Canto XXIX has the feeling of being a place-holder, a rest before the big finale. Beatrice and Dante stand on the edge of the Empyrean, and he has one more question before they enter. But he doesn’t state it; she looks into the mind of God, with whom she is in perfect communion, and divines Dante’s thought:
She said: “I tell you, without asking you,
what you would hear, for I see your desire
where every where and every when is centered.
I love that formulation: all space and all time is within God.
Dante wants to know why God created anything, if He was perfectly good and perfectly self-sufficient. Beatrice explains that all creation came into existence at once. Because of love, she says. God didn’t create to increase His goodness; that would be impossible. He created to share the splendor of his love. The point seems to be that love is not static; love must create by its nature. Love cannot be contained. God’s love pours throughout all creation, and did so instantly, from the moment of creation:
As in crystal or in amber or in glass
a shaft of light diffuses through the whole,
its ray reflected instantaneously
The farthest spot in all creation from heaven is at the center of the earth, in Dante’s geocentric cosmology. And that is where the devil lives, “crushed by the weight of all the universe.”
They talk about the angels. Beatrice says that the angels “were humbly prompt to recognize their great intelligence as coming from the Goodness of their Lord.” As soon as they saw the face of God, their wills were fixed; they could not sin. They entered eternity. They loved God perfectly, so their wills were made perfect by His grace. The prideful angels, by contrast, refused to recognize that their intelligence, and every good thing, was a gift to them from God. They thought they were at the center of their own world, just as the damned in the Inferno do.
Beatrice takes a moment to blast bad preaching. Believe me, if you’ve ever sat through crap homilies by jokester clerics, or through pseudo-sophisticated homilies from preachers who go out of their way to deny the plain meaning of Scripture, or Church teaching, you’ll love this. Beatrice says men on earth get too carried away by philosophizing, trying to invent novelties instead of preaching the plain Gospel, and sticking to the tradition. “Men do not care what blood it cost to sow the Word throughout the land, nor how pleasing he is who humbly takes Scripture to heart,” she says. Then:
Christ did not say to his first company:
‘Go forth and preach garbage unto the world,’
but gave them, rather, truth to build upon.
…Now men go forth to preach wisecracks and jokes,
and just so long as they can get a laugh
to puff their cowls with pride – that’s all they want;
But if the crowd could see the bird that nestles
In tips of hoods like these, they soon would see
What kind of pardons they are trusting in.
Beatrice warns that the laity cannot claim ignorance as an excuse for following bad preaching and teaching. Ordinary people, she says, must have enough knowledge of their religion to be able to listen to a preacher and know when he is full of it.
Amazing how contemporary this is, yes?
Beatrice, again on the angels:
The primal Light shines down through all of them
and penetrates them in as many ways
as there are splendors with which It may mate.
And since the visual act always precedes
The act of loving, bliss of love in each
burns differently: some glow while others blaze.
And now you see the height, you see the breadth
of Eternal Goodness that divides Itself
into these countless mirrors that reflect
Itself, remaining One, as It was always.
She’s talking about angels, and this is highly metaphysical, but this could also describe God’s relationship with us. To the extent we love, we both transmit the divine light, and reflect it. The more we love, the brighter we glow. The lesson here is that creation is dynamic, always receiving love from the Creator; it is our choice, though, the extent to which we wish to receive the light, and join the celestial harmony. God interpenetrates Creation in a fertile fashion. This, we will see when we study Inferno, is why the sodomites are damned: they refuse fertility, thus live in disharmony with the divine order. In fact, in Dante, everything and everyone that refuses the divine order is spiritually dead, because they cut themselves off from the source of all Life. What’s especially interesting about that Inferno canto (XV) concerning the sodomites is that sex is never discussed. Rather, sterility is examined by the example of Brunetto Latini, the writer and teacher, who advises Dante to write only for his own glory, and:
“Follow your constellation
and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory,
not if I saw clearly in the happy life…”
But Brunetto did not see clearly; he is in Hell. At this point in the poem — Paradiso 29, I mean — Dante has now reached the port of glory, the entrance to the Empyrean, not by following his own constellation — that’s how he ended up in the dark wood. He has done it by humbling himself to listen to the God-given authority of Virgil, and then Beatrice, as well as all the penitents and saints he has met along the way.
Giuseppe Mazzotta, in his reflection on this canto, says that here, as Dante arrives at the pinnacle of all Time — which is to say, at the fulfillment of all desire — we should think back to the two figures in the Inferno (figures that I think Dante is most like). There is Francesca, from Inferno 5, who damned herself by following her own lust (which she mistook for love) to her physical and spiritual death; she, says Mazzotta, is a “metaphysician of desire,” but her desire was to consume and consume and consume, burning through everything to reach a state of bliss and consummation. She navigated by her own constellation, and sailed to her ruin.
Ulysses, the second figure Mazzotta brings up, literally navigated to his ruin in Inferno 26. He didn’t lust for sensual and emotional fulfillment; his disordered, all-consuming desire was for exploration, for pushing beyond all boundaries to find out what was there. He recognized no boundaries but his own heart’s desire, and found death and damnation. Mazzotta:
Both Francesca and Ulysses would have liked to arrive where Dante is currently, able to witness a conjunction of space and time, ubi and quando, [where and when] to the the point where all things cohere.
We all seek the same thing: bliss, fulfillment, connection, rest. But there is only one way to find it: through unity with God, with the Absolute. Every other goal puts us wide of the mark, and will end in death. Every other goal is ultimately a refusal of love, no matter what we think. In choosing ourselves over God — as every soul in Hell has done — we worship the created over the Creator. Do it often enough, and it becomes ever more impossible to comprehend the Light. Humility, however minuscule, is all it takes to receive a saving ray of the Divine Light. But if we die in our pride, we will be cast into the outer darkness for all eternity.
Dante has been to the basement of the universe, where he saw Satan frozen in torment, and now he is at the ceiling of the top floor of the universe, about to break through to the other side. There will be no more desiring after this. Time ends. The explorer is very nearly home.