Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 1

Dante, having returned from his journey to the highest heavens, now calls upon Apollo to enable him to write down what he saw there. It is the time of sunrise on the Mountain of Purgatory, and Beatrice looks directly into the rising sun. Soon, Dante feels impelled to do the same, and it appears to him that the sun has exploded into countless other suns. Looking back at Beatrice, he feels himself undergoing an amazing transformation he can barely describe, but he realizes that he is rising up into the heavens at amazing speed. But Dante has doubts about whether he is still in his body, and how they can actually be moving through the heavenly spheres. She reads his mind and is happy to answer his questions.

            The glory of God who moves all created things, fills the entire universe as it wills – one part more, perhaps one part less. I myself was in that brightest heaven and was so filled with His light that, having returned from there, I cannot claim to know or recount what I saw, because my mind entered it to such a profound depth that my memory cannot possibly recall all of it. Nevertheless, as much of the treasure of that holy kingdom as I could take back with me I will now share it as the theme of my story.

            O Good Apollo! Help me to make this last great labor of mine worthy to be infused with your genius so that I may receive the crown of laurels I have so longed for. Up to this point, my prayers have been addressed to only one peak of Parnassus, your sacred mountain. Now, I send them up to both peaks so that I can be worthy to meet the challenge of the heavenly realms I have seen. Come and enter my breast and in-spire me with that art by which you literally pulled Marsyas out of his skin!

            O divine virtue, O holy Power! Just give me enough of yourself so that I can reveal at least a shadow of that blessèd kingdom still imprinted on my mind. Then you, and my theme, will make me worthy to approach your beloved tree and crown myself with its leaves.

            Holy father, it is so rare that they are gathered to celebrate the triumph of a Caesar or a poet – perhaps the fault of humans who don’t deserve or desire them – that when a person longs for those laurels you should be moved to joy. One small spark can create a great fire; and after me, perhaps, better voices and better words will win your glad response.

            We see the sun rise in different places to light our world. But when it rises from that point where the various circles meet by which we measure the movement of the earth against the planets and the stars, this great union showers down special powers upon us.  And so, this happy confluence saw the sun rising on the Mountain of Purgatory while it was dusk here where I now take up my story.

            As I looked at Beatrice, she turned to the left and faced the sun, looking directly into its blinding brilliance. No eagle could have matched her gaze into that glowing orb of light!

And as a ray of light will be reflected back – like a pilgrim yearning to return home – just so her act of looking at the sun found its home in me and, following her lead, I fixed my gaze on that resplendence as no one ever did.

            Even though our human senses are far more acute in that Eden where we were first intended to live, I could not look into the sun much longer before it seemed to explode into blazing sparks flying everywhere, like molten iron splashing out from a furnace. In a moment, I was surrounded by so much light it seemed as though a second sun had adorned the sky.

            All the while, Beatrice stood there entranced as she looked upon the eternal spheres of the cosmos. But I, having looked away from them, I now fixed my eyes on her. And as I feasted upon her radiance, I realized that I was becoming what the fisherman Glaucus became when he ate the herb that made him immortal like the other sea gods. I cannot possibly explain in mere words what was happening to me except to say that I was being “transhumanized.” This word will have to suffice until God grants me the ability to make sense of this experience to the fullest extent.

            As a result, I cannot say precisely whether it was my soul or my body – or both – that rose upward. You alone know, O Blessed Love, by Whose light I was lifted up. When the greatest of the heavenly spheres –  the one closest to You – filled me with the eternal music it pours throughout the cosmos, the skies seemed to blaze forth with the sun’s flames in such abundance, not all the water on earth could create a lake so immense.

            Lost as I was in this light, and surrounded by such heavenly music, I was filled with a overwhelming desire to know their origin, the likes of which I have never experienced! And she who could read the words of my mind, happy to restore my peace, answered the question I was just now ready to ask: “It’s your own fault,” she said smiling, “for filling your mind with flawed conceptions that have hindered your ability to see clearly what was really there before you. You’re thinking that you are still on the earth. But I assure you, lightning never sped downward from the skies as fast as you are now rising toward your true home.”

            Her smiling words freed me from my first misconception, but I was immediately burdened with another one. “I now understand the marvel of my ascending to the heavenly spheres,” I said, “but how can it be that we are rising through these crystalline spheres?”

            When she heard this question she sighed with pity and looked at me as a gentle mother might look upon her delirious child. “There is an order that exists among all created things, and this order gives form to the universe and makes it resemble God,” she said. “Within this order, all God’s higher creatures – the angels and saints, and humans, too – see the mark of eternal goodness, the goal for which the entire universe was created.

            “In this order, also, each creation maintains its proper place, according to its nature; and each moves toward a different destination on the vast sea of existence, guided by its own specific instinct. This is what makes fire burn upward, it’s the living power within our hearts, and it’s what holds the earth together. Not only is it the instinct that animates creatures without reason, but it is that force moves those who can think and love.

            “The love of God that orders and animates the cosmos, spreads out from Heaven its calming radiance to the fastest and greatest of our spheres; and it is to that place we now soar, shot forth by the bow of Love which always hits its glad Target.

            “However, just as the clay may not always act in accord with the artist’s intent – created matter not responding to to the call – so too, God’s creatures, even though they are impelled toward the heavenly goal, have within them the will to swerve, and thus stray from the course. As lightning is seen falling from the sky, just so our primal desire for the Good can be misdirected by unruly desires and thus bring us down.

            “So, to return to your second concern, you really should be no more amazed that you’re flying upward than you would be at seeing water fall from a mountain’s height to its base. And since you are now free from everything that would hold you down, if you had remained there on earth, that would be as strange as a flame that never moves.”

            And having said that, she turned and gazed again toward the heavens.