I told my wife the other day that blogging these last few cantos of Paradiso feels like trying to scale the sheer summit of a mountain. This is hard stuff! But, we press on. I’m dedicated to finishing blogging Inferno before I leave for Florence at month’s end. First, we have to finish Paradiso. I’m thinking that it probably isn’t necessary to get too deeply into the metaphysical material here, even though that is the main point of these final cantos. My approach in all this blogging has been more of a practical one: what does this poem have to say to us practically, about how to live our lives? Not so much “what does this poem say?” but “what does it have to say to us ordinary readers?” It is hardest to draw practical lessons out of the final cantos of Paradiso. But I’m going to try.
As Canto XXX begins, the pilgrim has now left the material world behind altogether. He is now in the Empyrean, inside eternity, within the Mind of God. The rightful end of all man’s beginnings. Once again, his eyes turn to Beatrice. Finally, he can see her for who she truly is – and it overwhelms his descriptive powers.
If all I said of her up to this time
were gathered in a single poem of praise,
it would be but a scanty comment now.
The beauty I saw there goes far beyond
All mortal reach; I think that only He
Who made it knows the full joy of its being.
Dante surrenders, saying that language cannot begin to describe what he beholds. It’s an extraordinary moment, one that recalls St. Thomas Aquinas’s reported reaction to the mystical vision God granted him near the end of his life: that what he saw, which he never described to anyone, made all his writing seem to him “as straw.” Dante has spent his entire life looking to Beatrice, from the first moment he saw her in Florence when they were both children. Now, at last, he can see her as she truly is.
There is nothing special about Beatrice among the community of the blessed in heaven. All the saints glow with the same radiance as Beatrice. There is something special about her for Dante, though. This moment is a fulfillment of a desire that has been burning within him for all his life. What he’s saying to us here is that this world is only a shadow of what we will experience in the life to come, when all creation will have been redeemed and perfected by union with God. I think of this passage from C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people.
You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.
We must play.
But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
The entire movement in the Commedia has been toward the goal of learning to see the world as God sees the world. The idea in this canto is that Dante can only behold the perfected Beatrice when he himself has been perfected — and at that moment, words cannot contain the reality of what he sees. That is, he has only before caught glimpses of the divine within her face; in her earthly life, she was not perfected, that is, deified. But she had the divine spark within her, and that is what young Dante responded to.
He made a fundamental error, though, in thinking that Beatrice was an end, instead of a means to the end which is God. That is, when she died, Dante thought all love and goodness died with her. He had made an idol of Beatrice, instead of seeing her as an icon (that is, as a window into eternity, through which the light of God flowed). This is an error he almost made again at the summit of Mount Purgatory, until he was temporarily blinded; to have one’s sinful nature healed and removed is not the same thing as being filled with holiness. This is a critical message of the Commedia: Holiness does not consist of the absence of sin, but of the infilling of goodness, which presumes the absence of sin, but is not the same thing.
Dante’s entire journey through the cosmos has been toward having his vision corrected and restored. Yet his art, as accomplished as it was, could not contain the weight of her glory. Remember, the literary conceit here is that Dante is writing the Commedia in recollection. At this moment in his journey, one of the greatest poets the world has ever known confesses that art fails him, that art ultimately fails. Even the highest art can only be God (Love) in a dream; it is not God. As Beatrice told Dante in their first meeting, at the summit of Purgatory, in the mortal life even the “highest beauty” will fail you. Nothing temporal and finite can fully contain the eternal and the infinite; at best, it can only point the way to those imperishable things. All our desires can only be fulfilled by union with God, Who alone is eternal and infinite. Everything else — art, human love, worldly achievement — is counterfeit, unless is it rightly ordered toward God.
The woman pilgrim Dante sees before him is the eternal being who condescended to reach out to him in the gloom of his dark wood, to call him to salvation. She did so because the love of God flowed through her, to Dante; perfected creation harmonizes perfectly with its Creator. Dante’s ultimate goal was not Beatrice — remember, that misperception is where he erred fundamentally in his young life — but God. She was simply the messenger. The Dante scholar Peter S. Hawkins writes, of one of the meanings of the Commedia: “[W]e might even come to know the divine face, however tentatively and imperfectly, by looking deeply into the faces of those we are given to love.” The principle here is the same as the one behind Jesus’s words in Matthew 25: “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Look reader, says Dante, into the faces of your beloved, but look deeply? What do you see? Or rather, Whom do you see?
Beatrice tells Dante where they now are: “We have gone beyond – from greatest sphere to heaven of pure light, light of the intellect, light full of love, love of the true good, full of ecstasy, ecstasy that transcends the sweetest joy.”
Suddenly, Dante finds himself swathed in light; all he can perceive now is light. This, Beatrice explains, is what God (“the Love that calms this heaven forever”) does to newcomers to “prepare the candle for Its flame.” Dante is about to be deified – that is, to become completely filled with the presence of God. Now, no light is too great for his eyes to behold:
And I saw light that was a flowing stream,
blazing in splendid sparks between two banks
painted by spring in miracles of color.
The sparks rise out of the river of light, settle like bees on flowers that look like jewels, then pour back into the river. Beatrice tells Dante that what he sees is not reality, but “prefigurations of the truth,” saying:
These things are not imperfect in themselves;
the defect, rather, lies within your sight,
as yet not strong enough to reach such heights.
So, there is still another unveiling left. Dante must be symbolically baptized into his new life before he can enter into the full presence of God, just as he had to be baptized in the Lethe, to forget his sins, before he could cross the border into heaven. Here, in the heavenly river (which St. John saw in his apocalyptic vision, the Revelation, chapter 22), Dante bends to receive his ritual cleansing:
no sooner had the eaves of my eyes drunk
within those waters, than the river turned
from its straight course to a circumference.
And then, as people at a masquerade
take off the masks which have until that time
been hiding their true selves – so, then and there
before my eyes the sparks and flowers changed
into a greater festival: I saw
both courts of Heaven in their reality.
“Eaves of my eyes” — it’s a strange metaphor. I think Dante means for it to call to mind the centurion’s humble declaration in Matthew 8:
When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.”
Remember how the pilgrim had to don the reed of Humility before he could ascend the mountain of Purgatory? Now Dante, at the summit of the mountain of all existence, must make this final ritual gesture of humility, of ultimate faith, in order to have his vision “healed,” so that he can see the fullest expression of ineffable reality.
The river turns from a straight line into a circle, symbolically indicating the passage from Time into Eternity. Pilgrim Dante doesn’t enter spatially into another realm, but his perception changes. The pilgrimage is now entirely within the mind of God.
Dante now has a vision of the Mystical Rose. That is, the entire court of Heaven is revealed to him:
And as a hillside is mirrored by the water
at its foot, as if it saw itself adorned
when it is lush with grass and flowers,
so I saw, rising above the light and all around it
mirrored in more than a thousand tiers,
all those of us who have returned on high.
And , if the lowest of its ranks encloses
a light so large, how vast is the expanse containing
the farthest petals of this rose?
This is The Mystical Rose – tier after tier of the blessed. Notice that even this is not “real,” but only a reflection (“as a hillside is mirrored by the water”) of the Real, which is God. Senses don’t work rationally here: there is gradation and hierarchy, but it can all be seen at the same time, equally, “for where God rules directly without agents, the laws of Nature in no way apply.” When he had the synaesthetic vision after his “baptism” in the River Lethe, it was a preview of what he now sees.
My son Matthew and I were talking the other day about how difficult it is for us, conditioned by existing in Time, to imagine how Time must look to God. “I guess it’s like a story in a comic book,” he said. “You can look at it all at the same time, and read it in whatever order you want, but it only makes sense if you read it from top to bottom. But you can see it all at the same time.” I think that’s a pretty great way to understand it. That’s what Dante sees now, though because he has entered eternity, it makes sense to him; “the laws of Nature in now way comply.”
This is the Heavenly Jerusalem, described in Purgatorio by Beatrice as “the Rome where Christ is a Roman.” But Dante also compares it to the countryside. Giuseppe Mazzotta says this is part of the poet’s strategy:
The whole poem now appears as a journey from the wilderness, not to the garden, but to a city or to a garden that is also a city. It is a way of encompassing the whole movement of the poem within these two images, a firm and total reintegration.
In the End, all things exist in perfect harmony. As U2 sang:
I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Yes, but they will all remain themselves, and most fully themselves, at the same time. It is a mystery. Nevertheless, the race is almost won. After climbing the highest mountains, and sojourning through fields of fire, Dante has very nearly found what he’s looking for.