Friday, March 16, 2007

Lucky number 7, sadly the last blog

First, I have to preface this with an expression of astonishment that this is the last blog post I will make for this class. The blog and discussion became part of my weekly routine, and I always love coming on here to see what Rhiannon and Annette have shared with the group, and what insight Tams has shed with an amazing application to her life. I feel like we’ve become a community, a sort of counter-culture of which Dante would approve. Or maybe I’m just nosy, since I like to learn about other people’s lives and their ideas that they have about the world. I haven’t shared as much personally, but I really appreciate the people who did.

My different struggles with faith are pretty personal, and have more to do with organized religion than the actual concepts of faith. I think in the beginning this made me defensive toward many of the ideas that Dante was presenting. Once the medieval mindset was explained in terms of organization and allegory, I found it much easier to accept the places that Dante put people. I think I was still resisting all through the Inferno, and resisting what seemed to me the product of conservative religion in other people, and resisting Catholicism. We were all bogged down in a sort of Hell with each other, especially around differing views of authority. But we worked through this, and got out of the Inferno.

Once we hit the Purgatorio, I got really excited about the ideas that Dante was presenting, and about applying them to real life. I really liked the idea of a counter-culture, and creating an environment in the world that made life more heavenly. I started looking for positive examples in the world. This is also when we all started getting comfortable with each other in the blog, after we ironed out our frustrations and formed more of a community of sharing. My freewrites started getting more personal, so I didn’t draw on them as much for blogs until my blog on joy in the Paradiso. My in-class writing on it was more shallow since it was just my moments of heaven on earth, and my blog took off when I started asking other people about their experiences. I was much more comfortable sharing my more positive views with everyone, rather than the negative ones with which we started. This was one of the best times to read the other blogs, also, because we were all sharing our joyful experiences in our lives. For me, this is one of my favorite parts of being at a university, the group discussion and presentation of other views and lives. Catholicism doesn’t seem as strange and mysterious to me as before, and I feel that Dante isn’t limited by being a Catholic or so limited by medieval ideas. At the end, he says he doesn’t have all the answers and we agree that we don’t have all the answers either, but we all feel better for the experience.

Seventh Blog!

The starters, class discussions, and blog postings have all been very connected for me. That seems like a very obvious thing to say (of course the starter topics set the tone for the class, and of course these thoughts are still at least somewhere in our minds as we’re writing the blogs), yet the way in which these three media start with something quite personal, move to a public discussion, then return to a more private, small-group setting really helps to process these ideas fully. In terms of the starters and blogs, there’s been a cycle throughout the term. We began the term writing on a very personal level about a time when we found ourselves in a dark wood, then moved into more theological/philosophical writing (in this group anyway), and now we’ve recently returned to the personal when talking and writing about our views of heaven.

This cycle of personal views and larger, more abstract ideas interestingly corresponds to the evolution of this group’s rapport. We began on friendly, if rather formal, terms, then became a bit frustrated with each other, and now we’re back on friendly ground with a good sense of familiarity and camaraderie. I don’t think these two cycles are coincidental. Not only do we naturally become more personal as friendships develop and get less so as they diminish, but also the movement of the Comedy has influenced all of us to react this way. Most of us have had an idea of or opinion about heaven and hell for the majority of our lives, so we are more comfortable articulating that. The workings of purgatory, however, are less familiar to many students and so we began discussing the big picture of it all in order to better process the idea.

I really enjoyed this process of immediate reaction thoughts, then class discussion, then more reflective writing. It’s enabled me to interrogate my long-held beliefs and compare them to other, sometimes similar and at times very different, views. The best thing about it all is that these religious and world views are often things we as students don’t discuss in such a large setting and for such an extended amount of time (probably because some ideas are contentious and there’s a fear of offending). It’s been refreshing to not only hear these views, but read the free-written thoughts and reflective blogs.

My blogs have usually run right along with the subjects of the starters, but they have diverged at times as well. Sometimes this divergence has been to follow an idea presented by another group member, and other times it has been because I really made a connection between Dante’s writing and pop culture, like when I wrote about A River Runs Through It. Overall, I have taken the subjects of the starters and expanded my initial thoughts by looking through the text, listening to the class discussion, and reading my group members’ posts.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

From the 9 Circles of Hell to the 7 Cycles of Blog

Everyone is welcome to read this final posting.

Reading over my blogs, I feel that my movement has been mostly consistent. I seem to mix humor, personal experience, and examples from Dante into a nice warm cup of alphabet soup. Sometimes I wrote about something mentioned in class that sparked an interest and other times I took the starter one step farther and added another 10 minutes or so to the idea. Close to the middle, I wrote a blog labeled “Addressing Other Postings” which was my attempt to calm down the bickering. I noticed a few miscommunications and some personal stabs and didn’t want to be den mother. I wanted to offer an example of discussing others’ comments, whether I agreed or not, allowing the team to see how you can be nice even if you don’t completely agree by simply commenting or taking someone’s thoughts and running with them. They’re not scissors after all. My themes seem to be based on ideas and symbolism that I gathered through allegorical reading. In the beginning, I wasn’t quite getting the allegorical part as much as towards the end of the term, but I think I finally caught on to the concept.

When I glance back over the entire blog, I see a roller coaster ride of ideas and emotions. Everyone started off on friendly terms, which turned to bitterness, then back to friendly terms. This particular roller coaster has a loop de loop of themes. Some wrote different views of the same themes while others took a whole different route. All in all, I think this group pulled together pretty good at the end. Basic reading turned more allegorical; thoughts began to run deeper and more personal.

My free-writing journal seems to be more personal than the blog. I wonder if I subconsciously felt better at writing the more personal information in a more private journal. I see more of a progress in my journal writings than the roller coaster. The journal seems to be more like a winding road of deep thoughts and random conclusions, if any at all. My two favorite blog postings were “I am Geryon, hear me ROAR!” and “My Personal ‘Heaven on Earth’ Experience.” I think the reason is that these have a more laid back view of a specific thing that I know will more than likely be a completely different view from others so I just put it out there for everyone to see, which kind of sounds like my own personal way of mooning the team (sorry guys, close your eyes). These free-writing samples and blog postings have helped most of us to open our minds a little more and see things from different angles, to read allegorically, and to expand our knowledge with some deep thought or personal experience. If we could keep our open minds and apply deep thought to things we don’t understand, won’t that make life more pleasant? To some, ignorance is bliss; to others, ignorance is a barrier that stands in the way of learning.

The Seventh Blog Post

**Warning: Read at your own risk! This is addressed to Chris Anderson, so for all you others, just keep that in mind. If you read this at all, which you certainly don't have to. PEACE!**

One thing that has remained fairly consistent throughout my blog postings is my quoting and referencing of pop-culture and examples from my own life in my attempts to process Dante through my own experiences and my own culture. I have quoted Billy Joel, Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, an old Girl Scout song; referenced Deepak Chopra, Maslow’s Triangle: Hierarchy of Needs, capitalist and socialist ideas, Robert F. Kennedy, jr. and U.S. policies; talked about memorial services I’ve attended, and my personal understandings of religion and faith. Because what good is reading an ancient text unless it can be applied to our own lives? Being old does not automatically make something good…being able to transcend time and strike a chord in a soul hundreds of years after it was originally written, however, is a mark of greatness. There, I said it: Dante’s great.

I sit in class and get my mind blown almost every day. A lot of the things you say are things I’ve never thought of before, or at least not in the way you present them. And most of the time it’s exactly not what I was expecting to come out of the mouth of a Catholic deacon! Reading the bible allegorically?!? Who would have thought? The “going through the motions” of Catholic mass an experience in faith possibly closer to God than the somewhat-intellectual preachings of Protestants? Confession not what I had thought, going through another human to ask forgiveness from God, but rather an act of community, a community activity done in faith and support?

My blog posts usually represent a combination of my thoughts from the in-class free writes, my reactions and processing of what you have said in class, and my own experiences as filtered through Dante, (except for my fifth blog post about Bobby Kennedy, jr. … I was so excited about him, and a little burnt out from the Paradiso, that I couldn’t help but go on a tangent, even though it was pretty far-fetched). My in-class writings were strong. I was always off and running, my thoughts a sentence or two ahead of what I was writing. I was almost never at a loss for something to get down on paper and process. My hand always hurt afterwards. Sometimes I would sit in class either writing or listening to the lecture and ideas from others in the class and I just couldn’t wait to get home and through all the other things I had to do that week to write my next blog post.

Was there progress? Well, the title of my last post was: “The answer is: I have no idea.” I feel like I started the class with a lot of questions and wonderings…what are the Purgatorio and Paradiso going to be like? What is the Purgatorio, exactly? If Dante has such a clear picture of the Inferno, who is he going to put in Heaven, and why? Instead of ending up with all the answers at the end of the term, I feel completely comfortable saying that the answer is: it’s a mystery. If we could explain it, (God, religion, spirituality, Heaven), it wouldn’t be worth all the time, effort, and devotion people put into it.

As for me, I feel justified. I had become disenchanted with religion, or rather, every religious figure I’ve ever known having the attitude that they’ve got it all figured out, that their way is the absolute correct way, no exceptions, and that it’s okay to be intolerant of others if they don’t believe exactly as you do. This course has been refreshing for me. It’s good to know not everyone’s like that.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Assigned blog seven

I know I've already done at least 7 blogs, but I feel obligated to explain that this is the "seventh blog" as assigned. Blogger is acting weird right now. Cursor not keeping up with typing. Hem.

Anyway as I mentioned in response to Annette's last blog, we've really outgrown our title ("descent into hell" or "hellmongers"). I thank God for this! No longer is it like the early hell of blogging, trying to figure out what we should be saying or how to interpret one another's posts. I came close to estranging some people and my heartfelt thanks to all who forgave my clumsy exhortations.
Getting past early preconceptions, and learning to really read every word of every blog has been invaluable. We probably all have a tendency to take amateur writing less seriously than we take Dante, but I have found that several times my fellow bloggers uncover crucial insights. I am excited every time I look at our blog, because I know I am going to hear real and honest perspectives... it's not often that people just get together to talk about God, the universe, hell, heaven, earth, etc. and it's even rarer to see it done in an open forum. Usually it's centered around some assumed 'basic truth' or geared towards proving a lesson. That can be nice, but I much prefer this form. We're basically a collection of strangers hashing out our ideas about theology and philosophy, with no purpose in mind. No one is trying to sell anything! No one feels obligated to buy!
The overall movement of my own writing has been towards a more intimate self-disclosure, and I think it also reflects a deeper interest in my co-bloggers. In my last post, I asked some questions out of sheer curiosity, not because I wanted 'answers' so much as to say, 'these are the questions that I think about', and 'what do you think'? In a sense, I've let go of some of my need to intellectualize. I still believe that authority is in place to provide guidance, but I also want to know what all the other pilgrims are thinking about. I think when I've opened myself up to other people's ideas, they have never let me down. I have been especially impressed by Annette's last few posts. In the beginning I thought maybe you couldn't be bothered to put your whole heart in it (like me) but lately I've been blown away. Everyone who has posted has been brilliant and I think it's a sign of our letting our guards down that the posts just keep getting better. I'm not much of a 'free-writer' myself, and it's been hard at times to be on-topic, whatever that may mean. My type-A need for 'form' and 'structure' remains, but I am grown more comfortable with rambling, as this blog demonstrates. I also am keener to post, because, as I've said, Paradiso is much more interesting than anything before. I thought Purgatorio blew Inferno out of the water, and likewise Paradiso is more stunningly enchanting. I love the visuals here, because it's all light and movement, and the concreteness of Hell irritated me even while it fascinated me.
I think as a group our ideas have got better as we left Hell behind and moved on to better things. In my response to Annette's last post I said it was as if we were in Purgatorio, chanting back and forth, sending out our songs for one another's benefit. Yes, it continues to be difficult, not least because finals draw nigh, but we seem to be working together, or at least with something other than just getting the assignment done in mind. I think also that our very ideas have become more interesting. With Hell, we tended to be angry or disgusted or perplexed, but now it seems the posts are clearer, more intense and fuller. This is something worth thinking about, I guess. In canto XXIX of the Paradiso, it says "Christ did not say to His first congregation, 'Go and preach twaddle to the waiting world' ". I think our blogs reflect our grown interest in seeking out truth, what we can accept, and eliminating the cultural twaddle (great word, eh?) A lot of what Dante says is twaddle, not least of which is his version of the geocentric universe, but we aren't talking about the twaddle anymore. I kind of felt like the Brunetto Latini discussions were twaddle; it's a cultural issue, and not important to the overall message of Love. (In fact, it's Dante's twaddle more than it is ours). To quote Dante again, "If all that mortal man may know through mortal teachings were as firmly grasped, sophists would find no listeners there below." I take this to mean that if we understood easily everything we can potentially understand, we would not be interested in philosophy. There would be no need for philosophers if each of us did not desire enlightenment, and feel the need for help attaining it. Is it just me, or are we feeling this now? The desire (love) for Truth is innate, and it sends Reason to help guide us to Truth?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

My Personal 'Heaven on Earth' Experience

The idea of heaven is different for everyone. We generate this idea through our experience, religion, culture, family history, etcetera, and add some imaginative creativity. For those who lack the creative imagination, ideas and images are shared through movies or literary means like Dante. When we discussed this in class after our starter 8, I had chosen a specific moment when I encountered ‘heaven on earth.’ In reality, no one really knows what heaven is really like, but I imagined it to be the best possible moment.

My ‘heaven on earth’ experience: In 1992, when most of you were barely born, I was invited on a trip to Key West, Florida by my best friend and love of my life. There were four of us altogether. During the trip, on the way to Orlando (yes, we drove), I received a call that my stepfather had died. Since Chris was paying for my part of the trip, I couldn’t just leave to come home. I couldn’t afford the airfare and I couldn’t make the others give up their vacation as well by returning to Oklahoma. When we reached Key West, the funeral was taking place. The other two guys on the trip were being complete asses and submitting me to practical jokes in order to cheer me up. This of course resulted in the opposite effect. The whole trip was beginning to look like a disaster. So, this must be the purgatorio before the paradisio. The 3rd day in Key West changed completely. The other 2 guys were invited to a condo party for the weekend and left Chris and me alone. (He is gay, so get that out of your mind). He begged me to go snorkeling with him, even though I had a phobia of drowning. I finally gave in. In the ocean, my brain experienced a whole new environment. The fish were so colorful. The coral was like lace. The blue-green water was a refreshing 74 degrees in February. This experience altered my perception and I began to realize how petty my problems were. It was amazing. Afterwards, Chris and I went to Sunset Pier to watch the sun setting on the ocean. Live music was playing; I distinctly remember “Red, Red Wine” as one of the songs and every time I hear it, it takes me back to this day, 15 years later. The sun was casting a warm, yellow glow across the water with black silhouettes of sailboats. The music filled my ears along with the sound of the ocean and seagulls. The cool breeze smelled fresh and clean. The warm sun was soothing to my skin. Chris’ presence warmed my heart. At that moment, that single instance where all this pleasure to my senses emerged, joined, combined…was my heaven on earth.

So, it wasn’t just a moment of perfection, but more. I had forgotten my worries. I had literally escaped from life as all of my senses were overwhelmed with perfection. Love was involved. The sun could represent a feeling of God. I think that all of this was a bunch of little samples of heaven, and that heaven is really much, much more. This instance was like a man dying of thirst receiving a small sip of water. It’s enough to get by, but you know there is much more that is so much better. Perhaps this is why people meditate or go to spas. It’s their way of escaping the self to be subject to something much better, and clearing the mind to be free of harsh reality. I only hope that everyone gets to witness some kind of ‘heaven on earth’ like this, even if it’s only a small sample of what heaven really is.

The answer is: I have no idea

We’ve been talking a lot in class about faith and reason, about the theologians who overcomplicate and overthink religion versus the simple followers who experience God and take things on faith.

I was going to title this blogpost “Faith v. Reason,” to exemplify this tension, but then I realized that it isn’t faith versus reason at all.

Something that was said in class the other day:

“You must believe in order to understand”


“You must understand in order to believe”

You can’t always explain God rationally, in a way that’s perfectly understandable, but does that mean that you shouldn’t believe? Of course not; that’s where faith comes in. Reason and faith work together, just as Virgil and Beatrice work together to guide Dante through the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It is not either/or, it is that reason is inadequate and must be supplemented by faith. (Sorry if this argument seems basic, I’m just working through some things. I think it gets more interesting…keep reading).


Reason is a method we use to grasp God’s goodness, but it is inadequate. It is a human invention, and God is bigger than us, so reason alone will never be able to fully explain God. You have to take some of it on faith. It is arrogant to believe that God and religion can be rationally and reasonably explained, quantified, and understood. That’s why in class the other day I was thinking about how “Understand” should be right down there with the seven deadly sins

Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, Sloth

And “Experience” should be right up there with the cardinal and theological virtues

Prudence, Temperance, Courage, Justice, Hope, Faith, Caritas

“To understand” fits under Pride. To believe that faith can ever be fully comprehended by us, imperfect and incomplete creations, is a sin. In so doing, you are not giving God enough credit; you are underestimating and minimizing the greatness and glory of God.

I wrote about this in the last free write we did in class:

“So why do people persist in writing books, producing televangelism, orating, analyzing and overanalyzing and literalizing and therefore trivializing God’s word?...This is why people become disenchanted with religion: because people take something beautiful and experiential and turn it into something dry, dusty, crusty, inaccessible, difficult, gross.”


That is not to say that reason has no place in the experience of religion. Reason is a tool we use to experience religion and faith; a man-made, ultimately inadequate tool, but a tool nonetheless. Dante illustrates this in the following passage, in answer to Peter’s question about where his faith came from:

“…The shower of gold
Of the Holy Ghost, which pours down endlessly
Over the sacred Scrolls, both New and Old,
Reasons it to such logical certainty
That, by comparison, all other reasoning
Can only seem confused and dull to me.” (Paradiso XXIV.91-6)

He compares his faith to a reasonable argument that is so logical, no other arguments can compare. Now, this may seem like the exact opposite of an experiential faith, the kind we’ve been discussing in class, but it’s not. By relating his faith to a logical argument, in this example, Dante is comparing faith to something people experience in their everyday lives. He is not advocating that we base our faith on logic, he is just using a logical argument as a metaphor.


We have talked about how language is inadequate to express and communicate faith, so putting Heaven into words, like Dante does in his Paradiso, would certainly seem blasphemous and arrogant. EXCEPT, he spends all of his time in the Paradiso explaining how he can’t fully express what he sees, feels, experiences there; how sometimes even the Heavenly Host must hold back their exultations and celebrations, or else Dante, being the inadequate human, would explode. He elucidates how faith cannot be fully elucidated to us while still in our imperfect forms.

“In the eternal justice, consequently,
The understanding granted to mankind
Is lost as the eye is within the sea:” (Paradiso XIX.58-60)

So Dante gets around that technicality, managing to take us on the ride of our lives through Heaven while still maintaining humility before God and a deep respect for Him. Dante expresses creatively that which he has the capacity to imagine, but makes sure to constantly remind us that God is even more amazing than what he has managed to write down, and even more incredible than what we have the ability to experience. Brilliance.

Rhiannon, you ask us: “What is heaven to you? What do you imagine is the purpose for all this suffering? What 'justifies' the ways of the world, or what binds them together? Is it even definable? But Heaven? A Heaven that's really open to all comers? A Heaven in which people I hate are going to be singing God's praises, completely pure and holy? What does it look like when all the bad stuff is stripped away from us, and all the good is left?”

In answer, I would direct you to the following passage:

“Mortals, be slow to judge! Not even we
Who look on God in Heaven know, as yet,
How many He will choose for ecstasy.

And sweet it is to lack this knowledge still,
For in this good is our own good refined,
Willing whatever God Himself may will.” (Paradiso XX.133-8)

I think the answers to your questions are bigger than I am capable of.