Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 14

As Thomas Aquinas finishes speaking with Dante, Beatrice immediately frames a third question that Dante has not actually thought of yet. She asks St. Thomas to explain whether the splendor of the souls will remain as it is now and, if so, how will those in Heaven be able to look at each other when they get their bodies back at the resurrection. Hearing this, the souls in the crowns of light sing and dance happily, and it is Solomon who gives the answer. He explains that while the souls will continue to burn forever with the splendor they now have, being reunited with their bodies will make them complete and, it follows, more beautiful and able to see God more clearly. And, yes, they will be able to enjoy each other’s splendor without difficulty. No sooner does Solomon finish than a third and larger crown of lights encircle the other two and amid more singing Dante and Beatrice rise up to the red sphere of Mars. Seeing where he is, Dante offers up a prayer of thanksgiving and is immediately granted a vision of two great beams of light which form a cross on which he sees Christ! This cross is filled with glittering souls who sing a glorious hymn. Dante is so overcome he can barely comprehend what he hears. Only then does he realize that he hasn’t yet turned to Beatrice.

            In a round vase filled with water, the ripples move from center to rim or vice-versa when first touched from within or else from outside. This same image came to me when the beautiful living light of Thomas had finished speaking because of the flow of Beatrice’s words to him as soon as he had stopped. “Though he has not yet conceived this thought and so cannot express his need, this man wants  to pursue with you the path of another truth. Explain to him whether the glorious splendor that lights your soul here will remain this way forever. And if it will continue like this, explain to him how you will be able to endure such brilliance once your sight returns to you with your resurrected bodies.”

            As dancing partners caught up with joy will move faster and even shout, just so – at Beatrice’s request – the two crowns of light happily responded with more magnificent singing and dancing. I have to tell you that those who lament that we must die in order to live forever in Heaven have no idea of what it is like to experience the everlasting outpouring of God’s grace up here! Three times those luminous spirits burst forth with hymns of praise to the Trinity – Three in One and One in Three. Such music itself could be Heaven’s glorious reward!

            Then a response to Beatrice’s request came from none other than Solomon who spoke with a modesty not unlike that of Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “The fiery love that you see clothing us in such brilliance will last as long as the grand festival of Paradise itself. Our brilliance stems from our love, our love flows from our vision, and our vision is in proportion to the grace that is given to us.  When our resurrected bodies are returned to us, glorified and ready to clothe our souls forever, we will be even more beautiful than now because we will be complete. The light of God, so freely poured out upon us already, will be increased and we will be able to see Him even more clearly than we do now. So, with that divine light our vision will increase, as will our love and the radiance that shines from it. As a coal in the fire burns white hot within its own flame and outshines its outer glow so that it can be clearly seen, just so the brilliance that enwraps us now will be surpassed by the glory of our resurrected bodies. And because all our organs will have been fortified for even greater glory, it will not be difficult at all for us to look upon each other’s splendor.”

            It was obvious from their quick and joyous “Amen!” that both groups of souls within those crowns longed to have their bodies back; and not only for themselves, but for their families and all they held dear before they died.

            Suddenly, we were surrounded by a light that grew brighter than the other lights encircling us. As at dusk when the heavens slowly begin to fill with new lights – faintly at first – so I began to see new spirits arriving there, making a great ring around the other two luminous crowns. O true resplendence of the Holy Spirit! How bright that light grew in strength, overwhelming my eyes in glory! And there was Beatrice smiling at me in such splendor – it was a sight that my mind can no longer grasp.

            Nevertheless, the sight of her there like that gave me strength to look upward. And lo, I found myself alone with her, being raised up to realms of even higher glory. I was aware of this because the glow of this new sphere was turning wonderfully red. There and then, in the language of the heart, common to all men, I offered my prayers to God in thanksgiving for this new grace. And at once I knew that my humble sacrifice had been accepted because there now appeared before me – brighter than glowing rubies – two great beams of light of such fiery magnificence that I cried out: “O Helios, Who bedecks them like this!”

            Just as the Milky Way is strewn with countless stars, large and small, standing out white between the Poles and filling even wise men with awe, so within the depths of Mars those great ruby beams of light constellated into the shape of a cross. But how to describe what I saw…. I saw the Cross, and I saw Christ flame forth across that holy sign, and yet I cannot find the words to describe what it looked like. Nevertheless, whoever takes up his cross and follows Christ will forgive my inability as I continued to watch that holy sign now incandescent with the glory of Christ Himself.

            From top to bottom and across the arms I saw lights moving, flaring brightly as they would pass each other’s brilliant glow. I was reminded of how along a shaft of sunlight in a shaded place one will see motes of dust moving in different directions. And just as the violin and harp, with their many strings tuned harmoniously, will create sweet sounds though one may not recognize the tune, so from that immense gathering of lights on that cross a glorious hymn arose that completely enraptured me. I heard the words “Arise” and “Conquer” but I could understand nothing else.

            Hearing this divine music, my soul was overcome by an ecstacy of love I had never experienced. But perhaps I go too far here, forgetting that I was still in the presence of my lovely Beatrice – she with those eyes that give rest to my wandering gaze. Those beauteous emeralds become more stunning the higher we rise, and I hope I can be excused, since upon our arrival here I had not yet turned to look at them. Nevertheless, apart from accusing or excusing myself, the truth is that the joy of the music was no less than that of Beatrice’s presence since the joy of both grows as we rise upward.