The Love that Moves the Sun and Other Stars
As the geometer who sets himself
To square the circle and who cannot find,
For all his thought, the principle he needs;
Just so was I on seeing this new vision.
I wanted to see how our image fuses
Into the circle and finds its place in it;
Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning,
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.
Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,
By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Today I invite you to reflect on these final lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy.1 I would recommend reading them many times, contemplating what it must be like to experience the presence of God through the heavenly beatific vision. For those of you who are students, doing so may furnish a brief repose during these final, frantic weeks of the academic year. For those in other vocations, your reflection will perhaps be even more profitable and sustained.2
According to Boethius, love works like physics.3 It’s an elemental force. In fact, desire (eros) is an animating impulse that governs the entire universe, moving the sun and all the stars. What does it mean to be a part of this universe? Let’s think about it in terms of our daily wants and needs. When we desire something—which is often—we naturally begin to move toward that thing. Now consider this movement on the level of human life as a whole. We can imagine something called “a good human life,” toward which all people are striving.4 This life is the thing that each person ultimately desires.5
Likewise, in the universe each created thing seeks a good. A cat works toward the good of a cat: eat, sleep, pounce, and make little kitties. Each thing seeking its own good does so through a movement of natural desire. Take slugs. They’re not sitting there thinking “Squelch! How can I be the best slug I can be today?” They just do it. By nature, they are already seeking that end. What’s different about humans is that we have a potential embedded within us. This could be called the seed of eternity. It means that we naturally long for a deep fulfillment outside of ourselves. To cultivate this desire for God is what it means to become an actual, true human being—the good human life toward which all are drawn.
The universe itself participates in the drama; all created things long or “groan” (Rom 8:22) for something More, for return to God. Today we tend to think of creation as a static entity. Maybe we’d admit that it’s changing in evolution, but it’s here as opposed to there. In the vision of Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Dante, creation is always pouring forth in being. God sustains everything (Acts 17:28, Col 1:17) and everything that exists participates in God’s existence.6
Existence, then, is a constant participation in God’s pouring-forth. Imagine yourself as a hovercraft held up by the constant blowing of air. You are not just “here.” Rather, you are traveling on a path of desire, returning toward the Source. When we stumble and fall along this path,7 it’s not that we lose our inherent relationship to God. Rather, what happens is that our failures, pains, and struggles form barriers between us and God—they disrupt “the flow.” Here’s an image that helps: to be a free person is like swimming in a river. We can always decide to fight back against the current. Our refusal to be fully human reduces our participation in the flow of true existence, downgrading us from beatitude to brutality. There are times when we all resist, kicking and screaming, the movement of our soul toward God.
But how can God be Good the way I am describing (i.e. drawing all things to himself), and yet still allow us to be separated from him? Here the language of participation or “sharing” becomes tantamount. Everything that exists has a share in God’s existence; to exist is good in itself. Here’s the important distinction: Good can still remain Good if a lesser good is removed. So if a human chooses to reject God, this does not change the Goodness of God’s self. Take this example: Sound is usually a complexity of low tones and high tones, and these tones produce an echo. Depending on the surface from which the echo bounces off, you’ll hear this or that tone. All of those tones are partial reflections of what comes forth from the Voice. If you remove an echo, this does not change the original sound of the Voice, or take anything away from its power and goodness.
As rational human beings capable of conscious, willful acts, we (unlike slugs) are aware that the God we are moving toward is not just Being itself but also Goodness, Goodness revealed by the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our love of God mimics God’s love of us (see 1 John 4:19): it is free and spontaneous, not coerced. God’s love is true love precisely because God knows we have the ability to spurn that love. Otherwise, grace changes from gift to entitlement. Love isn’t love until you give it away! This sort of love, in the final analysis, is the reason why a totally sufficient and perfect God would create something else and allow it to participate in him. If you find yourself suffering today—from end-of-semester stress, work problems, or anything else—try to remember that the source and summation of your created existence is to love. This love is necessarily a movement outside of self, a movement that ultimately affirms your identity in a new and revelatory reality. In this reality, “our image fuses / Into the circle and finds its place in it.”
1) Paradiso, Canto 33, Lines 133–145: http://www.italianstudies.org/comedy/Paradiso33.htm
2) The following thoughts are based on lecture notes recorded on September 5, 2013 at Villanova University in a class session taught by Dr. Kevin L. Hughes. I’m greatly indebted to him for sharing these insights in inimitable style—note the proliferation of examples and creative images.
3) See Consolation of Philosophy, Book II.
4) Of course, it is expressed differently in each person—depending on that person’s unique gifts as well as his or her unique trials.
5) Particular actions can contribute to fulfillment or forfeiture of this desire.
6) Captivated by his own Goodness, God can’t help but issue forth—like a waterfall or fountain—and create something to love outside of himself.
7) In philosophical terms: “When we fail to actuate some form of our being…”