Dante’s Paradise: Canto 11 Retelling — Sun — Saint Thomas Aquinas Praises Saint Francis of Assisi

Chapter 11: Sun — Saint Thomas Aquinas Praises Saint Francis of Assisi

Dante the Poet thought, People pursue many activities in such a way that keeps them rooted to the Earth rather than helping them to rise to Paradise. Some people seek to rise to material gain in law. Some people seek to rise to material gain in medicine. Some people seek to benefit by acquiring religious sinecures. Some people seek to rise to political power by using force or fraud. Some people plan thefts. Some people seek to rise to material gain by planning affairs of state. Some people seek the pleasures of the flesh. Some people are lazy.

But I did not worry about such things because I was magnificently welcomed to Paradise with Beatrice.

The saved souls were dancing, and when each soul had returned to the place it had been before the dance started, they stopped dancing and stood still like candles in a circular chandelier.

Thomas Aquinas said to Dante, “I reflect the rays of God, and I look into God’s mind and I see your thoughts. I see that you are perplexed by some of the things I said. You want me to speak plainly and clearly and explain the things that perplex you.

“Two things perplex you. One, I said, ‘Saint Dominic led me and many others along a path where all may be fed if they do not stray from the path.’ And two, I said, ‘A second person has never arisen with as much wisdom as Solomon had.’ I must speak more clearly.

“The wisdom of Providence is so great that living human beings cannot understand it. But be aware that Providence wants the Church, aka the Bride of Christ, to be able to go to her Bridegroom, aka Christ, with her faithfulness and goodness intact, and so Providence sent two princes to reform her and make her well again.

“One reformer on Earth was like one of the Seraphim, the highest order of Angels, who are symbolic of the highest love for God. This reformer stressed repentance of one’s sins to make oneself closer to God.

“The other reformer on Earth was like one of the Cherubim, the second highest order of Angels, who are symbolic of the highest kind of wisdom. This reformer stressed getting doctrine right.

“The Church needed — and needs — to be reformed, and these two saints in different but complementary ways, sought to reform it. Saint Francis stressed repentance of one’s sins to make oneself closer to God. Saint Dominic stressed getting doctrine right. Praise of one of the reformers is also praise for the other reformer because both reformers had the same goal in mind: Reform the Church to make it stronger.

“I myself will speak of only one reformer.”

Dante the Pilgrim thought, The two great reformers of the 13th century were Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic. 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. A proper Church needs both wisdom and love. Thomas Aquinas is a Dominican monk, so I expect him to talk about Saint Dominic.

Thomas Aquinas continued, “In Assisi was born a reformer. The name Assisi can be interpreted as ‘A man has arisen,’ but a more accurate name would be Orient, or ‘A Sun has arisen.’”

Dante the Pilgrim thought, I was wrong. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican monk, is going to speak about Saint Francis of Assisi. He has said enough that I know that he will praise Saint Francis. Saint Francis was a wandering saint. He took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. He was a missionary who visited parts of the world devoted to Islam. Thomas Aquinas is not against the Franciscans. He knows that the two orders of monks are on the same side. Down on Earth, I have seen these two orders of monks engage in a destructive kind of competition. That Saint Thomas is going to tell me 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 studying the story of Saint Francis can lead to wisdom. In Paradise there is no jealousy between the Dominicans and the Franciscans because they know that they are on the same side.

Thomas Aquinas continued, “This reformer, even as a youth, showed holiness. He even made his father angry, preferring doing that to leaving something undone for God.

“This reformer loved a certain lady, whom other people preferred to flee from as if she were death.

“This reformer even appeared in court, with his father present, to marry this lady. This reformer loved this lady more and more each day.

“This lady had been married before, and she remained unmarried for over 11 centuries before she married a second time. No one loved her for over 1100 years. She had been alone all that time.

“She had been alone although it was due to her that Amyclas, lying on a bed of seaweed, was able to be unfrightened when Julius Caesar, whose word could terrify the world, demanded to be ferried across the Adriatic Sea. Amyclas had no possessions, and therefore he did not worry about losing them.

“She had been alone although it was her who climbed up the Cross to be with Jesus while Mary remained at the foot of the Cross.

“No doubt you know of whom I am speaking. I am speaking of Saint Francis, who married Lady Poverty, whose first Bridegroom was Jesus Himself.”

Dante thought, 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 choose to consort with. Saint Francis always wanted to do the right thing. In 1207, when Francis was 25 years old, he sold some possessions of his father — a horse and a loaf of bread — and he gave the money to a church. This enraged his father, who made Francis appear before the Bishop of Assisi. His father asked Francis to agree to forfeit his right of inheritance, and Francis gladly agreed, thus marrying Lady Poverty.

Poverty is not necessarily a good thing. Christians and everyone else should work to relieve poverty. It is much better that all people have food, shelter, and clothing than that some people be so poor that they have to do without. If poverty has any advantage, it is that a poor person is more likely to lack pride and more likely to turn to God than a rich person is.

But voluntary poverty can be a very good thing indeed. Saint Francis chose voluntary poverty. He renounced trying to gather as much material wealth as he could so that he could do the work that God wanted him to do.

Thomas Aquinas continued, “The marriage of Saint Francis and Lady Poverty was fruitful. Soon other people became followers of Saint Francis. Saint Francis and Lady Poverty loved each other, and their love inspired other people. One such follower was Saint Bernard. He cast his shoes off and ran to follow Saint Francis, and even though he ran he thought he was slow. Giles and Sylvester also followed Saint Francis.”

Dante thought, Saint Francis and 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.

Thomas Aquinas continued, “Saint Francis had a family. He was married to Lady Poverty, and his followers were part of his family.”

Beatrice thought, 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, and he will, then Brunetto Latini will be famous because he was a teacher or a mentor for Dante. A more fruitful family is one in which all do good work. Brunetto Latini wrote for fame, and his writings will perish except for scholars researching Dante. Saint Francis’ family is still doing good work. The Franciscans still do many good deeds throughout the world, and 700 years from now they will continue to do many good deeds throughout the world.

Thomas Aquinas continued, “Saint Francis and his family wore a humble cord for a belt. He was not ashamed that his father was Bernardine, a merchant. He appeared before Pope Innocent III, who provisionally approved the order of Saint Francis. His followers grew, and in 1123, Pope Honorarius III officially approved the order of Saint Francis.

“Then Saint Francis went to Egypt to speak before the Sultan and try to convert him. Saint Francis was hoping to be martyred.”

Dante thought, Yes, Saint Francis wanted to be martyred, but he was so likable that the Sultan treated him well.

Thomas Aquinas continued, “Saint Francis failed to convert the Sultan, and therefore he returned to Italy. During the two years before his death, he bore the wounds of Christ. This was his final seal.”

Dante thought, Saint Francis received 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. The stigmata are Saint Francis’ final seal. 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. The seal indicates that this is a genuine letter, not a fake. Saint Francis was genuine, not a fake. The seal indicates that the letter is finished and approved. Saint Francis’ life was finished and approved: He came as close to perfection as a living human being can, and he entered Paradise. Near the end of his life, Saint Francis was a fully completed work of art.

Thomas Aquinas continued, “When Francis died, he called on his followers to love Lady Poverty. When Francis died, he loved Lady Poverty.

“What other kind of person should be a reformer like Saint Francis? Who can help the Church to keep a straight course in dangerous waters? Such a person was Saint Dominic, the leader of the order of monks to which I belong. A true follower of Saint Dominic will see riches in the hold of the ship.

“But the followers of Saint Dominic have grown greedy. They stray from the true path to untrue pastures. The farther Dominican monks get away from Saint Dominic, the less milk they bring back.

“Some Dominican monks stay close to Saint Dominic, but they are few. To make cowls for each of them would take little cloth.

“I have tried to speak plainly and to make clear to you the meaning of ‘a path where all may be fed if they do not stray from the path.’ I hope that you have understood me.”

Beatrice thought, You are supposed to learn from this, Dante. Like Saint Francis, you will be poor. You will also be in exile. One thing that you have to do is to choose your reaction to what happens to you. One kind of reaction is to commit suicide. That kind of reaction, of course, will get you a place in the Inferno forever: Remember Pier delle Vigne. Another kind of reaction is to embrace your fate. Saint Francis embraced poverty. Dante, you can chose to do your best in the face of poverty and exile.

You also need to learn that 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.

Scholarship and wisdom are two different things, although learned scholars can be wise. Thomas Aquinas is a very learned soul here. However, Saint Francis was not known for scholarship. Nevertheless, both Thomas Aquinas and Saint Francis were and are wise. Wisdom is a broader concept than many people assume.

Let’s think about the way that we accumulate knowledge. One of Humankind’s greatest inventions has been writing because we can now write down what we learn. A person can study and acquire wisdom, but when that person dies, those insights can be lost unless that person has written down his or her thoughts. When a person writes a book that appears in a library, that person is making his or her insights available communally — someone else can read that book and learn those insights.

In addition, the other people who read that book can build on its insights. They can publish their own books that contain their own insights. These insights can build up over the years. For one thing, we don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel generation after generation. The wheel has already been invented. New generations can figure out better ways of using the wheel.

Books have a major advantage over the oral transmission of information. In Africa, storytellers, who were called griots, passed along information orally. It was said that when a griot died, a library died. It would be much better if the griots wrote down what they know. That way, a library will not die when a griot dies.

When a person can write a good book and does not write that book, it is as if a child has died.

Still, wisdom does not mean book-learning, although book-learning is important. A person such as Saint Francis is known for his love, and love can be a kind of wisdom. Love can be a way of knowing what is important.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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