My Lenten Journey with Dante, Augustine, and Samwise

David Russell Mosley

botticelli-augustine

Lent
24 February 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

It’s been a while since I’ve written, I apologize. Early in January I got asked to teach an extra class for Johnson University, one developed by someone else, and I’ve been snowed in by homework ever since. I have finally caught up, however, and am now waiting for my students to turn in their final projects, a research paper on the Apostles’ Creed, this Sunday. While I probably should be working on my conference paper for the NEMAAR in April, or either of the two books I have coming out, I thought I would stop to write a little something about Lent.

A little over a month ago I wrote about trying to return to a life of pilgrimage. While Lent is an excellent time to engage in the journeying nature of the faith, I admit to having struggled with it a bit. My Lenten fasts have been going OK, but I have this sense that this Lent could be particularly transformative for me, if I only allow it. It was, therefore, rather providential that I came across “First Steps, Brancaster” by poet Malcolm Guite. Guite’s poem, while set in Winter, hit me on day when the weather was warm and I was sitting outside. Sadly, it has gotten colder again, it even snowed last night. Nevertheless, read this stanza:

This is the day to leave the dark behind you

Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,

Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,

And find the courage for the forward path.

You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,

The day has come and you are free to choose,

Now is your time and season.

Companioned still by your familiar crutches,

And leaning on the props you hope to lose,

You step outside and widen your horizon.

This season, Lent, this day, is when I begin the first steps of my journey. I am moving forward, limping, but heading forward nevertheless. I have not only my crutches but my guides. This Lent I am reading several books that I think will help me as they are themselves stories of journeys, quests, and pilgrimages. As I wrote to you in my letter on pilgrimage, I am still reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. Just yesterday I left the ante-room of Purgatory with Virgil and the Pilgrim. Later today I will enter the garden of Eden with them working my way ever closer to the Beatific Vision, or at least whatever glimpses I can get of it this side of the parousia. I am also reading Augustine’s Confessions journeying with him into the depths of my soul, into the depths of my sin, so I can come out of the muck and mire of my sinfulness and reach up and be raised up to the Trinity. Lastly, I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings, which I read every year. I am joining Frodo, Sam, and the others on a journey to see new beauties and face new horrors in the hope that when I return home, should I return home, I will not return the same.

I hope this Lent will be transformative for me, but even more, I hope it will be transformative for you.

Sincerely,

David

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Returning to a Life of Pilgrimage

David Russell Mosley

michelino_danteandhispoem

Epiphanytide
Sts. Timothy and Titus
26 January 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
For I had wandered off the straight path.
-Dante, The Inferno, 1-3.

While I cannot claim to be quite midway through my life (or so I hope, though Dante proved to be wrong about this himself), I have recently begun my annual re-read of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’m doing it a littler earlier than usual for two reasons: First, I’ve just been dying to re-read it, and this year I bought myself individual volumes for each part. Second, Pope Francis has recommended Dante’s poem as beneficial reading for the Year of Mercy. While I’m not a Roman Catholic, I’m certainly not one to ignore the advice of those far holier than I. As I read it, perhaps even more closely this year due to its multi-voluminous nature, I’m struck rather forcibly by the notion of pilgrimage.

What I mean is this: Traditionally, the main character in the Divine Comedy is called the Pilgrim. This is to separate Dante the Pilgrim from Dante the author since he is a character in a story, similar to how there is Lewis the author and Lewis the character in Out of the Silent Planet. So we call the character the Pilgrim. But we do this also because he stands for us as a kind of Everyman. It is not only his pilgrimage from Hell to Heaven, but ours as we journey with him (Bilbo works in a similar way in The Hobbit, as do hobbits in general in The Lord of the Rings). In this sense, that the Pilgrim is a representative for me, can I say that I am the Pilgrim. This is not because there is anything special about me but precisely because I am interchangeable with any other. I am, in my own way, just as much an Everyman, just as Dante is also an individual. In a way, I replace the pilgrim. I am the one journeying through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. I am on a pilgrimage, not to Rome or the shrine of a particular saint (though I hope to make this kind of journey someday) but to God himself. The Pilgrim and I go on this journey together, our identities sometimes being blurred.

Augustine will often talk about our journey in life as one that is intended to end in our Patria, our Fatherland. The allusions to Philippians 3 are obvious, but Augustine also means that our journey in life is to the Father, the Beatific Vision. A misunderstanding of this view has, unfortunately, led some to the conclusion that this world itself does not matter. Of course this is precisely not true for our journey to the Patria is not a spacial one. We do not move from Earth to Heaven. Rather Earth itself, in fact the whole cosmos, is moved to both Hell and Heaven. It is this pre-resurrection life that is not our homeland, not our Patria, not creation itself. This is key, I think, to living the Good Life. We must recognize that it is not material existence in a material creation that we are journeying away from. Instead, it is sin, evil, death itself; these are the things we hope to leave behind as we journey to God. Even as we journey on, we bring the rest of creation with us, lifting it up as priests to God, but also offering thanks on its behalf.

So I am trying to return to a life of pilgrimage. I am trying to remember that this life is a preparation for the life to come when Christ returns and makes all things new. This should mean that everything I do in this life be done as if by a pilgrim. I ought not to tie myself to sin and death, to the corruptible, but to set my sights on things eternal. Only in this way can I have creation, including my own, as I ought. Only in this way can I be in right relationship with the world around me. I must remember first that I pilgrim journeying to the Patria, in the process of being deified. Christ has paved the way and journeys on with us; the Spirit guides us, corrects us, points us back to Christ and his saints; and the Father is our journey’s end. Join me, won’t you, in this pilgrim life?

Sincerely,
David

The Poetry of Easter: Creation’s Hope

David Russell Mosley

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Easter 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Advent and Christmas tend to put me in the mood for fairy-stories and fantasies. After all, it is a time of magic, of enchantment, for the God has entered Creation. Easter, however, puts me in mind for poetry. Right now, for instance, I’m attempting to read The Divine Comedy liturgically. The poem begins on the day before Good Friday and ends, apparently, on the Wednesday after Easter. Now, I haven’t reached Paradise yet, but I want to share a passage from there with you.

Dante writes:

“All things, among themselves,
possess an order; and this order is
the form that makes the universe like God.
Here do the higher beings see the imprint
of the Eternal Worth, which is the end
to which the pattern I have mentioned tends.
Within that order, every nature has
its bent, according to a different station,
nearer or less near to its origin” (I.103-110)

All of Creation, made by God, is tending toward him. Every inch of Creation has a trace of God within it. In this sense, we can call Creation sacramental because it points toward its origin. It is even, says Dante, tending toward that origin, just as we are. That is, just as we are intended for union with God in the life to come, intended for deification, so too is Creation intended to unite with God, according to its station, according to its place in the Cosmos. This is why, as I wrote over at Theology Think for Palm Sunday, Easter brings hope to Creation and not simply humanity. Let’s remember that as we celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord today.

I deal with this subject in a few places in my thesis, key to my understanding of Creation’s role in the life to come is Maximus the Confessor who writes:

With us and through us he encompasses the whole creation through its intermediaries and the extremities through its own parts. He binds about himself each with the other, tightly and indissolubly, paradise and the inhabited world, heaven and earth, things sensible and things intelligible, since he possesses like us sense and soul and mind, by which, as parts, he assimilates himself by each of the extremities to what is universally akin to each in the previously mentioned manner. Thus he divinely recapitulates the universe in himself, showing that the whole creation exists as one, like another human being, completed by the gathering together of its parts one with another in itself, and inclined towards itself by the whole of its existence, in accordance with the one, simple undifferentiated and indifferent idea of production from nothing, in accordance with which the whole of creation admits of one and the same undiscriminated logos, as having not been before it is (Amb. 41 1312A-B).

Maximus is arguing several things here, but the key is twofold. First, it is essential to note that Maximus sees humanity as playing a role in God encompassing all creation into himself. God does this, ‘with us and through us’ (Amb. 41 1312A). Humanity, as I argued in the first chapter, has a priestly role to play for the rest of Creation and this is due, in large part, to humanity’s microcosmic nature, that in humanity is there a convergence of all created beings, ‘things sensible and things intellectual’ (Amb. 41 1312A). God encompasses all this in himself in the Incarnation. In this way, using the microcosmic nature of humanity, God unites all created beings to himself.

The second key is that all of creation is included in this. Maximus does not delineate between mineral, vegetable, and animal, some being included, others not. All beings are related to one another and to God, as Maximus writes:

For in their true logos all beings have at least something in common with one another. Amongst the beings after God, which have their being from God through generation, there are no exceptions, neither the greatly honoured and transcendent beings [angels] which have a universal relationship to the One absolutely beyond any relation, nor is the least honoured among beings destitute and bereft since it has by nature a generic relationship to the most honoured beings (Amb. 41 1312B-C).

Here, Maximus goes further than Aquinas, who only seems to see a role in the eschaton for mineral creation, humanity, and the angels. For Maximus, this cannot be, for all created beings are related to one another, even the lowest is related to the highest, by virtue of being a created being. What it more, all beings are held together by God through Jesus Christ.

What this means is that God in Christ and through us is raising up all Creation to himself. We must remember our brothers and sisters outside the human race in the rest of Creation. Remember Christ’s words, ‘”I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”’

Let me leave you with, compared to Dante’s (and many others) some rather base verses of my own:

The flowers all grow towards an end;
Trees and rivers clap for joy.
The mountains on their knees bend;
The birds make a joyful noise.
For water from the holy side
Spilled out, and red blood
Poured onto Creation’s hide.
At last we understood,
Redemption is not for us alone.
If we were silent,
Every rock, and every stone,
Every bird and beast and violet,
Would with one breath
Proclaim the death
Of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

It Is Finished: A Thesis Draft Done on Good Friday

David Russell Mosley

 

Good Friday 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I have several other posts up my sleeves for the next few days (assuming I can make myself write them), but today I wanted to give you a very simple update. I have, after nearly three years, finished a draft of my thesis!

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There is still much to do: fixing footnotes, adding extra sources, polishing the bibliography, fixing transitions, and making sure the whole thing fits together, writing the preface. However, all of that pales in comparison to the work of actually writing the whole thing! It is an enormous weight off of my shoulders as I now await the soon arrival of my two sons. I can think of no better way to prepare for Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, than by finishing a major task. Without meaning to seem crass, I too can shout, tentatively, tetelestai; it is finished, for now. Or perhaps as Niggle might say, it’s finished, but not finished with.

As Easter is coming, and I cannot guarantee that my revelry in having finished a draft of thesis will leave me time for the letters I hoped to write between now and then, let me leave you with the excellent ending to Dante’s Paradiso, which also serves as the conclusion of my final chapter:

In the deep bright
essence of that exalted Light, three circles
appeared to me; they had three different colors,
but all of them were of the same dimension;
one circle seemed reflected by the second,
as rainbow is by rainbow, and the third
seemed fire breathed equally by those two circles.
How incomplete is speech, how weak, when set
against my thought! And this, to what I saw
is such––to call it little is too much.
Eternal Light, You only dwell within
Yourself, and only You know You; Self-knowing,
Self-known, You love and smile upon Yourself!
That circle––which, begotten so, appeared
in You as light reflected––when my eyes
had watched it with attention for some time,
within itself and colored like itself,
to me seemed painted with our effigy,
so that my sight was set on it completely.
As the geometer intently seeks
to square the circle, but he cannot reach,
through thought on thought, the principle he needs,
so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it––
and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.
Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already––like
a wheel revolving uniformly––by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars (Paradiso XXXIII.114-145).

 

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

The Enchanted Cosmos-A Response to Matt Moser at Christ and University

David Russell Mosley


3 March 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

 Over on Christ and University, Matt Moser has been doing a series on the difficulties of teaching Dante. In his most recent post Moser notes that a significant issue in reading Dante is his cosmology which we no longer share on a broad societal level. This is an issue one often sees when reading Ancient and Medieval literature. In a sense, this is precisely what C. S. Lewis seeks to address in his The Discarded Image. The medievals, Dante, thought differently than we do about the way world works. One of the most common cases of this is an issue over spontaneous generation. The ancients and medievals thought flies came from decaying meat, spontaneously, or, usually, through some juxtapositional of the Zodiac.

This, however, is not the kind of problem we’re dealing with in Dante, nor is it the main problem we deal with in most of the Ancient and Medieval writers. Instead, as Moser notes, it is an issue of enchantment, or even more, an issue of seeing the Universe as a Cosmos (which means order). Moser writes, 

‘This is the challenge of reading Dante. His cosmic imagination is difficult to apprehend because we inhabit an a-cosmological, disenchanted world. But more importantly, this is the challenge of Dante: “See the world you inhabit in this way,” he bids us. “To see order is to see goodness; to see harmony is to see beauty. To see goodness and beauty is to see truth. To see truth is to behold God.”’

Moser then connects this to education as such. In a cosmological understanding of education all the branches of the University are connected, they interpenetrate one another. But this is not the way we view education or the Cosmos. So it causes Moser to ask, ‘Is there a way to forge a cosmic imagination in our students given the a-cosmological world we inhabit today?’

I certainly do not wish to pretend that I have the one answer to this, the one solution that will fix all of education and our disenchanted vision of the universe. However, I think an aspect of the answer is in the problem. You see, the post is about the difficulties of teaching Dante, yet teaching Dante is one of the solutions to this problem. To put it more frankly, in order to get students to understand a cosmic and enchanted vision of the Universe we need to teach them about thinkers who have a cosmic and enchanted vision of the Universe. Even more so, if we agree with those thinkers, as Moser and I do, then we need to model that vision. 

There are perhaps two things for which I am most frequently criticised here at Letters from the Edge of Elfland. The first is a jumble of my relatively theological conservatism (meaning I think Jesus is really the Son of God and the Bible is the word of God, etc.) and my qualified support of thinkers like John Milbank and the school of theology known as Radical Orthodoxy. The other critique, however, is based on my writing about things like Faerie, and King Arthur, and Enchantment. Nevertheless, I won’t stop precisely because this is the vision of the world our Christian forebears had, not always couched in the terms I have inherited from the Medieval and Romantic British, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and German traditions, but it was nevertheless a world where miracles were possible by the grace of God. It is a world where angels existed, as did demons. It is a world where God became man and now bread becomes flesh and wine blood. It is a world where humans can become gods or devils, but only by grace or its rejection. I think there are many ways to lead students to this kind of understanding (or at least to understand that this is how Dante et al., saw the world): not least of which are the reading and writing of fiction (especially fantasy), and reading the Ancients and Medievals themselves. However, to lead students to an even deeper understanding of the Cosmic vision of the Universe is to live it and to live it, unashamedly, in front of them.

 

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley