Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 18

Coming to the end of his conversation with Cacciaguida, Dante’s heart is heavy. But Beatrice comforts him, and as he looks at her she becomes even more radiant as she reflects the rays of Eternal Joy into his face. Dante is dazzled by her beauty, but she reminds him that Paradise is not only to be found in her eyes. Cacciaguida concludes his meeting with Dante by pointing out various famous souls whose lights sparkle brightly in the great cross as he names them. Then Cacciaguida rejoins them. Looking at Beatrice for some direction, Dante realizes that her beauty is increasing because they are rising even farther into the heavenly realms. Now at the sphere of Jupiter, they witness countless spirits flying above them creating letters which spell out the first words of the Book of Wisdom: Diligite iustitiam, qui judicatis terram (Love justice you who judge the earth.) To Dante’s amazement, the last letter of these words gradually changes into the shape of a great eagle. Seeing this, Dante makes a short apostrophe against Church leaders who forsake justice in favor of money.

            That sainted mirror continued to reflect the brilliance of God as he quietly rejoiced in his own thoughts while mine were mingled together – the bitter ones and the sweet. And then that lovely lady leading me to God spoke gently: “Put your heavy thoughts to rest. Think about other things, and remember that I live with the One Who lifts up those who suffer from the burdens they carry.” Her compassionate words made me turn around, and such tender love within those eyes of hers greeted me then that I don’t think I can express it clearly. Not only that, but I fear that I could never rise my thoughts again to such heights without God’s help. All I know is this: as I stood there looking at her she was gazing at the Eternal Joy and reflecting it directly into my face. At that moment every other care was lifted from my heart. Then, dazzling me with her gorgeous smile, she spoke again: “Turn around now and listen to your blessed sire, for Paradise is not only in my eyes.”

            Sometimes it happens that a person’s eyes will convey their heart’s wishes to another if they are wished with the strength to capture another’s soul. Just so, as the sacred fire of my ancestor flamed up before me, I saw that he desired to say more to me. “Here at this fifth level of Heaven’s great tree, whose leaves never shed, whose life pours down from above, and whose fruit is always ripe, live blessèd spirits who were so famous before they came here that any poet would be glad to write about them. Look up now and gaze upon the arms of our cross and see the souls flash brightly as I name them.” And as he named Joshua I saw a great light flash across the cross and disappear. When he pointed out the great Maccabees another great light flamed out with joy. As he continued, I followed the brilliant lights of Roland and Charlemagne as hunters might watch their falcons soaring. After these came William of Orange, Renouard and the Duke Godfrey, and Robert Guiscard. Then, finally, that great light who had so honored me by his presence moved back into that holy cross of lights letting me hear his beautiful voice as he joined that heavenly choir.

            I turned toward Beatrice now to get from her a sense of what she thought I should do next. But what a sight greeted me: her eyes were filled with such a great new brilliance – such joy, such purity – that she was now more beautiful than I had ever seen her! And just as a man who does good every day feels virtue growing in him, so, seeing Beatrice more luminous like that I realized that I was now moving into a much larger sphere of the heavens. As when the blush fades from a fair lady’s face, a transformation took place all around us as we now entered the soft glowing light of Jupiter.

            Within that lovely planet there sparkled the lights of countless rejoicing souls forming themselves into words for me to read. Like great flocks of birds that rise into the sky forming different patterns as they fly, so those blessèd spirits whirled here and there in great masses as they sang and shaped themselves into letters – a D first, then an I, and then an L. They made these letters as they followed the rhythm of their music and then kept the form and stopped singing for a while.

            O holy Muses of Pegasus, you inspire men of genius and give them glory and long life, and they, in turn, spread their genius everywhere. Let it be that your holy light shall shine on me so that I might keep these letters in my mind and thus let your power flow through my poem! All the while  those flying lights continued to write for me in thirty-five letters I was able to put into words. The first words they wrote were DILIGITE IUSTITIAM, and these were followed by the words QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM.

            But that was not all. The golden M of the final letter remained stable as the silver of the Jovian sphere became a background for it. Now more spirits came and settled upon that M, singing from its top about the goodness of God who summoned them there. Then, just as thousands of sparks fly upward when a smoldering log is poked (in which foolish seers saw omens), so thousands of glowing spirits rose up to different heights as God chose, finding their place and shaping for me the head and neck of a great eagle made in those fiery sparks of light. The Artist who paints here has no need for a guiding hand. He is Himself the Guide. It is He who instills in birds the skill to build their nests. The rest of those blessèd spirits shaped themselves into wings like a lily and completed the great bird.

            O lovely star, bedecked with countless jeweled souls – it is from you that earthly justice derives. And so I pray to that Mind, where your power and movement arise, to find where that smoke arises that overshadows your effects. Let its wrath once more fall down upon those who buy and sell in the Temple of your Church built with miracles and martyrs. O Soldiers of Heaven, raise your prayers for those on earth who are led astray by the bad example of the Church’s leaders. In olden times wars were fought with swords. Now their weapon is the very Bread of Life, which they withhold from those whom our Heavenly Father never denies it! And remember, you who threaten and then rescind excommunications, Peter and Paul died to save the vineyard you are plundering. But they are alive in this kingdom – and you reply: “I care only for the florin on whose face the image of the Baptist is stamped. I know neither the Fisherman nor Paul!”