Dante’s Love: Hot Coals Unconsumed

Gustave Doré, "Paradiso"

Gustave Doré, “Paradiso”

Spiritual Sunday

The Old Testament readings these past couple of weeks have featured King Solomon. I’ve never paid much attention to this figure and so have been surprised to discover the prominent role that he plays in Dante’s Paradiso, which I’m reading for the first time in my life. (A sabbatical is a good time to read books that are embarrassingly missing from one’s life reading list.)

Solomon, in what should be a model for us all, asks God for the right thing (Kings 3:3-14):

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

Thomas Aquinas informs Dante upon his visit to Paradise that he will be meeting Solomon, who stands for a special kind of wisdom that we need in our search for the divine: the knowledge that our body is no less holy than our soul. Given the tendency of many Christians to express contempt for the body, this is no small thing.

Aquinas emphasizes the significance of this knowledge when he informs Dante that Solomon will the brightest light in the Heaven of the Sun:

The fifth light, which amongst us is most fair, doth breathe from such a love that all the world down there thirsteth to know the news of it; within there is the lofty mind, to which a wisdom so profound was granted, that, if Scripture say true, no second ever rose to such full vision.

In Canto XIII Dante is puzzled that Solomon should be seen as representing the highest wisdom, even though that would seem to put him up with Adam and Jesus. Aquinas’s reasoning is fairly complex, but he seems to say that there are different kinds of wisdom and Solomon represents kingly wisdom, regal pudenza. This is the highest wisdom one can get from someone who was a ruler on earth, earth being the body’s special domain.

A line from Robert Frost’s “Birches” comes to mind here:

Earth’s the right place for love,
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

If one can combine the transcendence of heaven with the sensuality of earth, then one has achieved the pinnacle of existence. That Solomon wrote (or so Dante believed) Song of Songs, which can be read simultaneously as a sensual love poem and a celebration of celestial love, helps explain why he plays such a key role in Paradiso. Percy Shelley, picking up on the importance of the body for Dante, writes in Defence of Poetry that Paradiso is “a perpetual hymn to everlasting love” and that

Dante understood the secret things of love even more than Petrarch. . . . His apotheosis of Beatrice in Paradise, and the gradations of his own love and her loveliness, by which as by steps he feigns himself to have ascended to the throne of the Supreme Cause, is the most glorious imagination of modern poetry.

As the figure of pure love, Beatrice is the medium through which Dante converses with Solomon. Solomon’s words are difficult to untangle but he seems to be saying that, in our union with God, our bodies and bodily desires will shine as brightly as our souls. We will be simultaneously as substantial (body) and as bright (soul) as candles. We will be like hot coals that are not consumed by their own fire.

And I heard in the divinest light of the smaller circle an unassuming voice [Solomon’s], perchance such as the Angel’s unto Mary, answering:

 “As long as the festival of Paradise shall be, so long our love shall cast around us the rays of such a garment. Its brightness shall keep pace with our ardor, our ardor without our vision, and that shall be as great as it hath grace beyond its proper worth. Whenas the garment of the glorified and sainted flesh shall be resumed, our person shall be more acceptable by being all complete. Whereby shall grow that which the highest Good giveth to us of unearned light, light which enableth us to see; wherefore the vision must needs wax, and wax the ardor which is kindled by it, and wax the ray which goeth forth from it. But like the coal which giveth forth the flame, and by its living glow o’ercometh it, so that its own appearance is maintained, so shall this glow which doth already swathe us, be conquered in appearance by the flesh which yet and yet the earth o’ercovereth; nor shall such light have power to baffle us, for the organs of the body shall be strong to all that may delight us.”

How can one not surrender to the living glow?

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