Home/Rod Dreher/Paradiso, Canto XXVI

Paradiso, Canto XXVI

To sum up the meaning of Cantos 24, 25, and 26: Just as the penitent Dante cannot ascend the mount of Purgatory without first climbing the three steps representing recognition of one’s condition as a sinner, confession of one’s sins, and resolution to turn from those sins (Purgatorio Canto IX is all about this), so must Dante now, if he would mount the summit of Paradise, affirm that he has acquired the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.

This comes, of course, from the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he said that faith, hope, and love were the three virtues that believers must demonstrate as a sign of their redemption. In fact, you can’t understand the meaning of the Commedia without knowing I Corinthians 13, which says that all forms of human knowledge are mortal and incomplete; only love never fails. That is, when the day of resurrection comes, and we are fully restored to God, we will have no need for faith or for hope. But we will see that the love we had in this life is the only thing that remains, because it is the nature of the God with whom we will be joined. But for now, says St. Paul, “these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”

Having passed his examinations on Faith and Hope, Dante must now answer an examination on Love. Before we go further, it is important to note that the word “love” in I Corinthians 13 is imprecise. What St. Paul actually wrote in Greek was “caritas,” which means “charity.” It is the highest form of love, a love that is rooted in God. Pope Benedict XVI, in his great 2005 encyclical Deus caritas est, draws the necessary distinctions. It is worth quoting at length:

True, no one has ever seen God as he is. And yet God is not totally invisible to us; he does not remain completely inaccessible. God loved us first, says the Letter of John quoted above (cf. 4:10), and this love of God has appeared in our midst. He has become visible in as much as he “has sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9). God has made himself visible: in Jesus we are able to see the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Indeed, God is visible in a number of ways. In the love-story recounted by the Bible, he comes towards us, he seeks to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross, to his appearances after the Resurrection and to the great deeds by which, through the activity of the Apostles, he guided the nascent Church along its path. Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church’s Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives. He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has “loved us first”, love can also blossom as a response within us.

In the gradual unfolding of this encounter, it is clearly revealed that love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvellous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love. Earlier we spoke of the process of purification and maturation by which eros comes fully into its own, becomes love in the full meaning of the word. It is characteristic of mature love that it calls into play all man’s potentialities; it engages the whole man, so to speak. Contact with the visible manifestations of God’s love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved. But this encounter also engages our will and our intellect. Acknowledgment of the living God is one path towards love, and the “yes” of our will to his will unites our intellect, will and sentiments in the all- embracing act of love. But this process is always open-ended; love is never “finished” and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself. Idem velle atque idem nolle —to want the same thing, and to reject the same thing—was recognized by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought. The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself. Then self- abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy (cf. Ps 73 [72]:23-28).

And this:

If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its real- ism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

For the Christian, caritas is the highest form of love, a love that is active, and communal. It may be said to combine eros with agape, and to transcend them both. Caritas is the love that unites heaven and earth, and that makes faith and hope real. If we do not love our fellow man actively, we do not love God. For Dante, faith, hope, and love (charity) exist in dynamic relationship, in the same way that we exist in dynamic relationship with God and each other. Pope Benedict XVI again:

Faith, hope and charity go together. Hope is practised through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which accepts God’s mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness. Faith tells us that God has given his Son for our sakes and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love! It thus transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the world in his hands and that, as the dramatic imagery of the end of the Book of Revelation points out, in spite of all darkness he ultimately triumphs in glory. Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, gives rise to love. Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practise it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world.

You are thinking: what does all this have to do with Dante? Hold on, we’re getting there.

Canto 26 begins with Dante temporarily blinded by St. John, who tells him:

“Until you have regained the sight

you have consumed on me, you will do well

to make good for its loss with speech.

“Begin, and tell me what goal your soul has set.

And be assured that your power of sight

is but confounded, not forever lost…”

Dante has been blinded because he must not rely on his senses to account for love. St. John goes on to liken his temporary blindness to St. Paul’s being struck blind on the road to Damascus, which was the occasion of his conversion. Dante here is being blinded so that he can better see the ultimate truth of love, which must be approached through the senses, but cannot ever be fully known by them.

St. John tells Dante that Beatrice will be his Ananias, the Christian in Damascus through whom God healed Paul of his blindness. Dante replies:

And I said: “As soon or as late as she wishes,

may the cure come to eyes that were the portals

she entered with the fire in which I always burn…”

This is important. When Dante first saw Beatrice, he burned with eros. Because of his purification via his journey through Hell and up the mountain of Purgatory, he now sees her with the eyes of true love, which is charity. The broader point here is that we first learn to love with our senses — our sight, our hearing, our touch, taste, and smell. Our desire must be purified, and rightly ordered, to come to a proper fruition. As we have seen throughout the pilgrim’s journey, sin is a disharmony that comes into the world by mankind loving the wrong things, or loving the right things in the wrong way. What Beatrice taught Dante when they met in the Garden of Eden atop Mount Purgatory is that he loved her in the wrong way. If he had loved her properly, he would have seen her not as an end in herself, an object of passion, but as a fellow subject in the Kingdom of God. It’s no wonder, then, that after she died, Dante, misunderstanding the nature of love, sought to fulfill his longing for love by searching after false goods. Beatrice was an icon of Christ, through which God’s love shone. But Dante couldn’t see it. He made of her an idol, and suffered when she “fell,” that is, died.

I’m sorry for taking all these seeming detours here, but it’s so important that we understand what Dante the poet means by love, given that his pursuit of love is what this quest is all about. Let’s go back to our study of Canto XXX of Purgatorio, and read what the Dante translator Andrew Frisardi has to say about Dante and love, in his discussion of Dante’s pre-Commedia memoir, the Vita nova. Excerpt:

A principal theme of the Vita nova is the human tendency to confuse the visibility of things with their actuality. In medieval Christian thought, and indeed in the thought of most times and places, the “real world” was not the one of external phenomena, which was known as the world of appearances, but the eternal one of the gods or God. By “eternal” was meant that which is neither coming into existence nor going out of existence. What was considered most real was the essential being of things in the mind of God, self-subsistent Being-Intellect. Each thing that exists does so only as “a qualification or participation” in pure awareness or Intellect, which is not a “thing” but is “the active power to be everything and nothing.” Only God truly is, all else merely participates in this Reality. The world is radically contingent, dependent in every instant on what gives it being. The creation, then, was considered to be essentially knowledge, and the intelligibility of things was thought to be ontologically prior to their sensible manifestation. Modern thinking, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that the real is matter, which is the fundamental thing onto which all else is added. We see this, for example, in empirical science’s notion that we move toward what is essential when we reduce experience and things to matter, disregarding mind, intelligence, and being as merely accidental, subjective effects brought about by material causes. This is the reverse of the medieval view. For the medieval mind, that which is most knowing (God) is that which is most real or actual.

Frisardi continues, saying that even though Dante’s theological views had considerably deepened by the time he wrote the Commedia, we can still see in Vita nova that the young poet had been reflecting on the things of God:

Already in the Vita nova, Dante would have agreed with Hugh of St. Victor, when he wrote: “But just as some illiterate man who sees an open book, looks at the figures, but does not recognize the letters: just so the foolish and natural man, who does not perceive the things of God, sees outwardly in these visible creatures the appearance but does not inwardly understand the reason.” Augustine applies the same concept explicitly to love, making the Christian distinction between eros and agape or caritas: “I mean by caritas that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of oneself and one’s neighbor in subordination to God; by lust [cupiditas] I mean that movement of the soul which aims at enjoying oneself and one’s neighbor and other corporeal things without reference to God.” Dante and Marsilio Ficino and the Renaissance Neoplatonists bear witness to the fact that there is a tradition within Christianity that seeks a fusion of eros and agape, a Christian tantra of sorts, which attempts to channel and concentrate erotic desire for the sake of a Christ-centered spiritual intensity and focus. It is a spiritualization or interiorization of beauty and sensual pleasure, which in turn requires making a distinction between icon and idol. An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the intelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon — our approach to it is what makes the difference. [Emphasis mine — RD] As William Blake expressed it, one can see through the eye rather than with it.

So. In everyday life, we first have to see something to love it, though that initial love that comes into our hearts through the portals of our eyes may become perverted (that is, it may lose the straight path). Remember how in Purgatorio, before he could love the virtues, Dante had to first see them depicted in beautiful art? This is what the poet is telling us here: that we learn to love first through our senses. But those senses only crudely approximate what is really Real. We err when we think that our senses alone are reliable guides to the Real. This is what asceticism teaches us: to re-order the relationship between flesh and spirit. Losing our mortal senses prepares us to see and to comprehend revelation.

In giving his account of love to St. John, Dante does not use a formulaic description, as he did with Faith and Hope. He declares that Love is the Ultimate Good, “the Alpha and Omega of whatever scripture Love teaches me in loud or gentle tones.” Christ calls himself the “Alpha and the Omega,” meaning the first and the last. It is a way of stating His completeness. In St. John’s Gospel — and remember to whom Dante is speaking here — the Gospel writer says of Jesus, Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” What the pilgrim Dante is saying here is that he came to believe in God through the revelation of Scripture, and came to love God through the application of Reason. If God is the source of all Creation, then He must be good, and not only good, but the supreme good, worthy of love. Hence Dante:

“Both philosophic reasoning

and the authority that descends from here

made me receive the imprint of love

“for the good, by measure of its goodness, kindles

love as soon as it is known, and so much more

the more of goodness it contains.

To that essence, then, which holds such store of goodness

that every good outside of it is nothing

but a light reflected of its rays.”

God is the Source for all things. When we perceive the world and everything in it, and do not perceive the world as an icon of God, then we see wrongly. No good thing can be separate from God; no thing can be identified as good if it is not of God.

Our love of created things — of other people, of food, of sex, of adventure, et cetera — is where we first learn what love is, but it must not stop there, or we make idols of our loves, as Dante had done, landing himself in the Dark Wood. Dante says it was rational faith in Christ that drew him out of that disorder, “from the sea of twisted love, and brought me to the shore were loves is just.” Similarly, faith is absolutely necessary to have a relationship with God — Reason alone cannot get you to God; if it could Virgil would be in Paradise — but Reason is also an instrument of the God. Says Pope Benedict XVI:

Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.

Not for nothing does the poet have his pilgrim self address St. John here. The first line of John’s Gospel calls Jesus the Logos, or Word. Jesus is the principle of rationality in the cosmos, of creativity, the personification of the Holy Trinity’s wish to communicate. The Divine Logos appears in all Creation, which reflects the light of its rays. Because God is, in essence, Love, then the only way to know the Logos, says Dante, “must, more than anything, be moved by love.” In other words, you must first love God before you can understand God. And God, because He is Love, will not force Himself on man, because love cannot be compelled.

But the world did not understand the Word, according to St. John. The Word — Jesus — came “as a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” See what’s happening here in this canto? Dante is temporarily blinded; he is in darkness, but he is demonstrating that he comprehends the Light, even though he cannot see. In his wonderful Christmas 2005 homily, the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright told his congregation that the failure of listeners — listeners in Jesus’s day, listeners in our own time — to hear the Word is at the heart of the drama of Christianity. Excerpt:

Unless we recognise this strange, dark strand running through the gospel we will domesticate John’s masterpiece (just as we’re always in danger of domesticating Christmas), and think it’s only about comfort and joy, not also about incomprehension and rejection and darkness and denial and stopping the ears and judgment.  Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything’s all right.  John’s gospel isn’t about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying ‘Of course!  Why didn’t we realise it before?’  It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, and the darkness not comprehending it.  It’s about God, God-as-a-little-child, speaking the word of truth, and nobody knowing what he’s talking about.

There may be somebody here this morning who is aware of that puzzlement, that incomprehension, that sense of a word being spoken which seems as though it ought to mean something but which remains opaque to you.  If that’s where you are, the good news is that along with this theme of incomprehension and rejection there goes the parallel theme of people hearing and receiving Jesus’ words, believing them and discovering, as he says, that they are spirit and life (6.63), breathing into the dry, dead fabric of our being and producing new life, new birth, new creation.  ‘As many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children, who were born not of human will or flesh, but of God’.  ‘If you abide in my words, you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free’ (8.31f.).  ‘If anyone keeps my words, that person will never see death’ (8.51).  ‘You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you’ (15.3).  Don’t imagine that the world divides naturally into those who can understand what Jesus is saying that those who can’t.  By ourselves, we none of us can.  Jesus is born into a world where everyone is deaf and blind to him and what he’s saying; but some, in fear and trembling, allow his words to challenge, rescue, heal and transform them.  That is what’s on offer at Christmas; not a better focussed religion for those who already like that sort of thing, but a Word which is incomprehensible in our language but which, when we learn to hear, understand and believe it, will transform our whole selves with its judgment and mercy.

Bishop Wright’s Christmas sermon helps us understand the rest of this canto. Having passed the test, Dante regains his vision, then is shown a light that Beatrice identifies as Adam. Reading the pilgrim’s mind, Adam tells Dante he knows what his questions are. They include wanting to know why he (Adam) was thrown out of the Garden, and “the language that I used and that I shaped.”

Adam tells Dante that his exile came because he “trespass[ed] the boundary line.” Adam says this in a single tercet, but the implications for the entire poem are enormous. The Yale Dantist Giuseppe Mazzotta compares this with Inferno Canto XXVI, where Dante meets the explorer Ulysses, damned because he cast aside all boundaries in his craving for knowledge.

“God’s imposition of the boundary between the human and the divine was a way of letting Adam know that he had to be aware of his limitations,” says Mazzotta. Adam’s fall re-established limits Adam thought he could transgress. The quest was for knowledge, the knowledge that only God has. It was curiosity, but mostly, it was pride. We can only be with God, and only be as God if we unite ourselves to Him according to His ordering of the cosmos, not ours. As Mazzotta puts it, “We have to grow into a recognition of boundaries between ourselves and something that we aspire to but have not yet attained.”

Adam lived in primordial unity with God because he accepted this rightly-ordered relationship with Him. When Adam fell — and we may, of course, see Adam and the Fall as a mythological expression of the loss of unity with God, which was a real event — he fell into darkness. To be cast out of the Garden is to be thrown into the Dark Wood. The only way back is through Christ. We cannot get there on our own, but it’s also the case that God will not force us to accept Him and the Way. We have to cooperate with grace by opening ourselves up to the process of illumination. This is through prayer, fasting, and repentance — and through acts of charity, which reveal how much we love God.

I confess that pilgrim Dante’s query of Adam about language puzzled me. What does the language spoke by Adam have to do with anything? Gradually, through researching this canto, I found the answer.

Adam tells Dante that there was no primordial language that existed before the Tower of Babel, the story from Genesis about how God punished the people of the earth for their hubris by scattering them and giving them different tongues. What Adam means by this is that there never has been any language capable of fully conveying the Truth:

“For nothing ever produced by reason —

since human tastes reflect the motion

of the moving stars — can last forever…

There are no words capable of expressing the Word in its fullness. It is part of our condition of exile that we speak in different tongues, and that we cannot ever express in word what we know to be true. Think of what it means for a poet, especially one as great as Dante, and as confident in his own powers as Dante, to express this thought. We have seen Dante struggle throughout the Paradiso to find the language capable of capturing what he sees — and often he admits that there simply are no words. We have reached the limit of what can be known by merely human means. To believe that we are capable of knowing everything through our own reason is to transgress a fundamental boundary. It is what got Adam thrown out of the Garden. It is what caused the people of Babel to be struck down in confusion. It is what condemned Ulysses to death and damnation.

It is a temptation that is always with mankind. Once again, let me return to Pope Benedict XVI, whose writing I have become more familiar with as I have made this pilgrimage through Dante, and for whom I am praying for the chance to meet and to thank when I go to Italy in October (it would be a miracle, but God grants them sometimes). This is from God And The World, a book-length series of interviews then-Cardinal Ratzinger did with the journalist Peter Seewald, which were published in English in the year 2000. The quote is long, and I am sorry that this post is turning mostly into a clip job, but the points are so vital to get clear, and the voices of these others is so much stronger than my own:

Ratzinger: The Christian picture of the world is this, that the world in its details is the product of a long process of evolution but that the most profound level it comes form the Logos. Thus it carries rationality within itself, not just a mathematical rationality — no one can deny that the world is mathematically structured — not, that is to say, just an entirely neutral, objective rationality, but in the form of the Logos also a moral rationality.

Seewald: But how can we know that with such certainty?

Creation itself offers indications as to how it should be understood and upon what terms it should be accepted. This can be obvious even to non-Christians. But faith helps us recognize the clear truth that in the rationality of creation is to be found not only a mathematical message, but a moral message.

Ratzinger says the promptings of conscience are a sign of the moral law written on our hearts. Through the process of education, we learn to refine these intuitions — and this is “one part” of the path to Christ, of illumination. But we can never get there on our own, because our knowledge is always only partial. Ratzinger says that the Tower of Babel myth reminds us of the disaster we court when we come to believe that our own abilities — in the case of the people of Babel, their ability to construct a tower they believed could reach heaven — can make us like God. The fall of the Tower of Babel is a replay of the Fall of Adam, which was a replay of the Fall of Lucifer. Says Cardinal Ratzinger, of the Tower of Babel myth:

Basically this is the same as the dream of modern technology: possessing divine power, being able to get at the controls of the world itself. In this way, these images truly embody warnings from a primitive knowledge that can still speak to us.

But why language? In the myth, why does God punish man by making everyone speak a different language? Because the ability to communicate universally is connected with the belief that mankind is the master of its own fate. Because they could understand each other, they thought they could understand and master everything. Ratzinger:

We can perhaps interpret this image in this way: In Babel, both the unity of mankind and the temptation to become like God, and to reach up to his height, are linked solely with technical ability. But unity on this basis, we are being told here, will not hold and leads to confusion.

… We can say that the story of the Tower of Babel takes a critical view of a certain way of uniting the ways in which man arranges his life and his world, a way that achieves only apparent unity and only seems to make man greater. In reality, it robs him of his depth and of his greatness. Besides this, it makes him dangerous, because, on the one hand, he has great power, but, on the other, his moral capacity lags behind his technical capacity. Moral strength has not grown in correspondence with the power to make or destroy things that man now has. That is why God intervenes to oppose this kind of unification and is creating unity of a quite different kind.

Cardinal Ratzinger compares Babel to Pentecost, the day in which the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of the Resurrected Christ, and caused them to speak different languages, not as a punishment but as a manifestation of holiness. It is the day that the Church was born:

Multiplicity remains, but it is now transformed, by a unity at hear, into an inner unity. Pentecost shows the opposite pattern to the Tower of Babel: a unity in which all the richness of humanity is preserved. God does wish for unity. It is to that end that his whole activity in history is directed; to that end Christ came into the world; to that end he created the Church. But he wishes for a unity that is both higher and more profound.

If you’ve been following our reading of Paradiso on this blog, you’ll recognize that this is exactly the picture of the cosmos that Dante has been portraying: unity not as uniformity, but as harmony. We become our true selves not by speaking the same language — an artificial outer unity — but by speaking the inner language of faith, hope, and above all, love. Love is a language for which there are no adequate words, or sounds, or images. Because God is Love, we can hardly begin to testify to the power and the reality of the Ultimate Love through any creation of human hands. We must accept the limits of what we can know in this life, and not transgress the boundaries. Every human thing must be situated within God’s order if it is to be good. If it is not ordered by God, by divine Love, it is “twisted love,” and it can only result in shipwreck.

What does this mean for us — for you, for me? There is no formula for living. The words of the Bible, the words of the liturgy, the beauty of all things, are nothing if they do not bring us into unity with God, the sign of which is caritas in our hearts and lives. The words of all the poets, the pigments of all the painters, the stone of all the sculptors, the movements of all the dancers, only have validity insofar as they reveal and participate in Being, which is to say, the life of God. Christian Moevs writes in the introduction to his book on Dante’s metaphysics:

A text will reveal being only if it is in some sense transparent to (embodies) what is, pure love/awareness: the text in this sense will not be other than the reality that spawns (dictates) it.

If you want to live in Truth, then, you will live in God. Dramas and doctrines, lyrics and liturgies, all of it matters only insofar as it manifests the presence of the living God. They are not important because they tell us about God; they are important if they open the doors of perception for us to experience God, because the transforming, deifying experience of the living God is the realest thing there is. This is what true knowledge consists of: not superior intellection, but unity with God. We first come to love God through loving the things He has created, especially other people — this is the fire that Beatrice sent through Dante’s eyes into his heart — but as we grow in the spirit, we come to understand that those created things are only icons, doors into the Real. When we love them, we don’t have to understand them to be in relationship with them. Insofar as we truly understand, it is through love, though loving does not give us comprehension. In the darkness of this life, we cannot hope to comprehend the light, but we can hope to merge with it.

It all sounds impossibly metaphysical, but it boils down to this: if you want to love anything, first love God — but understand Who God is, and is not. He is in the Church, but He is not the Church. He is in theological principles, but He is not theological principles. He is in the liturgy, but He is not the liturgy. He is in good food, beautiful architecture, angelic-sounding symphonies, but He is not those things. He is in especially in acts of compassion and mercy and forgiveness, but they are not Him. We cannot look on Him directly, but we may know him by analogy — through works of beauty and acts of charity. We must strive in our everyday lives to live in unity with Him, by consecrating our words, our thoughts, and our deeds to achieving that unity with Him, the one Adam lost by transgressing the boundary out of love of Self.


And so we conclude the story of the virtues found in Cantos 24, 25, and 26. Dante uses theology and examination of theology only to place us back in this world, where we go on believing, hoping, and loving. we come to realize that these are all mysterious terms, which can only function together, and each is understood in terms of the other, for there is no love without faith in an ongoing circulation. Where we have hope as the realization of faith, and love as the realization of hope, the meaning that mysteriously escapes us no longer matters.

One who loves as God loves does not need explanations. He is like the father of the Prodigal Son, who did not demand an accounting of his penitent son’s journey, but only gave thanks that he was once again united with the one he loved.

In the past, I thought that if only I created the perfect moment, I would be happy. If I lived in the perfect city, if I married the perfect woman, if I had the perfect job, if I joined the perfect church, if I could go on a perfect vacation and drink the perfect wine, if I could have perfect relationship with my family, if I could behave with perfect morality and honor — if I could have and do all of these things, then I would be happy. And at the very end, it came down to: if I could be welcomed home, having completed the circle, then that would make me happiest. But it did not happen, because none of it is possible. It was in the pain that came from the breaking of those dreams, the smashing of those idols, that I became blind enough to begin to see.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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