Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 20

The great Eagle continues to speak with Dante, drawing his attention to its head, particularly its eye and brow. The Eagle tells Dante that the soul of David, the King and Psalmist, shines brightly in the pupil of its eye. Then the Eagle proceeds to identify the five soul-lights that make up its eyebrow. The first is the emperor Trajan, followed by the Hebrew king Hezekiah. Next comes the emperor Constantine, then William the Good of Sicily, and finally Ripheus the Trojan. Hearing that two pagans – Trajan and Ripheus – are here in Heaven, Dante questions how such a thing can be possible. The Eagle explains how both souls came to be saved, but also reminds Dante that the workings of Predestination are so deep that no one can fully plumb the depths of God’s will – not even those who look directly at Him.

            When he who bathes the world in his light had set and left our hemisphere in darkness on all sides, the sky – which he alone lights in the day – was quickly re-illuminated by countless stars, all reflections of that same sun. Seeing how the heavens change I also saw that great Eagle – symbol of the world’s powers – silent now as all its living lights blazed even brighter while they chanted those divine songs whose sweetness had slipped from my memory. O sweet love that within its smiles enfolds you! What ardent music your holy thoughts poured forth then. And when those resplendent jewel-souls who made this sixth planet shine ended their song, I could hear what I thought was the gentle murmuring of a clear stream flowing from an abundant source. As the lute’s notes sound forth from its neck, and as the breath within a flute becomes music, just so a murmur rose up through the Eagle’s neck as through an opening and became words from out of its beak – words I longed to hear, words now written in my heart.

            It spoke to me thus: “I want you to look closely at that part of me, were I a mortal eagle, that  can look directly at the sun. Of all the luminous souls which shape me in this way, those that form my eye are the brightest and the most beautiful. The soul that shines within my pupil was he who, inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, wrote the Psalms and carried the Ark of the Covenant from town to town. Here he knows value of his sacred songs, to which his own talent contributed, because his happiness here is equal to it.

            “Look now at the five lighted souls who form the arch of my eyebrow. The one closest to my beak was the great Trajan, he who showed compassion to the lonely widow who had lost her son. Compared to his life here in Heaven he knows the cost a man pays for not following Christ. The soul next to him along that arch was Hezekiah who, through true penitence, was able to  postpone his death, and now he knows that God’s judgments remain the same even though prayers from earth can delay one’s death for a time.

            “Following, then, along that arch,” the Eagle continued, “is Constantine, who moved me and the seat of the empire to the East, leaving the Pope to take his place in the West. His intentions were good but they bore bad fruit, and here he knows that all the harm that sprang from his decision cannot do him injury, even though the world be ruined. The next soul you see is that of William the Good, mourned by Sicily where Charles and Frederick now do much evil. Here he knows how Heaven loves a righteous king and thus he shines so brilliantly. Lastly, who in your erring world would believe that the fifth soul among these holy lights is Ripheus of Troy? Here in this place he knows more about the grace of God than anyone on earth, though even his eye cannot probe its depths.”

            Now, like a soaring lark that sings and then, satisfied with its song, stops, so did that great Eagle seem satisfied in reflecting God’s pleasure in making all things what they truly are. All the same, I was still much perplexed and could not keep my doubts from taking shape in words. “How can such a thing be?” I said, freed from the weight of those heavy thoughts. But no sooner had I spoken than all those glittering souls flashed forth their joy at hearing my question. And burning more brightly than before, that sacred Eagle answered me at once: “I can see that you believe what I have told you, but you do not see how it is possible, and so the truth hides from you. You are like someone who knows the name of a thing but cannot grasp its essence unless someone explains it to you. True it is that the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence – but from ardent love and passionate hope. These have the power to overcome God’s will – but not as one man defeats another. No: His will wills it this way so that defeated like this its great mercy shows forth.

            “The first and the fifth soul I named within my brow leave you wondering how this angelic kingdom can be adorned with the likes of them. But you think they died as pagans. Not so, but as Christians: the first believing in Christ already come and other in Christ yet to come.

            “The first one came back to this life from Limbo, where there is no return. This was a reward for the great hope that filled Gregory’s prayers – prayers that he be brought back so that he might be free to chose the path of Christ. And so it happened that this shining soul, having returned to the flesh he only briefly inhabited, turned his faith to Him Who has the power to save. This faith of his lit such a fire of love within him that when he died a second time, he came directly here to join our great feast.

            “The other soul you ask about is here by means of grace that flows from a source so deep that no one has ever plumbed it fully. He was a good and righteous man, and from that hidden source of grace God filled him and so opened his eyes that he saw the true light of salvation and believed. From then on he shunned all pagan ways and set himself against those who practiced them. More than a thousand years before Christ he was baptized by those three ladies you saw at the right side of the chariot down on the Mount.

            “O Predestination! How vastly deep is your source from the eyes of those who cannot envision the Primal Cause in its entirety! Know this, you men of the earth, and be slow to judge, that even we who see God in the face do not yet know the list of those He has saved. But for us this incomplete knowledge is a joy, because whatever God wills we will too!”

            With these words, then, that great Eagle gave me soothing medicine to heal my shortness of sight. And as one who plays the lute with expertise will adjust his pitch to the singer’s voice, thus making his song more lovely, so as that great bird spoke to me, I saw those two holy souls – like two eyes blinking at the same time – flame up as they kept time with the Eagle’s words.