I am sure we have all encountered someone who is convinced that omens speak in secret by sending messages through numbers [22:22 on a digital clock is an apparent premonition] or that the day one is born has some celestial significance that it can predict future events. There are those who associate human qualities to animals – their cat represents a woman – or even worse that there is some prophetic significance when a crow squawks and other forms of eclectic gobbledegook that these illusory concepts and highly imaginative impressions verify the depth of the human capacity to be self-deceptive. Read More
It is incredibly difficult finding forgiveness that sometimes even the suggestion can be so unsettling it can arouse hate or anger and indeed those emotions can empower a victim, making it far easier to cope with the pain. When one is hurt, the value of their identity and humanity is taken away from them by the perpetrator and it becomes very difficult for the victim to find themselves present as though trapped in that terrible moment. This violence tells a person that their life, meaning, who they are, their identity and place in the world is worthless and so feelings of emptiness can haunt the victim and the longer they remain in that abyss, the more the abyss becomes their new identity (qua Nietzsche) that every thought and decision becomes consumed by it. To forgive would leave that person in a very strange place. It requires an absence of pride, selflessness and understanding during a peculiar time when one has no obligation to do so and it undermines all the time lost and the pain felt that it can feel like an additional blow. Forgiveness can make you feel small, vulnerable and lost.
An apology can usually initiate a move out of that haunted abyss of the past and toward the present as it acknowledges and re-affirms by the very person who took it away that you are in fact valuable, that the time lost and the hurt felt was mistake and you indeed have worth. It is a joint, re-conciliatory effort to make the bad experience past-tense and work together towards the present. However, apologies and repentance is not a common occurrence and surprisingly it is for the very same reason that the victim has difficulty forgiving; to feel guilt is to admit that one is morally mischievous and our identity is mostly developed on conditioned behaviour that is socially acceptable. A mother teaches a child that some things are acceptable and rewarded while others are unacceptable and therefore punishable, teaching young children to navigate through this network of automaton responses most of their life. It becomes their identity, where value is socially constructed.
This interaction can sometimes become displaced, even pathological as one can see through paternalistic cultures that congratulate the bad behaviour of men as a signal of masculinity, these very men who require feelings of reward and so attach themselves to women who comfort their ego, women who in turn believe that this attachment is a signal of love and so encourage them in this odd cycle of falsely created value. It is also why people can become rather ferocious when you point out an error in their character, anxiously attempting to discredit you and gather as many other people to agree with them in order to avoid entertaining the possibility that something may actually be wrong with them.
The Book of Jonah epitomizes these various emotional layers both at a deeper, spiritual level but also at a political and social level where people ignore the very laws of their own religions that they practice knowing that it places them in a position to show mercy and forgiveness even to their enemies. As a prophetical canon it is incredibly unusual since – unlike other minor prophetic books in the Old Testament – there are no actual predictions, on the contrary the central moral concern is the prophet himself who symbolises a dilemma we each experience within a fable that teaches us a little about ourselves.
Divided into four chapters, the story begins when God commands Jonah to Nineveh to prophesy their demise should they not abandon their wicked ways, for which Jonah himself decidedly ignores and intentionally runs away into the direction of Joppa before riding a boat towards Tarshish. God then sends a powerful storm that even the heathen mariners are convinced of the Hebrew God and after throwing Jonah into the sea on his request, he is swallowed by a large fish. There he remained for three days and three nights (together with the number seven and forty, three is regularly used in biblical literature) where he repented and promised that he will do as requested. The fish vomited him back to dry land to begin the journey back to Nineveh.
There, humorously, Jonah only says a few words of prophesy that the city will fall: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” It appears almost as though he is indifferent to the society, or perhaps even unwilling to really tell them anything in the hope that the prophesy would be fulfilled. To his utter dismay, the King of Nineveh, his nobles and even the livestock repent in sackcloth and ashes and so God shows the city and the inhabitants mercy. This frustrates Jonah who perhaps believes this mercy to be unqualified and perhaps even a form of injustice that he instead prefers to die then to witness this act of forgiveness. Indeed, when Jonah attempted to escape the word of God for Tarshish, he made it clear later in the story that the reason for this was because he was aware that God was merciful and he felt uncomfortable by it.
“And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.”
Despite repentance of the Assyrians who were at the time of Jonah the most vicious and cruel empire and notorious for extreme forms of violence, Jonah was frustrated that God did not punish them and instead chose to forgive. His brief proclamation that he preached was perhaps intentional because while he uttered the Word of God, underlying it remained a hostility and a desire for punishment since he felt that the Assyrians deserved it, that it would be just and moral. With a bitterness, he sat outside the gates of Nineveh wishing to die and using a plant to shade him for one day, he is taught one final lesson by using a worm to destroy the plant, a lesson or punishment to teach him compassion. The complex ending attempts to explain that a city as large and as violent as Nineveh has nevertheless within those walls many innocent people who will suffer, but by this act of forgiveness are now comforted by the change in the King and his nobles following such repentance. It is to see the bigger picture outside of his own personal affliction, his own desires for revenge.
I love this story!
Jonah erred mostly because what he wanted was revenge and not justice by holding onto a past resentment. He believed that the people of Nineveh deserved to be punished and repentance cannot change what has been done. Indeed, ignorant people who are told that they are wrong tend to puff up their ego and immediately charge and attack and so one often desires that such people are punished to deflate this ego, to bring them back down to earth and humble themselves. Hence why when the King did repent he fell down onto the ground in sackcloth and dirt as guilt would make one look down in silence and shame. Is that not what we want? So the moment that they repent, the moment that they express guilt is the moment that we are required to let go of the past and to reconcile toward a better future – to forgive – and sometimes we fail to believe in this repentance or that we do not really trust it. We remain caught in the past abyss.
Jonah is still caught in the past and his value remains determined by this past, on the unsettling feelings of hatred or anger that keeps him motivated. When God forgives, Jonah is caught in a strange and depressing position where he no longer has his old identity neither does he have the hatred or anger that motivated a desire for punishment since he is required to forgive that left him feeling empty and so wanted to die. He could not understand beyond his own selfish emotions the broader possibilities that the repentance offered.
It raises the question that when one has been wronged, can we find the possibility to transcend beyond our desire to see punishment and whether we can trust and accept remorse in the hope that it may change and improve? Can we forgive our enemies and show them mercy despite being hurt by them? While Jonah was a prophet selected by God, his responses are indicative to a very human reality. He attempted to escape from his responsibilities through sheer self-deceit and fear, who felt anger towards God and though displaying some kind of submission to His word nevertheless secretly hoped that the injustice by the inhabitants of Nineveh would be exacted.
Taking the Book of Jonah as an example of the human in all of us, repentance at individual or personal level is an expression that returns and acknowledges our value and so when one does not repent or apologise, we are left with a choice. Either we stay in that past abyss where anger and hatred remains perpetual and so our identity becomes that, or do we learn to move on or let go of that abyss and start re-creating our own value? ‘Moving on’ – which is to say moving away from the past toward the present – is not forgetting the experience (i.e. “just move on!”) as that only undermines the harm experienced, but rather finding that value for yourself without relying on others to tell you that you are valuable. This empowerment is authentic and transcends beyond your own individual pain towards something bigger than you and your emotions – like the case of those inhabitants in Nineveh who are actually innocent and undeserving of any harm – and so one should direct their attention toward those innocent, toward righteousness and justice rather than remain trapped in the abyss of anger, revenge and hostility.
If one finds forgiveness, it confirms that they have found their own identity, their own independence, their own value.
A greatest flaw in human thought, in my opinion, is making ourselves an exception to the moral obligation we have to be kind and compassionate, that we think we need to treat others with kindness, respect and affection erstwhile set very little value in ourselves. It is true that ‘self-love’ has become a buzzword that is actually indicative of narcissism and vanity, synonymous with immorality and an expression of pride and arrogance, as said by Erich Fromm:
“Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable. In pursuit of this aim they follow several paths. One, which is especially used by men, is to be successful, to be as powerful and rich as the social margin of one’s position permits. Another, used especially by women, is to make oneself attractive, by cultivating one’s body, dress, etc. Many of the ways to make oneself lovable are the same as those used to make oneself successful, to ‘win friends and influence people’. As a matter of fact, what most people in our culture mean by being lovable is essentially a mixture between being popular and having sex appeal.”
Fromm rightly differentiates between self-love and selfishness, or the difference between knowing how to give love with wanting to be loved and so shows that to authentically love yourself is to be capable of self-reflection and genuine honesty, someone capable of experiencing the present. Desire and lust, anger and hatred, playing games and self deceit, these are merely obstacles that tempt us to escape from our responsibility and why it more or less often leads to hedonism or a crippling depression that borders the pathological. People who care about their physical appearances, who physically hurt themselves with facial or bodily alterations in order to be accepted or be a part of a group do not respect themselves, people who over or under eat, who smoke, drink and take drugs is an expression of wanting to be loved and who they show love to is often aligned intentionally with this narcissistic mode of being or around people who only encourage them in this odd cycle of falsely created value. There is no real substance or honesty.
Forgiveness is therefore an act of real love, it is one who has found their own value, who is capable of respecting themselves and of honest self-reflection that they are capable of giving love (hence why it is called for- give -ness). It is indicative of one who is capable of self-love. The process is not easy, on the contrary the reason why the Book of Jonah ends without an actual result and does not define forgiveness is because the experience is uniquely individual. It is an expression that can only be understood by personal reflection.
When value is given to you by society and by the people closest to you, it can be taken away. Forgiveness is confirmation that you have found your own identity and it becomes concrete, fixed in present reality rather than caught in the determined landscape of the past. It is to accept that the past cannot be changed, that it may very well be that those who have wronged you will continue to do wrong and your place is now to help educate why it is wrong – like how Jonah should be thinking about the innocent inhabitants of Nineveh – and work hard to prevent that behaviour from being tolerated. It is to fight the good fight.
I have only just found forgiveness through the Book of Jonah and I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. It was a painful transformation that left me feeling bitter towards God and wishing to die, but I learnt that I cannot force people to understand. All I can do is fight the good fight, do good in a world where there is so much wrong and focus on those who are innocent in between all of that. I am learning how to value myself through God. Thanks Jonah. 🙂
What is love when no one understands you, when no one can see you for who you are? Esse Est Percipi, ‘To be is to be perceived’ as said by G. Berkeley.
Is the sadness you feel real when no one is there to comfort you, when you are alone and lying in bed thinking about how those that have hurt you are completely oblivious to such an experience, perhaps on the contrary where they believe that no wrongdoing exists at all? What happens when you speak of the wrongdoing and they deny you, perhaps reverse this and claim that you are the one with the problem, competing with you to prove they were right and settle the anxiety they feel for their own falsehoods? Playing games to make themselves believe that they are somehow better than you. Is this why when faced with facts they are suddenly stirred with an emotive viciousness that increases as though the louder and more assertive they are, the more right they become and the more people they gather to agree with them, the more likely you will be silenced? And is it the reason why we appreciate the truth with greater clarity when it is uttered through lies, fictitious stories and parables that explain moral symbols that become the hermeneutic source for our subjective capacity to interpret facts without confronting the harsh and abrupt reality of our own failures?
I spent my childhood wishing for a friend that never arrived and my tenderness and love remained protected by the isolation I endured as I hid away from those contemptible enough to enjoy tricking and humiliating me, laughing at my vulnerability and frightening me. The pain even greater when I hoped for kindness that I never received, as though I were manoeuvring through a hellish purgatory, wandering and wondering if there is anyone out there that can genuinely love. For Dante, this is symbolic of what we experience when we become conscious of love and his Divine Comedy is a poetic allegory that divides such an existential reality into what becomes the three stages of our soul’s journey towards God. The Inferno is that moment of consciousness, where one awakens to a reality where our actions and failures or sins become transparent as well as our aloneness on this dark journey towards hell. As we uncover our own self-deception, we see the treachery in others and the lies and games of those within our environment who pretend to goodness when they only seek the indulgences of this false reality. It is only when one admits to this fraudulence and seeks repentance, to apologise for our own misconduct and become morally conscious that enables an escape from hell and ascend toward Purgatorio, the mountain on which we begin to climb toward heaven in order to see the difference between what is genuine or pure and what is false. The desire to reach the summit is the motivation that compels us to become honest with ourselves and though lengthy the process and arduous the climb, we purge the soul of sin by attempting to embody true love. Dante means to show that if one would ever find this heavenly peace, it is only possible through love. To put it succinctly, one begins this divine experience when they genuinely fall in love.
My will and my desire were both revolved,
As is a wheel in even motion driven
Which moves the sun and other stars.
Dante’ lifelong love was Beatrice and highlighted in his publications including La Vita Nuova that attempts to exemplify the provincial methods of courtly love in medieval Italy. Her presence in the Divine Comedy indicate her position in the symbolic experience of Dante as he traverses through these realms, initially falling into limbo as she prayed for Dante to be saved by Virgil – who embodies a person that is wise with virtuous attributes – during his decent into the Inferno. It is almost like she desired genuine love that Dante was not yet capable of giving and prayed that he would one day come to her as one wise and authentic. His experience in Purgatorio is a necessary step that he needs to make as he reaches out to Paradiso where Beatrice is then able to guide him toward the attainment of virtuous attributes that could make a man wise and constant. Dante believes that this love is divine and one must love another through God where she becomes the symbol that enables him to reach Paradiso as she embodies the desire for him to become a better man. Thus his admiration is not aroused by the physical beauty that she possessed, where such considerations merely compel a man to turn away from God, but for who she is and that led to the awakening and the transparency of his own soul and improved the clarity of his purpose.
She – as the sun who first in love shone warm
Into my heart – had now, by proof and counter proof,
disclosed to me the lovely face of truth.
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 during the late Middle Ages and wrote the epic masterpiece The Divine Comedy in 1321. Love that moves the sun and other stars is reference to a number of cantos (III – XXXIII) in Paradisio. Dante epitomises the work itself, his biography is found within the cantos as it provides us with the magnificence of his imaginative scope and allusions to his own thoughts and experiences. Highlighting the influence of Beatrice in particular, it also includes figures such as Jesus and St. John along with philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas that helped solidify his faith in God. His family was embroiled in the politics of the time; clashes between rival factions the Ghibellines who were defeated by the Guelphs for which he was a member, soon thereafter found those loyalties broken when Dante was exiled following a division between the Guelphs (Black and White) that led him to be banished for supposed corruption. The treachery he experienced became a part of the Inferno hell that left him disillusioned for the deception and violence he witnessed, his exile the many years that it took through Purgatorio to learn the wisdom to ascertain the difference between right and wrong, all the while Beatrice stood as a beacon or “holy lamp” that helped light his way to the good life. Her death in 1290 was met with pangs of anguish that it almost appears that her place in Paradiso is his lifelong yearning to be with her in what would become his own paradise. Beatrice Portinari is said to have been a woman of virtue and grace, though he briefly met her in advance of his marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, his later encounter with her clearly indicated that he fell in love and she became the muse for his love ballads, none of which mention his wife.
Dante finds himself travelling through a number of spheres in heaven, represented by astronomical or planetary symbols that allude to a series of virtues. Cantos III, for instance, embarks on a lunar journey to the moon when he confesses of his failures and is born again through the love for Beatrice. She became his saviour, a child that she could help gain steady ground about how to live in God’s love or be attuned to what correctly wills or motivates man to reflect with accuracy. A man can find salvation through a virtuous woman; when being pulled by men set on greater harm then good, she struck him with the splendours of the decency that she attached to her heart. Canto X or the Sphere of the Sun alludes to the light of God, to witness the universe and the power therewith in creation and the universe itself can eclipse the worldly attributes for a moment as Dante gives thanks to the monumental reality of the world above.
And there, entranced, begin to view the skill
The Master demonstrates. Within Himself,
He loves it so, His looking never leaves.
Look! Where those orbits meet, there branches off
The slanting circles that the planets ride
To feed and fill the world that calls on them.
A number of figures enter into the celebration of this epiphany, including King Solomon, St. Thomas Aquinas and Boethius that allude to their place in assisting one to reach this venerable awakening. They are rejoicing for Dante finally becoming aware of the fallaciousness of the world below him and where his soul deep within him begin to burn from the joy of abandoning all the lies that tied him to that false reality. It is followed in Cantos XI with, “Those idiotic strivings of the human mind!” The toil of worldly affairs including politics and law, where Dante finally finds peace in his should within the arms of Beatrice and being up high in the heavenly spheres where his soul rests in the light of truth. Here, Dante speaks of St. Francis who takes a wife and loves her despite the objections of his father and others, that his dedication to love a loyal and courageous woman though many feared her that represents the potential poverty of a life lived in the love for God and that one may be at risk of losing family and friends in the commitment to what is good. But Beatrice remains the defining guide, whereby in Cantos XIV she shows Dante that there is yet more truth that he is required to find within him, the eternal nature of this experience and whether one will remain committed in their love for God. Beatrice grows and becomes more beautiful to Dante when she chooses to join the light, perhaps representative of the longevity and growth of the beauty of love in a virtuous woman that renders the clarity of the experience eternal.
And so my eyes, regaining their strength,
Lifted once more. I saw myself alone,
Borne with my lady to a higher good.
Seeing the flares of laughter in that star,
Which seemed now far more fiery than before,
I knew full well that I’d been lifted higher.
We begin to see through the light of God all that is wonderful and so what we ‘see’ or understand continuously increases as we rise higher through the celestial planes. In Cantos XVII, Dante is still troubled and Beatrice continues to help him shed light on his feelings by prompting a discussion with Cacciaguida about the future and the difficulties he may face as was forewarned by Virgil. Contingency is met with the potential uncertainty for the future and that while one may experience hardships, in faith one will also experience events that are wonderful. It is to be courageous to face the contingency. When they reach Cantos XXIII or the Sphere of the Fixed Stars (Eighth Heaven), Beatrice is compared to a mother bird waiting for the sun, the light of Christ and enraptures all who experience this power to expand their thoughts beyond the horizon. The garden, for which Beatrice instructs Dante to look upon, contains a rose that is the Word of God and he can see Mary in the rose, the “Queen of Heaven” (Regina Coeli). By Cantos XXVII, Dante – despite being further from the earth – can now see the details within it with greater clarity, his mind now free from the false burdens that blinded him from seeing such details, the sins for which Beatrice speaks of when a man misuses his free will. He returns to earth in Cantos XXX, the light of dawn slowly drowning the light of the stars until he turns to see the beauty of Beatrice once more and both reached the Paradiso in one another, transcending the material world through love and wisdom.
As she then was – a guide in word and deed,
Her work all done – she spoke again: ‘We’ve left
The greatest of material spheres, rising
To light, pure light of intellect, all love,
The love of good in truth, all happiness,
A happiness transcending every rapture.
The final Cantos XXXIII, Bernard of Clairvaux praises the love of Mary as the foundation for the rose or the Word of God who helped illuminate Dante with the truth and the happiness that followed. Indeed, as Beatrice returns to her place in the rose, which is symbolic of the Queen and Virgin Mother, epitomises that she has satisfied her love for Dante as he gazes into the light of the Empyrean. He now understands God and what is right and good on earth.
As one who has now ascended to Paradiso, the bliss and happiness of finding the Divine love and waiting to meet someone genuine on this journey of mine, I believe as Dante does that love can only be real when two people experience this transcendence from the material realm, from the hellish Inferno where one becomes aware of the reality where there exists corruption, lies, and all things vicious. By seeking the divine love of God, one can redeem themselves and when guided by love, mirror our moral position to become virtuous and wise. Only then can one return to ‘earth’ and see the world for what it genuinely is. The Divine Comedy remains a powerful poetic bildungsroman, an epic of gigantic proportions that remains the heart of medieval Italy and the Italian language itself.