As the ruffian used force to carry her out of the convent because her family needed her for an arranged marriage that would increase their fortune, this thirteenth-century nun and member of (St.) Clare’s Order of Poor Ladies of San Damiano saved herself and preserved her vows by suddenly and miraculously growing heavier and heavier. In the end, her assailant had to put her down and abandon the abduction. As he said, it was as though she had been eating stones.
I was struck by this story since anytime anyone succeeds notably in actually fulfilling a promise, there is almost a sense of a “miracle” behind it. As we all know, promises and vows, sacred and otherwise, are frequently broken as though they were not really forged with unbreakable bonds. Sometimes, unfortunately, we find ourselves not able to preside with certainty and control over those things that freedom of choice has led us to promise.
As Georgetown University’s Professor Frank Ambrosio points out in one of his lectures about Dante’s Paradiso, the third part of The Divine Comedy, the mystery of human experience teaches us that we do not always control our identities all that fully. What this means is that who we are and the meaning of our successes and failures in relationships—our relational identity—become more complex than we might think when we open ourselves up to others. When we become couples, we still have our own individuality but we also become part of the personality of our partners as they become part of ours. For this merging to work we must make a leap of faith that promises are not to be taken lightly. As Frost so famously said, “but I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.”
As I near the end of my nearly one-year journey through The Divine Comedy, I’ve come to learn that so much of what Dante has been asking us fellow pilgrims is no more complicated than posing the question of what does it take in any relationship to support the mystery of joy that two people can bring to one another in the fullness of freedom and freedom’s capacity for love. What steps do we have to take to start this journey? What choices do we have when we fall short and make mistakes and have to start all over again?
So when Professor Ambrosio asked us to address the question of what we think might express the fulfillment of the highest hope of human existence, he led us to consider a structure of meaning that begins with commitment, proceeds to intimacy, and culminates in creativity. In this context, I realized that my search had always been in front of me and I answered in this way:
I was struck in listening to Professor Ambrosio’s lecture “On Mapping Joy” when he said none of us gets out of this life without regrets. In answering the question of what might be the fulfillment of the highest hope of human existence, he gave me a fresh insight into all the painful questions I asked of myself when my first wife died nearly twenty-three years ago as a young woman through no fault of her own.
During the days that turned to months and then into years of reflection on what I might have done better in our relational identity to have enriched our own lives together, I was frequently at a loss to find appropriate words. In reading Dante, I have found new ways to reflect on the richness of life as well as its fragility and ultimate end.
On one level I could answer by saying that the highest hope of existence is to lead a meaningful and satisfying life. But such an answer is so vague that it is not really an answer. Relying again on what Professor Ambrosio so elegantly says, I think the answer lies somewhere in “the ability to take joy, not in what we could have been, but what, in fact, we actually have become in relationship to each other.” This is Dante’s conception of Paradise.
In my perspective, this foundational marker in our search for the highest hope in our lives can be expanded upon by developing the courage to face death and to offer testimony in the face of death. As my wife’s life was coming to an end, she quoted Viktor Frankl, one of her favorite writers and a concentration camp survivor:
“As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life, and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible.”
Thus, I believe that being responsible to yourself, your loved ones, and to society in general are the keys to the fulfillment of the highest hope of human existence. As such, I embrace Professor Ambrosio’s concluding thought in his “On Mapping Joy” lecture in Canto 4, “How can you imagine joy if anyone is left out except by their own choice?”
Since the beginning of Dante’s journey, the class has emphasized that the journey in its entirety takes place within the space and time dimensions that are “nel mezzo,” at the center of our identity as human beings. Now in the Paradiso, Dante proposes to reveal to us a Joy that he believes is at the center of all we could possibly hope for as human beings. He also seems to be insisting that this Joy is simultaneously both the same for all and yet different for each. Such is one of the major paradoxes of life.
When the hooligans come to fetch us away, may we all find the miracle within us to stay true to our course and become heavy with stones that anchor us to our beliefs.