Paradiso, The Final Cantos
Today I bring our study of Dante’s Paradiso to an end. I’m eager to get into Inferno, so I can blog the entire thing before I leave for Florence at the end of the month. Plus, I see diminishing returns for you general readers in my going exhaustively over all the metaphysical details at this late stage of the poem. It seems to me that I can cover the last three cantos — 31, 32, and 33 — in a single entry.
Much of these final three cantos constitutes a fulfillment of what we have heard and learned before. For example, in describing what heaven looks like, Dante says in Canto 31:
for God’s light penetrates the universe
according to the merits of each part,
and there is nothing that can block its way.
This is nothing new, of course, but it is important to restate it: God designed Creation for diversity — or, to use a less politically loaded word, variety. The goal is not unity through egalitarianism, but through harmony.
Says Dante of this vision of the Mystical Rose, which is the Court of Heaven:
Truly, between my stupor and my joy
it was a pleasure not to hear or speak.
Before the indescribable beauty of God’s revelation, no words are possible. There is nothing to do but worship, praise, and adore.
Then the pilgrim Dante looks around for Beatrice — but she has gone, returned to her place within the Mystic Rose. Taking one last look at her image, Dante offers to Beatrice a final prayer:
“O lady in whom all my hope takes strength,
and who for my salvation did endure
to leave her footprints on the floor of Hell,
through your own power, through your own excellence
I recognize the grace and the effect
of all those things I have seen with my eyes.
From bondage into freedom you led me
by all those paths, by using all those means
which were within the limits of your power.
Preserve in me your great munificence,
so that my soul which you have healed may be
pleasing to you when it slips from the flesh.”
What a beautiful image: “who for my salvation did endure to leave her footprints on the floor of Hell.” This recalls Christ’s harrowing of Hell during his time in the grave, before his Resurrection. You may know that in the scheme of the Commedia, Dante and Virgil’s march through the Inferno occurred on the days the Church marks Christ’s time in Hell (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday). What Beatrice did was to walk the Way of Christ, as an icon of Christ. She was not Christ; by bearing the likeness of Christ in her holy character, she witnessed to the lost Dante of the saving power of Christ, and led him back to the Way. Giuseppe Mazzotta is very good on the meaning of this moment:
You may remember that Canto 29 ended with Beatrice very worried that Dante has been expounding too much. Beatrice got upset because the whole issue seems to her to be a way of thinking more about the appearance of things rather than the truth of things. She attacked the human beings on earth who do nothing else but go after false appearances. Dante now goes back to these questions of appearances, and says to Beatrice that her image is exactly what he is going to preserve of her. He’s telling her that we are always in a world of images and that the image is somehow the locus of sacredness, though the image also has a fleeting quality. The journey of Dante is thus to go between images and essences. He’s preparing for the final leap, for Dante’s journey was not a voyage to Beatrice but a voyage to God. Beatrice is simply the stepping stone for the pilgrim’s entering the experience of the beatific vision.
The entire journey of the Commedia has been one from image to essence. Dante has come far not to see icons of God, but God Himself.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux now appears at the pilgrim’s side, to guide him on the final steps up the summit. In the Commedia, Virgil represents Reason; Beatrice stands for Revelation. Both Reason and Revelation have taken the pilgrim as far along the way to union with God that they can. All that is left now is Contemplation. In contemplation, we do not desire; we enjoy. Until now, Dante has been driven by desire — desire to know more. His desires are about to be fulfilled; it will be only left for him to contemplate. This is why he is taken on these final steps by the great medieval contemplative, Bernard.
St. Bernard explains to Dante how heaven is ordered, pointing out famous personages from Old and New Testament history, and saints from the Church’s past. The meaning of this is to demonstrate harmony and order within all things. This is the ultimate icon of salvation history, taking in figures from the Hebrew Bible and from the Christian era, and ordering them meaningfully, to express in a single image the entire relationship of humanity to each other, and to God. The lesson for the reader is that all of history, all of humanity, everything that ever was and will be, is ordained by God, and has meaning and design. Our task is to unify ourselves to God, and in so doing take our place in the divine order, for “in His will is our peace.”
St. Bernard identifies the Biblical Ruth as the “great-grandmother of that singer who, grieving for his sin, cried: ‘Miserere mei'” — that is, “Have mercy on me.”
The poet here refers to King David, of course; “misereri mei” are the first two words of Psalm 50, which is David’s piercing prayer of repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba. Dante scholar Robert Hollander points out that David is an extraordinarily important figure to Dante in this poem. He is mentioned fifty times. I find it interesting that Dante here identifies him as a “singer” — that is, an artist — instead of a king. It’s clear that Dante personally identifies with David. The first words the pilgrim speaks in the poem, in the first canto of Inferno, are “Have mercy on me,” upon seeing the shade of Virgil in the dark wood. The poet wants us to know that repentance — begging for mercy, in humility — is the necessary first step toward restoration. Remember that no one can climb the mountain of Purgatory without humility. Here, at the very summit of heaven, St. Bernard reminds Dante that there is no sin that God cannot forgive as long as the sinner asks for mercy, for a humble and contrite heart He will not despise.
St. Bernard tells the pilgrim to raise his eyes:
“Now look at that face which resembles Christ
the most, for only in it is radiance
will you be made ready to look at Christ.”
He speaks here of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, the closest to perfection of all created beings. She is here the Queen of Heaven. By now, you will know that in the medieval mind, we proceed to God through stages, approaching Him in a gradual process of theosis. We have seen this throughout the poem. Conversion isn’t a one-time thing, but a gradual unveiling, an unfolding, through the witness — sometimes the negative witness — of others. To come back to God, Dante had to first come to Virgil, who had been sent by the Virgin Mary herself, in a message relayed through St. Lucy, then Beatrice, and finally to Virgil. Why did God do it that way? We don’t know. The point is that this is how it happened — the Great Chain of Being again. As they say, God writes straight with crooked lines. He will use anything He can to call us to Himself. We will see the reason in everything in the next life.
The important takeaway in this moment of the Commedia is that there is, for Dante, no way to see Christ properly without first having looked upon the face of His mother. You can and should see this as an example of the reverence with which medieval Christians had for the Virgin, but you may also see it more broadly, as an affirmation of the primal goodness of humanity: We approach the All-Holy through His incarnation as a flesh-and-blood man, the son of a Hebrew woman, Mary. In 431, the Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer” (more loosely, “Mother of God”), in response to the Nestorian heresy. By officially designating Mary as “Theotokos,” the Council affirmed that Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God. It is ultimately a theological judgment not of Mary’s status, but of Jesus of Nazareth’s. It is an affirmation that the divine became human, that Heaven and Earth united in Mary’s womb. Mary, in a limited sense, is the Primum Mobile of our salvation, whose freely chosen “yes” set into motion the events that reconciled God to Man.
In the final canto, St. Bernard prays to the Virgin on Dante’s behalf, begging for her prayers to the Holy Trinity, that God may grant Dante the blessing of seeing Him. The Mother of God grants the request. Dante looks:
for my sight, becoming pure,
rose higher and higher through the ray
of the exalted light that in itself is true.
Do you see what the poet did there? The divine light is not only beautiful; it is true. How can an aesthetic quality have a moral quality? In God, they are united. Truth and Beauty become One.
From that time on my power of sight exceeded
that of speech, which fails at such a vision,
as memory fails at such abundance.
The reality of God is something words cannot describe. It was so overwhelming that he cannot even remember it all. But “in my heart there still endures the sweetness that was born of it.” In my heart. Giuseppe Mazzotta says:
This journey to God has truly been a journey of the heart, a journey of the mind as well, but primarily a journey of the heart. You have to come to know God through the heart, or not at all.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, the Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Song of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” — is also called the Prayer of the Heart. It is fundamental to Orthodox teaching that the only way to God is through humility, and through the heart. If more Catholics and more Orthodox would read Dante, we would find that we have much more in common than either of us may think.
Back to the poem: the light of God annihilates the pilgrim. He is in ecstasy:
Thus the sun unseals an imprint in the snow.
Thus the Sibyl’s oracles, on weightless leaves,
lifted by the wind, were swept away.
These are interesting lines. Earlier in the poem, Dante described God’s action on the soul as being like an imprint on wax. Now, on the cusp of theosis, Dante says that there’s no need for an imprint, because he is about to encounter the real thing. There is no need for prophecy, because all prophecy is about to be fulfilled. All images, all words, all attempts at representation, must fail. Right?
Maybe not. Prof. Mazzotta has a more straightforward reading of this tercet. He says the reflect Dante’s state of radical confusion here at the end. The sun melts a footprint, so one cannot tell who has passed here, or where the path is. The Sibyl’s oracles refers to a moment in the Aeneid, in which Aeneas goes to the Sibyl’s cave to find out about his future, and a gust of wind blows all her leaves, making it impossible for him to find out his future.
Nevertheless, Dante asks God to “grant my tongue sufficient power that it may leave behind a single spark of glory for the people yet to come.” That is, help me write a poem telling at least some of what I’ve seen here with You. In the depths of God, Dante sees
by love into a single volume bound,
the pages scattered through the universe
So, out of a sense of chaos (the Sibyl’s leaves), comes order. All of reality is united by God, in His love. Love is the only thing that makes sense of everything, that binds together the scattered fragments of creation, and makes them cohere. God is Love, and God is Logos. Everything makes sense only in and through God. Prof. Ron Herzman says that Dante foresees that this poem he will write when he returns from his fantastic journey will be like God’s book of the universe. I like Mazzotta’s line on the pilgrim’s prayer that language will triumph over forgetfulness:
For Dante, a work of art invents and prepares a future, more than acting as a remembrance, and the poem will thus be a prolepsis, or a movement forward.
Note that the entire Commedia has been reconstructed from memory (not literally; that is its conceit). The pilgrim Dante has gone on a moral journey of transformation, in which all the scattered leaves of his past — the people he knew in life, those he knew from books, those he knew from stories — were all part of the making of the man he now is here at the end of the journey. All of his past is prologue. He is not commemorating what he saw on the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven so much as he is talking about how it changed him. Similarly, the poet wants us, his readers, to be changed by his work of art. As Dante told his patron, Can Grande, in a letter, he intended the poem “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss.” This is not simply a work of art; it is a work of art that is meant to be used.
And then, the pilgrim says:
Now my words will come far short
of what I still remember, like a babe’s
who at his mother’s breast still wets his tongue.
As Ron Herzman says, this is Dante, near the very end of his 14,000-line poem, one of the greatest works of art in all human history, telling the reader that it is all just “baby talk” compared to the reality of God. Recall St. Thomas Aquinas’s words after seeing a mystical vision, the one that caused him to put down his pen and stop writing the Summa: that after what he had beheld, all of his writing was “like straw.”
Now, having beheld all of Creation united in God, Dante sees the Holy Trinity. Dorothy Sayers describes it like this:
He sees three circles, of three colours, yet of one dimension. One seems to be reflected from the other, and the third, like flame, proceeds equally from both (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) — [Note: The double procession is a Catholic and Protestant teaching, not Orthodox. — RD] Then, as he gazes, the reflected circle shows within itself the human form, coloured with the circle’s own hue. As Dante strives to comprehend how human nature is united with the Word, a ray of divine light so floods his mind that his desire is at rest. At this point the vision eases, and the story ends with the poet’s will and desire moving in perfect coordination with the love of God.
What does this look like? There’s a long, mindblowing paper in the new issue of Dante Studies in which scholars try to puzzle it out. One theory is that they look like Borromean rings. Here is a work of art incorporating Borromean rings:
Except in what Dante sees, he sees the face of a human being. Dante can’t make sense of what he’s seeing. It’s like a squared circle; it shouldn’t exist, but it does. Yet this is just an image of the Holy Trinity; it’s not the Holy Trinity. He can’t wrap his mind around it. The only way to know it is to experience it. Not to see it; to be it. And then comes the moment of theosis, when Dante is fully absorbed into the Godhead:
But my wings had not sufficed for that
had not my mind been struck by a bolt
of lightning that granted what I asked.
Here my exalted vision lost its power.
But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving
with an even motion, were turning with
the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.
Remember Paradiso 11, when Beatrice warned Dante that if she smiled at him in his unprepared state, he would be destroyed like Semele was by Zeus’s bolt? This has now happened to Dante, who has been struck down by the living God. He has been annihilated — yet returned to himself. In his “death” is his eternal life. Dante’s memory cannot recall what happened to him in that moment, but he does know the result: that everything within his soul moved in perfect harmony with the will of God, and that he has become one with the Universe, all flowing within the Love of God.
Here, from John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, a drawing showing what this looks like. The perfected soul
Throughout Paradiso, recall, Dante uses images of circling, orbiting, as signs of perfectly harmonizing. Freccero:
The center of the intellectual circle of the soul is the point that in turn traces the circumference of another circle, with a much wider sweep. This is the circle of velle, of the will, properly speaking. It symbolizes the perfect act of fruition, which is the necessary and natural end of the will. The word velle here denotes, as it does in Thomas Aquinas, the unshakable adherence of the will to its natural end, which it loves in itself. As the angels whirl around God in the circular track that is moved by love, the velle of the pilgrim joins them and the rest of creation in a dance of glory. The rate and proximity of his orbit is governed, as is theirs, by the intensity of his vision at the center of his being, which, because of the mechanism of intellect, is both God and himself.
Georges Poulet has suggested that in the final cantos of Dante’s poem, the attributes of God are in a sense shared by the pilgrim, inasmuch as the pilgrim’s soul is a center which contains the infinite sphere of divinity. The movement by which the soul approaches God is thus a movement of “concentration” that is accomplished in the depths of the soul itself. But if the pilgrim’s soul resembles God, then the mystical definition of God also applies to it: a circumference as well as a center. Even in beatific vision, when God becomes the soul’s most intimate possession, the external world of suns and stars never ceases to exist. The dialectic between the human soul and God was for Dante never to be dissolved into its two polarities, as it was later in the Renaissance. Just as individuality could not be totally absorbed into divinity, so God could not be completely reduced to the proportions of the human soul. The dialectic was maintained by its synthesis, the Incarnation, which is to say that the final image maintains its coherence only by the grace of the vision that precedes it.
So, what do we do now? Dante’s poem ends back on earth. He has made a full circle. He will go out into the world, changed by what he has experienced, and try by his words to lead others to the same unity with God. It has to be what we would call a “personal encounter.” As Mazzotta said, the only way to God is through the heart.
Here at the end, I’d like you to go back and read part of the Purgatorio 31 posting, in which I quote at length Pope Benedict’s encyclical God is love. I won’t repeat it here, but it’s fascinating stuff. Benedict speaks of divine love as receiving and perfecting our erotic love, which is to say, our desire. Fr. Robert Imbelli makes the connection between Pope Benedict’s encylical and Dante. Excerpts:
But two days prior to the release of the letter, the pope himself gave as forthright a statement of authorial intent as one could wish for. In an address to a symposium organized by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (the Vatican office that oversees Catholic charitable organizations), Benedict declared the remarkable ambition: “I wish to express for our time and our existence something of what Dante summed up in his daring vision.”
The vision to which the pope refers is the one at the culmination of the entire journey of the Divine Comedy.Dante achieves the full satisfaction of his spiritual quest in an ecstatic contemplation of the triune God in the form of three radiant circles of diversely colored light. But this achievement is not Dante’s doing. It is the gift of God’s condescension. Dante’s loving desire, eros, is subsumed and transformed in God’s self-giving love,agape. And what enables and undergirds this consummated union is the appearance of a human form within one of the circles of the Trinitarian mystery. Jesus Christ himself is the union of the two: God and humanity, agape and eros, eternity and time.
A final dualism rejected by Pope Benedict is that between soul and body. So much is this the case that the nuptial love between man and woman is sacramental, “the icon of the relationship between God and his people, and vice versa” (No. 11). Not by accident has the Song of Songs of the biblical tradition become the canonical expression of both human and divine love, of eros purified and sanctified even to total self-gift for the sake of the other. The pope even calls the Song of Songs “a source of mystical knowledge and experience” (No. 10).
Yet, however potentially blessed and lifegiving the sexual component of erotic love is, eros embraces far more than merely sexual love. It is desire that is the wellspring of all human striving and achievement, intellectual, artistic and relational. But whatever its form, it must be redeemed from self-seeking, from turning in on itself at the expense of the other—what Augustine called cupiditas and Dante cupidagine. This is that original self-seeking that, since Adam and Eve, has corrupted relationships and perverted eros into violence.
In the face of this deeply rooted predicament, the cure must be radical, not superficial.
This is not Augustinian pessimism, but Christian realism. And the heart of the good news is that God has provided such salvation in Christ.
You don’t need complicated metaphysics and literary analysis to get the core of Dante’s message. What Dante says is this, more or less:
You have made a mess of your life, and you can’t get out of it by yourself. You need help. You need grace, and you need a trustworthy guide. If you survey the sins — sins that, let’s be honest, you are guilty of — you will find that they all have to do with disordered desire. You have loved the wrong thing. You have loved the right things in the wrong way — that is, too much, or too little. And you have loved yourself above all. If you keep going this way, you are going to die spiritually.
But there is hope. If you only have the humility to admit that you are a sinner and need God’s help, you can find your way back. It’s not going to be easy. You are going to have to learn how to deny yourself. It’s going to require a lot of self-reflection and repentance. You’re going to have to suffer — we are all exiles, deep down — but suffering is a purification if it leads us to God. You do not have control over the world, in which men are blind and do bad things, but you do have control over your reaction to it all. God is real, and He is there to help you. He sends his messengers out all the time. You have to learn how to see them. Salvation is a gradual process of unmasking, of learning how to see the world as God sees it. The world is an icon of God, meaning that His presence shines through all of it. We lose our way by mistaking icons for idols.
And it is a process of learning how to surrender your own will to God. Trust Him because in His will is our peace. To be saved is to be what Dante called “transhumanized” — that is, to become so filled with the Holy Spirit that you become something greater than merely human. God cares about mercy, and He cares about justice. The structure of creation is harmonious, meaning that we are not all equally gifted, or equally called to do anything except love and serve God, and others. To live in Paradise is to be with Christ forever — but it starts with the conversion of our own hearts. You can never reach God by thinking your way to Him, only by ongoing conversion through prayer, repentance, and active love. God is not a doctrine; God is an experience.
The first step is saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And then you begin the way to joy. You start on the straight path out of the dark wood of the self. If you persevered, you will have found the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
This, I remind you, is just a blog, a notebook where I write me unorganized thoughts. All of this will be much more refined and deepened when I sit down to write my Dante book after I return from Florence. Tomorrow I will start a run through the Inferno, which, after the complexity of Paradiso, will seem like coasting downhill. (Why didn’t you start with Inferno, Rod? Because I thought we were only going to be doing Purgatorio during Lent, and that would be that. Wrong!) Before I sign off today and go to vespers, I want to share with you some writing by St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia (1906-1991), a contemporary priest-monk of Mount Athos. A book titled Wounded By Love, composed of his collected teachings, notes, and talks, came out a decade or so ago in Greece. I bought a copy recently after my priest quoted from it in a homily, and it reminded me of what I was reading in the Paradiso. Here is St. Porphyrios, from a chapter called “On Divine Eros”:
I pray that your joy may be full. This is what our religion is. This is the direction we must take. Christ is Paradise, my children. What is Paradise? It is Christ. Paradise begins here and now. It is exactly the same: those who experience Christ here on earth, experience Paradise. … Our task is to attempt to find a way to enter into the light of Christ. The point is not to observe all the outward forms. The essence of the matter is for us to be with Christ; for our soul to wake up and love Christ and become holy. To abandon herself to divine eros. Thus He too will love us. Then the joy will be inalienable. That is what Christ wants most of all, to fill us with joy, because He is the wellspring of joy.
… If you are in love, you can live amid the hustle and bustle of the city centre and not be aware that you are in the city centre. You see neither cars nor people nor anything else. Within yourself you are with the person you love. You experience her, you take delight in her, she inspires you. Are these things not true? Imagine that the person you love is Christ. Christ is in your mind, Christ is in your heart, Christ is in your whole being. Christ is everywhere.
This is what preoccupies me. I try to find ways to love Christ. This love is never sated. … When you find Christ, you are satisfied, you desire nothing else, you find peace. You become a different person. You live everywhere, wherever Christ is. You live in the stars, in infinity, in heaven with the angels, with the saints, on earth with people, with plants, with animals, with everyone and everything. When there is love for Christ, loneliness, disappears. You are peaceable, joyous, full. Neither melancholy, nor illness, nor pressure, nor anxiety, nor depression, nor hell.
The height of virtue is the love of God, which is perfect and absolute. … Divine craving defeats every pain, and so every pain is transformed and become love of Christ. Love Christ and He will love you. All pains will pass away, they will be defeated and transformed. Then everything becomes Christ, Paradise. But in order to live in Paradise, we must first die — die to everything and be as if dead. Then we will live truly; we will live in Paradise. If we do not first die to our old self, nothing happens.
Finally, this passage, which seems to me a fair summation of the stages of Dante’s journey to salvation:
Everything has its meaning, its time and its place. The concept of fear is good in the initial stages. It is for beginners, those in whom our ancestral fallen nature lives on. The beginner, whose sensibility has not yet been refined, is held back from evil by fear. And fear is essential since we are men of flesh and blood and earth-bound. But that is a stage, a low level of relationship to the divine. We think in terms of a business deal in order to win Paradise or escape hell. But if we examine the matter more closely we see that it is governed by self-interest. That’s not something that appeals to me. When someone progresses and enters into the love of God, what need does he have of fear? Whatever he does, he does out of love, and that is of infinitely greater value. For someone to become good out of fear of God and not out of love is not of such value.
As we progress, the Gospel leads us to understand that Christ is joy and truth, that Christ is Paradise. Saint John the Evangelist says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. The person who fears is not perfected in love.” As we exert ourselves out of fear, we gradually enter into the love of God. Then the torment of hell, fear and death all disappear. We are interested only in the love of God. We do everything for this love, as the bridegroom does for the bride.
If we wish to follow Him, then this life, too, with Christ, is joy, even amid difficulties. As Saint Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings.” This is our religion, and that’s the direction we must move in. It is not the outward formalities that count; it is living with Christ that matters. When you achieve this, what else do you want? You have gained everything. You live in Christ and Christ lives in you. Thereafter everything is easy: obedience, humility, and peace.
Mind you, this old man was a mystic, a modern monk who lived on Mount Athos. He was not a worldly poet living in exile in medieval Tuscany. But they saw the same thing.
I have read the Commedia twice in the past year, and I will read the entire work a third time before the year is out. As Ron Herzman says, the best way to prepare to read the Commedia is to read the Commedia. It is so fathomlessly rich — and even though it is a wholly Christian work, it speaks to the universal in humanity. Take it up, read it, and let it change you. It may or may not make a Christian or a better Christian, of you, but it will make you more human.