The Universe as It Should Be

In 2016 I spent a golden summer in Italy with friends and family: June on a tropical, volcanic island in the Bay of Naples. Needless to say, life on that island, girdled round with beaches and fishing villages, is leisurely, serene, and saturated with sunshine. At the center of the island, there rises a mountainous cone, terraced with orchards and vineyards. The previous fall, when my friend and I were looking for a house, we made the fortuitous mistake of booking a villa over halfway up the mountain. We also stubbornly decided not to rent a car. Our villa could only be reached by a road, which was so narrow and steep that some taxi drivers refused to haul us up. And so, everyday, we had to walk down the mountain to the town below to get groceries—with any number of the five little kids we had between our two families. We filled our backpacks with pasta, jars of tuna, market-fresh produce, bottles of oil, and, most laborious of all, those big six-packs of 1.5 liter bottles of water. And there were bottles of wine, too. Before I arrived on the island my friend warned me that the roads were very steep. “How steep?” I asked him. He replied, “so steep that it’s as hard to go down as it is to go up.”

Although hauling our daily sustenance was tedious, our consolation was that all the roads leading up to the villa were lanes through paradise. Ischia in the early summer bears large, gnarled lemons, the size of grapefruits, as well as oranges, that issue a perfume that fills the whole kitchen, as soon as you cut into them. Our favorite way down was by a shady lane that was skirted by tall stone walls. Leafy branches extended up and out from the enclosed orchards to form a canopy overhead. We often peaked between the gates to admire the limbs of those trees, hanging low with heavy, colored fruit. Climbing on the outside of the crumbling walls were wild capers and passion fruit vines, whose buds, in June, explode into carnivalesque flowers of exuberant color and daring design. They look like they were designed by a mischievous Italian god, in Venice.

In short, the entirety of our stay was an immersion in a tropical world of surprise. Ischia is the kind of island whose local legends boast that Odysseus stopped there for a time. And off the northern coast there are rocks that protrude from the sea: some of the many crew-members who got eaten or turned to stone. But even to this day, the elemental conditions of the island have a mythic quality: the sea at sunset takes on unique blend of colors, so that if you saw them in a painting you would think they had been executed by poetic license. On one evening walk in particular, we followed a narrow road—a two-lane road for Italians, but more narrow than an American sidewalk!—which wound its way along the periphery of the mountain, through vineyards and orchards and olives. On our right, the steep mountain fell precipitously away into an extensive and expansive view of the sea. That evening, it was dusk, but the light seemed to be slow to fade, and it must have been ever so slightly hazy, because, a year later, when my friend and I were recalling that evening, we could not stop using the word “soft” in a desperate attempt to recall the quality of light.

Then there were the beaches. One beach in particular had a narrow shore of ugly grey sand, but that did not matter because the water had a hue—and I could barely believe that my eyes were reporting what they saw—of greenish blue, so that the water had a gem tone. As we were swimming, we kept joking that being in this water is what it would feel like to bathe in a liquid emerald.

And the food! Remember, Campania—the rural region that frames Naples—is what most of us think of as typical “Italian,” given that so many 20th-century immigrants came from there. It is lasagna country, home of pizza, as well as a fresh mozzarella made from the milk of water buffalo. It is like cow mozzarella, just softer, wetter, and creamier. You eat it with tomatoes and a pungent basil, whose leaves are oily and shiny. Italian produce seems to hold the energy of the sun suspended within it, such that you could almost say it tastes bright. In fact, in my memory the whole summer has a bright color to it: the electric red of tomatoes, aggressive yellow of lemons, dazzling blue of waves. Toward the end of our visit, I wrote my friends a letter about what it felt like to live there:

We've had a delightful time in Ischia. Next Monday, we'll leave the island en route to Rome, although we will be delayed in Sorrento for a couple of days. The kids want to see Pompeii, and I want to hike, at least a bit, of the Sentiero degli Dei. On Ischia, I tried my hand at painting, and James and I have made pizza in our forno. I also made Sicilian lemon granita, which was very well-received. Being here has been refreshing, almost elemental, to bathe in the sea and in the sun. In the meantime, it seems like you could subsist merely by eating the lemons and tomatoes.

I begin this essay on the humanities with a description of travel, because I think the experience of being immersed in a world of surprise, like I was on Ischia, and the experience that you can have when reading a “great book”—for lack of a better word—are fundamentally analogous. This “wandering” kind of travel I have described is different from the travel we do for business or to see families—moving within the well-worn ruts of airport security lines or predictable interstate routes. The wandering sort of travel brings a rich experience, saturated in wonder. In traveling to an exotic place, like Ischia, your senses are keenly alive: you have a mingled sense of awe, adventure, danger, and confusion. You find yourself suspended, immersed within wonder, and thus enjoy an ecstatic experience, in which you figuratively stand outside yourself. None of the ordinary dullness hangs about you. You forget to worry about your routine cares.

And yet, although it is hard to believe—even for me now as I say this—toward the end of our summer, we were worn out with travel. We had a longing to go home. As I wrote my friend in the same letter quoted above, “I hope you are well. We've been thinking about you all a lot, and we are looking forward to seeing you in August. We've been gone long enough that the most exotic thing in the world is coming home.”

Thus, when we travel we regain a sense of the adventurousness of the ordinary. As I travel and discover the diversity of the world, its breadth and variety, I begin to feel a keen aching in the depth of my own heart. When I am suspended in wonder, when all around me is strange and I am elated and confused, I become, once again, affectively vulnerable, capable of renewal, of longing for greatness again. It is for this reason, I think, that medieval authors often associated traveling with the discovery of the depths of the self. As Caroline Bynum put it, medieval spiritual writers demonstrate “interest in the inner landscape of the human being.”[1] The Carthusian spiritual master Guigo wrote, “See how ignorant you are of your own self; there is no land so distant and so unknown to you, nor one about which you will so easily believe falsehoods.”[2] Seven hundred years earlier, Augustine, too, marveled at the “immense capaciousness” of what he calls “the huge court of my memory”:

In my memory are sky and earth and sea . . . along with all the things that I have ever been able to perceive in them and have not forgotten . . . Great is this power of memory, exceedingly great . . . a spreading limitless room within me. Who can reach its uttermost depth?[3]

Augustine marvels at how the whole world is contained within: stars, wind, sun, hills, valleys, oceanic depths. Encountering the world’s breadth, then, can lead to a discovery of my depth.

Having been to Ischia, I cannot now read Dante’s description of Mount Purgatory without thinking of it: a great conical island emerging out of ocean in the southern hemisphere, except warm and intensely colored. After the grey and murky world of hell, Dante describes his first seconds on the island like this:

Sweet color of oriental sapphire . . .

brought delight to my eyes once more
as soon as I had left behind that dead air . . .

The beautiful planet that makes us strong at love
was making all the east to smile . . .

I turned to the right and . . .
I saw four stars
never seen before except by the first members of the human race.

The sky seemed to take delight in their flaming (Purg. 1.13–26).

After the murkiness and blindness of hell, the penetratingly bright colors of purgatory can be vividly felt. The “grayness” of hell and the failure of vision is a major theme in Inferno, so much so that we get used to it. At times the pilgrim’s eyes are said to be dazed (26.145), intoxicated (29.2), deceived by distance (31.25), or distracted (32.16-24). He catches mere glimpses of faces he knows (6.45; cp. 18.40) and initially fails to recognize old companions (15.22-30). In other parts of hell, the pilgrim’s vision is obscured by mist (31.25-35), he has trouble making out a signal (8.6), or he is found crawling up a tunnel that cannot be found by sight (34.129). Often, his sight is completely blotted out, for example, on account of the danger of Medusa (9.55), or because of darkness, (18.109-110; 21.6; 29.38-39; 34.5). Just as often we read of the failed vision of the sinners of hell: Ciacco’s eyes roll back up into his head (6.91); the violent are up to their eyebrows in blood (11.103-05); the eyes of the sullen are blinded by mud (7.118-120); Farinata admits he sees in a bad light (10.100); the sodomites gaze intently like people at sunset (15.16); while other sodomites have to endure a fragmented vision because they are spinning in a wheel like wrestlers (16.25). Sinners are fixated on what is up close (17.46), avoid eye contact (18.48), cannot see because they are stuffed into holes (19.53), are tormented by hallucinations (30.70), go blind with grief, like Ugolino (33.73), or are blinded by frozen tears (33.94). In other words, hell is a world of broken vision, fragmented vistas, and restrictive myopias. It is, as the sinners never tire of pointing out, the “blind world” (cp. 3.47; 4.13; 10.58; 27.25).

By creating such a dark and murky world in our imagination, then, Dante’s depiction of the island worlds, with its gem-like tones, helps us feel the temporal world as transparent to value, a place where hope and charity penetrate the mundane. We have to imagine the jewel tones of Van Eyck and Fra Angelico, I think, when reading the passage where the pilgrim camps out in a valley before he enters the gate of purgatory proper:

A slanting path, connecting steep and flat,
Brought us to the border of the glade
Just where the rim runs away.

Gold and fine silver, carmine and leaded white,
Indigo, lignite bright and clear,
An emerald after is has just been split,

Placed in that dell would see their brightness fade
Against the colors of the grass and flowers,
As less is overcome by more.

Nature had not only painted there in all her hues
But there the sweetness of a thousand scents
Was blended in one fragrance strange and new (Purg. 8.70-81).

Thus, in purgatory, we have the universe is as it should be, as it was, as it will be, as it feels (sometime) to be on Ischia: transparent to the brilliance of God’s love. Everywhere there is hope and cooperation and prayer. Temporal existence in its secularity has become a sacred act. It is also for this reason that Dante worked so hard to make the introductory lines of his return to Eden (Purgatory 28) so deliciously poetic:

Eager to explore the sacred forest’s boundaries
And its depth, now that its thick and verdant foliage
Had softened the new day’s glare before my eyes,

I left the bank without delay
And wandered slowly through the countryside
That filled the air around with fragrance.

A steady gentle breeze,
No stronger than the softest wind,
Caressed and fanned my brow.

It made the trembling boughs
Bend eagerly toward the shade
The holy mountain casts at dawn,

Yet they were not so much bent down
That small birds in in the highest branches
Were not still practicing their craft,

Meeting the morning breeze
With songs of joy among the leaves,
Which rustled such accompaniment to their rhymes . . .

All the streams that run the purest here on earth
Would seem defiled beside that stream,
Which reveals all that it contains . . .

Though my feet stopped, my eyes passed on
Beyond the rivulet to contemplate
The great variety of blooming boughs (28.1-36 [Hollander]).

In this extraordinary passage we find that the poet has mingled an intense subjective delight (everything we know about the garden comes to us through the mediation of the pilgrim’s enjoyment) and, again, an exceptional natural beauty. Soon the pilgrim will be told that this San Diego-like weather is due to the fact that the mountain is above the realm of turbulence (28.97-99), that all the plants that exist spread throughout the world are gathered together here, in a kind of perfect arboretum (28.109-117), and that this is the “golden age” the ancient poets thought they were making up (28.142-44). A balanced, restored nature perfectly suited for a human whose powers are back in harmony: mind and heart and lower appetites are no longer discordant. He has returned to the so-called state of “original justice,” and he has returned to nature as it was meant to be.

It would also seem, then, that Dante here is indebted to an ancient tradition, one that stretches all the way back to the desert monasticism of Egypt, where the earliest Christian monks practiced a kind of spiritual discipline as rigorous as the routine an Olympian athlete submits to. The goal of these spiritual exercises was to achieve what they called “puritas cordis” (purity of heart). Purity of heart is, in the words of the scholar Columba Stewart:

Having crucified all wrongful desires, with no concern for the present, no thought about personal likings, no anxiety about the future, he remains undisturbed by avarice, pride, contentiousness, envy, or remembrance of wrongs. While still in the body, he is dead to material and earthly elements . . . No image of former or prospective sins haunts the memory or imagination.

This enables a “focusing of fragmented energies on what is truly important” (46). But in the monastic tradition, such moral discipline was not an end in itself; rather, such moral calm created a still spirit that was ready for what Evagrius and Cassian called “theoria physike” or “natural contemplation.” In other words, if my human powers and desires could come back into tune with one another, then I could enter back into harmony with the rest of creation. The desert monks believed that in our sinful state we are not only exiled from our true selves, but also exiled from participating harmoniously with the rest of creation. The fourth century desert monk, Evagrius, for example, says that the monk who has achieved purity of heart can begin to see the essences of creatures (their logoi). He can begin to hear, as it were, the inner song of creatures and he can make their song his own, turning the voiceless groaning of creation into a hymn of praise to God.

Thomas Merton got interested in the idea of natural contemplation, and in an unpublished course he gave to novices at Gethsemani in the early 1960’s, he dedicated a lecture to this idea of natural contemplation. He said natural contemplation is the recovery of the Edenic mode of consciousness:

Things have an inner logic placed there by their Creator. The artist must be sensitive to the unique voice or vocation of each being and must vigorously protest when things are being prevented from attainting their spiritual end by misuse. We will be held accountable for “systematic obscuring and desecration of the logoi of things and of their sacred meaning.”

This ancient monastic ideal of “natural contemplation” inspired Merton, and so he asked his superior to grant him permission to move into deeper solitude. His abbot made him the forester, and so Merton went deep into the woods to live in contemplative solitude. He described his life in silence as his quest to “recover paradise.” In a book about the Cistercian order, he said:

When the monks had found their homes, they not only settled there, for better or for worse, but they sank their roots into the ground and fell in love with their woods . . . Forest and field, sun and wind and sky, earth and water, all speak the same silent language, reminding the monk that he is here to develop like the things that grow all around him. (Waters of Siloe, 273-274).

In fact, such an ideal became so important to him, that he began to describe his life of solitude as a marriage between him and the woods:

Like everyone else I live under the bomb. But unlike most people I live in the woods. Do not ask me to explain this. I am embarrassed to describe it . . .

. . . I live in the woods out of necessity. I get out of bed in the middle of the night because it is imperative that I hear the silence of the night, alone, and, with my face on the floor, say psalms, alone, in the silence of the night.

It is necessary for me to live here alone without a woman, for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world (Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas Merton IV, 239–240).

Such sentiments, although they often strike us as new, are in fact millennia old, originally coming from the desert fathers of Egypt, and then through medieval Italian monasticism. In one particularly fascinating passage, St. Isaac of Syria describes being re-united to the whole of natural creation:

An elder was once asked, “What is a compassionate heart?” He replied, “It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of compassion that grips his heart . . . That is why he constantly offers up prayers full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him . . . He even prays for the reptiles as a result of the great compassion which is poured out beyond measure—after the likeness of God—in his heart” (St. Isaac of Nineveh [613 to 700 AD], as cited in “Ecology,” in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Theology).

In my reading, then, the poet writes so deliciously poetically because he aims to capture that extraordinary experience of walking back into the garden he is now in tune with. There is a kind of electric pleasure that flows through the pilgrim’s body, as he has returned not just from exile from himself but exile from creation.

I know. It is really difficult to imagine something better than standing in a Mediterranean climate, looking out over water and terraced orchards, and taking it all in in a long contemplative gaze; feeling profound contentment in the natural beauty of the universe — to be reconnected to the world through this natural contemplation. Very soon after this, readers of Dante know, the poet will portray everything as spinning out of control. He will be making a theological point, about the numinous glory of the heavenly and the presumptuous posture of the human intellect. But he is not there yet. Before we get there, we have first, a “world-affirming” portrait of creation as dynamically charged and energetically communicating the love of God.

[1] “Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?” originally published in 1980, now available in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkely: University of California Press, 1982), 87.

[2] As cited in R.W. Southern, “From Epic to Romance,” in The Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953), 231.

[3] Confessions, 2nd. Ed, trans. Frank Sheed (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2006), 196-97.

Featured Image: Edmund Hottenroth, Ansicht Von Italien Mit Fischern In Ihren Booten, 1837; Source Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Jason Baxter

Jason M. Baxter is an associate professor of fine arts and humanities at Wyoming Catholic College. He is the author of The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis and his online writings can be found here.

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