11 March 2010

Working through Williams

I am reading Charles Williams's book The Figure of Beatrice, a study of the way Dante uses Beatrice as both lady and image in his writings. After some introductory remarks on the two ways to approach and talk about God, the Way of Rejection and the Way of Affirmation, he launches into a discussion of Beatrice as a Divine Image. He carefully explains how Beatrice can retain her particular, physical individuality and identity while simultaneously be a signpost, an image, a marker of Divine Love.

Currently, only 30 pages into it, this book is slow going. It is clearly brilliant, and already I feel I'm gaining a better grasp of Dante's writing through the mysticism that Williams finds there. However, this is not a book for a casual read. Some authors string words together like beads, and toss them around like a juggler. Williams does not. At one point, he writes, "'The proper operation (working or function) is not in existence for the sake of being, but the being for the sake of the operation' (De Monarchia, I, iii). This is true of Beatrice and Virgil and the Blessed Virgin and all his friends and enemies and himself also. Dante was created in order to do his business, to fulfill his function. Almighty God did not first create Dante and then find something for him to do."

I think that Dante's view of purpose and existence here can also be used to describe Williams's approach to words. He doesn't write words just to write words. Every sentence has weight, and every word has a purpose. As a result, I find myself reading the same paragraphs over and over trying to haltingly follow Williams in his scholarly, devotional, historical, theological, philosophical journey through Dante.

But perhaps it's good that I'm struggling through it and having to work hard. According to Williams, "This is the primal law of all the images, of whatever kind; they were created for their working and in order to work. Hell is the cessation of work, and the leaving of the images to be, without any function, merely themselves." Or as St. Paul says, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

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