Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 24

Beatrice begins by requesting that Dante be given some small portion of the heavenly banquet to refresh his longing soul. The spirits whirl and glow brightly to show their happiness with such a request, and one light, brighter than all the rest, emerges to speak with her. This is St. Peter, and Beatrice requests that he examine Dante on his faith. Dante prepares  himself as a university student might, organizing his thoughts before the examination begins. St. Peter then engages Dante, asking him several questions about faith, the nature of faith, Dante’s own faith, where he got it, what it means to him to possess it, and what proof he can show of it. Then, having successfully answered St. Peter’s questions, the spirits sing out in joy. Peter finishes the examination by asking Dante to make his own personal profession of faith. This Dante does, and St. Peter joins the rest of the spirits there in rejoicing and praise at Dante’s success.

            “O you blessed ones chosen to partake of the heavenly banquet where the Lamb of God satisfies all your needs,” Beatrice began, “since by God’s grace this man has been given a foretaste of what falls from your table before he dies, consider his great thirst and give him a few precious drops of what you drink forever from that fountain which is the very Source of his thoughts.”

            Hearing her request, those souls rejoiced and began to spin in circles, looking like great flaming comets. And as the gears and wheels within a clock all move, one appearing almost still and another flying by comparison, so those whirling souls danced at different speeds showing me the variations of their bliss.

            Then from one of those spinning souls there came a brilliant light that surpassed the brightness of all the rest. It flew around Beatrice three times singing to music so beautiful my memory fails to recall it. And once again I must leave a gap here in my record because there are times when neither words nor fantasy suffice to paint the subtlety of Heaven’s light.

            “O my holy sister,” said that circling spirit when he stopped before her, “your loving prayer summons me from among these other illustrious souls.”

            And she replied to him: “O light of that great man to whom Our Lord gave the keys of this realm of Paradise, I ask that you examine this man with questions major and minor about faith – the faith that once enabled you to walk upon the sea. If love, hope, and faith truly live within him, you will know it because you look eternally on that place where everything that happens is clearly seen. Since those who live in this realm of ours were filled with true faith, it is fitting that you discuss it with him.”

            Hearing them speak thus, I became like a student preparing to be examined by his master who has not yet framed the key question. I armed myself with thoughts and arguments so that I would be ready to answer such a master about such a creed.

            “Good Christian, speak now and make your solemn declaration: What is Faith?”

            I first raised my eyes to gaze upon the light who questioned me, and then I turned toward Beatrice, whose face told me to let out all the answers that were waiting to pour forth from my soul. And so I began: “I pray that He Who has brought me to profess my faith before His high centurion may grant that my thoughts be well-ordered and articulate.” Continuing, I made my answer: “Holy father, as your brother Paul wrote – he who along with you brought the true faith to Rome: ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things we cannot see.’ This I propose is the essence of faith.”

            St. Peter replied: “Your answer is correct; but do you understand why Faith is first classified as being at the foundation and only then is it evidence?”

            I answered: “The profound things that in this heavenly realm show themselves to me clearly cannot be seen that way by men on earth, and so they reside only in belief. And on the basis of this belief is hope built. One might say that it is the foundation of hope by its very nature. From this belief, we on earth create logical proofs for what we cannot see naturally, and these become the evidence of our faith.”

            He replied: “If everything else on earth were grasped so well by mortals, there would be no need for clever sophistry.” And then he added: “You have explored well the alloy and the weight of this coin of faith. But tell me, do you carry this coin in your purse?”

            “Oh, yes, I do carry it. It is precious to me and I do not doubt its quality.”

            Then from within his brilliant light came these words: “This priceless gem, foundation of all the other virtues, where did you get it?”

            And I answered: “The Word inspired by God’s Holy Spirit as found in the two Testaments – this for me makes Faith an absolute certainty, apart from which any other proof would be shallow.”

            “These Testaments – Old and New – upon which you place such certainty, how do you know they contain the holy Word of God?” he asked.

            And I said: “The only proof I need is in the works that followed – the miracles, the prophecies. These are not the work of Nature, which has neither the means nor the ability to produce them.”

            “Then tell me,” he asked, “how do you even know that such works ever happened? The proof you rely on needs more proof itself.”

            “I need no further proof than this:” I replied, “if the world turned to Christianity without the help of miracles that is the greatest miracle of all. You yourself went into the field poor and hungry to sow the seed of faith that once grew as a lovely vine but is now a thornbush.”

            With that final answer, the choirs of saints sang out the great hymn “Te Deum laudamus that echoed throughout the spheres in music one only hears in Heaven. But once again did that holy Baron speak, who had examined my faith and led me branch by branch close to the top of the tree: “The grace of God has empowered your mind and lips to respond correctly, and I approve of all you said. But before your examination is complete, profess your creed to me now and tell me clearly what is the source of your belief.”

            Before I started, I said to him: “O holy father, O spirit who now sees the fulfillment of the faith that led you to the tomb – though one younger than you arrived there first – you ask me to show you the substance of my unwavering faith and what is the source from which it flows.” And so I began: “I believe in one God alone, Who is eternal and unmoved. His love and desire give motion to all things within the universe. My faith stands not only on the proofs of philosophy and science but upon the truth that came down from this realm through Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, the holy Gospels, and through letters penned by you dictated by God’s Holy Spirit. I believe in three eternal Persons, they are a single Essence that is both One and Three, equally is and are. I am convinced of these truths because they are clearly found in the Gospel – which is the source, the spark that kindles them into a living flame that enlightens my mind like a star in the heavens.”

            When I finished, his delight was hardly to be contained. He who had encouraged me to speak when I was silent, now circled around me three times as he sang his praises and blessings over me.