Saturday, February 18, 2017

Peter's quiz and the human pleasures of faith: Par. 24

After the leap of Paradiso 23, Dante face a quiz. The one asking the questions is none other than Peter -- the first man to put faith in the living Christ and the first man whose faith in Christ, upon entering the empty sepulcher on Easter morning, was realized. 

If that weren't sufficiently intimidating. Peter, the rock of the triumphant throng that joyously spins around them, plays the role of the skeptic, the wily questioner, sparring with the poet to find any small trace of bad faith in him.

Yet this rite of passage is singularly free of nerve-wracking stress. Beatrice makes it plain that the poet enjoys her full confidence. By the end of the canto, Peter is whirling around Dante like happy squirrel in a cartoon, welcoming him with warm camaraderie.

The necessity for testing belief is brought home when Beatrice tells us that faith is the sine qua non for becoming a cive - a citizen (24:43) - of this kingdom.

Peter's questions and Dante's responses have the structure of a catechism exercise -- one with astonishing concision. In 96 lines, we have faith (a) defined and (b) formulated such that Greek reason, Hebraic inspiration, and Christian revelation are married in one system; (c) the pilgrim is asked whether he actually holds these beliefs, as opposed to merely imitating one who believes; (d) then he's asked where his faith comes from, and (e) what evidence he can adduce that his belief is not the result of statements that reference only themselves as proof.

One could spend a good deal of digital ink on this, which the commentators have done quite well. Two things bear quick note. First, in addition to the range of "content" of the doctrine covered, the canto also rings all the registers we tend to associate with faith. There is of course the "citizenship" aspect of the theological virtue. As the defining feature of the sect, this faith can and does acquire political, philosophical and religious tensions precisely because it creates a dividing line between those who share a belief that cannot be demonstrated on Earth, and those who fail to see anything other than a mystifying sort of folly.

But this canto seems to place the all-important Christian virtue next to other modes of faith we're all acquainted with -- common forms that operate in our daily lives. The faith that a friend will be there when one needs her or him; the faith in a beloved pupil that she/he will pass the exam; the trust placed in a person one has long known; the confidence that grows in oneself born of desire, effort, application, and proven results.

These modes of faith are all present in the canto -- in Beatrice's appraisal of her loyal follower; in his willingness to face the music; in the actual song that explodes when Dante offers the overpowering reason that the absence of all miracles would be the greatest miracle:
"Were the world to Christianity converted,"
  I said, "without miracles, this one
  Is such, the rest are not its hundredth part; 
Because that poor and fasting thou didst enter
  Into the field to sow there the good plant,
  Which was a vine and has become a thorn!" 
This being finished, the high, holy Court
  Resounded through the spheres, "One God we praise!"
  In melody that there above is chanted.  (24: 106-114)

 The Te Deum is a confession of faith:
Te Deum laudámus: te Dominum confitémur.
Te ætérnum Patrem omnis terra venerátur.

Tibi omnes Angeli; tibi cæli et univérsae potestátes.

Tibi Chérubim et Séraphim incessábili voce proclámant:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dóminus Deus Sábaoth.

Pleni sunt cæli et terra majestátis glóriæ tuæ.
We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. 
All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim : continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Hosts; 
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory.

In addition -- and this picks up from what we noted in Canto 23 -- it is a mirrored representation in reverse -- those bursting into song are portrayed in the lyrics they sing:
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge thee;
Once again, the distance between sign and meaning, copy and original, vanishes -- bringing me to my second point: Peter is the somewhat impulsive, uneducated, fumbling rock chosen by Jesus. An everyman who exhibits no special gifts, privileges, or qualifications for the job he gets. It's he who runs past John into the empty tomb, as the pilgrim says:
“O santo padre, e spirito che vedi
ciò che credesti sì, che tu vincesti

ver' lo sepulcro più giovani piedi,”
"O holy father, spirit who beholdest
What thou believedst so that thou o'ercamest,
Towards the sepulchre, more youthful feet," (24:124-126)
In that void, Peter experienced the resurrection of faith as truth.

Faith is an everyday act, but willed. It has to rest upon a solid base; it must be confessed and acted on -- or, as in Peter's case, enacted. His impetuosity -- in the tomb as well as on the Sea of Galilee -- flows from a faith so assured that its realization brings neither surprise nor triumph. The "good news" arrives, turns out to be true coin, as pleasant as good fellowship and the sincere happiness of a master whose pledge makes the grade:

Come 'l segnor ch'ascolta quel che i piace,
da indi abbraccia il servo, gratulando

per la novella, tosto ch'el si tace; 

così, benedicendomi cantando,

tre volte cinse me, sì com' io tacqui,

l'appostolico lume al cui comando
io avea detto: sì nel dir li piacqui!
Even as a lord who hears what pleaseth him
His servant straight embraces, gratulating
For the good news as soon as he is silent;

So, giving me its benediction, singing,
Three times encircled me, when I was silent,
The apostolic light, at whose command
I spoken had, in speaking I so pleased him. (24:148-154)

No better word to end a canto about faith than piacqui -- faith in others, and of others in us, is indeed a pleasing thing. The next canto brings James to the fore. While his main subject is hope, a reading of the epistle of James speaks to both faith and to doubt, and perhaps to how the three theological virtues intertwine.

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