Paradiso, Canto XXIII
Canto XXIII is one of my favorites in the entire Commedia. It is the point in Dante’s pilgrimage where he sees, at long last, reality in all its splendor. Here are the opening lines:
As a bird quiet among the leaves she loves
sits on the nest of her beloved young
all through the night that hides things from our sight,
anxious to look upon her longed-for ones,
eager to go in search of food for them
(her heavy labors she performs with joy),
foretelling daybreak from an open bough,
she waits there for the sun with glowing love,
her gaze fixed on the birth of a new day —
just so my lady waited, vigilant …
I love this image of Beatrice as a mother bird, nurturing her babies, keeping them safe in the darkness. The babies can’t see the world as it is, because of the darkness, and she can’t serve them as she wants to until the sunrise illuminates the world. So she waits, knowing with perfect confidence that the world will soon be changed, and that loving hope dwelling in her breast like a radiant fire. She knows that a new day is coming; she watches and waits.
The pilgrim sees her, poised in anticipation of the rising of the sun, “became as one who, filled with longing, finds satisfaction in his hope.”
Dante has changed. To this point, his desire to know God, and to be ripened, filled, and completed by a fuller knowledge of God and of God’s creation, has driven him on to higher realms. In the previous sphere, though, St. Benedict tells Dante that he can’t possibly know the fullness of God in the mortal life, that he must wait for the next one to have all his desires fulfilled. Here, in the very next canto, Dante applies this wisdom. He is like the baby bird who sees the assurance of things hoped for in his mother’s fixed look upon the horizon, where she knows the sun will rise at the appointed time. And he is satisfied by hope alone. Thanks to the power of faith, hope is as good as possessing the real thing.
Now, the moment arrives. The sun begins to rise.
And Beatrice said: ‘Behold the hosts
of Christ in triumph and all the fruit
gathered from the wheeling of these spheres!’
It seemed to me her face was all aflame,
her eyes so full of gladness
that I must leave that moment undescribed.
The breaking through of reality defeats the power of language to contain it, to bound it. We see the impotence of all created things to capture divinity. The glory of God is mediated to him through the face of Beatrice, which serves as a mirror of Christ, but words themselves can no longer mediate divine reality.
… and through that living light poured down
a shining substance. It blazed so bright
into my eyes that I could not sustain it.
A living light — “la viva luce,” in Dante’s Italian! Dante’s mortal eyes cannot hold the light any more than his words can. It is the uncreated light, the energies of the All-Holy. It’s at a moment like this in our reading that I regret having gone on to Paradiso from our reading of Purgatorio instead of going back to do Inferno first. From the very first canto of Inferno, we see the pilgrim Dante, lost in the dark wood, spying the sun in the distance, and affirming that it is the “planet that leads men straight on every road.” But he cannot reach the sun on his own. He needs a guide. Beatrice sends him Virgil, who leads him on a long and winding pilgrimage intended to take him back to the “straight path” — that is, to the Source of all light, which is life itself (“la viva luce”). But first, he must be made strong enough to bear receive the light. Hence the pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and now, through Heaven.
Now, his perception cleansed (cf. William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”), Dante beholds the Church Triumphant, the completed manifestation of the Church Penitent that he saw in the Earthly Paradise (Purgatorio, beginning with Canto XXIX). It is
O Beatrice, my sweet beloved guide!
To me she said: ‘What overwhelms you
is a force against which there is no defense.
‘Here is the Wisdom and the Power that repaired
the roads connecting Heaven and the earth
that had so long been yearned for and desired.’
In Christian theology, Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man, is both the Way and the Destination. Dante responds to this revelation in Heaven like this:
As fire breaks from a cloud,
swelling till it finds no room there,
and, against its nature, falls to earth,
just so my mind, grown greater at that feast,
burst forth, transported from itself,
and now cannot recall what it became.
It literally blows his mind. But notice what an extraordinary metaphor this is! He’s talking about lightning. Gazing upon the resurrected Christ is like being struck by lightning. Remember in Canto XXI, Beatrice warned Dante that he was not ready to see her smile — that is, to have the full glory of God revealed to him — because if he did, he would be burned up, like Semele when she gazed while unready upon her lover, Zeus, and was destroyed by one of his lightning bolts. Well, now Dante is able to receive the electrifying jolt and sustain it. It may not have been intended by the poet, but this image recalls the words of Christ in the Gospel of Luke, in which he says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” The fall of Lucifer, the Angel of Light, began the sequence that led to the fall of Man. Here we see a man, the pilgrim Dante, being restored to communion with the living God, symbolically, through the light of God falling upon him like lightning from heaven.
Then, Beatrice speaks to Dante among the most beautiful lines of the 14,000+ Dante composed in the Commedia:
“Open your eyes and see me as I am.
The things that you have witnessed
have given you the strength to bear my smile.”
‘Riguarda qual son io’ — See me as I am. Says Charles Williams, “The poem cannot, for all it has said and will say, say more than that.”
It is clear that Dante and Beatrice are looking upon the Church illuminated by Christ, who appears not veiled as a Griffon (as in Purgatory), but as Himself. Yet He is still too intensely luminous to be gazed on directly. Dante likens the Church basking in his direct light to a field of flowers illuminated “by the sun’s rays streaming through broken clouds.” Dante instead here sees the Blessed Virgin Mary, “the brightest of the flames” (or, as the Orthodox salutation has it, the pinnacle of all created beings, “more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim”).
Christ returns to the Empyrean — that is, to the highest realm of heaven — and Mary soon follows, hymned by the angels, singing the Regina caeli, the Latin hymn of Eastertide:
Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia.
The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia.
Has risen, as He said, alleluia.
Pray for us to God, alleluia.
Canto XXIII ends with the poet comparing the joy of the saints of the Church Triumphant to the reward of the Hebrews who wept in their Babylonian exile, but who did not give up their faith. Think of what this comparison means to a man sent into exile from his beloved Florence, and who has no reason to hope that he will ever see that earthly home again. But still he praises God, and waits, and watches, full of hope that all will be made well someday for those who believe.
What is the lesson from Canto XXIII for us? It is to show us that our suffering here on earth is not meaningless. That there is substance to the things we hope for, even if we cannot see it yet. That this life, and all is chaos and confusion and pain, is a dark night that is passing, and we are to make ourselves ready for the rising of the sun, cared for by those who, strengthened by faith, teach us to wait patiently by the rivers of this earthly Babylon for our deliverance.
A new day is coming. Dante says: People, get ready. Aretha Franklin does a pretty good job summing up the message of Canto XXIII: