Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 22

Frightened by the great shout he heard at the end of the previous Canto, Dante turns to Beatrice for comfort. She reminds him that he is in Heaven and that everything here happens for a holy purpose.  The shout, she tells him, was a call for God’s holy retribution against those who corrupt the Church. Soon, one of the glowing souls moves toward Dante and tells him that the power of heavenly love directs him to answer his hidden question. This is the soul of St. Benedict who tells Dante that contemplative souls inhabit this sphere, and he introduces him to two of his early monks. Dante feels empowered to ask a further question: he wants to know if he can actually see St. Benedict’s face. This desire, the Saint tells him, will be fulfilled only in the Empyrean which is beyond space and time, and where every desire comes to its holy perfection. After another brief apostrophe against corrupted monks and Church leaders, the Saint recedes back among his fellow souls and all of them soar back up the great ladder. Beatrice leads Dante right up after them. Dante finds himself in the Constellation of Gemini, his birth star, and prays for the strength to reach the end of his heavenly journey. Before moving on, Beatrice tells Dante to look down through the vast universe and to admire how far they have traveled. Dante is amazed at what he sees, particularly the tiny globe of the Earth amid the immensity of the spheres through which he has traveled with his guide. He then turns back to gaze upon her lovely eyes.

            Hearing such a shout, I turned quickly to Beatrice, like a child who runs back to the one he trusts. And like a mother, whose calm voice reassured her troubled child, she asked: “Have you forgotten that you are in Heaven? Do you not realize that everything here is holy and that everything that happens here has its origin in holy zeal? If such a shout has shaken you so, just imagine if they had sung, or if I had smiled! Within that shout was a prayer which, if you had heard it, would have warned you of the vengeance of God about to come. But you will see it happen before you die. The sword of retribution here cuts neither fast nor slow, except for those who expect it – either in hope or fear. But enough of this. Attend to everything you see around you and let my words guide you for there are many illustrious souls here.”

            As she pointed them out to me, I saw hundreds of small fiery spheres that grew in brilliance the more they shared each other’s light. And once again, fearing to offend, I was forced to rein in the strong desire to speak – until, that is, the most lovely of those fiery globes approached me and answered the question I was stifling. From within that small fire came these words: “If you knew, as I do, the love that burns within us, you would have shared your hidden thoughts with us. Without further delay I am happy to answer your hidden question. The mountain behind the town of Cassino was once the home to many people of pagan beliefs. I was the first one to bring them the name of Him Who became one of us to bring us back to our true home within these heavens. I was filled with such grace and zeal that I succeeded in converting all of them from their evil ways. All these others here with me were contemplative souls, enkindled from up here by the warmth that gives life down there and produces the fruits of holiness. Here I present to Macarius and Romuald, and here are all my stout-hearted brethren who never abandoned their cloisters.”

            And I replied to him: “Now I feel fully confident to open my heart to you, not only because of the love you have shown in your answer, but for all the good I see shining from within you. Your light is like the sun that warms the rose until it is fully bloomed. In this confidence, then, I ask you, holy father, please tell me whether I am sufficiently worthy to look upon your unveiled face.”

            “My dear brother,” he replied kindly, “this great desire of yours will be fulfilled in the highest of these spheres. In that place every wish is granted and there every desire becomes perfect. That sphere is beyond space, and in that place things are as they have always been. Our ladder here reaches up to such heights, but your sight cannot follow its true extent. However, the patriarch Jacob did see its top when he dreamed of it teeming with angels. Sadly, no one on earth today tries to climb it, and the Rule I wrote for my brothers is all but trash. The walls of our monastic cells now house beasts, and the monks’ cowls are used as sacks filled with rotting grain!

            “Terrible as it is, the sin of usury is less offensive to God than the greed that infects monks’ hearts. The goods of the Church are for the care of the poor and needy, not for the families of monks – or worse! Mortal flesh is so weak that it takes the oak less time to sprout acorns than for good intentions to bear fruit. Peter built the Church without money, I built my Order with prayer and fasting, and Francis built his with humility. If you compare the origins of these with what they have become, you will see how the white has become badly faded. And yet the waters of the Jordan flowing backward or the Red Sea split in two are miracles greater than if God now came to the assistance of His Church.”

            When that holy father finished speaking to me, he withdrew back into the crowd of flaming spirits and, like a whirlwind, all of them were swept back to the highest heaven. And with a simple movement of her hand, Beatrice swept me right up behind them, her greater power overcoming my mortal nature.

            On earth, we go up and down by natural means, but there was never a speed to match my flight up here. I tell you this, dear Reader, my strongest hope is to return to this holy triumph, and I repent of all my sins to attain a place here. Faster than you could have put your finger in and out of a flame – that quickly were we already in the Zodiac among the stars that follow Taurus. O glorious Gemini! O stars filled with holy power, O source of my genius: within your holy sign the Sun rose and set when I was born in Tuscany. And as God’s grace enables me to enter this great sphere within which you turn, I rejoice to find myself again among those stars that marked my birth! I humbly pray that you will fill me with some of your power that I might have the strength to travel through this hardest phase of my journey and reach its destined end.

            “Do you realize how close you are to that final blessedness toward which we fly,” asked Beatrice? “Therefore, keep your sight clear and your vision sharp. And before we proceed, take a moment to look down and behold the vast universe that lies beneath your feet, so that your heart, filled with joy, will be ready to meet the rejoicing throngs of God’s Triumphant who now come to meet you.”

            As I did what she asked, I looked down through the seven spheres we had passed through and smiled when I saw our Earth so tiny there. It made me realize how insignificant our world is and how truly wise is the man who directs his thoughts toward higher things. I gazed upon our Moon glowing at its fullest and without those spots I once believed were caused by different densities in her surface. Full upon your brilliant face, O Sun, I was able to gaze, and close to you moved Mercury and the lovely Venus. From there I also saw Jupiter, temperate between the cool of Saturn and the heat of Mars, and I saw how they changed positions as they moved across the heavens. I could see all seven spheres at once: how immense they were, how swiftly they turned, and how far they were from each other. But as for this tiny garden that makes us so fierce – as I turned there with those timeless Twins, I saw the whole of it, from mountains to seas. And then, back to those beautiful eyes of Beatrice I turned my own.