- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Paradiso, Canto XXIV

A further observation on Canto XXIII, which we discussed earlier this week [1]: When Dante sees reality as it actually is, all his desires are fulfilled. This is what heaven is: the absence of desire, not because desire has been taken away, but because it has reached its goal. Just now, I was thinking about what the pilgrim Dante learned when he first arrived in Paradise [2], from the nun Piccàrda: that her joy comes from not wanting more than she has, and finding peace in accepting all as God’s will. Now that she is in Paradise, she doesn’t hope for that peace; she knows it. But for those making their way through the mortal life, they can only know that peace through faith.

But what does that mean? We learn in Canto XXIV, when Beatrice presents Dante to St. Peter, who will examine him to discover what he knows about the virtue of faith. Dante begins by quoting St. Paul, who defined faith in his letter to the Hebrews as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The pilgrim’s entire journey through the afterlife, from the gates of Hell to here, near the summit of Paradise, has been about his learning to see things as they really are. We cannot do that in the mortal realm, absent extraordinary revelation, like what God allowed the disciples to see in the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor. In heaven, the faith of Christians is fulfilled; what faith told them they would one day see, they actually do see. The mortal who has faith in the promises of God in some real sense already possesses the things promised. He already lives in eternity. He already lives in perfect justice, because he knows that the omniscient and omnipotent God will make things right, in His own time. Says Dante to St. Peter:

“The profound mysteries

that here so richly manifest themselves to me,

to our eyes below are so concealed


“that they exist there through belief alone,

on which is based our hope to rise above.

And therefore it assumes the name of substance.


“It is from this belief that we must argue,

when there is nothing else we can examine.

And it therefore has the name of evidence.”

Faith, then, is the assertion, in the absence of concrete, objective evidence, that something is true. It is the premise on which all of Christianity is based. If we had perfect knowledge of reality, as do the saints in heaven, we would have no need for faith, because we would see things as they are. Without faith, though, we mortals are more or less blind — more or less because one may still perceive some aspects of reality, but one cannot have full access to that vision, and one cannot be fully absorbed into the divine light, as the saints are through theosis. Faith is the prerequisite of all knowledge of God.

St. Peter then describes Dante’s faith as like a coin, and asks the pilgrim if he has it in his purse.

And I: ‘I do indeed, so bright and round

that of its coinage I am not in doubt.”

An interesting metaphor. What does it mean here? Christ said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” St. Peter wants to know if Dante’s faith is real, if it’s something he uses? Dante responds by saying, essentially, “My faith is not counterfeit. You can take it to the bank.”

The holy examiner then asks his pupil where this faith comes from. From the Bible, says Dante. Well then, says St. Peter, why do you believe the Bible is the word of God? Dante replies, because of the miracles of which it speaks. But how, continues the saint, do you know those miracles really happened?

Because, says Dante, of the conversion of the world. That so many believed in Christ and the Gospel without having seen a miracle is a testimony to the truth of the stories told to us in the Bible. Dante continues:

“This is the beginning, this the living spark

that swells into a living flame

and shines within me like a star in heaven.”

Notice the direct connection between the faith that is in Dante’s heart, and the farthest outpost of creation, the stars. There is unity between the cosmic and the intimate. The faith that moves Dante’s heart is the same faith that moves the stars. Notice too that Dante does not claim that faith is the end of the Christian journey, but only the beginning. And it is a “living spark,” a “living flame,” meaning it is imbued with personality — just like the flame that causes a star to shine. The distinction between the physical and the metaphysical dissolves here.

St. Peter is thrilled with these answers, and blesses Dante. It hardly needs saying, though, that these answers are not really satisfying to most of us today, or at least it is not readily apparent why they ought to be satisfying. I believe there are ways to approach the message here that are more fruitful to us moderns.

For one, Dante’s point about faith becoming plausible because of the works that are its fruit is solid. Works do not prove faith; after all, if something can be proven, no faith is needed. What works do, though, is give substantive testimony to the faith. Dr. Kent Brantly and Dr. Matthew Lukwiya [3]could have fled when Ebola threatened to take their lives, but as Christians, they stayed and suffered with the people they were given to care for. Do their actions prove that the Christian faith is true? By no means. But the fact that they risked their lives — and in Dr. Lukwiya’s case, gave his — to serve their fellow man out of Christian conviction means that we ought to at least take seriously their commitment. It gives that commitment substance.

In the astonishing film Of Gods And Men, a dramatization of the true story of French Trappist monks living in Algeria, who were martyred there in the 1990s, the monastic community must decide if their faith requires them to remain there in Algeria, serving the Muslim poor, even though they have been warned that they may be killed by Islamic terrorists for doing so. Here is the wordless scene in which the monks ponder, over supper, their decision [4]. This is the moment when the coinage of their faith is tested most severely.

We may find it more helpful to think of this canto in a more metaphysical than theological vein. In his book on Dante and metaphysics [5], Notre Dame’s Christian Moevs recalls that Dante compares his journey across “the ocean of pure being” — Paradise — to Ulysses’s failed attempt to reach the same in Canto XVI of Inferno. You may find it significant to note that Moevs is not a Christian, and he’s not writing as a theologian or apologist, but as someone interested in the metaphysics informing Dante’s vision. Here is Moevs:

We have seen that Ulysses sought understanding by “becoming a knower of the world,” seeking to devour the world in the few days left to his senses, without sacrificing his own ego or sense of self; he pursues the sun [the Light, God] in a voyage governed by the ephemeral reflected light of the moon, the light of finite created intelligence, which waxes and wanes five times, corresponding perhaps to the sense. Ulysses is presumptuous not for what he sought — deification, in Dante’s world, is the true goal of every human being — but for how he sought it: without turning in to know himself, without sacrificing his unquestioned identification with, and reliance on, a finite mind and body, without surrendering to the ground of his own being. The mind and senses he relied on could help him only with the familiar names and forms of the finite Mediterranean; they are of no use for navigating the deep.


The purpose of a miracle is to shock and stop the mind, not to give it more grist to process. To feel the impulse to “explain” a miracle is to be blind to its revelation, its function, which is to trigger an awakening to oneself, an awakening to the transcendent, the awakening of the divine to itself in us. To theorize about the eclipse at the Crucifixion [N.B., Something we will encounter later in Paradiso — RD] is itself an eclipse or Crucifixion: to think about revelation, instead of seeing what is revealed, is a failure to recognize or to know Christ. The self-revelation/self-eclipse of the divine, like the self-eclipse of the light of the sun at the Crucifixion, is a principle or event that transcends all names, forms, thoughts, concepts, philosophies, languages, and cultures: it is universal … . We may conclude that without their egos and wandering minds, all seekers of truth would come to the same revelation: either they would not argue, or they would fall into silence. The ground of being reveals itself only to those who sacrifice their attachment to themselves in its pursuit… .

We will return to the points made in this second passage when we take up Canto XXIX, in which the poet Dante talks about how all the theological and philosophical chatter about salvation misleads the seeker from the actual experience of it. I cite them both here to draw attention to faith as necessary to gain access to higher knowledge. In the same way that the Angel of the Lord tested Dante’s humility before allowing him to go any farther up the Mountain of Purgatory, so too does St. Peter test Dante’s faith. Symbolically, we readers are being instructed that we cannot hope to find unity with God — that is, we cannot perceive reality as it really is, and harmonize with it — without surrendering ourselves in faith to revelation. If we try to get there navigating by what we know through our own reason and experience alone, we not only will not make it, we may destroy ourselves, as Ulysses did. He had faith only in himself; it was an idol who was “of no use in navigating the deep.”

(It’s worth pondering that “the familiar names and forms of the finite Mediterranean” could also be our own religious training, which might well be inadequate for navigating anything more than the shallows of everydayness. You may think religion has nothing to offer you, and maybe the form of religion you were taught really does not. Maybe it’s dry and intellectual, or emotional but without substance, or legalistic and ritualistic. Maybe the problem, though, is you: you have rejected something without fully knowing what it is you are turning away from. Maybe you think you understand the faith, but you have been given a deformed version of it. Maybe you mistakenly take a deeply flawed part of something as the whole. I used to think Christianity was either boring and bourgeois, or passionate but anti-intellectual, neither of which I wanted. I was had no idea what I was talking about, but it took a revelation at the Chartres cathedral to knock me out of my trite certainty, and set me on my own authentic pilgrimage toward God.)

Dante, of course, was a believing Christian, but I think the lesson for all readers, Christians and otherwise, is that the deepest and most mysterious dimensions of our existence can only be known — that is, experienced and integrated into our own lives — through faith in revelation. We have to believe that there is Something beyond ourselves, a realm to be discovered by purifying our mind’s eye. We do not have the power to access this level of reality except by surrendering our total reliance on reason and sense perception; it’s not that reason and sense perception are useless, but only that they can only take us so far.

You must believe that you may understand. You must believe before you can see. This has a specific meaning in Christianity, but speaking more broadly, in a more metaphysical sense, you cannot have full access to reality unless you let go of your rationality, and open yourself at least to the possibility of revelation — that is, to the possibility that there are objective truths and realities that are real, and that you cannot know objectively.

As Rick Warren famously and bluntly said [6], in one of the best openings to any book ever: “It’s not about you.” In the Commedia, the damned, including Ulysses, lived as if all of reality was about them. They spend eternity alienated from God, from the divine light, and trapped within themselves. The saints in Paradise only know their true selves in relationship to God and to each other. This is not simply a suggestion for how to live more happily; it is a truth written into the substance of reality itself. If God is Love, and Love requires relationship and reciprocity, then the only way to live in truth, in harmony with the cosmos, is in a loving relationship with God and through Him, with others.

Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life would lose it,” a saying that has layers of meaning, but means at least this: if you want to find God, you have to open yourself to the possibility of faith. There is no other way. And to open yourself to the possibility of faith means to work to see the world with new eyes. It means to accept that you cannot get out of the dark wood by your own power, that you need help from those who see things that you cannot. Heaven sent Virgil to Dante as he languished in the dark wood, trapped inside himself. Virgil told Dante if he would save his life, he had better follow him. He didn’t require Dante to affirm all the truths of the Christian faith before taking those first steps out of the dark wood. In fact, Dante could not possibly have done that. His vision was too weak. He needed to walk through Hell, and climb the mountain of Purgatory, to learn to see reality. All Dante could see in that first moment, in his moment of crisis, was that a man whose authority he trusted, the poet Virgil, miraculously appeared to him and said, “Follow me, I know the way out.”

Dante didn’t stop and say, “Wait a minute, you died centuries ago. I must be having a hallucination. How do I know you are who you say you are. I have to think about this.” He didn’t say, “I should wait here; things might turn right again.” He didn’t say, “How can I trust that you, Virgil, know the way out? Maybe you are wrong. Maybe you will lead me to ruin. Maybe I should wait for an angel, or a philosopher.” He didn’t say, “Show me the whole picture, the entire map ahead, and then I will follow you.”

He said none of those things. He simply said, “I trust that you were sent to help me. Please, lead me out of this place. I will follow.” Those first steps the pilgrim Dante took were in reality a leap of faith.

Funny, but when I stood in the Barnes & Noble a year ago, and opened the Commedia to read the first canto, I did not know what was ahead. I could not have imagined that God would use a medieval poet to lead me out of the dark wood I was in. [7] I did not know that when I bought the book and began to read it not for entertainment or for academic interest, but with the eyes of a lost traveler who has unexpectedly found a map and a guide, that I had committed an act of faith.

You have to be open to these revelations if you are going to receive them. You cannot hope to have faith if you don’t first have intellectual humility. Again, it’s not about you. As long as you think it’s about you, you will remain in the dark wood, a stranger to God and to yourself.



8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Paradiso, Canto XXIV"

#1 Comment By Darth Thulhu On August 15, 2014 @ 1:20 am

The population that doesn’t make many of these leaps in this life is, of course, very large. As you relate, you really hadn’t made a particular very big, very important leap of faith until Chartres and then Orthodoxy came into your life, and you hadn’t made another until Dante landed in your hands a couple of years ago. Plenty of humanity has been dead by 40, deprived of much opportunity to make such leaps.

And then there are the vast swaths who are “meh” about the entire idea of such leaps, because their lives generally just are quietly all about themselves … and then the (smaller) swath who actively recoil from even contemplating such leaps, and who will often vomit hate and mockery at anyone who even insinuates that there is something larger to their lives than themselves and their desires and their tribe and their family.

That first group frequently expects Oblivion, in my experience, and the second group generally demands it. It is a sad thing to think of that latter wish being granted, but it is a simple way for the Almighty to be both Just and Merciful.

#2 Comment By Bernie On August 15, 2014 @ 8:00 am

Intellectual humility – what a rare and wondrous attribute. It opens the door to faith.

In the end it is not the proud, obstinate mind that will shine. It is the faithful humble, many of whom are in our midst, those who struggle through pain to believe and hope, those who live in humble obedience to what they believe is God’s will, those who continue to search for God even when they have been beaten up by the world – these are the heroes. They have contentment, purpose, even joy in this world, and they have not as yet even glimpsed the full reward which awaits them.

#3 Comment By Mark Christensen On August 15, 2014 @ 9:21 am

Rod – I don’t see how “faith in revelation” solves anything.

Athanasius informed the first council of Nicaea in 325 that God became flesh so ‘that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father’. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Even if true, the miraculous incident sheds no lasting light on what is expected of us in everyday life, why we exist, why we must suffer. All told, God remains absolute, unseen and unnameable. The grand Plan for the universe and each of us is still an inviolable secret, always engulfing whatever pathetic proposals we rustle up.

In practical terms, revelation is always a conception, a provocative reminder of not-knowing, a state of affairs not even God, it would appear, can, or wants to, alleviate.

The Nazarene is likewise affected. His purported resurrection resolves nothing in terms of being-in-the-world, the free decision to be open and attentive to its promise, all that exceeds life and death. Transformed by Christ – or born that way – a true heart doesn’t seek refuge in the bourgeoisie comforts of a human account of Truth, for what endures and is truly purposeful transcends ideas, language, contingent facts and finite beings. History has witnessed but one Christian, as Nietzsche said. His Story, free of dogma, is all one needs to honour him and the one who sent him.

You speak of intellectual humility, but how it this to be achieved? Are you not proud of your surrender, which is immediately rendered a pretence once aware of the self-conscious, political effort? The head and heart are always in battle, the former prevailing even when one affirms “trust in your heart, trust in God”. Rick Warren is only half right: it is always about the individual’s willingness to make it not about themselves!

There is a way around this Divine Dilemma, however. Direct the mind not to conquering reality, which is ultimately unintelligible. Have it pursue a subtly different question (or riddle): why might God plan it so that reason and sense perception can only take us so far? Why instil an insatiable curiosity and then give us a goal – unconditional faith – beyond our intellectual means?

Reason will cease undermining the heart if and when it realises it was never designed to grasp the mind of God in rational terms (ie vanquishing uncertainty). Man is actually striving to understand his mind on another level: why the wild goose chase (which of course isn’t a goose chase if the surrender is true)? This answer can bring epistemic closure without intellectual hubris and the crowding out of faith. The head/Man and heart/God can co-exist, at last.

#4 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On August 15, 2014 @ 9:28 am

I think this post highlights the difference in thinking of the religious and the irreligious.

Many people are willing to die for beliefs, some of those beliefs are laudable, some are objectionable. So when I hear that someone was willing to die for their beliefs it doesn’t influence my opinion about those beliefs. It might influence my opinion about them as person, but not the truth of their beliefs.

The leap of faith which you find so laudable also seems completely unreliable to me. For example read Rod’s writing versus Darth Thulhu’s. It seems like you’ve made different leaps of faith, to a different sort of God. Now both of you and your God seem pretty harmless, but humans can make leaps of faith to malevolent Gods too. The God of the 9/11 hijackers being one example.

Now I’m not going New Atheist and saying humanity should abolish religion. I’m just pointing out that the leaps of faith are not all in the same direction, and not all necessarily benign.

You have to be open to these revelations if you are going to receive them. You cannot hope to have faith if you don’t first have intellectual humility. Again, it’s not about you. As long as you think it’s about you, you will remain in the dark wood, a stranger to God and to yourself.

I’ve heard this before and it has echos of Psalm 14:1-7. Essentially non-believers are either foolish or arrogant, but there’s definitely something wrong with them.

Now I’m not insulted by this ad hominem argument. I’m sure the truths of your beliefs seem self-evident to you, so you wonder how can someone else see them as false? It must somehow be an act of will. But to me this seems like an invalid argument.

#5 Comment By Debbie On August 15, 2014 @ 10:34 am

I’ve never been very big on the “leap of faith idea”. It sounds like modern existentialism to me. I’m a Christian because I believe there is reasonable evidence that it is true. The places in the Bible are real places, and the people are real people. Many of them can be verified through archeology and through historical records outside of the Bible. The Bible itself is not just one book made up by someone. It is many books written by different authors who write on a central theme. The New Testament was written by people who knew Jesus or who knew the disciples.

There are four resurrection accounts in the four gospels, written by four different authors, which differ a little in the details but are the same in substance. People saw and touched the resurrected Christ. The gospels also tell us that the disciples were initially cowards. From the rest of the New Testament we find out that, after the resurrection, they became bold ambassadors for the faith. From church history we learn that they later died as martyrs because they had seen and touched the risen Christ. I’m a Christian because I have faith in someone real. There are authors who have written on the details of this subject such as John Warwick Montgomery: Faith Founded on Fact and Lee Strobel: The Case for Christ.

#6 Comment By Sarah The Unikely On August 16, 2014 @ 11:09 am

You’re basically defending fideism here, and once you go down that road you have to abandon any sort of intellectual respectability. You can’t claim to have a reasonable position and then say that no one can understand it without abandoning reason entirely. You have to abandon philosophy once you accept that view, which is why most theologians reject it out of hand. I would also add that it is risible to suggest that everyone who does not accept theism is intellectually arrogant. *You* are the one who thinks he knows fundamental truths about reality and that is the arrogant position.


It is also risible to suggest that people who don’t believe in your religion do not care about anything larger than personal desires. I don’t how Christians can say things like this without being incredibly embarrassed because you are spouting the worst sort of arrogant nonsense.

#7 Comment By sigaliris On August 16, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

I’ve been having trouble, for the last few cantos, figuring out how to participate without sounding irritable and petty. I appreciate all my fellow commenters and the different lights they shed on this.

Perhaps I should remind my fellow readers, in case they don’t know me, that I was a cradle Catholic and for 50+ years, a basically conservative and unusually devout one. Now I’m not. I do believe I was as “saved” as anyone can get, and I obeyed and I had faith and prayed, and all of that. Through a story much too long to tell here, I came to believe that trusting and following religious leaders was one of the worst things I ever did, and that many of the things I once believed were actively harmful to human flourishing. I quit going to Mass, and I don’t know that I’d even qualify as a Christian any more. The fundamental doctrine of salvation, the idea that I came into this world hopelessly broken–a “ruined and terrible form of life” as Saruman would put it–and can expect only eternal torment unless saved by forces completely beyond my ken or control, now seems to me problematic at best and downright evil at worst.

The Divine Comedy is a work I’ve loved ever since I first read it at age 12 or so. Given the above, how do I approach this work now? Well, it’s interesting. I read it as a beautifully structured work of poetry, a metaphor of life’s journey shot through with arresting images and moments of beauty. I also try putting my mind back into the point of view I once held, to see what the poem would say to someone who believed as I did. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk, but fun.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Rod, but I don’t think you meant to put down those who don’t believe. I think you were trying to express your own experience with walking through this story with Dante. And if I recall correctly, Bernie attributes her salvation from a downward spiral in her life to her recovered Catholic faith. I don’t think you, Rod, want this to turn into an argument about whether the Christian vision is true or not, so I’m trying not to fall into that kind of opposition.

However, I would like to gently suggest that perhaps the reason why some people don’t have the same faith you and Bernie have found may not be due to a regrettable lack of character on their parts. Maybe people are just different, and our journeys are different. In the Catholic religious group that I left, some remarkable percentage of the members ended up in 12-step programs after the fewmets hit the fan. When the group’s authority finally broke down, it turned out that their following of those who said they’d come to help them was a catastrophe of craven co-dependence, unhealthy and destructive to their lives. There are a lot of fake Vergils in this world, you know, and many of them sit in fine palaces and have been anointed with holy chrism.

Humblebragging about the wondrous humility of those who just believe and don’t ask questions does make me feel irritable, though. When Dante’s remarkable poem is interpreted as a moral lesson on what a dumbass I am for not believing, it becomes much harder for me to feel interested in it.

[NFR: Thanks for your comment, Sigilaris. I did not mean to brag, humbly or not, about my glorious humility, nor do I at all intend to put down those who have lost their faith, or to whom faith comes with great difficulty. I made a point in my post not to stick to theology, but to approach it more from the point of view of metaphysics, and even epistemology. As you will recall, having read me for so long, one of my favorite things to think about is how we know what we know. Is there a dimension of reality that we cannot have access to absent faith? I believe there is, and I’m pretty sure I would believe that even if I weren’t a Christian. The point here, and in Dante (absent the Christianity), is that there are questions that can never fully be answered in this life, and truths, and realities, that are inaccessible to us, but are nevertheless *real*. We cannot deduce them; we can only recognize them. Isn’t this basic Platonism? — RD]

#8 Comment By sigaliris On August 16, 2014 @ 11:37 pm

Thanks for commenting, Rod. I guess I wasn’t clear enough, because I didn’t mean that you were humblebragging. I don’t think you were.

I share your wonder about whether there are things that are real but somehow in a different dimension of accessibility than the one we get to via reason and observation. That’s one reason I still read Dante with love. In fact I live by things unseen. I can’t live without wonder, and I can’t live without love, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve had since childhood, that there are things unseen around me, just out of reach. But is any of that real–or is it just my imagination, a dream that I’m creating inside this little knot of cells and chemicals? I’m right there with you when it comes to questions that cannot be fully answered in this life. I think that if you evangelize for reading Dante, rather than for a particular dogma, and urge readers to keep asking the questions, you will find a readership. At least I hope you do!

[NFR: I ran across a Dostoevsky passage on just this point over the weekend, and I’ll be posting on it Monday! — RD]