Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 19

The great Eagle formed by souls in the sphere of Jupiter begins to speak to Dante. Though the Eagle is made of many souls, Dante hears only one voice; and though he hears it speak using singular pronouns, his mind hears them as plural. Once again, Dante is beset by a pressing question and he graciously asks the Eagle to answer it. The question – and the whole of this Canto – is about Divine Justice. The Eagle tells Dante that humans simply cannot fathom the workings of God’s Justice, though we have hints of it and we have the guidance of the Scriptures. Dante’s question, spoken by the Eagle, has to do with the eternal salvation of a good person who has never heard of Christ and does not have the Christian faith. Why, Dante wants to know, should this person be condemned through no fault of his own? As an indirect answer, the Eagle tells Dante that there is no one in Heaven who did not have faith. Telling Dante that many who believe in Christ will be surprised on the Day of Judgment, the Eagle then proceeds to list numerous great figures whose deeds are written in God’s Great Book – deeds that will shock even pagans.

            There now appeared before me the sight of that great eagle formed by those rejoicing souls. Each soul was like a magnificent ruby set aflame by a ray of sunshine that reflected it directly into my eyes. Believe me when I tell you that what I now describe for you no tongue has spoken or pen written or fantasy imagined: I could see the beak move and actually hear it speak! But when it said words like I and Mine they came to my mind as We and Ours. And so that eagle spoke: “Because I was just and pious I am exalted here in this place of glory – higher than desire might conceive. On earth I left an example of my good deeds which even evil men praise, though they would do better to follow them.”

            Though all of those sparkling souls were speaking, there was but one voice – like the warm glow that comes from many burning coals. Longing to hear more from them, I cried out: “O you flowers of everlasting joy, whose varied aromas blend into one heavenly fragrance, speak to me now with words I have been hungry to hear but cannot find on earth. I know that though eternal justice is seen in a different mirror among these heavenly spheres, you here can see its light directly. And so you know how eager I am to hear what you have to tell me because you also know the question I have struggled with for so long.”

            Hearing my plea, and like a falcon freed from its hood and eager to fly, that great eagle, made of all those souls, sang out in praise of the Creator with a hymn known only to those who live forever in Heaven. Then speaking to me it said: “In his grand act of creation, God with his compass traced out the boundaries of the universe and marked some things visible and others invisible, an act far superior to any human abilities. Even that first prideful angel – the most perfect of creatures – fell down from Heaven unripe, as it were, because he did not wait for the light of God to finish him. Thus, we can see that every lesser creature is too small to contain Infinite Goodness, which is measured only by Itself.

            This being the case, your vision – which is just one of the rays of light that come from the First Mind and which is present in all created things – even your weak vision cannot fail to see that its Source is far beyond what our eyes can see here. Therefore, earthly vision can no more understand the workings of Divine Justice than can a man’s eyes see to the ocean floor. Near the shore you can see it, but not when you are at sea. Nevertheless, the bottom is still there, but hidden by depths too great for your eyes to penetrate.

            And consider this: the only light is the Light of God. It comes from the sky that is forever clear. Everything else is darkness, shadowy, poisoned by error. Thus you can now understand what was hidden from you about God’s Justice, and which raised within you so many questions. For example, you will say: ‘Suppose there is a man born in India where no one knows or speaks of Christ. He is a good and worthy person, upright and free from sin. But he does not have the Christian faith and dies unbaptized. Where is the justice in condemning his soul? Is he guilty simply because he does not share our faith?’ Now I ask you, who do you think you are to sit where justice sits and pass judgments on things that are far beyond you when you can’t even see beyond your own nose! If it weren’t for the guidance of Scripture, you might have cause to argue with me and there might be room for doubt. You earthly creatures are so thick-headed! You need to understand that the Will of God, which is always good, never wavers from that supreme Goodness. Only those things that move in harmony with it are just. Created good does not sway it; rather the light it sends forth from God – that creates what is good.”

            As the mother stork will fly around the nest after feeding her young, and they will look up at her, just so did that sacred eagle moved by all those souls that made it circle around me, and just so did I lift up my head to watch it. Circling and singing, that holy bird spoke to me: “Just as my song is too high for you to comprehend, so is the nature of Eternal Judgment far beyond the comprehension of mortals.” At that, the great eagle stood still – so reminiscent of Rome’s great symbol. And then it spoke again: “Know this: no soul ever rose up to this heavenly kingdom who did not have faith in Christ before or after he died for us. Now, there are those who might cry out, “Christ, Christ!” But I tell you that on the Day of Judgment they will be farther from Him than those who never knew him. On that day, those Christians will be condemned by the pagans as the sheep will be separated from the goats – one group rich forever, and the other poor!

            What will the heathen from Persia say to your own kings on that day when they see the great Book opened and read about all their evil deeds? There they will read all about the jealousy of Albert of Austria that led him to devastate the kingdom of Prague. Then they will read about the suffering in France caused by Philip the Fair when he inflated its money. A wild boar will frighten his horse and cause his death. After this, they will read how pride brought both English and Scot to war over boundaries they contested. In that Book they will read of the soft life of Ferdinand and Wenceslaus’ lack of valor. They will discover there only one good act by Charles of Naples – the Cripple of Jerusalem – and a thousand evil ones. The Book will reveal the cowardice and greed of Frederick of Sicily, where the father of noble Aeneas died. And to show how worthless Frederick was, the Book will allot him a small space crammed with tiny words! Reading on, it will be clear how debauched were the two James’s – his brother and uncle. The deeds of Norway’s Haakon and Portugal’s Dionysius will be written there along with those of Rascia’s king who disgraced himself by counterfeiting the money of Venice. O happy Hungary if it escapes such wickedness; Navarre too, if she uses the Pyrenees as a rampart to keep herself at peace. And if anyone needs further proof let them look at Nicosia and Famagosta whose evil beast of a king makes them lament and suffer as he strives to outdo the wickedness of that pack!”