As I’ve been saying throughout our Dante discussions, the Commedia is about learning how to see reality — and nowhere is that more clear than in Paradiso, a realm of light. In Canto III, Dante sees his first figures in Paradise, but he’s not sure if they’re real, or just reflections. Beatrice smiles at his “childish thoughts,” because they “trust not their steps to truth, but turn you back, as is their custom, toward emptiness.”
That’s a powerful line. She’s chiding Dante for his lack of faith, and for a skepticism so profound that it condemns him to nihilism, or at least to drifting in nothingness. Even though he has been purified in Purgatorio, and made ready for Heaven, he still can’t grasp the fullness of reality. That “as is their custom” is a sharp rebuke of an immature cast of mind that will not believe what’s plain to see.
Beatrice tells him that this sphere, the sphere of the Moon, is for those who have failed in their vows. She advises the pilgrim to believe what they say to him, because God will not let them mislead him.
The first soul Dante meets is a nun known in the world (and to him) as Piccarda Donati; you’ll remember her brother, Forese, as the gaunt but joyful repentant glutton from Purgatorio. She tells him that she and the others are in the “slowest of the spheres” — that is, the lowest level of Paradise — because they neglected their vows. But they are utterly content here, she tells him, because they have perfect assurance that they are fulfilling the divine plan. Dante doesn’t get it:
“But tell me, do you, who are here content,
desire to achieve a higher place, where you
might see still more and make yourselves more dear?”
In other words, how can you possibly be satisfied here at the bottom of the heavenly hierarchy? Piccarda answers him “with so much gladness she seemed alight with love’s first fire.” She says:
“Brother, the power of love subdues our will
so that we long for only what we have
and thirst for nothing else.”
This is where God has assigned them, she says, and if they desired something more, their wills would be discordant with God’s. To be ruled by love is to be in perfect harmony with the divine will, “so that our wills combine in unity.”
Piccarda then utters one of the most famous lines of the entire Commedia:
“And in His will is our peace.”
Then it was clear to me that everywhere in heaven
is Paradise, even if the grace of the highest Good
does not rain down in equal measure.
This is deep. When we dwell in a state of perfect love, we have no desire for things we do not have. To be at peace is to cease to desire anything that God has not given us. Heaven is a state of paradox, in which everywhere is perfect, even though some places are at a higher degree of perfection than others. How can we speak of degrees of perfection? In Heaven, we are perfected according to our own natures. Piccarda, for example, bears as much divine light as her nature can accept. We learn from her that in the Kingdom of God, perfection is not perfect equality, but perfect harmony. To love perfectly is to give all but desire nothing.
What practical lesson do we readers learn from this? That if we would be at peace, we should practice gratitude. The opposite of the sin of Envy is to be happy with what you have, and not to desire more, or to begrudge one who has more their blessedness. How radically different that is from the way we live in this world.
In Canto IV, Beatrice anticipates Dante’s questions about what he has just seen and heard (notice how she seems to be able to read his mind; more on that shortly). First, she explains to him why Piccarda and Constance, the other nun he sees in the sphere of the Moon, appear to him there. Beatrice says that Plato was wrong: the souls of the dead do not live on particular planets. God allowed those two souls to appear on the Moon so Dante could better understand their place in Heaven. In fact, she says, all the saved dwell together with God in the Empyrean. They are all seated around God, “in the highest circle,” but “they enjoy sweet life in differing measure.” That is, everyone in Paradise is entirely filled with God to their capacity, but they differ in the amount of blessedness they can contain.
They appeared to you like this, she goes on, in the same way that Scripture speaks of God having hands and feet: because the only way our finite intellects can understand higher things is through simile, through metaphor, through analogy. Some truths, some mysteries, can best be conveyed indirectly. The importance of this point in the Commedia can hardly be overstated. Throughout Paradiso, Dante keeps reminding us that there really are no words capable of describing what he has seen and experienced. The best language can do is to approximate it. In the same way, God condescended to our finitude by incarnating as a man, Jesus Christ, so that we could know Him, Who is infinite, and (therefore) unknowable.
Of the two questions that come to Dante’s mind after his meeting with Piccarda, this issue, the one of representation, has more potential “venom,” Beatrice says. What could this mean? Giuseppe Mazzotta says:
But why is representation considered so dangerous in the first place? Representation has the power to erase the world of references that it represents. Representation has the power to make appearances and simulacra the only reality that we manage to see. By virtue of the representation, we may end up in the predicament of believing that that’s all there is. We may make the mistake Dante made of believing that these souls actually live on the moon and, therefore, that we are in a Platonic otherworld where the souls go back to this planet. The journey of Dante is the journey between images themselves and testing what these images may mean, finding out whether behind these images there is some kind of substance, essence, or reality. Dante moves between the two worlds and tries to join them. Hence, representation is a key issue here.
The other question that Dante had has to do with justice. Piccarda Donati was a nun who was taken from the convent by her evil brother Corso, and forced into a marriage that was to his political benefit. How, Dante wonders, can it be fair for God to punish her for violating her vows when she was taken from the convent against her will?
This, says Beatrice, is a matter of faith in divine justice — that is, confidence that God, who sees all and knows all, judges fairly, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. She goes on to say that in some way, however small, Piccarda must have consented to her fate. Beatrice makes a theological distinction between “absolute will” and “conditioned will,” which makes it clear to Dante why Piccarda ended up where she did in the heavenly hierarchy. Basically, if Piccarda’s will had been perfect (absolute), she would have resisted Corso even to martyrdom. It was not; she did not; that’s why she’s in a lesser place — though still in Heaven.
This may be hard to reconcile ourselves to; that’s why Beatrice says we have to take Piccarda’s fate on faith. The important thing to notice here is that Piccarda is not angry, does not feel slighted, but rather experiences bliss. She does not think God has dealt with her unfairly; she is grateful to be with Him, in Paradise, forever. It’s helpful to think of the two other women in the Commedia with which Dante contrasts her in the structure of the three canticles.
The first is Francesca, from Canto V of Inferno. Francesca is in Hell with her adulterous lover Paolo, the brother of her husband, who murdered both of them. When Dante meets her there, Francesca is full of excuses for her damnation. She denies any responsibility, even though she chose to break her marriage vow.
The second woman is Pia, from Canto V of Purgatorio. Her husband killed her, but in the short conversation she has with Dante — she is on the terrace of the Late Repentant — all she does is politely ask Dante for his prayers when he returns to life. She was the victim of her husband’s violence, but she does not complain about him (though she does mention him). She focuses only on her own sin. Clearly she has forgiven her husband; the message here is that if we want to rise toward God, we must not only take responsibility for our sins, but we must also forgive those who wronged us. Think of the martyred Father Christian de Chergé, of the Tibhirine Trappists, who, in his last testament, forgave in advance the man who would be his murderer. More to the point, think of God Himself, releasing his murderers from responsibility for their deed (“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”).
And then we come to Piccarda, whose holiness her brother Forese praised when he saw Dante in Purgatory. She was the most innocent of the three — nuns are considered brides of Christ; her “adultery” was not of her own will, but was forced on her. Still, somehow, her will wasn’t perfect. Nevertheless, there is no sadness, no regret, no spite, nothing but joy and gratitude to God. I think that Dante the poet uses the figure of Piccarda to illustrate how pure love doesn’t measure fairness and unfairness, doesn’t meditate on past wrongs, is not bound by envy or any earthly passion. Piccarda is free. We may find it hard to understand precisely why God found fault with her at all, but that is only an indication of how imperfect our own understanding is, and how far we have to go before we are united to God.
Think of it like this. Let’s say Alice and Jane are Christian sisters who are expected to serve dinner to their cruel stepmother. Both do it well, with smiles on their faces. Alice wrestles with deep anger, only managing just barely to conquer her passions and do the job, reminding herself that she must treat even those who persecute her with kindness, as Christ taught. Jane, by contrast, carries out her task with a heart untroubled by hatred. Both women have done the correct act, but Jane’s will is more perfectly aligned with God’s than Alice’s will is. In Dante’s scheme, if both sisters go to Heaven, Jane will be more blessed because in the earthly life, Jane was able to bear more of God’s glory. See how that works?
Thinking about Piccarda as I’ve been writing this piece, I’ve thought of a few folks in my life that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to deal with. I recently told my priest, “It’s not fair the way [this particular person] behaves towards me.” My priest said, “Who are you to expect justice?”
I thought I understood what he was getting at, but I really didn’t. I couldn’t make much sense of the question, to be honest, because I was so hurt and angry by the unjust way this person behaved towards me. Meditating on Piccarda this evening, I’m starting to get it … and I’m starting to understand what I have to do next, whether I want to or not. It just about kills me to think about letting go of this stuff, but, well, that’s the point of dying to oneself to live in Christ, isn’t it? Piccarda is free in a way that I am not — and the door is locked from the inside.
UPDATE: Don’t miss these excellent and illuminating comments from readers.
I too have been treated unfairly by family. I had to see it differently–and still work on that! It’s not about me. These other people are suffering, and misunderstanding their situation, and they have cast me in a certain role in their own drama. That is really too bad for them. They are experiencing stress and negative emotions, and have deprived themselves of the ability to enjoy a relationship with me that could be great for both of us. Lucky me–I don’t have to suffer with all that! I can just say to myself, “Wow, people do some crazy things sometimes” and continue to love them as much as they’ll let me, and hope that someday the love and understanding between us will be more.
I’ve often said that I wished I’d punched my father in the face back when he deserved it. And I meant it, too! Because boy, did he ever deserve it. Justice–from my point of view–would demand that he be punished for the crap he pulled on us. But when he got old and sick, I was unbelievably grateful that I hadn’t done that. A thousand times I wanted to tell him off. But when he was dying, it was the greatest possible blessing to me to know that he had never received anything but kindness from me. He went to his grave knowing that I loved him. It wasn’t fair. It was better than fair. The only thing I would have wished to be different is that I wish I could have undone his suffering. That’s what I wish I could have gotten God to do–not justice for me, but mercy for him.
Do what God does–fly in the face of justice, love without measure–and Heaven will take care of itself. Love is its own reward. That is kinda the point of the Christian message, from my POV, so i’ve always been puzzled by why Christians don’t seem to get that.
But isn’t part of the reason Piccarda is on the lowest level because did not live a life fully dedicated to God, as she would have if she’d remained a nun? This has nothing to do with moral culpability, it has only to do with the facts of the case: she hasn’t developed her soul to a point where it has greater capacity. Think about it this way. Jane and Anne are both taking voice lessons, but Jane was born with a voice that is exceptional while Anne’s is merely sufficient. Both love music and work equally hard, but because Jane has greater natural talent, she becomes an opera star. Anne’s voice is good enough so that she’s chosen for the church choir. We don’t say that this is unfair. We say that’s the way it is. If we want to point out unfairness, we have to move back a step and complain that both were not granted equal natural talent. In the case of Piccarda, we’d have to ask why god permitted her to be dragged from the convent. It seems to me that this is where the question lies.