Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

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Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

Botticelli's Dante and Beatrice

Botticelli’s Dante and Beatrice

I’ve been so close for so long to finally finishing John Sinclair’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (it’s only taken me thirty years to get this far) that I thought to aim to finish at the end of 2014 might be an incentive. So I’ve been reading a couple of Cantos a day to try and get it done. I’d read Dorothy L Sayers’ translation in my twenties and loved it, then started on this version, in the (forlorn) hope that I’d learn Italian at the same time, as Sinclair’s translation lies next to the original text. I whizzed through the Inferno, then went a bit more slowly through the Purgatorio, and then ground to a halt on the Paradiso around 1992. No doubt life on this earth took over. I can remember going to a display of Botticelli’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy at, I think, the Royal Academy in the late 90s. The first room was full of luridly coloured drawings of Hell and its inhabitants and the room itself was hot and heaving with people. There were about half the number of people in the next room, devoted to the drawings of Purgatory. These illustrations were less highly coloured and more unfinished than those in the previous room. We then battled our way to the room devoted to Paradise to find that it was cool and serene with hardly anyone there – a very useful sermon or blog illustration in itself.

That of course was not Dante’s experience. In his story there were continual challenges to his vocabulary to describe just how many saved souls and angels he was seeing at the final stage, how many living examples of those kept alive by God’s grace – if he had known the word “gazzillions” he would probably have used it, since he was so fond of the vernacular. He is also finding it hard to describe the increasing beauty and holiness of the sights and sounds and is frequently blinded by the light as he gets closer to God. For many years I had a poster from the exhibition above my desks at home and at work – of Botticelli’s drawing of Dante next to Beatrice in mid-air, surrounded by the flames of the apostles and saints, with God just out of sight at the top of the picture. Dante has his hand up to his eyes as if he can’t take any more, even though Beatrice, his love, is pointing higher. Dante, even now, needs healing and his eyes strengthening if he is to see more.

Today I was as far as Canto XXX of the XXXIII. And it’s happened again! Dante again is overwhelmed by what he’s seeing: “Like sudden lightening that scatters the visual spirits and deprives the eye of the action of the clearest objects, a vivid light shone round about me and left me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence that nothing was visible to me.” [1]. Dante is using the language of St Paul’s experience of the divine light on the road to Damascus that left him blinded for 3 days [2]. But for Dante help is virtually instant: “…I was conscious of rising beyond my own powers, and such new vision was kindled in me that there is no light so bright my eyes would not have borne it. And I saw light in the form of a river pouring in its splendour between two banks…”

He sees angels like “living sparks” and the saved souls as jewel-like flowers set in gold that kept plunging into the water, as if drunk with wonderful smells, and laughing. Dante is instructed to drink of this water too so that he can see what’s actually going on, and when he does he no longer sees mere sparks and flowers but these changed into “a greater festival, so that I saw both the courts of heaven made plain.” [3].

This whole process of needing to be acclimatized before one can receive the beatific vision reminded me of the end of C S Lewis’ children’s novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is probably what Lewis intended. How great, to sneak Dante into a kid’s book! As Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, King Caspian, Reepicheep and the others are at the final point of sailing to the end of the known Narnian world, they too need to drink the now sweet water in order to be acclimatized to the staggeringly intense light that is the prelude to meeting with Aslan at the edge of the world and the beginning of Aslan’s own country. They too are about to see their hearts’ desire and need to be made strong enough to bear it.

Reepicheep is the first to hurl himself overboard and drink the water, which he says is like “drinkable light”:

“And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were silent. They felt almost too well and too strong to bear it…” [4].

They now notice that they are reacting differently to the light which had been getting stronger around them everyday since Ramandu’s Island. “Now, the light grew no less – if anything, it increased – but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before…” [5]. The sweet water of “that last sea” makes the older ones on the voyage feel younger and fills everyone with joy and excitement and… stillness. It even enables them to see past the sun, beyond the End of the World and into Aslan’s Country – sights and smells and sounds that would break your heart with longing [6]. We know this because of one of the most extraordinary things in the whole of the Narnia Chronicles, that is, that Lucy herself spoke to C S Lewis and told him about it! He must have been curious, we assume, at her saying this most wonderful sight could break your heart. “ “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.”[7] But she does not elaborate further, and neither does Lewis, with the obvious implication that the experience is beyond words and we are in the realm of the apophatic. We are often treated to Lewis speaking to us as the author in his children’s stories but this is the only place where he tells us one of the characters has spoken to him and he is giving us their first-hand account, as if Lucy is a real person. It is as if Lucy (whose name means ‘light’) is Lewis’ Beatrice, telling him the glories of the heaven that he has not yet seen, the communicator of the ultimate sehnsucht.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to be reminded of Lewis by this Canto of Dante. John Sinclair back in 1939, before the Narnia Chronicles were written, wrote in the commentary on his translation of Canto XXX:

“From such vision springs the love of true good, and from such love joy surpassing every sweetness. (The suggestion of Mr. C. S. Lewis, made in another connection, is relevant here: ‘The joys of heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste.’)” [8].

Once Dante’s sight is strengthened, everything changes from mere “shadowy forecasts” to “their truth”. And Sinclair quotes Aquinas to support this, that “grace and glory are the same in kind, since grace is nothing but a certain beginning of glory in us.” Wow!! That God’s grace working in us now is the same ‘thing’ as his glory revealed to and in us later – what an amazing thought! And Sinclair adds that this section is Dante’s version of what is referred to in the 36th Psalm: ‘Thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light we shall see light.”

What a great end to Dante’s great work – and my own year – anticipating the soul’s final enlightenment. And huge thanks too to Lewis for writing about this in a form children can understand – who, like me, might take another thirty or more years to get round to Dante – his characters literally acquiring the taste for heaven.

Come to think of it, my eyes have been very sore recently and sensitive to light. Mmm, now where is that sweet water…?


[1] John Sinclair (trans.), The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, with translation and Commentary by John D Sinclair, III, Paradiso, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1939/1961, Canto XXX, lines 46-51.

[2] Acts 9:9.

[3] ibid., lines 94-96.

[4] C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, HarperCollins, London, 2002 edn, p174.

[5] ibid., p175.

[6] ibid., p185.

[7] ibid.

[8] Sinclair, ibid., p442. This is a quote from Lewis’ 1940 book The Problem of Pain, so presumably Sinclair added this quote in the later edition of his translation.

Nutrition for a New Year

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Nutrition for a New Year

Living Food

Living Food

So many friends and their loved ones seem to have been affected by cancer and other serious illnesses recently.  On the news yesterday it said that there are more people in the UK with cancer than ever before.  And yet our knowledge of the condition and its treatment, and what we need to do for a healthier lifestyle, is also greater than ever before.  I believe in spiritual healing through prayer, but I have also taken an interest in what people have written about their recoveries from cancer through good nutrition and positive psychological attitudes.  This reminded me of something I wrote to a friend a few years ago who had cancer (I’m glad to say she recovered) that was, I hope, a helpful summary of the best books from the most experienced people in this field.  I’ve sent it to quite a few people since.  Do feel free to make use of it for your friends and loved ones.  And yourself!  The New Year seems a good time to be thinking of healthier living and, after all, the old truism is still true: ‘Prevention is better than cure’.

I’ll let the letter speak for itself:

“My dear friend,

Thank you so much for your email, it’s lovely to hear from you.  Thank you for sparing the time. Of course you are constantly in my thoughts and prayers. I am more than willing to help on the nutrition front, although I always feel rather a hypocrite – it’s often more a case of ‘Do as I say, rather than as I do’!

The first book to start off with is probably Leslie Kenton (who wrote for the top women’s mags on nutrition, beauty, etc). Her main book is Raw Energy – it has a lot of the scientific evidence for a ‘living foods’ diet, presented in a very accessible, readable way, as well as her own recommendations for detoxing and meal plans at the end. On the whole, all the raw/living food books say pretty much the same thing. You get the impression that lots of people have discovered that we were meant to live in the Garden of Eden and just pluck the fruit off the trees and pull veggies out the ground. Animals that eat raw food all the time in the wild don’t get the so-called ‘diseases of civilisation’, but as soon as we domesticate animals and give them highly processed cooked food, lo and behold, they start to get arthritis, cancer, heart disease, and so on, just like us. Anyway, there’s tons of scientific evidence right back to the 19th century, but particularly from the 1930s onwards, to support living foods. The medical establishment, on the whole, has been very slow to recognise it, and has even been aggressively against it (perhaps cos it would do them out of a job??!!).

Most of the therapeutic approaches with raw food and juices go back to Dr Max Gerson, a German researcher who had to escape the Nazis in the 30s and went to America. Ironically, he was just about to present his findings to a big conference that could have made his name just as he had to flee for his life. He had had migraines for years – he experimented by giving up smoked and processed food and eating as much fresh and raw as possible, and his headaches disappeared. He then found the same diet worked with lupus and skin TB, and then arthritis, cancer, heart disease, and MS – basically the idea is to detox the body, massively strengthen the immune system, and the body heals itself. We are meant to be a self-healing system.

Two fantastic ‘testimonies’ from women who have used the Gerson therapy and healed themselves of cancer are Beata Bishop (Time to Heal) and Brenda Bohan (The Choice). Beata Bishop in the 1980s was only ‘given’ 6 months to live because of lymphoma but is still thriving 30 years later – on the Gerson therapy her body built a calcium wall an inch thick around her cancers so they couldn’t spread and she had them harmlessly removed years later. This happens to a lot of people on the Gerson therapy. What is more difficult is when people have had radio- or chemotherapy which can damage the immune system first and means it’s much harder work for the body to recover. Some people do both chemo and living foods at the same time, of course.  There are several websites on the Gerson therapy, easy to find.

The main idea behind living food is that heating food to over 125 degrees Fahrenheit destroys its living enzymes and nutrients. ‘You are what you eat’ – so eating ‘dead’ food doesn’t make sense! We only have a certain number of enzymes that we’re born with with which to digest food and make it useful for the body – like having money in a bank account. The more dead food we eat, the more of our own enzymes (which in a sense give us life) we have to use up, depleting our health. But food that has its own live enzymes contributes to ours instead of depleting them, literally leaving us more ‘alive’ (see Raw Enzyme Nutrition by Howells). Changing from cooked to raw takes a few weeks, usually replacing a few cooked items at a time with their raw equivalents. When you’re strong enough then regular fasting on juices can come in to play. Centrifugal juicers (the cheaper ones!) tend to destroy enzymes and nutrients because of the heat generated – the best juicers are more expensive and are ‘masticating’, ie. imitate how humans take in food. The best are the Champion (about £350) or Green Power. I also have a dehydrator, that is a simple way of making biscuits, pastry, etc, that doesn’t heat above 125 degrees, meaning things are still live. And you can tell!

The latest thing is Green Smoothies – where you have a smoothie made of green leaves and fruit – seems to have astonishing healing effects and is easy to digest and is delicious, and is raw of course – see anything by Victoria Boutenko. There are other books too and all have pages of wonderful testimonies at the back of people who have recovered from cancer, diabetes, etc, on green smoothies every day. There are cheap smoothie makers which are fine – the best one though is by Vita-Mix and is about £400 but can cope with green stalks better. I would say green smoothies are the easiest way to start as they have immediate good effects and are easy to prepare.

Sorry to go on at such length – the last book for now is more on the psychological/personality side of disease and is superb. Bernie Siegel: Love, Medicine and Miracles – he was a surgeon at Yale Univ Hospital, Jewish background, found that certain ‘types’ of people with the same sort of attitudes tended to recover from cancer and others didn’t. He has had many years’ experience, and is great on the psychosomatic side of how unexpressed anger, grief, etc, has a part in making us ill.

I could have phoned, but I thought it would be handier for you to have the details written down (sorry it’s so long!). Do tell me if you’re up to talking on the phone, otherwise I will leave you in peace. Whatever you need to do, that’s fine. If you want a ‘buddy’ to help you with this side of things I am willing, as I think I need encouragement to do it too! When I have juiced and eaten a lot of raw stuff I’ve felt fantastic. Hmmmm, why don’t I do it all the time… must be human nature…

Lots of love and prayers,  Jeanette.”