Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Chapter 22: Saint Benedict

Slowly my sense returned. Like a hurt child
            I turned at once to she I trusted most:
            my Beatrice. She calmed with kindly words      3         

the trembling caused by that wild shout and said,
            “Know you are in the sky of holiness –
            pure Paradise. One cry unstrung your nerve.      6

How would you be if the full choir had sung?
            Or had I smiled in my new ecstasy?
            You did not hear the prayer within that cry,       9

or know the vengeance it was calling down
            on those deserving that, which you will see
before you die. Neither too soon or slow,          12

sinners must feel the weight of Heaven’s doom.
            Now gaze around you at the company
            of contemplative souls who learned to look       15
lovingly upon God’s full radiance.”
            I obeyed, saw a hundred vivid globes
            sharing the glory of their brilliance.                   18

Halfway between desire and modesty
            I stood, afraid to speak, tried not to say
            questions that might cause terrible offence.        21

The biggest globe among these glowing pearls
            then granted what I lacked the guts to ask,
            saying, “If you knew that we like to help           24

asking would be no task. Not to delay
            your journey on the upward track, I shall
answer the simple query you hold back.            27

The Abbey of Cassino on a hill
            was pagan shrine until I carried up
the name of Jesus Christ, who died to teach       30

all people how to live. God’s grace was with me.
            Many heeded, left their false creed and I
baptized them in Christ’s name, and two became 33
these great and Christian contemplative souls,
            Makarios of Alexandria,
founder of monasteries in the east,                      36

and Ronualdus, stern reformer of
            my holy order here, with more who stayed
strictly within their cloisters saying mass             39

nor strayed from duties of unselfish prayer.”
            Said I, “Your kindly speech so full of love
gives me a confidence that grows, unfolds           42

like petals in a rose. Perhaps too bold,
            I beg a favour. May I see your face?”
He said, “Yes, at last in the highest place            45

where everything we want will be revealed
            as perfect, whole, and outside time and space.
            That sphere does not revolve around a pole.        48

This ladder reaches it, and that is why
            the very top is far beyond your sight.
            Patriarch Jacob glimpsed that summit once          51

laden with angels. None on earth below
            now lift a foot to climb. The rules I wrote
            for monks who followed me are wasted ink.       54

Monte Cassino is a den of thieves
            whose robes now stink like sacks of rotten grain.
            Even a moneylender can’t offend                        57

God like a lazy monk who spends on kin
            and luxury and prostitute money
the Kirk collects to feed the destitute.                   60

So weak is mortal flesh that, starting well,
            good conduct hardly ever lasts for more
            than oak trees need to grow new acorn crops.      63
No gold or silver helped Saint Peter found
            our Roman Kirk. My order grew and spread
by fasts and prayers. Francis wed Poverty.           66

Now no Franciscans do, and thus you see
how white transforms to black. God saved the Jews
from Pharaoh’s wrath by a dry path across           69

 the Red Sea’s bed, reversed the Jordan’s flow.
            Today our Kirk needs miracles like these.”
            So spoke Saint Benedict, moving away                72

to join his company who suddenly,
            as if swept up by tempest, soared above.
            She I love made a sign that overcame                   75

my nature so completely that I too
            went flying up that gold stair to the stars.
            Nothing on earth was quick enough to match       78

the swiftness of our flight. When purged of sin
            that chains me to the earth, how I will love
            to soar in Paradise again! None pull                     81

a finger faster from a flame than I
            sprang into that part of the Zodiac,
            that constellation where knowledge and thought 84

are nourished by the starry Twins. Their rays
mingled with sunlight shone upon my birth
            when I first tasted Tuscan air. Dear Twins,          87

I owe my genius to you! It was
            my birthday when I reached your zone. I felt
            as if coming home, and prayed you for strength   90

to undertake this great work calling me.               
Said Beatrice, “A glad host soon arrives
            in this triumphant air, to be received                     93

gladly, with clear eyes. First exercise yours.                     
Look back and down. See what I raised you from.”
My gaze plunged down through seven planets’ rings 96

to that low thing, our queer wee comic earth
at which I smiled, now knowing thought deserved
much higher things. The moon, daughter of God,  99      

appeared pure disc, recalling how wrongly
            I’d explained her spots. I saw her siblings –
            Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter –                   102

all tempered by old Saturn’s gravity.
Their magnitudes and speeds and inclinations
            were seen by me, and how they altered climes,     105

 weathers and tides for earth’s poor folk who live
on coast and plain and mountainside. Meanwhile
I soared on high with the immortal Twins

then gazed into the eyes of my fair guide.                         109




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