Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 23

Dante opens this Canto by observing a sense of anticipation in Beatrice whose face shines with indescribable beauty. Soon, she announces the arrival of an immense host of triumphant souls coming down from the heavens, including Jesus and his mother, Mary. For the second time in the Paradiso, Dante sees Christ, and he is so overcome that can barely endure such a vision. Unable to fully comprehend what has happened to him, Beatrice tells Dante that he now has the strength to look directly into her face without danger. He does so, and he is so overcome by the power of her beauty that he tells us there are no words to express such an experience, and he asks the Reader to  take pity on him because the burden of his poem is getting harder to bear. Beatrice then directs  Dante’s eyes to the Virgin Mary and the Apostles. An angel, most likely the angel Gabriel, descends from the heavens like a flaming torch that circles around Mary as he sings her praises. Then Christ and his mother rise slowly out of Dante’s sight as the rest of the flaming souls follow them singing. 

            Like a bird sitting on the nest of her young among the leaves at night, anxious to feed and care for them – a task she does with love –  watching the sunrise at the beginning of a new day: this was Beatrice, waiting and vigilant as she scanned that high part of the heavens beneath which the sun seems to move so slowly. On her face was a look of great longing, like one filled with desire and hope, feeding on anticipation. But these moments passed quickly as the heavens grew brighter with the arrival of a new day. Then she said to me: “Look there! Behold the glorious legions of Christ triumphant. They are the rich harvest gathered from these heavenly spheres.”

            At that moment, her face was so filled with light and her eyes so bright with happiness – I have to leave it as something undescribed. But as on a clear night when Trivia, goddess of the Moon, shines full and the stars like countless nymphs light the eternal depths of Heaven, I saw above those numberless lights one Sun that enflamed them all, just as our sun lights the stars of his own realm. And through His living light there came forth upon me such an vision of His essence that my poor eyes could not endure it. O my sweet, loving Beatrice! And turning to me she said: “You are overcome by something so grand there is no defense against it. Within it is He who re-opened the way between Heaven and earth which mankind waited so long for.”

            As when a bolt of lightning explodes within a cloud and crashes down to earth, so the power of this vision seemed to burst my mind asunder which could not contain it. I do not know what happened except there was Beatrice: “Open your eyes now, look straight into my face” she said, “and see me as I am! The things you have witnessed have now empowered you – without danger to yourself – to see my smile.”

            Like one awakened from a powerful dream which he has forgotten, much as he may strive to recall it, so was I as I listened to her sweet words – they were an invitation that will never be erased from the book of my life! If at that moment every line of poetry inspired by Polyhymnia and her sister Muses sang out at once to help me describe it, none of those words would amount to a thousandth part of the beauty of her sacred smile, or how it made her face glow with such resplendence! So, at this point in my sacred poem about Paradise, I find it necessary to make a leap over this part because the road is blocked. But you will forgive me, I hope, if I falter for a moment here because it is difficult for these mortal shoulders to carry the weight of my poem’s theme. This part of my voyage cannot be made by a small ship, nor by a captain who would think first of saving himself.

            “Why are you so enraptured by my face that you fail to look upon this magnificent garden of holy ones blooming in the light of Christ our Sun?” said Beatrice. “Look there and see the wondrous Rose within whose womb the Word of God became flesh. And see there those lilies who left all to follow him and showed the rest of mankind how to do the same.”

            And once again, happy to do anything she wished, I struggled to set my poor eyes upon the vision that overpowered me moments before. It happens once in a while that a ray of sunlight will break through on a cloudy day and light up a field of flowers. What I saw now was like that: countless legions of souls were set aflame by the rays of a great love from above, but I could not see the source of that light. O gracious Power that fills them with such light! You raised yourself to such heights so that my poor eyes, powerless before you, might yet receive the lasting imprint of your love.

            And now the sound of that sweet Rose’s name, she to whom I always pray, summoned the depths of my soul into that flaming vision. As I looked upon the splendor of that living star who reigns both in Heaven and on Earth, a great flaming torch came down from the heavens shaped like a crown and spun again and again around her beautiful light. The loveliest music we might hope to make here on earth might sound like a clap of thunder compared to the rapturous tones that flowed from that circling lyre crowning the blessed Sapphire whose love turns all of heaven into a precious gem. “I am angelic love,” it said, “and I circle round that exalted joy who breathed out from her womb, the place where dwelt all we could ever hope for. I will circle round you, O Lady of Heaven, as you follow your Son into the highest realm of heaven, made even more divine by your presence there.”

            So ended the song sung by that circling angel, and then all the other glowing lights within that sphere sang out the name of Mary, their Queen. The great mantle that encompasses all the spheres in the heavens, turning the fastest because it is closest to the very breath of God, curved around us – but still at such a great distance I had no indication that it was there. As a result, I could not follow that crowned flame to her destination as she rose into the heights of Heaven following her Son.

            A happy child, contented after it has nursed, will lift up its arms in search of its mother. In the same way, I watched as all those glowing souls, showing how deeply they loved her, stretched their flaming splendors upward toward Mary. Suspended in glory, they sang Regina Coeli with such divine affection that the beauty of it will resound  forever in my mind. O how great are the treasures of grace to be found up here, filled by those who, when they lived on earth, went about doing good! Here in Heaven they truly live and enjoy the reward their labors won for them while they lived in exile below, spurning all wealth. And victorious here, with all the rest, beneath the very Son of God and his holy Mother, surrounded by all those saved by the two Testaments, stands that triumphant one to whom the Lord entrusted the keys to such glory!