A Most Peculiar Story: Paradiso

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

In his Unspoken Sermon, “The Inheritance,” George MacDonald recalls the fifth canto of Dante’s Paradiso where the souls in the sphere of Mercury first sight the newcomers and cry out “Ecco chicrescera li nostri amori!” (Lo, here comes one who will increase our loves!) For heaven is both generous and desirous, flourishing by porosity to the other. MacDonald exclaims, “All the light is ours. God is all ours. Even that in God which we cannot understand is ours.” Later, in the same sermon, MacDonald links celestial welcoming not with liturgy reduced to a dull homily, but to play. “What boy, however fain to be a disciple of Christ and a child of God, would prefer a sermon to his glorious kite, that divinest of toys, with God himself for his playmate, in the blue wind that tossed it hither and thither in the golden void!” So I would like to explain to those dulled by religion or broken by suffering that the end of all things is more like play and less like a sermon. And likewise, suppose you are telling a story that is hidden under the guise of a series of meditations. Of course, such a thing is more than an act of incognito genre jumping – some might claim it is nearly a category mistake, but we are only supposing. Those who think of creation as a choice among possibles in the mode of subjunctive hypotheticals, think of the world, perhaps, as an intricate puzzle and if God has gotten rid of risk, he has done so my doing the math on countless permutations in an act of meticulous providence. These, too, are telling a story. One is invited to consider innumerable possibilities and choices, yet like Kierkegaard’s aesthete the risk of choice is debilitating, the future only present as a narrowing of choices that is destructive of the soul’s thirst for infinite beatitude. The subjunctive beget of subjunctive displays surface frivolity masking a frigid and pusillanimous refusal of life for the open, indeterminate web of initial potential is trapped in fear that decision will result in a story less than perfect. The narrative is always looking backwards, so to speak, lost in an imaginary twilight, hearkening to an ever-receding panoply of possible lives, forked roads, choices vanished into an immemorial past. But God is not an accountant, he is play itself. God does not eliminate the risk. God does not count the cost. Always, God accompanies the dear ones, wherever they wander, but God does not love as an outsider, as a watchmaker, certainly not as a hovering parent or an alienating observer like a security camera placed literally everywhere. Rather, God assumes the risk, joins divine freedom to the enslavement of the lost, to the very last sheep, to the very last coin that is owed. God never chooses among possibles, he simply creates the chosen.

The order of the story is significant. Start with God. What is God like, who is God? What kind of judgment is fitting for God? What is the nature of persons revealed by precisely this kind of judgment? What kind of freedom constitutes this kind of person? Now follow a different path. Begin with freedom understood as spontaneous choice and filtered through a narrowly historical epoch. Then consider what it means to be an individual who lives out this kind of freedom. Apprehend justice and judgment in ways derivative and tied to particular conceptions of reason and the individual. Finally, surmise what God must be like, this God who is the product of voluntarism and nominalist individualism and justice separate from the innocent simplicity of God. Insecurity and ennui ensue, reactive and torpor inducing, resulting in a form of dead chatter. Frangible, emotive, grasping after a foundation, some­thing solid and dependable, univocal, without ironies, traces, analogical leaps, resisting porosities, odd, seemingly eccentric connections of entanglement, radiant unpredictability. The joke is that it is the serenity of the Father’s loving, creative act that allows for the shock of the new. It is the latter narrative conception, seemingly so keen to preserve a cherished freedom, that elides the drama of encounter into dialectical method, stratagems of control that refuse a true play of freedoms, notions of eschatological justice that isolate celestial bliss as an individualist possession. Do not forget, though: the aesthete theologian can mimic marvels, can paint verisimilitude of flesh upon the stone of the cold death mask. A story is told and announced to be a revelation of life. An idol is made to dispense a justice men understand by the usual lights, the ones of history, and sadness, and death. The whole thing is ersatz, the work of mumbo-junkies bowed down by the empty weight of shadows. Wor­shipers ape flummery grown respectable with age, never dreaming they are trapped in a counter-narrative to the true story of implacable love. There is a concession, or better, a “saving of appearances” I wish Hart had offered. Pavel Florensky, Sergius Bulgakov, and Adrienne von Speyr, among others, have discerned in the separation of the goats and the sheep an intrapersonal judgment. Von Speyr speaks of “effigies” in hell that are the person­less “remains” of sinful history. One might then speculate that the rejoicing of the saints in heaven over the torments of the damned are nothing else than the saints themselves rejoicing over the final destruction of their own false, mad egos of sinful individuality. I don’t know how one could reclaim the odious celebration of infants left to the modest charity of limbo or the blaze of infernal flames, unless it is like the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod, a form of participation in Christ’s mission, the child as bearer of relentless divine ardor. I repeat a wise counsel from von Speyr: “Perhaps, however, the decisive thing has always lain in what is hidden, and it is necessary to dismantle one’s judgments and to reassemble everything anew from the standpoint of the hidden.” So long, of course, as one remembers that the gospel as revelation is precisely that hidden that hides in plain sight.

I believe that humans have some sort of silent convention among them­selves as to what in them is to be regarded as human and important, and what is hardly to be regarded at all. There is tacit agreement among humans that some aspects of themselves will not be noticed at all, will not be considered at all; and the result is that these aspects are not at all, to humans. And they have it all wrong about themselves as to what is important and essential. They do themselves injustice. There is so much more to them than they want to admit. (R.A. Lafferty, Arrive at Easterwine, p. 215)

Memory is the activity of assimilation in thought (i.e., creative recon­struction from representations) of that which is revealed by mystical experience in Eternity, or, in other words, the creation in Time of symbols of Eternity. We “remember” not psychological elements but mystical ones, for psychological elements are psychological precisely because they occur in Time and flow away irretrievably. (Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, pp. 148–49)

Life is not lived as a continuous stretching from birth to death, as a ‘holding together’ of a life … but rather as moments, each containing the totality of human history and destiny. Such moments are not of the world … they are lived in imitation of Christ – of the creation, fall, redemption, and salvation – lived, that is, as moments which express the anterior, original time of divine relation to the world. (Ơ Murchada, A Phenomenology of Christian Life, p. 196)

All things in their very existence and nature share in God, and so symbolize him … Christianity isn’t just another set of strange beliefs and customs, on a level with those of other faiths. It’s a new thing: religion as the right-reading of all of reality and the right-binding to the one triune God. It’s much more curious than people think. (John Milbank, Interview for the Church Times 19 Feb 2016).

Dante, come at last to the future that is God, caught up in the nuptial enchantment of the celestial rose
was astonished to discover
in the realm of the blessed
Farinata, Paolo and Francesca, Ugolino, and Brunetto Latini.

At his obvious surprise, Farinata laughed with such courtesy, a merry, gentle mirth at the poet’s confusion.“He took those effigies, the shades of the dead for an eternal destiny,” observed Latini with a wry smile.

“No, no, love wins,” said Francesca and Paolo nodded in agreement.

“Such gifts, but he always was a bit slow,” chided the divine Beatrice.

(Return to first article)

* * *

Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.

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12 Responses to A Most Peculiar Story: Paradiso

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Brian (quoting Milbank) “All things in their very existence and nature share in God, and so symbolize him ”

    This cannot be so Brian, not at face value, not unless heavily qualified (perhaps qualified to a point of non-sense). Something is very much wrong with all things. And that has to be accounted for.

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    • Tom says:

      I think the key/point is “in their very existence and nature.”

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        like the existence and nature of, let’s say, a cholera microbe?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Tom says:

          See, you had to go and bring up stuff like that.

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        • Benny Oinophiliakos says:

          Yes. Because both the existence and nature of that living thing, detached from the history of death in which it is enmeshed, is in fact just an emanation of divine glory. Even a cholera microbe, in its innermost nature as a created living thing, not as a cause of a disease but as created life captive in the false form of that pestilential reality, is good. Otherwise God has created evil as a substance. But evil must be privation.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Grant says:

            Agreed, once freed from the enslavement of death, of the futility that it and all nature groans under, it to will be liberated from it’s false and twisted form to be what it really is, at the revealing of the sons of God and the destruction of death.

            It, like e.coli, parasite wasps, tape worms, trilobites, sharks, t.rexs, terror birds, sabre-tooth tigers, Komodo dragons, everything living throughout space and time is part of the ‘all things’ brought and liberated from futility, falsity and death under Christ and in whom God is all and all. There their true nature shall be known.

            And even now, it as something living and existing remains good in itself, even though stunted and twisted by the tyranny of death to produce evil effects.

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  2. DBH says:

    Thanks, Brian. It’s flattering to be the occasion of all your meditations.

    As for Adrienne von Speyr’s “effigies,” the truth is that the book had to be brief, and had to scare as few people as possible.

    Liked by 4 people

    • brian says:

      Robert,

      This essay began with a frank recognition of evil in the world. Scheler’s quote about a worm writhing in pain, etc. As the Welsh poet, Waldo Williams noted, “Earth is a hard text to read.” I think the kind of reading of creation Milbank is talking about is nothing like a naïve optimism. What he’s talking about is a complex hermeneutic. One must interpret in the light of the gospel and follow as I say above traces and analogies and odd entanglements. Part of the mission of the Church is to engage in this difficult task of narration and interpretation. “Faith is a feat,” as Yannaras says. Really, peruse Beneath the Silent Heavens. There are numerous places where I indicate the darkness and how much courage and creative insight is needed to counter the despair that the world in its present state readily invites.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Just to be sure Brian, the remark is in earnest and not meant to distract from your supercalifragilisticexpialidocious post. Quite frankly, you are singing my song brother (well, really, I’m attempting to sing along). And I don’t think you are naively optimistic.

        Well, anyways, it seems to me that the coherency of our hopeful finality (yes, hope, for such it can only be in matters of faith) is undercut by the inexplicable bizarre surd with which the presence of evil confronts us. But the last things are not the only horizon which is called into question by evil, it is the first things as well (even more so really, the problem is more acute when it comes to the beginnings of evil).

        Liked by 1 person

        • brian says:

          Robert, for some completely inexplicable and idiosyncratic reason, when I was very young I was drawn to the tribe of Naphtali. In Genesis, Naphtali is associated by prophecy with a running deer. Many modern translations say he gives beautiful fawns, but some older translations say Naphtali gives beautiful words and that is the translation I remember. Rachel, his mother, associated his name with wrestling, as she saw the babe as a product of her struggle with her sister, Leah. The wrestler aspect of Naphtali, however, was associated in my mind with Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of the Lord. (Scott Cairns has a fine poem on the subject, btw.) In any event, I came to see both the wrestling and the beautiful words as connected and both as part of my vocation. I have always struggled in the darkness of night, whether that of the evil of a fallen world or the obscurity of divine light, but out of that I think come words touched by the Spirit. On a literal level, I almost always write at night. So, in short, I very much empathize existentially with your feeling here. I believe there will always be an opacity about evil until the final judgment and the eschatological healing of all wounds. Not that we should not seek to understand the enigma, yet I suspect we must mainly journey forward towards the future that is God amidst baffling equivocities and the specter or reality of monstrous horrors all the while trusting well or badly (I am often in the badly camp) in the Father revealed by Christ.

          Liked by 3 people

    • brian says:

      I understand, David. Too bad Christians are so afraid. Why I put the Shestov quote at the top of the essay.

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Brian, I want to thank you such a thoughtful series of meditations on ‘That All Shall Be Saved.’

    Liked by 6 people

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