Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 12

In the previous Canto, Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican, praised St. Francis of Assisi and then rebuked his own order for its laxity. Following his lead in this Canto, St. Bonaventure, a famous Franciscan monk, addresses Dante and praises St. Dominic. He ends with a rebuke against unfaithful Franciscans. Bonaventure then identifies himself and eleven other great theologians and thinkers who together comprise a second great crown of lights that surrounded the first one from which Thomas Aquinas spoke to Dante.

            The moment the lovely flame of Aquinas finished speaking to me I saw that holy crown of lights begin to turn again. And hardly had it completed a single round but it was joined by a second crown that enclosed it. Motion within motion was matched by song within song. Such matchless singing surpasses Sirens and Muses as does the source of light outshine that which reflects it. It was like a double rainbow with parallel arcs of color as seen through misty clouds when Juno summons her handmaid Iris to appear. The outer arc was like a reflection of the one below, not unlike the voice of the nymph Echo which faded with the morning sun. And as the rainbow sealed the covenant between God and Noah, so these eternal lights wreathed themselves around us like two garlands – the outer one responding with love to the one inside.

            When all this sublime festival of singing, dancing, and light stopped at the same moment, a voice came to me from the heart of one of those new lights. Drawing me to itself as the compass points to the pole, it spoke thus: “The love that makes me shine with such beauty moves me to speak about the Church’s other guide and prince, the one who caused such loving words to be spoken about my leader. Since both devoted the whole of their lives to the same cause, we cannot speak of one without praising the other. Their fame and glory shine together as one in this glorious place.

            “The followers of Christ, rearmed at the cost of His own death – few, fearful, and divided –  were slow to follow his banner, until the eternal Emperor here on high, by His own initiative (though they were undeserving) came to their assistance when they were in great danger. As you were told, He sent two champions to help guide His bride – the Church – by their words and deeds and thus bring together His scattered followers.

            “In that part of Spain where the wind blows from the west and with its sweet breath brings all of Europe’s leaves into bloom; not far from the shore beyond which – when a summer’s day is done – the sun hides itself from us, lies the town of Calaroga, so favored by fortune and protected by the great shield with the two lions – one above and one below. There was born that steadfast lover of the Christian faith, a holy athlete, gentle to his own but savage to his enemies. The moment God created him his mind was alive with such a mighty power that he made his mother prophesy while he was still in her womb! And when, at the baptismal font, he was wedded to the Christian faith, both pledging to care for each other, his godmother had a dream in which she saw the wonderful fruit that would be produced by him and his heirs. And so that his true identity might be known, a spirit from Heaven named him as belonging to the Lord: Dominic.

            “Christ the Gardener chose him to help Him in the garden of His Church. True servant and messenger of his Master, he made it clear that his first love was that poverty by which Christ Himself lived. At times, his nursemaid found him lying silently on the ground as if to say, ‘I have come for this.’ O father Felix, ‘happily’ named! O mother Giovanna, ‘grace of God’! Their names mean just what they say. Soon this favored son became a great theologian – not for worldly learning but for the love of true knowledge. In this way he nurtured the vineyard of Christ lest the vines die for lack of care.

            “Later he requested from the See of Peter – always attentive to the poor, but corrupt now in him who sits there – not the right to pay out less alms or tithes, and not some choice position. All he wanted was to fight against the  errors of the world so that good seed could thrive and grow into the twenty-four plants that here surround you. Now made ready with ample doctrine, a strong will, and papal approval he burst forth on the world like a great torrent sent from Heaven, violently crushing in its wake the forces of heresy. This great river of truth fed other streams which watered the garden of the Church and made its plants thrive once more.

            “If this was one wheel of the chariot the Church rode both to defend herself and conquer heresy on the field of battle, the excellence of the other must be clear to you, about whom the blessed Thomas spoke with such courtesy before I arrived. “Sadly, though, the path made by that great wheel has now faded, covered with mold where once there was crust. His brethren who once followed him now walk backward in his footsteps. But the time for the harvest is coming, and just how bad the crop is will soon be manifest as the weeds lament being separated from the wheat and cast out of the barn! I admit that if you search the pages of the great book of my Order you will occasionally find one that reads: ‘I am still faithful.’ But this cannot be said of those who follow Aquasparta or Casal and misread our Rule: one too loosely, the other too rigidly.

            “I am the soul of Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, and when I led my confreres, worldly concerns always came last. Here to the right in this crown of lights I am joined by Illuminato and Augustine, first followers of the poor Francis, barefooted and wearing his cord. Next to them is the theologian Hugh of St. Victor and the scholar Peter Mangiador. There is Peter of Spain whose writings still illumine men on earth. Nathan the Prophet joins us along with John Chrysostom the Patriarch, Anselm of Canterbury, and the Roman Donatus, known for his teachings on grammar. Here also are the scholar of Holy Writ, Rabanus of Maintz, and to my left is the prophet Joachim of Calabria.

            “Thus the ardent courtesy and gentle words of Brother Thomas about my Francis encouraged me to reciprocate and praise his great Dominic, joined as I did so by this luminous fellowship here with me.”