“Vidi un Sene”
Dante’s Divina Commedia is the great Catholic poem of graced mediations.
In the very first canto of the Inferno Virgil appears as a rescuer, sent (as the second canto reveals) by the trinity of heavenly mediators: Beatrice, Lucia, and the Virgin Mary (in ascending order). But the initiator of the salvific rescue is Mary.
The great circle of the Commedia begins to close (or to open to Infinity) in canto 31 of Paradiso with the appearance of yet another heavenly mediator. In place of Beatrice, Dante suddenly says: “Vidi un sene” — “I saw an elder.” He is later identified as Bernard of Clairvaux. And it is he, the great doctor of affectivity, who, in the poem’s final canto will intone the sublime prayer to our Lady: “Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio.”
It is Mary’s intercessory mediation, responsive to Bernard’s prayer, which obtains for Dante the final beatifying vision of the Trinity — the climax of the Commedia; as it was Mary’s intercession which inititiated his salvific journey.
On August 20th the Church celebrates the feast of St. Bernard. An important new book by William Harmless, S.J., Mystics (Oxford paperback) contains a fine chapter on Bernard. Here is some of what he says:
for Bernard, no matter how anguished our current plight, the nobility of our nature offers hope … The long, winding road back to God is about recovering our “likeness” to God. In this journey, as the soul turns back to God, it at the same time turns back to itself and back into its true self. This gradual recovery of the original “likeness” is, according to Bernard, what “marries the soul to the Word.” And he adds: “It is like him in nature, but it shows that it wants to be like him by loving as it is loved” (quoting from Bernard’s 83rd sermon on The Canticle of Canticles).
The secret of mystical marriage is the discovery that to be oneself is to be in love with Love.
One can taste in the above why Bernard’s affective mystical theology inspired Dante … and, more than six hundred years after Dante, Thomas Merton.