person known to Dante from his childhood, Beatrice, Balthasar noted, "formed by God as the poet's eternal beloved, has, without doubt, the same degree of of reality as the other saints" (50). At least for Dante, according to Balthasar, Beatrice "is no allegory or symbol" (50). Rather, as Balthasar insisted, "we are simply dealing with the laws of the communio sanctorum," which "fact," he continued, "constitutes the foundation of the Divine Comedy" (50). In light of this it's easy to see why, in his message to the Italian Senate, written to observe the 750th anniversary of Dante's birth, Pope Francis invoked Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter, Altissimi cantus, stating emphatically, "Dante is ours! Ours, as in of Catholic faith."

Keep in mind that at the very beginning of the Divine Comedy, in Canto II of the Inferno, it is the Blessed Virgin who summons St Lucy, who, in turn, calls upon Beatrice, who then prevails on Virgil, to beckon the poet on his pilgrim way. Perhaps the fact that the Divine Comedy, unlike the dj in the Smith's song, still says something to us about our lives is the strongest argument in support of Balthasar's insistence that Dante's poem "is existential theology."

As you might've guessed, or perhaps not, our Friday traditio is The Smith's "Panic"-

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