David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 11: Sun — Saint Thomas Aquinas Praises Saint Francis of Assisi”

“Canto 11: Sun — Saint Thomas Aquinas Praises Saint Francis of Assisi”

  • In Heaven, souls are helpful.

All the souls in Paradise, not just Beatrice, can read Dante’s mind. Saint Thomas Aquinas knows that Dante would like him to explain the phrase “where all may fatten” (Musa 10.96 and Musa 11.25), and he, like the other souls in Paradise, is very willing to help Dante.

  • In Heaven, the various religious fraternities are not jealous of each other.

Thomas Aquinasis a Dominican monk, and yet he talks about the Franciscans in this canto. Here Saint Thomas praises Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscans. Saint Thomas will also criticize his own order, the Dominicans, on Earth.

Later, Saint Bonaventure, a Franciscan, will praise Saint Dominic.

Both the Franciscans and the Dominicans were founded as reform orders. Both Saint Francis and Saint Dominic want the Church to be strong.

In Heaven the various religious fraternities are not jealous of each other. They realize that they are on the same side.

In this canto, Saint Thomas explains the line “along the road / where all may fatten if they do not stray” (Musa 10.95-96). He talks about reform in the Church. By the way, this canto almost entirely consists of the words of Saint Thomas.

  • What did Saint Dominic and Saint Francis both try to do?

Thomas says,

“The Providence that governs all the world

with wisdom so profound none of His creatures

can ever hope to see into Its depths,

in order that the Bride of that sweet Groom

who crying loud espoused her with His blood,

might go to her Beloved made more secure

within herself, more faithful to her Spouse,

ordained two noble princes to assist her

on either side, each serving as a guide.”

(Musa 11.28-36)

When Saint Thomas refers to “the Bride of that sweet Groom” (Musa 11.31), he is referring to the Church.

The “two noble princes” (Musa 11.35) are Saint Dominic and Saint Francis, each of whom sought to reform the Church. The Church needed to be reformed, and these two saints in different but complementary ways, sought to reform it.

St. Thomas says,

“One will I speak of, for of both is spoken

In praising one, whichever may be taken,

Because unto one end their labours were.”

(Longfellow 11.40-42)

St. Thomas, a Dominican, is aware that both Saint Dominic and Saint Francis sought to reform the Church. Saint Thomas shows respect for Saint Francis by narrating his life. Later, Saint Bonaventure, a Franciscan, will show respect for Saint Dominic by narrating his life.

  • How were Saint Dominic and Saint Francis different?

Both Saint Dominic and Saint Francis were reformers, but there were differences among them.

Saint Dominic is from Spain, and Saint Francis is from France.

Saint Dominic’s focus is on the gifts of the mind, and Saint Francis’ focus is on the gifts of the heart.

Saint Thomas says,

“The one was all seraphical in ardour;

The other by his wisdom upon earth

A splendour was of light cherubical.”

(Longfellow 11.37-39)

The two saints are associated with different orders of angels. Saint Francis is associated with the Seraphim, whom Mark Musa identifies as “symbolic of the greatest love of God” (Musa 139). Saint Dominic is associated with the Cherubim, whom Mark Musa identifies as “these acknowledged as the wisest” (Musa 139).

A proper Church needs both wisdom and love.

  • Whose story does the Dominican Thomas Aquinas relate? The story of Saint Dominic, or the story of Saint Francis?

St. Thomas, who is a Dominican, chooses to tell the story of Saint Francis. This shows that in Paradise there is no jealousy between the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Both Dominicans and Franciscans know that they are on the same side.

Here are a few things to know about Saint Francis:

St. Francis of Assisi was generous to the poor. Once, he and a friend named Giles were out walking when they came across a beggar woman. Saint Francis had nothing to give her, as he was wearing a simple, much-worn habit with a bit of rope for a belt. Giles, however, was wearing a coat. Saint Francis told him, “Give it to her.” Giles handed the beggar woman the coat, and he became one of the first Franciscans.

Q: A crèche is a representation of the Christmas story. It shows Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus in a manger, some animals, and sometimes shepherds and the three wise men bearing gifts. Who created the first Christmas crèche?

A: In the year 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi created the first crèche in the grotto of Greccio in Italy.

That Saint Thomas tells us about Saint Francis shows something about wisdom. Don’t be afraid to learn from other sources and from traditions other than your own. Although Saint Thomas is a Dominican, he knows that there is wisdom to be learned from the story of Saint Francis. One of the things that we may do today is to learn from religions other than our own. We may want to investigate Zen Buddhism to see what we can learn from it. (Dante, if he were alive, may or may not agree.)

Wisdom can involve interrelationships. Saint Thomas tells the story of Saint Francis. Later, Saint Bonaventure, who is the head of another circle of souls, will tell the story of Saint Dominic. We see communication between circles here.

St. Thomas’ biography of Saint Francis is a long biography. Obviously, Church reform is important to Dante. Wisdom is about seeing things in the right relationship. The Sun and the Earth are in the right relationship to have seasons and to support life. The Franciscans and the Dominicans need to have the right relationship, which is to be on the same side and to work for the good of the Church. The Church needs to recognize the importance of both love and wisdom.

  • In what way does Francis of Assisi serve as a model for Dante?

When Dante spends a lot of time on a particular figure in The Divine Comedy, he has something to learn from that figure. We have seen that in the Infernoand in Purgatory, and it is still true in Paradise. We need to ask what Dante is able to learn from Saint Francis. In what way is Saint Francis a model for Dante?

What we know about Saint Francis is that he was a wandering saint. He had taken vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. He was a missionary who visited parts of the world devoted to Islam.

What can Dante learn from this? Saint Francis preached poverty and humility. Those are lessons that Dante needs to learn. Soon, Dante will be exiled from Florence, and he will have to make his way in the world. In addition, we know that Dante thinks that he will have to spend a lot of time on the ledge of the Mountain of Purgatory that is devoted to purging pride.

St. Francis turns out to be a very good model for Dante.

  • Why does Thomas Aquinas tell us so much about where Saint Francis comes from: Assisi?

St. Thomas starts by telling us where Saint Francis came from. He locates Assisi geographically.

Why is this important? It is important because where someone comes from is important in their biography. One of the most important facts about Dante is that he is from Florence. That remains important even after he is exiled from Florence. That is true for all of us. Where we grow up is important, whether it is in the American south, in New York City, in a Welsh mining town or in Assisi. Or for that matter, in Jesus’ case, in Bethlehem and around the Sea of Galilee.

All of us are born in a particular place at a particular time, and that is important. We may be concerned with universal truths, but where and when we are born are important.

  • Why does Thomas Aquinas tell Dante the story of Saint Francis being married to Lady Poverty?

When Saint Francis was still young, he decided to forego the pursuit of wealth and instead be poor. In figurative terms, he married Lady Poverty. Of course, Lady Poverty is not someone people normally chose to consort with:

“For he in youth his father’s wrath incurred

For certain Dame, to whom, as unto death,

The gate of pleasure no one doth unlock;

And was before his spiritual court

Et coram patreunto her united;

Then day by day more fervently he loved her.”

(Longfellow 11.58-63)

By the way, et coram patreis Latin for “in the presence of the father.”

When Saint Francis “took this lady as his lawful wife” (Musa 11.62), he does not take a physical woman as his wife. Instead, he takes Lady Poverty as his wife. The subject of Saint Francis marrying Lady Poverty appears in art. For examples, search “Saint Francis marrying poverty” in Google Images.

Lady Poverty is not very popular, even or perhaps especially in our age. Some people may believe that “Greed is good,” as the character Gordon Gekko does in the movie Wall Street, but this is something that Saint Francis totally rejects.

Nevertheless, Lady Poverty had another suitor, much earlier:

“She, reft of her first husband, scorned, obscure,

One thousand and one hundred years and more,

Waited without a suitor till he came.

Naught it availed to hear, that with Amyclas

Found her unmoved at sounding of his voice

He who struck terror into all the world;

Naught it availed being constant and undaunted,

So that, when Mary still remained below,

She mounted up with Christ upon the cross.”

(Longfellow 11.64-72)

Few people have wanted to be with Lady Poverty since her “first spouse” (Musa 11.64) — that is, Jesus.

One person who did not avoid Lady Poverty was Amyclas, a poor fisherman who was not afraid of Julius Caesar when he appeared before him, wanting to be ferried across the Adriatic Sea. Apparently, when you have no possessions, you do not worry about losing them.

St. Francis and Dante are not alike in some ways:

  1. Dante is not a saint.
  2. Saint Francis chooses poverty willingly; Dante does not. Dante is exiled from Florence, and then his poverty begins.
  3. Dante does not literally beg for his food, although it is fair to say that he has to learn humility.

One thing that Dante has to do is to choose his reaction to what happens to him. One possible reaction is commit suicide. That kind of reaction, of course, gets a person membership forever in the Inferno; we remember Pier delle Vigne. Another kind of reaction is to embrace your fate. Saint Francis embraced poverty. Dante can chose to do his best in the face of poverty and exile. His best, of course, is The Divine Comedy, which has lasted 700 years and is likely to last at least another 700 years.

  • What kind of marriage do Saint Francis and Lady Poverty have?

The marriage of Saint Francis and Lady Poverty turns out to be fruitful. Soon Saint Francis has followers: Bernard, Giles, and Sylvester:

“So much so that the venerable Bernard

First bared his feet, and after so great peace

Ran, and, in running, thought himself too slow.

O wealth unknown! O veritable good!

Giles bares his feet, and bares his feet Sylvester

Behind the bridegroom, so doth please the bride!

Then goes his way that father and that master,

He and his Lady and that family

Which now was girding on the humble cord;”

(Longfellow 11.79-87)

In the Inferno, Brunetto Latini was unfruitful. He did speak of Dante as his son, but Brunetto Latini’s doing so was a way for him to be remembered. If Dante becomes famous, then Brunetto Latini will be famous because he was a teacher and a mentor for Dante. A more fruitful family is one in which all do good work. Brunetto Latini wrote for fame, and his writings have perished except for scholars researching Dante. Saint Francis’ family is still doing good work. The Franciscans do many good deeds throughout the world.

  • Why does Thomas Aquinas mention to Dante the story of Saint Francis preaching to the Sultan?

Also important, of course, are the highlights of our lives. We must be alert to the highlights of Saint Francis’ life that Saint Thomas brings up. These are highlights that Dante will be able to learn from.

St. Thomas tells us that Saint Francis went East during a time of crusade, and he preached to the Sultan. Actually, Saint Francis was hoping to be martyred, but he was a good guy, and the Sultan whom Saint Francis preached to did not want to martyr him.

St. Thomas says,

“And when he had, through thirst of martyrdom,

In the proud presence of the Sultan preached

Christ and the others who came after him,”

(Longfellow 11.100-102)

St. Francis once said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” (Source: Geneva M. Butz, Christmas in All Seasons, p. ix.)

St. Francis is a kind of crusader. He does not fight with a sword, however, but instead he educates with words.

One of Dante’s ancestors was a warrior in the Crusades. Dante will meet this ancestor later, and the ancestor will tell Dante what his mission in life will be: to write The Dante Comedy. Of course, this epic poem will also use words to educate people in a kind of Crusade. Neither Saint Francis nor Dante use swords in their Crusade.

  • What is the stigmata that Saint Francis received?

St. Thomas also tells the story of how Saint Francis receives the stigmata. The stigmata are the wounds of Christ. These unexplained markings are on the hands and feet and on the side of the person receiving them. In Saint Francis’ case, they are regarded as a miracle.

St. Thomas mentions the stigmata after he says that Saint Francis returned from preaching to the Sultan:

“And when he had, through thirst of martyrdom,

In the proud presence of the Sultan preached

Christ and the others who came after him,

And, finding for conversion too unripe

The folk, and not to tarry there in vain,

Returned to fruit of the Italic grass,

On the rude rock ’twixt Tiber and the Arno

From Christ did he receive the final seal,

Which during two whole years his members bore.”

(Longfellow 11.100-108)

Most people who bear the stigmata are women; very few males ever receive the stigmata.

The phrase “this final seal” (Musa 11.108) is interesting. It refers to the stigmata. A seal, of course, is used to seal envelopes. Hot wax is dropped across the folded part of the envelope and then a seal of some kind is pressed into the wax. Here are a few important points that Dante scholars William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman make:

  1. The seal indicates that this is the genuine article. The letter has not been forged. Also, Saint Francis’ Christianity has not been faked.
  2. The letter is in a finished state. No more writing needs to be done in the letter. Similarly, Saint Francis has achieved Paradise. In addition, we can say that he has come as close to perfection as a human being who is not also divine can.
  3. The letter has been approved. If it were not approved, the seal would not be applied to it. Similarly, Saint Francis’ life has been approved — by God.
  4. The letter is officially sealed. We can say that Saint Francis is officially sealed. We may also want to consider him a fully completed work of art. In Cantos 10 and 11 of Purgatory, the souls of the proud were bent over like the works of art known as corbels. They were being formed into works of art. Now, near the end of his life, Saint Francis is a fully completed work of art.

St. Francis’ stigmatization occurs “on bare rock between Arno and Tiber” (Musa 11.106). The Tiber flows to Rome and the Pope. The Arno flows to Dante’s hometown, Florence.

When Saint Francis died, he commended Lady Poverty to the care of his followers.

“Stinking Alley,” a slum, was the location of the first Franciscan foundation in London.

Only two years after he died, St. Francis was canonized.

By the way, Saint Thomas’ main source for the life of Saint Francis is a biography written by Saint Bonaventura, who will be speaking soon in the Paradise.

  • How does Saint Thomas Aquinas criticize the Dominicans (his own religious order)?

St. Thomas has been praising Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscans. Now he criticizes his own order: the Dominicans. Saint Dominic himself was a good man, but many of his followers are now going astray:

“But his own flock is growing greedy now

for richer food, and in their hungry search

they stray to alien pastures carelessly;

the farther off his sheep go wandering

from him in all directions, the less milk

they bring back when they come back to the fold.

True, there are some who, fearing loss, will keep

close to their shepherd, but so few are these

it would not take much cloth to make their cowls.”

(Musa 11.124-132)

  • Saint Thomas Aquinas’ style of writing was difficult to read. Note that Dante parodies that style at the end of this canto.

Dante parodies Saint Thomas Aquinas’ complex style of writing at the end of this canto:

“Now if my utterance be not indistinct,

If thine own hearing hath attentive been,

If thou recall to mind what I have said,

In part contented shall thy wishes be;

For thou shalt see the plant that’s chipped away,

And the rebuke that lieth in the words,

‘Where well one fattens, if he strayeth not.’”

(Longfellow 11.133-139)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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