Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sexagesima Sunday

2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9 / Luke 8:4-15

And I know such a man, whether in the body or out of the body, I know not, God knoweth: that he was caught up unto paradise, and heard secret words which it is not granted to man to utter.

Arcana verba. Arcane words. We have more experience with arcane words, with words hidden from out hearing. In a world of passwords, to be aware that entrée into any number of places we might enjoy, of which we might make use, but which, for want of the secret words, the arcana verba, we cannot, is for us a burden and a sorrow. We convince ourselves that we are Ali Baba, and that the words spoken in secret by others hide a treasure, a treasure of which we could make good use if only we knew to say Open sesame! 

On the other hand, perhaps we find ourselves in a different tale. We may imagine that we are like the sorcerer's apprentice and that, while the words, the hidden truths, that others have kept from us will have real effect on our mouths, nonetheless perhaps we were not yet ready for them. We might, that is, think that we just need the right ancillary information, the right kind of training, at which point the arcana verba will be for us not merely effective, as they were for the poor apprentice, but for our good as well.

It seems to me that Paul, in letting us know that he had heard arcana verba, the secret words of Paradise, was neither taunting us that he had a privileged entrée to treasures in which we might share but which he chose to keep to himself, nor holding back from words of which we could make real and effective use, but which might escape our power, just yet, of keeping under control. Rather, I wonder if we might turn, rather than to the One Thousand and One Nights or Goethe's Der Zauberlehring for our instruction, but instead to Dante Alighieri's Commedia.

In the Paradiso, when Dante ascends to the sphere of Saturn, he finds the glorious music of the heavenly choruses, which has accompanied him in his ascent, becoming only more beautiful in each greater sphere,  reduced to silence, and the beatific smile of his beloved guide Beatrice disappear from her face. Dante grows anxious, and worries that he had somehow displeased Beatrice and heaven. Beatrice, patient and generous as ever, puts the heavenly pilgrim's heart at ease:

Già eran li occhi miei rifissi al volto
de la mia donna, e l'animo con essi,
e da ogne altro intento s'era tolto.

E quella non ridea; ma "S'io ridessi,"
mi cominciò, "tu ti faresti quale
fu Semelè quando di cener fessi:

ché la bellezza mia, che per le scale
de l'etterno palazzo più s'accende,
com' hai veduto, quanto più si sale,

se non si temperasse, tanto splende,
che 'l tuo mortal podere, al suo fulgore,
sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende."

My eyes were already fixed on my Lady’s face once more, and my mind with them, free of every other intent, and she did not smile, but said: "Were I to smile, you would be like Semele, turned to ashes, since my beauty which burns more brightly, as you have seen, on the steps of the eternal palace, the higher we climb, if it were not moderated, glows so much, that your human powers, at its lightning flash, would be like the leaves the thunder shatters."

Beatrice withholds her smile, and the saints in the sphere of Saturn withhold their song, not because they wish to keep something precious from Dante, nor because they are worried with the danger he might caused, unused to the truth they would reveal but rather because they love him. What they know, as he does not yet see, is that their love is too intense, too pure, too true for one still as enmeshed in the world as he, still too compromised by lesser and enfeebling loves. What Beatrice and the saints long to share, the song they shiver with anticipation at the inclusion of his voice, the smile they ache to see him reciprocate, is the very thing that, given his present state, given his worldliness, they must, not out of worry for themselves, but rather out of concern for him, keep silent, allow to remain arcana verba. What they know, even as he does not, is that his heart is as yet to hardened, too small, too feeble, to speak words that not only make sense only to such as the saints, but will do grave injury to those of lesser love.

We already have a hint of that truth on earth. Have you never wanted to tell someone else you loved them, only to know that, in their bitterness and darkness, such knowledge would be for them a sharp blow and an offense, rather than good news? Have you not known those who, by constitution or acquired disposition, can only and invariably find the cloud for every silver lining? For these, and indeed we must add for us, might there not be secret words of heaven, words that God and his saints long to share, but which we, as we are, loving as we do, could not hear, at whose sounds our very soul sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende?

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