Dante & Galileo

This Tuesday and Thursday the Ramages got to continue being students, this time at the school of Galileo and, once again, Dante. The first museum we visited was the Casa di Dante, which was not his actual house but near it. It documents the poet’s life before and after his exile and features some cool replicas of art inspired by the Comedy among other interesting artifacts germane to Dante and the Florence of his day.

The second museum, Florence’s Museo di Galileo, traces some of the most important scientific inventions of the past 500 years and contains numerous artifacts. It documents the invention of the telescope, microscope, thermometer, and modern globes–and then it also delves more deeply into Galileo’s unique contributions to the history of science. You can see the scientist’s very own telescopes, the first editions of his controversial and revolutionary books, and his fingers. Yes, his fingers. (His body, if you’re wondering, is across town in Santa Croce church)

I have a renewed interest in Galileo because I am a Pope Benedict scholar, and it various points he has brought up the scientific revolution instigated by Galileo with the revolution in biblical studies in the modern period. Below I post a couple quotes that illustrate the pope’s thinking and the connection he sees here.

Regarding the biblical account of creation, Benedict admits that for a long time we Catholics did in fact think of Genesis as a scientific account of the world’s creation in 6 days: “[W]hen we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial” (In the Beginning).

How are we to explain the apparent about-face in the Church’s view of Genesis 1-2 and its attitude toward the modern historical-critical method that revamped the old model? In an essay entitled “Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote, “The process of intellectual struggle over these issues had become a necessary task can in a certain sense be compared with the similar process triggered by the Galileo affair. Until Galileo, it had seemed that the geocentric world picture was inextricably bound up with the revealed message of the Bible, and that champions of the heliocentric world picture were destroying the core of Revelation. It became necessary fully to reconceive the relationship between the outward form of presentation and the real message of the whole, and it required a gradual process before the criteria could be elaborated…Something analogous can be said with respect to history. At first it seemed as if the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses or of the Gospels to the four individuals whom tradition names as their authors were indispensable conditions of the trustworthiness of Scripture and, therefore, of the faith founded upon it. Here, too, it was necessary for the territories to be re-surveyed, as it were; the basic relationship between faith and history needed to be re-thought. This sort of clarification could not be achieved overnight.”

Hopefully these two quotes are as thought-provoking for you as they are for me. I have an entire talk dedicated to the problem of how to reconcile the church’s former and present attitudes towards modern biblical criticism–the problem raised here by Benedict and which was brought to light precisely through the efforts of such geniuses a Galileo.

Faith and Fun in Naples, Pompeii, and Orvieto

While many of our BC students were scattered throughout Italy and Europe this weekend, yesterday we Ramages returned from a refreshing weekend trip to southern(ish) Italy. As is usually the case, I have alot of pictures from this trip and have even more that I have gathered from the web after returning. Below I’ve posted a small chunk of these — though likely even still there are more than you will care to digest.

Highlights of the trip:

  • An impromptu private tour of excavations under Orvieto’s church of Sant’Andrea. Underneath this medieval church lie yet three more layers of history — a paleo-Christian church, an older Etruscan city, and an even older Villanovian town. Why doesn’t Rick Steves mention this gem? Maybe because it’s not something you’d really expect from the outside and not something you find in ads. Amazing piece of history!
  • Walking unhurried through the romantic streets of Orvieto with our family
  • Eating a nice meal of wild boar and honey-chesse lasagna (Jen’s highlight of the trip)
  • Orvieto’s magnificent Duomo with the artwork inside and out. This semester I am particularly obsessed with Last Judgment scenes relevant to Dante, and this cathedral fed my appetite.
  • Eating pizza in Naples, the city where Pizza was invented
  • Naples’ duomo with the blood of St. Januarius and Europe’s oldest baptistery
  • The extensive excavations of Pompeii, especially the haunting bodies visible for viewing which were frozen in time giving us a view of the very last breathing moment of these persons. It was yet another chilling reminder to remember death daily and that the Lord will come to all of us like a thief in the night.
This weekend we have a BC school trip to Assisi, Norcia, and Perugia. In the meantime, time to go discuss Pope Benedict’s discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in his Jesus of Nazareth.

In Florence in Search of Dante

Our BC group has been blessed to visit some great Florentine sites in the past couple of days. Here I’m going to highlight mainly how what we saw relates to the life of Dante, as the Divine Comedy has been my principal academic interest this semester and a course I’m co-teaching with my wife. Our students have been doing a great job of reading and discussing Dante so far, and it has been a joy to prepare this course while living in Dante’s town.

The first site I want to mention is the church of Santa Croce in Florence. In this famous church lie buried men such as Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli. Its museum, formerly a Franciscan convent, houses art from Cimabue and Donatello among other greats. As for Dante, there is a huge statue of him outside in front of the church, and then inside there is a “tomb” of Dante. Dante’s body is not actually there–it’s in Ravenna where he died after he was exiled from his beloved Florence. The Florentines tried to get him back, but Ravenna told Florence, “If you didn’t want him when he was alive, you can’t have him now that he’s dead, either.” I really enjoyed praying a bit at this site. I can’t say if Dante is a saint in Heaven you can pray to, but certainly we can all strive to enter into the mystery he presents in the Comedy, that great journey out of the hellish pit of our sins through the mountain of purgation unto the celestial heights of virtue and union with God.

The second site I’d like comment on is the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In a side chapel you can find panels depicting the Last Judgment and the Comedy’s three realms, Hell receiving the most attention. The works are deeply in need of restoration but are still great. In this church you can also find masterpieces such as Masaccio’s Trinity–the first of the Renaissance to use perspective–as well as crucifixes from Giotto and Brunelleschi. Below I have posted a complete view of Giotto’s crucifix and a close-up of its bottom wherein Christ’s blood drips upon a skull, traditionally understood to be that of Adam. This is one variation on a common theme in Western and Eastern art–that of Christ harrowing Hell and raising Adam, Eve, and the patriarchs. In Jerusalem, there is also a chapel of Adam and Eve under the site of Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Here you see a fissure in the rock directly below the crucifixion site which is described as the place where Christ’s blood dripped down to reach those in limbo who awaited his coming.




The Fascinating World of Dante’s Limbo

Most people today don’t quite know what to make of the old doctrine of limbo. Is it a place of eternal natural happiness or a place of hellish torment? Does it even exist, or is it just a game we play at wedding receptions? In Dante’s Divine Comedy limbo makes its appearance in the realm of Hell. Today I’ll take some time to reflect on Dante’s choice in placing it here as well as where limbo fits into contemporary Catholic theology.

In the Inferno’s fourth canto, Dante’s Virgil gives us the inner rationale that determined the fate of souls in limbo.

They did not sin. If they had merits, these

were not enough–baptism they did not have,

the one gate to the faith which you [Dante the pilgrim] believe.

And if they lived before the Christian faith,

they did not give God homage as they ought,

and of these people I myself am one.

Here Dante reveals the presence of souls in limbo who shuffled off this mortal coil both before and after the advent of Christ. These souls receive the least brutal of Hell’s punishments since they did not sin on earth, but the fact remains that they had to go to this place because they lacked baptism, which gives the soul the sanctifying grace necessary to participate in the life of Christ and so attain the Beatific Vision. In connection with this I am reminded of a statement from Frank Sheed to the effect that Hell is not the result of God arbitrarily meting out punishment to mortals, but rather a matter of whether at the time of our deaths we have power to live in Heaven or not—a power bestowed on us precisely when original sin is washed away and we become new creatures in baptism.

Dante sometimes pushes the theological envelope in his work, and here you see that happen when Virgil reveals that he–Dante’s beloved Teacher and guide–himself resides in Hell even though he was granted leave to guide Dante through Purgatory (but not Heaven). It’s almost as if Dante is saying, “My theology can’t justify putting you in Purgatory, but I’m going to find some genius way to make it happen!” Since Virgil is here, that means Dante logically also have him accompanied by Aristotle, “the master of all those who know,” he whom Dante’s master Thomas Aquinas called simply “The Philosopher.” Here of course also must dwell Socrates, Plato, and other great minds of antiquity.

Incidentally, we also find great Muslims in limbo–the sultan Saladin who impressed Christian Crusaders with his savvy in addition to the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes. Aquinas, whose work is reflected here in Dante’s speech, referred to the latter simply as “The Commentator” because his Aristotelian commentary and translation was instrumental in reintroducing this giant of antiquity to the medieval Christian world. Thus, although Dante depicts Hell’s inner city of Dis as spotted with the minarets of Muslim mosques, what he thinks about the religion of Islam as such doesn’t mitigate his immense respect for these individual Muslims who earn the same place as the man whom Christians such as Erasmus story have called “St. Socrates.”

At any rate, Virgil explains to Dante that, while committing “no crime,” he and these others remain lost and suffer only the reality of hopelessly living forever in desire of something greater. In this connection, I think Dante’s placement of limbo in Hell rather than in the Purgatory’s earthly paradise makes a lot of sense. If limbo were really a matter of forever possessing only natural happiness, as some versions of the theory have held, to my mind it would be tantamount to Hell itself since souls there would always retain that “God-shaped hole” in our hearts, restless because our hearts rest only in God, as St. Augustine says.

Another aspect of limbo revealed by Virgil concerns the fact that some of its inhabitants resided there only temporarily:

I had just entered this state

when I saw coming One of power and might,

crowned with the glorious sign of victory.

From us he took the shade of our first father,

the shades of his son Abel and of Noah,

of Moses, who, obedient, gave the Law…

and many others, and he made them blessed.

And I want you to know that, before these,

salvation came for not one human soul.

The image evoked here is that of the limbus patrum, the limbo of the fathers or patriarchs. The theological reasoning behind this last statement was that the Paschal Mystery of Christ alone opens the gate of salvation, and so anyone who lived chronologically before this had to wait for redemption. Thus at one point in time Moses would have sat next to characters such as Cicero in limbo, but after his crucifixion Christ released the former, having “preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19). The Byzantine iconographic tradition, present also in the West in some places, depicts Christ’s harrowing of Hell in the vivid image of Christ breaking the bars of limbo and lifting Adam and Eve up to be with him forever.

In the Apostles’ Creed we also profess that Christ descended into Hell, but the word used here is Hades (Greek) or infernos (Latin), not limbo—a term which might be best translated as “the lowest regions,” i.e. the underworld or netherworld. This is a brief way of illustrating that deciphering the nature of limbo is anything but a simple matter. It has to be done while also considering related but distinct terms such as Sheol (the early Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to describe the fate of all the dead), as well as Hades (classical Greek god/realm of the underworld and the Septuagint’s way of translating Sheol).

All this is not even to broach the question of whether or not unbaptized infants would be found in limbo. Often in church history, theologians have held the sententia or opinion that infants who died before receiving baptism would go to a place of eternal natural happiness for the reasons given above by Dante (Indeed, Dante himself briefly mentions the presence of infants in limbo). This has never been an official teaching of the Catholic Church. I have looked through the popes and ecumenical councils, and have not been able to find any magisterial statements affirming limbo’s existence. The only related thing I’ve found are statements of the Ecumenical Council of Florence which would appear to deny the possibility of anyone being saved without baptism–but the council remains silent on limbo. But please, if you have found anything on limbo itself, let me know as I am always looking for some new theological challenge to take up.

Even if it was commonly taught by theologians in the past, limbo does not appear in the Catechism today. Instead, the CDF and Catechism both have indicated that we should entrust these children to the mercy of God and continue to offer funerary rites for them as we do for adults, thus leaving open hope for their salvation. I may post on this last document some day in the future, but for now let me also link to a germane work of the International Theological Commission which I read and found illuminating when it came out several years ago It gives a historical overview of the Church’s teaching on limbo and offers plausible reasons why today we may have firm hope that infants who die unbaptized are with God in Heaven, not merely in limbo. It is not a magisterial document per se and reminds us that the eternal destiny of unbaptized children is not a reality that has been revealed to the Church. Nevertheless, I think the document accurately reflects the mind of the Church today on this matter. Indeed, the fact that Pope Benedict XVI signed off on it indicates that he considers it in conformity with sound Catholic doctrine.

All that from just a few lines of Dante, and I could have said much more. Alas, I have other things to do, so for now and enjoy until I write again.

5 Lessons from the First 5 Canti of the Divine Comedy

As my family is living in Dante’s home of Florence this semester, one of the courses I am co-offering with my theologian-wife is a seminar on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the foundational work of the Italian language which remains as relevant to our Christian lives today as ever. Throughout the semester, I’ll post thoughts on the work that emerge from our class discussion and my reflection. The translation I’ll be quoting from is a great newer one by Anthony Esolen which contains Dante’s original Italian verse on the left and the English on the right–I highly recommend it. Here are today’s five.

1. “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.” All of us who read the opening lines of the Comedy have wandered from the narrow way and find ourselves–to one degree or another–immersed in the hellish mire of sin. Dante wants to sear this reality in our minds as we read his work and are invited to join him in a grand journey through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. If you read the Comedy on a superficial level, you miss the fact that Dante purposely intended it to contain multiple levels of meaning–“spiritual senses”–as we call them in Sacred Scripture. Thus the Comedy depicts Dante’s physical journey through Hell (literal sense), but, as Dorothy Sayers observes in her masterful Thomistic notes to the text, this is actually the least important part of the work. What goes on here represents the final state of man’s perdition (anagogical sense). It further signifies Dante’s–and in turn our own–downward journey through ignorance and sin (moral sense) before we begin to ascend the mountain of conversion in the Purgatorio. Applying this to our lives, we can benefit a great deal already from this opening canto: “How I entered, I can’t bring to mind when I first left the way of truth behind.” Dante’s descent into Hell (the vicious cycle of sin) begins almost imperceptibly, as in a dreaming state. Every one of us often falls in this same way. We start with something “small,” something that hardly seems a sin, and before you know it you’ve ended up with a seemingly unbreakable vice. If you read C.S. Lewis, in particular his Screwtape Letters, you see the markings of Dante all over the place, as when he has the master demon instructing his understudy not to cast great temptations before Christians at first, lest they notice that they’re being tempted and fly to God. This line of Dante also reminds us of the reason the Church Fathers, in commenting on the disturbing words of Psalm 137, emphasize that we need to bash nascent sins, to nip them in the bud before they flower into abhorrent, eradicable vices. Thus Dante bids us to ask: what sins are we slumbering in, and what evil in our lives do we need to bash this day.

2. The souls in Hell “have lost the good of intellect.” Man’s Last End is the Beatific Vision, which, as Aquinas tells us, is an act of the intellect, i.e. contemplation of God. “This is eternal life,” Jesus says “to know the one true God.” Here the damned do not know God and do not see themselves rightly. This is especially true in the case of Francesca, the damned lover who still thinks she loves even though she clearly hates her husband (whom she cheated on). As Christians we can ask a spiritual director or a spiritual friend for advice on a matter that is plaguing us. We can put little resolutions into practice every day to tame our desires and keep us from being tossed about on the whirlwind of our passions like Francesca.

3. In Dante there is a special place in Hell for those who refuse to choose between the Lord and some other god. Canto 3 is interesting because here–outside of Hell–Dante creatively places “those sad souls whose works in life merited neither praise nor infamy, who were for themselves alone, not rebels, and not faithful to the Lord.” In this vestibule reside the people who knew the demands of the Gospel and didn’t outright reject it, yet they were not brave enough to stand up for what is right and take up their cross to follow Christ. How many people today say that they are “personally” in favor of virtue and against evils like abortion, but never really make up their minds to speak or do anything about it! Dante’s third canto is a chilling reminder that we can’t sit on the sidelines of this life if we want to be happy in the next. As for the “paltry souls” in this canto, the punishment that fits their crime consists in the fact that they are “pricked to motion now perpetually by flies and wasps” as they “leer with envy at every other lot,” i.e. the lots of those who made a choice in life for good or evil. Hence, although these “worthless wretches who had never lived” are not technically in Hell, they wished they were in Hell, which Dante wants us to consider as perhaps being even worse.

4. Charon, the ferryman of the dead in classical mythology, makes his appearance in a similar role in the Comedy, as do many other figures of antiquity. For me the lesson here is simple, and it is readily illustrated by spending a few minutes in meditation upon his figure in Michelangelo’s portrayal of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The lesson is: have fear of God and don’t do the sin you want to do, or else you have to meet this guy. Actually, the reality behind Dante’s image of “crossing the melancholy shores of Acheron” is infinitely worse, but the image is sufficient enough to give my untamed will pause for at least a little while.

5. Our disordered passions are like a “hellish cyclone that can never rest.” Canto five hauntingly reminds us to keep our desires subject to our reason and not the other way around. The lustful punished here are not in the depths of hell–their corruption is, in a certain sense, not as disgusting as the corruption in those whose intellects and wills are perverted–”yet they remain in Hell nonetheless and have no hope for rest, lashed and scourged in the black air.” How easily do we today let ourselves be tossed about by our passions, naively believing like Francesca that we ought to follow every whim of our passions for love’s sake! We get divorced because we no longer feel the passion of love as we once did, we have premarital sex because Cupid struck us with his arrow and “couldn’t help it,” and we put ourselves in situations where we’re doomed to fail–like Francesa and Paolo who claim to be “alone and innocent” reading about Lancelot’s affair. We, too, all too often find ourselves caught in situations where we say with Francesca, “That day we did not read another page.” Behind Dante’s playful euphemism here stands a lesson for us all to live by. Let us today avoid the near occasions of sin and ask God to help us see ourselves as he sees us, so that we can ever more dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell.

Until next time, ciao from Florence and greetings to all in the USA!


Florence and Pisa Fun

Life in Tuscany was not so sunny the past couple days, as the weather turned unseasonably cool and windy. It was actually a welcome relief from the merciless heat we had in Rome last week and it made hiking around with kids and baggage more pleasant. Two days ago our family spent some time in the Duomo in downtown Florence, and yesterday we took a day trip to the lovely town of Pisa. I was astounded at how beautiful the town was, from its almost Venetian river scene to its famous Campo dei Miracoli featuring the one-of-a-kind “Pisan Romanesque” style. I particularly enjoyed the baptistery, built in 3 successive periods as you can see when looking at it from the bottom up. On the inside, a note you sing will echo for 10 seconds, and every 30 minutes a guard does a demonstration wherein he sound 3 consecutive notes and makes a chord. Very unique auditory experience.

The highlight in Florence for our visit that day was a painting of Dante inside the Duomo which has him standing alongside his beloved town of Florence and the 3 realms he portrayed in the Divine Comedy. Next time I post I’m hoping to do some theology for a change, highlighting some key points from our BC class’s discussion of Dante this past week.