Did Dante Convert Me?

Many years ago, my husband took a job in Rochester, New York, four hundred miles from our Boston home. Neither of us had ever been to Rochester, and we were apprehensive about the move. Our ten-year-old son was more than apprehensive: he was devastated. When we told him about the move, he burst into tears—because Rochester didn’t have a major league baseball team.

The move was scheduled for the end of the summer. Sometime mid-summer, I decided I needed to start reading something long and engaging, as a stable grounding during the uprooting of the move.

Though a firm agnostic at the time, I chose Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite my doctorate in English Literature, I’d never read it. (Well, maybe because my doctorate was in English Literature, the academy was pretty parochial in those days.)

Somehow we had John Ciardi’s three-volume verse translation on our shelves. So I started “Midway in our life’s journey” and continued from there, down into the Inferno. I was beginning my ascent through Purgatory when we loaded the U-Haul truck and drove west.

During the weeks of settling into our new home—arranging furniture, buying fabric to make curtains, finding a good grocery store, helping our son adjust to his new school—I reached the top of Purgatory and entered the dazzling light of Paradise. I stayed in Paradise while raking fall leaves—all the way to the final “Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

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25 Years of Image, 18 of Glen Workshops

To celebrate Image’s twenty-fifth anniversary we are posting a series of essays by people who have encountered our programs over the years. Read the earlier installments, Stumbling into the WaterfallHenri Nouwen, Reaching Out, and The Notecards of Paradise.

I’m at lunch in a college cafeteria. At my table, the conversation goes like this:

“Have you heard John Tavener’s Protecting Veil?”

“Yeah, it’s like icon painting in music.”

“Icon writing, you mean.”

“When I listen to Tavener, I feel I could be immersed in George Wingate’s ethereal canvases—maybe his Earthhead.”

“Mmm, I saw his work in an issue of Image. I remember especially his Tree—it seemed to be breaking into the beyond.”

“For me it would be James Turrell’s amazing sky-spaces: the way he almost sculpts light. They give me the same feeling as Tavener’s music: of the divine mysteriously penetrating our world.”

“I wonder if there’s a novel that does that…”

“Well, this isn’t a novel, but Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being would be my call.”

I’m riveted by the creative energy of the conversation. But this isn’t at my college. It’s at one of the Glen Workshops I’ve attended over the years.

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Lectio Divina for a Life

My friend Cindy’s memorial service was at the Quaker Meeting she’d attended for years. The program we were handed on entering had a photo of her on the front, and inside said simply:

In the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends, this memorial service is held as a silent Meeting for Worship in which we remember our dear Friend and celebrate her life and gifts she brought to us. Friends hold that there is that of God within each of us, the Inner Light which speaks to us and through us in the silence of Meeting for Worship. Spoken messages and remembrances of Cindy out of this silence are encouraged. Friends allow a brief period of silence after each message as a time of reflection.

The room was packed, with overflow into the hall and library—testimony to all the lives Cindy had touched in her eighty-two years.

We all sat in silence. Then a man stood. “When I visited Cindy in the hospice section of the hospital, I saw her car in the parking lot. It had a bumper sticker saying ‘John Lennon.’ So at Cindy’s bedside I sang Lennon’s “Imagine” for her.” And then he sang it for us all.

Silence.

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In the Kingdom of the Ditch

I used to find “nature poetry” boring. Descriptions of wind through the trees, hilltop vistas, butterflies alighting on flowers all left me unmoved. Then I started reading Todd Davis’s poems.

Choosing to live in the Pennsylvania mountains, Davis has immersed himself in the natural world—as a painter immerses himself in color, as a composer immerses herself in sound.

Nature is Davis’s language.

The poems of his newest volume, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, speak not so much of nature as by means of it.

Here, for instance, is “Atrial Fibrilation”:

 

Yesterday was the dull gray of a river stone. This morning
snow covers our neighbor’s roof, the sky the color of an indigo

bunting’s cap. Fresh from sleep we reach back for last summer’s
green, listen to a blue jay at the feeder as it cracks open a seed

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Pope Francis’s Beauty and Art

“Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties.”

Okay, who is the author of this quote? The theologian of aesthetics, Hans von Balthasar, famous for identifying Truth, Goodness, and Beauty as the key divine attributes?

No, the author is Pope Francis, famous for his ministry to the poor and outcast.

This quotation is from Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation, a 224-page document called “The Joy of the Gospel.” As a genre, an “apostolic exhortation” exhorts the faithful to some particular action as a community. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” the Pope is exhorting us all to be evangelizers.

So what does beauty, in the Pope’s mind, have to do with evangelization?

“Every form of catechesis,” he writes, “would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ (via pulchritudinis).” In fact, “Every expression of true beauty can be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.”

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