The smoke is just beginning to clear from the fires that have beset my nook of Northern California. I have been holding my breath for weeks as flames ravaged so many places I love. Three retreat centers near and dear to my heart were in dire danger of burning and evacuated friends took refuge in my music studio as ash fell from the sky. As they fled the fire's path, they had to make quick decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. Times like these call all of us to pay deep attention to the question: what really matters?
Last night, knowing that my dear friends were safe once more, I returned to my studio. I felt such gratitude as the last rays of the sun kissed the late summer roses in the garden and an enormous orange moon peeked through the eucalyptus trees. For the first time in weeks, I could see the stars. This matters, I thought. This. The moon and the stars and the sound of the owl and the knowledge that those I love are safe. This. I could finally breathe again with the sense that my worst fears had not been realized and that there was still hope. As a sweet and fragile sense of peace swelled inside my heart, my favorite lines from TS Eliot's poetic masterpiece, Little Gidding, floated through my mind:
Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
I first read and memorized those lines during a very dark time in my life as a teenager when my only other solace was the music of Beethoven. What it took me thirty years to discover is that TS Eliot penned those very lines during World War 2 after the darkest time of his own life. At the point of total collapse and breakdown, what saved him from complete despair was also the music of Beethoven ( which is why "Little Gidding" is one of "Four Quartets") and the Divine Comedy.
Barry Lopez wrote,"Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memories. This is how people care for themselves. ”
In this time of rampant fear and social upheaval we need to feed ourselves with stories of hope. We particularly need icons of resilience: images of real life heroes and heroines who have not just survived enormous obstacles, but who have brought out unbelievable beauty from the ashes of their lost dreams.
Foremost in my Pantheon are Hildegard of Bingen, Ludwig Van Beethoven, St Francis of Assisi. All of them are connected through Dante-- and all of them found their way through the Dark Night of the Soul in ways that can guide and inspire us right now.
September 2020 marks the 700th anniversary of Dante's Divine Comedy. The impact of this epic poem can scarcely be grasped. Its story of healing has reached out to shape, change and inspire countless readers, artists, poets, philosophers and even scientists across the centuries.
Dante's story was penned in the aftermath of utter catastrophe and social upheaval. Penniless and condemned to die after a revolution in his native Florence, Dante spent the rest of his life wandering in exile, "learning how bitter is the taste of borrowed bread". Many scholars believe that Dante himself was initially suicidal as he contemplated the fate brought about by political and religious corruption. Instead, he drank in the stories from the library of the man who sheltered him-- and then poured his whole heart into creating the Divine Comedy. Dante's tale of redemption was nothing less than a story that saved his own life- and then transformed the world.
In Dante's epic vision, the difference between Hell and the Mountain of Hope (Purgatory) is not how "good" or "bad" you have been. Rather, the souls who are bound for Paradise are on a communal journey: of interconnection and transformation, whereas the citizens of the Inferno are stuck in dysfunctional and divisive patterns they cannot or will not change.
In the Divine Comedy no one can find their way through the dark woods alone. Dante makes it abundantly clear throughout his allegory that in order to thrive and become our best selves, we need connection to both the past and the future. As we develop imaginal relationships to our ancestors and to those beings of wisdom who can model for us what is possible, we are guided to new lives of purpose and joy.
Where the Fire and the Rose Are One is a four part series that will explore the connections between Dante and the great artists, poets, saints and composers across the centuries: TS Eliot, Franz Liszt and St Francis will complete this quartet of salons that begins on September 13 at 10:30 am with Inspiration and Obsession . In this first 90 minute salon, we will explore theme of stories that shape us as we discover how the Divine Comedy was the fount of creativity for two of the greatest artists of the 19th century: Auguste Rodin (whose Thinker above is Dante in the act of dreaming up the Divine Comedy) and the founder of the PreRaphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti, depicted his own wife Elizabeth Siddal as Dante's muse in the painting you see below, Beata Beatrix.
Dante 'will also weave his way through my FREE webinar on September 17, 8 am -10 am PST) offered through Humanity Rising, Harmony of the Cosmos: What Pythagoras and Hildegard Can Teach Us in a Time of Global Pandemic will culminate with Paradiso's final vision of the Symphony of the Spheres - a mystical vision shared by the 6th century BCE mathematician and the 12th century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen.
The final lines of Dante's poem are a revelation that it is "Love that moves the sun and all stars". I think of the invisible threads of love that bind together Dante, Hildegard, TS Eliot and Beethoven with you and me. I like to imagine each one of these resilient beings is now a star shining down from afar, urging us to bring forth the beauty that dwells deep inside even in the darkest of times. Together, perhaps they will light your own path towards harmony and hope this autumn.