The Theatre of Paradise
by Mattia da Salò
From the extract edited by Costanzo Cargnoni and his introduction, I Frati Cappuccini. Documenti e testimonianze del primo secolo, Vol.III/1, pp. 737-768, and translated by Br Patrick Colbourne O.F.M.Cap.
Even though no young Doctoral candidate has as yet taken this for the subject of his Thesis, as the Dominican Friar Innocenzo Coloso hoped in 1963, the spiritual treatise The Theatre of Paradise or meditations on the glory of Heaven by Mattia da Salò, which was printed after his death in Salò in 1620 by his Brother Giovanni Bellintani da Salò, is “one of the most attractive, original and profound books” that has been written concerning life in Heaven.
Containing 150 meditations, it deals with considerations of the glory of Heaven as man’s ultimate destiny, the nature of God, the union of man with God in heaven, the absolute and comparative attributes of the Most Holy Trinity and above all the glory of the Incarnate Word, which is treated in 45 meditations which are spread out over considerations of the excellence of His humanity, the nature of His virtues, the sanctity of His soul, the dignity and glory of His body. They go on to deal with the Saints, the Virgin Mary, Angels and men, the Saints as Christ’s Mystical Body, the adornments of the soul, the happiness in our feelings, divine sonship and the inheritance that comes with it, admiration and joy, praise, humility, thanksgiving and the vision of God, the state of blessedness which the Saints receive from Christ’s humanity, the contentment of creatures and the sufferings of the damned: a fruitful, vast and profound panorama of theological doctrine, with many touches of Bonaventure and Scotus, that astound the reader.
When he published the third and fourth parts of his Practice of Mental Prayer, which dealt with the last four things, in 1607, explained the origin of these meditations on the glory of heaven: “I thought”, he wrote, “that there was not much that could be written since the subject is so far removed from what we know about. However, I soon expanded my treatment as I realised that one section would be needed to treat these matters and hell as had been required when I treated death and judgement. Because of this I realised that I had to take up my pen again, and rely on the help that God’s goodness would provide for me to treat divine glory. I planned to treat the topics using an appropriate number of considerations, and a simpler style in this fourth section. Thus as I had used one hundred and fifty consideration in the first part, I set out to accomplish the present work with the intention of restricting myself to the extent that simple people could understand the material which is extremely rich by its nature and for the most part very far removed from the grasp of our bodily senses. Because it was beyond me to do this I decided to compose something else which was easier and clearer and that is what I have tried to do…If this is pleasing to God we publish the one hundred and fifty considerations once again with a chapter or two on contemplation, which we have entitled The Theatre of Paradise.” (From the Introduction to the Fourth part). This project was finalised by his brother Giovanni.
The structure of the individual meditations is the same for all and they are set out in a series of three steps or acts similar to that in The Practice of Mental Prayer: preamble, mediation and action. However, the content is much more elaborate, to suit (as the author says) those who only want to use the book for reading and not as an specific “tool for meditating”, as they would have done with the popular edition of the first part of the Practice , where, “so that the intellect would have more scope for meditation and to carry out other actions, I had tried to use few words by simply stating the concepts”, indicating, “ the individual acts of the practices by the use of numbers.” However, “ for those who only want to read these two things seemed to be a bother with so many numbers being a nuisance, making the content, which could have been expressed in a few words, appear dry and glossed over without any feeling.”
The structure of the individual meditations is the same for all and they are set out in a series of three steps or acts similar to that in The Practice of Mental Prayer: preamble, mediation and action. However, the content is much more elaborate, to suit (the author says) those who only want to use the book for reading and not as a specific tool for meditating, as they would have done with the popular edition of the first part of The Practice, where, so that the intellect would have more scope for meditation and to carry out the other actions, I had tried to use few words by simply stating the concepts, indicating the individual acts of the practices by the use of numbers. However, for those who only want to read these two things seemed seemed to be a bother with so many numbers being a nuisance, making the content, which could be been expressed in a few words, appear dry and glossed over without any feeling.
For these reasons and to accommodate the wishes of these “readers” in the last two parts of his Practice of Mental Prayer, Mattia da Salò explained the content at greater depth by means of a more articulate treatment. In spite of this compromise, this “mediocrity” as he called it, he was convinced that the meditations would be useful to both souls who wanted to pray as well as to those who only wanted to read, “hoping that the result would be that the readers would gradually become people of prayer and progress from reading to praying.” (From the Introduction to the Third Part.)
We have chosen five "practices" from these splendid meditations to give the modern reader a taste of what they contain. Even in the linguistic traditions of the seventeenth century, the depth of the theological concepts that Bellintani knew how to translate into vibrant piety and devotion for himself and for others justly deserves the judgement passed on him by Francesco Panigarola, and Oservant Friar Minor. "Father Mattia could be numbered among the holy Fathers of the Church." He really was "a great theoretician of the method of meditation - writes Innocenzo Colosio- and he remains an incomparable master in balancing and harmonising the use of the various human faculties in such a delicate exercise and difficult exercise as mental prayer.