Dante opens this Canto by inviting the reader to join him admiring the beauty of the heavens and to praise the artistry of the eternal Creator. At the same time, telling the reader to enjoy the “banquet,” Dante says that he must focus all his attention on writing. Soon enough he and Beatrice are in the sphere of the Sun and he is dazzled by light brighter than anyone has ever seen. Flashes of light now appear above Dante and Beatrice and form themselves into a slowly rotating crown. Longing to know who these souls are, a voice identifying itself as Thomas Aquinas, speaks and introduces the eleven other lights who form the crown of light – all wise and learned scholars of theology and philosophy.
The Creator – uncreated, first, and beyond expression – looking at his Son with that infinite Love each breathes forth eternally, this Creator has brought into existence all things – and in such beauteous perfection that no one who sees it cannot but feel His very Presence. Now, Reader, join me in looking up to the celestial spheres and fix your sight on that place where the moving planets and the sun cross each other’s paths. From there enjoy all the works of the Eternal Artist who loves each of His works so much that He gazes upon them perpetually. Think also about how the orbit of the planets moves slightly from side to side giving us the seasons. If this were not the case, all the powers of these spheres would be frustrated along with all the workings of Nature. And more than this: if this slant were greater or less than what it is, disorder would reign in both hemispheres of our Earth.
But, Reader, consider what you have only tasted up to this point. I have supplied the food, and if you wish to continue at my banquet, do not leave the table yet. Begin to eat because I must now concentrate fully on my theme. Nature’s greatest minister, whose light measures out our days and marks our world with Heaven’s plan, was now at that crossing point I noted earlier, moving according to its design and showing us more of itself each day. And faster than a thought comes to mind, there I was within it; Beatrice, guiding our ascent from place to place instantly.
What shone there within the sun was the very essence of brilliance, the light of light, and even if I possesed the art and skill to do so, I could never make what I saw come alive before you. You must simply trust me and let your longing take you there. But do not be surprised if even your imagination fails you here. Believe me when I tell you that no eye has ever seen light brighter than the sun. And here within this place resides God’s fourth family whom He fills with joy as He reveals his ways to them.
“Give thanks now,” said Beatrice. “Give thanks to that Sun of the Angels whose grace brings you here and whose light enables you to sense Him more deeply.” Hearing her words, no one was ever more quickly moved to devotion and to yield so quickly and fully to God than I was then. I was so completely absorbed in His love that Beatrice was simply eclipsed. But knowing the fervent disposition of my brimming heart, she smiled so happily that the beauty of her laughing eyes returned me to my senses.
Soon I was aware of flashes of living light who surrounded us above like a glowing crown. Their voices were even more beautiful than their bright faces. I was reminded of the halo that sometimes surrounds the moon like a belt on nights when the air is moist. Among the souls in the court Heaven from where I have returned, there are some precious gems that are too highly treasured to be brought back from that kingdom. One of those gems was the song those luminous souls sang. I tell you, those without wings to fly up there are like those who wait to hear news from messengers without tongues.
When those glorious suns, aflame with their songs, had circled Beatrice and I three times like stars circling the pole star, they came to a stop like ladies in a dance who pause to listen for the new rhythm before they begin again. Then a voice came out of that crown of lights: “Since the ray of grace – which kindles love and grows in love the more it loves – shines so beautifully in you that it enables you to climb these stairs, which no one goes down except to climb up again, we cannot withhold from your thirsty soul the wine you seek any more than a stream could refuse to flow down to the sea.
“You wish to know what gems make up this crown of light that circles above the lovely lady there who brings you up to our Heaven. I was among that holy flock of lambs led by Saint Dominic along the road where they might fatten – if they do not stray. Close by me here to the right is Albert of Cologne, my confrere and my teacher. I am Thomas of Aquino. If you wish to know the rest of my companions here, let your eyes follow my words as I lead you around this blessèd wreath of souls.
“Following Albert to my right is Gratian’s flame. Having shown the harmony of Church and civil laws, Heaven now enjoys his presence here. The next spirit who lights our choir is Peter the Lombard who imitated the poor widow in the Gospel by calling his writings a modest gift to the Church. The fifth light – the most beautiful among us – is Solomon, who breathes with such passionate love that men still long to know his eternal fate. Within that flame is such a lofty mind, in all truth there has never been another one with such wisdom as his.
“Close by him is Dionysius the Areopagite, that burning candle who, when he was alive, plumbed the depths of the angels’ nature. Following him in that smaller light is Paul the disciple of Augustine and defender of the early Christian era. And if you have been following behind my words of praise, then you will want to know who our eighth light is. Boetheus is he, enfolded by the vision of goodness. He showed those who read his work carefully how the world is filled with deceit. Unjustly put to death, he rests in the church of St. Peter with the gold ceiling. From his earthly exile he comes to us as a shining martyr.
“The next lights are the fervent souls of Isidore of Seville, Bede the English monk, and Richard of St. Victor whose joy in contemplation lifted him to mystical heights more than other men. And this last light which shines close to my left is the flame of Siger of Brabant. Grave in his questions, he longed for their answers in Heaven. A famed teacher on the Street of Straw, he demonstrated many envious truths.”
At that point, like a clock tower calling the Church’s faithful to gather and sing their morning prayers to the Son of God, wheels turning this way and that, chiming out ting-ting so sweetly that souls in harmony swell with love: thus did I witness that glorious crown turn with eternal joy.