DANTE AND THE CROSS
Brother Michael Meister, F.S.C.
Today, September 14, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This is an ancient feast commemorating the finding of the Cross of Jesus by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, in 326AD, and the subsequent dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 335AD. Apart from Good Friday, veneration of the Cross is also celebrated across Christendom and across the calendar. My favorite title for the feast is the Greek one: “The Raising Aloft of the Honored and Life-Giving Cross.”
But this is also another feast – commemorating the death of the great poet, Dante Alighieri, in 1321. The city of Ravenna and its lord, Guido II da Polenta, were the last earthly hosts of the exiled Dante, and they loved him dearly. He had been in Venice on a diplomatic mission for Ravenna and, forced to walk home, he contracted malaria during the journey and died at the monastery of San Francesco.
There are some fascinating correspondences between the two feasts we celebrate today. The Cross of Jesus had been lost since the time of his death and was found some 300 years later. Dante’s body was also “lost” for several hundred years. While the Republic of Florence wrangled with Ravenna for more than a hundred years over possession of the body of Dante, the monks took matters into their own hands and simply hid his coffin in the walls of their monastery church – losing track of it in the subsequent centuries! It was discovered in 1865 by a workman repairing a part of the wall. Within another 20 years, Italy was unified and today Dante’s simple tomb outside the monastery stands as a contrast to the spectacular contribution he made to the world with his Divina Commedia.
It’s intriguing to think of both Jesus and Dante as exiles. While Jesus chose his exile, Dante did not. But both of them, in rather different ways, pointed the way back to our true home. Jesus, by the journey to and through his Cross, reversed the power of sin to hold humans hostage. Dante, through his poetic journey in the Commedia, celebrated that reversal in his own Way of the Cross. Both ways point us to salvation. Each way makes it clear that love is both the path to and the reward of that salvation.
So, the Cross is really the exile’s symbol of homecoming. Nowadays, our world is filled with exiles, refugees, and immigrants. Unless we’re heartless, there is no way of escaping the journey-story each of these fellow-humans ask us to read. And it’s a desperate task. But the exile, the refugee, the immigrant is Jesus on the Cross reminding us that we, too, have (sometimes desperate) journey-stories – and he reads each one of them! At times, I imagine him putting the book down and sighing: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” And I like St. Augustine’s reply: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Dante knew that restlessness and glimpsed its fulfillment in his Paradiso where, midway through, at the planet of Mars, he himself had a vision of Christ on the Cross. Join him at this moment and imagine him struggling to capture in words that experience where his own exile became transfigured and exalted in the Cross of his Savior.
Then in the language common to all men,
with all any heart, I made an offering
unto the Lord befitting His fresh grace.
Nor had the sacrifice within my breast
ceased burning when I knew my prayer of thanks
had been accepted, and propitiously,
for with such mighty sheen, such ruby glow,
within twin rays, such splendor came to me,
I cried: “O Helios, who adorns them so!”
Just as the Milky Way adorned with stars,
some large, some small, gleams white between the Poles,
baffling the wisest of astrologers,
so, constellated in the depths of Mars,
these rays of light crossed in the holy sign
which quadrants make when joining in a circle;
but here my memory defeats my art:
I see that cross as it flames forth with Christ,
yet cannot find the words that will describe it.
But who takes up his cross and follows Christ
will pardon me for what I leave unsaid
beholding Heaven’s whiteness glow with Christ.
From top to base, across from arm to arm
bright lights were moving, sparkling brilliantly
as they would meet and pass each other’s glow.
So, here on earth, along a shaft of light
that sometimes streaks the shade that men devise
by means of arts and crafts for their protection,
our eyes see particles of matter move
straight or aslant, some swift, some floating slow –
an ever-changing scene of shapes and patterns.
And as the viol and harp, their many strings
tuned into harmony, will ring out sweetly
even for the one who does not catch the tune,
so from the spread of lights along the cross
there gathered in the air a melody
that held me in a trance, though I could not
tell what the hymn was – only that it sang
of highest praise: I heard “Arise” and “Conquer”
as one who hears but does not understand.
This music raised my soul to heights of love:
until that moment nothing had existed
that ever bound my soul in such sweet chains.
Paradiso XIV: 88-1291
- The Portable Dante, Mark Musa, ed., trans., Penguin, New York, 2003
Photo credits: Wikipedia