Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 21

After being lectured by the great Eagle, Dante turns to Beatrice. But she is not smiling, and she explains that the higher they climb into the heavens the more beautiful she becomes. Thus, she tells Dante, were she to smile at him now he would burn to ashes! No sooner is this explanation given than they reach the sphere of Saturn. Looking around, Dante sees a great golden ladder reaching into the heavens beyond his sight. On this ladder countless luminous saints are seen coming down to greet them. One lighted spirit in particular comes toward Dante, and he is anxious to question it but he waits for Beatrice to give him permission to speak. Dante has two questions: why did this particular spirit approach him, and why is there no music here? The spirit tells Dante that there is no music for the same reason that Beatrice is not smiling. As for his approaching Dante, the spirit tells him it was simply to welcome him. But Dante still wants to know why this spirit was chosen. Happy to be questioned, the spirit tells Dante that he is asking questions even those in Heaven have no answer to. Dante settles for a third question – wanting at least to know the identity of this spirit.  He identifies himself as Peter Damian, a holy monk and later a cardinal. Peter finishes by making several nasty jabs at modern Church officials. Now even more spirits come down the great ladder. They gather around Dante and let out a shout louder than thunder!

            Once again I turned to look at the face of my lovely Beatrice, and seeing her I thought of nothing else. But she was not smiling this time. “If I were to smile at you now,” she said, “you would become like Semele who, when she looked at Jupiter, she burned to ashes! As you have already witnessed, with every step of this celestial palace we climb, the power of my beauty becomes such that, if it were not tempered, it would strike you like a bolt of lightning shattering the branches of a great tree. Look how we have risen to the seventh splendor of these heavens which moves in harmony with the stars of the great Lion whose light mingles with his power and shines down upon the earth. Keep your mind attentive now and make mirrors of your eyes to catch sight of what will soon appear to you within the mirrors of this place.” If you knew the joy I experienced in looking at her lovely face, you would also know how happy I was to obey her command to look away when she asked me to.

            Then, within this crystalline sphere of Saturn, named after that good king in whose earthly realm there was no evil, I saw a great ladder the color of brilliant gold stretching into the sky beyond my sight. And more than that, coming down along its shimmering steps I saw so many splendid lights that I thought every star in the heavens was pouring down its glorious beams!

            Just as crows, following their instincts, fly together at dawn to warm their wings in the sunshine – some flying away, some returning where they started, and others just circling about – so here around that heavenly ladder there was a great sparkling movement of spirits as they settled on a particular step. Then one of those luminous spirits near us began to glow even more brightly, and I said to myself: “Clearly I see the love you have for me. However, my teacher here, who instructs me when to speak and not speak, remains silent; so, though I wish to speak, I too will withhold my question.”

            But then Beatrice, who saw this silence of mine in the vision of Him who sees all things, said to me softly: “Go ahead now, put your deep desire into words.”

            And so I began: “I realize that I myself am not worthy to have you answer my question, but since she who is my guide gives me leave, I ask you to tell me, O blessèd spirit, resplendent in your holy joy, please let me know what made you approach me just now? And why is it that the sweet symphony of Paradise is silent here but resounds gloriously everywhere else in this realm?”

            “Like your sight, your hearing is mortal,” that shining soul replied. “There is no music here for the same reason that your Beatrice does not smile. I simply came down here to welcome you with the words and light that wrap my soul in heavenly joy. It wasn’t a stronger love that urged me to come down to you, for great love and even more flames forth among those glowing souls you see up there. Each of us is assigned to his task by the depths of His charity that governs the world.”

            “O sacred lamp,” I replied, “it is clear to me that in this sacred realm a love that is completely free gladly obeys the call of Providence. What I find difficult to understand, however, is why you, among such a great host of souls, were predestined to welcome me.”

            No sooner had I spoken than that wondrous light began to turn like a millstone at full speed, spinning within its own luminous self. It was that soul’s own love that spoke to me then: “The Eternal Splendor of God shines upon me and its light mingles with the light that enfolds me within itself. The power of this light fusing with my own sight raises me to such heights that I can see its Primal Source. Such sight leads me to burn with divine joy, matching the brilliance of my flame with the clarity of my vision. Yet you must understand that not even the most exalted soul in Heaven, nor the Seraph who looks directly into the face of God, could ever answer the question you asked me. What you seek to know is so deep within the laws of this place that no creature could ever see it. And this is a moral you must teach the world when you return, so that no one will presume they can reach such an impossible goal. The mind that shines in this place is but a smoldering wick on earth, so how could an earthly mind hope to fathom what even we in Heaven cannot know?”

            Hearing this, I laid my question aside and satisfied myself by humbly asking him who he was. In reply, he told me: “Between Italy’s two shores rises a mountainous region called Catria, not far from your city. In that rugged place there is a monastery whose holy monks devoted themselves solely to the praise of God. The service of God was all I lived for when I was there. I ate simple foods and bore both heat and cold patiently as I spent my time in contemplation. In its day, that secluded cloister produced a great harvest of souls for these heavens. But now its barrenness will soon be made manifest to the world. My name was Peter Damian – Peter the Sinner when I lived along the Adriatic at the monastery of Our Lady.

            “When I was an old man, I was called by the Pope to wear the red hat of a cardinal which, nowadays, seems more and more to be worn by men who flout the Gospel. In their day, Peter and Paul walked barefooted and ate what they received from others. Today, your shameless shepherds need help on all sides to guide them and hold up their butts because they are so stuffed with food! Their capes and copes are so long they cover the entire horse they ride – two enclothed beasts appearing to move as one! Heavenly Patience – what you have to endure!”

            When this holy Saint finished speaking, I saw even more glorious flames coming down the great ladder. Whirling from step to step they grew more beautiful with every turn. They surrounded the light of Peter and stopped there. Then, all of a sudden that heavenly crowd let out a shout the likes of which has never been heard on earth. So thunderous was it that I could only make out a few words.