Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 11

Recalling the ambitions and pursuits of worldly men, Dante realizes that none of them compares with what he is experiencing in Heaven with Beatrice. But he still has questions from the previous Canto about statements made by St. Thomas Aquinas. The crown of lights stops turning, and Aquinas again speaks to Dante through the rest of this Canto, telling the story of St. Francis of Assisi and Lady Poverty as he gradually answers the first of Dante’s two questions.

            O foolish strivings of mortals! Your useless reasoning causes you to fly downward instead of up. There you are: some studying the law, some pouring over the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, some following after the priesthood, others pursuing careers in government so you can misuse its powers. Others of you plan theft, or pursue the affairs of state. Some are caught up in carnal pleasures, and some of you are simply lazy! And here I was, far from such vain pursuits, with my Beatrice in Heaven, welcomed with glory beyond words.

            When the crown of lights stopped turning, those glowing souls returned to where they were when we first saw them, standing there like candles alight. And once again the luminous spirit of Thomas Aquinas spoke to us in words of smiling light: “Even as I reflect the Light eternal, so I see within It the questions you still wish to ask. Perplexed by my earlier claims, when I said ‘where they might fatten,’ and ‘there has never been another one with such wisdom,’ you wish me to explain in simple terms what I meant, and happily I will do so.

            “The Providence of God that governs the world with such profound wisdom that no creature could ever hope to plumb Its depths, in order that the Church of Christ, who espoused her with His blood, and that she might be a faithful spouse, ordained that two princely men should assist her in her mission, each one serving as her guide. One of these princes was filled with love like the Seraphim, and the other in his wisdom shone like the Cherubim. For now, I will speak of only one of them because in speaking of one I praise both, for in their lives both served the same divine Master.

            “Between the rivers Topino and Chiascio lay the fertile slopes of Mount Subasio from which hot summer winds blow through the Porta Sole at Perugia and cold ones in winter. On the other side of Subasio, the towns of Gualdo and Nocera find themselves at the mercy of cruel Perugia. And where the mountain becomes less steep a sun was born that broke upon the world with the brilliance this sun has sometimes when it  rises from the Ganges. Though this town is called Assisi, that is not enough. Honoring its own brilliant sun it should be called Orient.

            “Not long after this new sun had risen he began to renew the world by the strength of his virtue. Standing fast in the face of his father’s anger, he fell in love with a lady that everyone shunned as worse than death itself. Then before the bishop and his own father he took the lady he loved in marriage, loving her more and more each day. Having lost her first spouse, she lived unloved and despised for eleven hundred years and more until this young sun came for her. Alone with the poor fisherman Amyclas, she was steadfast when Caesar came to his door. Alone when her spouse died, she climbed his cross to be with him as his mother, Mary, sat below and wept.

            “But enough of my allusions. I am telling you about Francis and Lady Poverty, the lovers in my story. Living in such blissful harmony, the mystery of their love and tenderness caused holy thoughts to grow in others’ hearts. Their first follower was the venerable Bernardo who, seeing their happy peace, gladly threw off his shoes to run after them quickly. What surprising wealth was to be discovered, what great good awaited! Giles was next to throw off his shoes, and then Sylvester. Having also fallen in love with the bride, they eagerly sought out the groom. Then that father and teacher, together with his spouse and their family girded themselves with the cord of humility and set off for Rome.

            “Caring not that he was the son of the  merchant, Pietro Bernardone, he felt no shame when he was mocked for dressing in rags. Rather, like a king he explained his difficult Rule to Pope Innocent who placed his seal upon this holy Order of poor men. As the followers of this man of poverty increased greatly, this holy father – whose amazing story should be sung by the angels – received the Church’s final approval through Pope Honorius who was inspired to do so by the Holy Spirit.

            “Thinking that he might convert the Sultan and his followers to the ways of Christ and his Church, this holy man traveled to Egypt. But seeing that no harvest of souls was to be made there  he returned to Italian fields where a rich crop awaited him. It then happened that, while fasting in the rocky region between the Arno and the Tiber, Christ gifted him with the marks of His own holy wounds which he bore until he died a few years later. When that time came, ordained by God who now saw fit to call him to Himself for high rewards, this lowly man called his brothers together, calling them his heirs and commending them to his beloved lady. And making his deathbed with her upon the ground, his illustrious soul returned here to our heavenly kingdom.

            “So now consider what kind of man would be fit to stand alongside him guiding St. Peter’s ship on the right way across the high seas. Just such a helmsman was our own holy father, and those who follow his commands will clearly see the richness of the cargo they carry. Sadly, his flock has grown greedy for rich food, and they wander aimlessly through bad pastures to feed themselves. The farther they go astray, the less milk they bring back. Some, it is true, stay with their shepherd; but so few are these that not much cloth is needed to make their hoods.

“If I have been clear, and if you have listened carefully, you will recall my earlier words and your wish will have been partly satisfied. For now you see the corruption I speak of and why I said, ‘where they might fatten – if they do not stray.’”