Dante opens this Canto by expressing his fond hope to return to his native Florence and be recognized as a great poet. Soon, the light of St. James appears and joins St. Peter. Beatrice asks St. James to examine Dante on Hope. After successfully answering the Apostle’s questions a third brilliant light emerges to join Sts. Peter and James. It is the Apostle John. Though this newly arrived soul is stunningly bright, Dante stares at him unabashedly to see if (according to a Medieval belief) he is in Heaven with both his body and his soul. St. John tells him that his body is buried on Earth. Turning, then, to look at Beatrice, Dante discovers that he is blind!
If it ever happens that this sacred poem – which both Heaven and Earth have had a hand in writing (and left me lean from years of labor) – should overcome the cruel brood that exiled me from the sheepfold where I was a lamb and a foe to those wolves who tear it apart now, I would return as a poet – with a new voice and a different fleece – and stand at the font of my baptism wearing the laurel crown, for at that place I entered the faith that makes souls welcome to God, the same faith for which St. Peter had just now turned himself into my crown.
And then, out of the same glowing sphere that St. Peter had emerged from so brightly a new light moved toward us; whereupon my dear Beatrice, so beautiful in her joy, said to me: “Look there! See the Baron who draws pilgrims to his tomb in Galicia.”
As when a dove alights near its mate, and in mutual affection they circle each other and coo, so I saw these two brilliant spirits greet each other singing praise for the heavenly banquet that nourishes them eternally. And when their greetings had been exchanged, they stopped quietly in front of me – so refulgent I could not look at them. Then my smiling Beatrice spoke to that second great light: “O illustrious soul, who wrote of the abundance of our heavenly realm, let hope resound throughout the kingdom of Heaven, for you were so many times the symbol of this virtue when Jesus took the three of you with him.”
“Lift up your head and take heart,” said that second light, “for all who come here from the mortal world must ripen in this light of ours.” With these words of strength I lifted up my eyes which had been lowered because of his powerful brilliance. “Since by His grace, and before your death, our Emperor has brought you here before His own Counts in His most secret hall, so that seeing the truth of this realm, you and others might be strengthened by that Hope which spurs men on earth to love the good; tell me, then, what is Hope? Tell me how much of it you possess, and where it comes from.” Thus spoke that second light.
And Beatrice, who had guided me at every point along my high flight, anticipated my reply: “Among the Church Militant you will find no one with greater hope than this man, as you see in Him whose light illuminates all the citizens of this heavenly realm. Because of this his pilgrimage from Egypt to see our Jerusalem has been willed before his earthly days are done. I will leave the other two questions to be answered by him so that those on earth may know how deeply you cherish this virtue. He will answer them easily and without boasting. Let him speak to you, and may the grace of God be with him.”
Once again I was like the well-versed student, diligent and ready to answer his master: “Hope,” I stated, “is the sure expectation of the future happiness we will inherit, the reward of God’s grace and merit earned. Like light from the stars, this light shines down on me from many wise minds; but it was the psalmist David, God’s highest singer, who first instilled this virtue within my heart. ‘Let all have hope in You, Lord, who know Your holy name,’ he sings. And if one has faith like mine, surely they know of that Name. Furthermore, by reading your Letter I have been filled with Hope, and I am happy to pour out what I have received to others.”
As I spoke, brilliant flashes like lightning flamed out from that spirit, and I heard him say: “The love for this virtue always burns within me. It followed me even to my martyrdom and death. And since you love this virtue so much, fill me with even more joy by telling me what promise Hope holds out to you.”
I replied: “Both Testaments define the goal of Hope, which points me to this promise, namely, that as the prophet Isaiah foretold, those whom God has chosen as his friends will wear the double garment of body and soul here in this glorious homeland of ours. And then there is also your brother John, who makes this revelation even clearer when he writes about Heaven’s white-robed army.” When I had finished speaking, I again heard the Psalm ring out in the heavens: “Let them trust in thee who know thy name, O Lord!” And all the dancing spirits sang out in response.
Then, among those dancing lights, one shone so brightly that if the Crab constellation had only that star, winter would have a month-long day. As a young maiden will dance for joy in honor of the bride without being self-conscious, so I saw a brilliant new splendor rush toward the other two glories that were dancing to match their great love. As it joined them in their dance and song, my Beatrice, like a bride, gazed at them in calm and quiet. And without ever taking her eyes from them she said to me: “This new one here is he who laid his head upon the breast of our own Pelican. He is the one to whom Jesus, on the Cross, gave the care of his own mother.”
As at an eclipse of the sun, one strains and squints one’s eyes to see just a bit of it, so did I stare at that blazing light until I heard it say: “Why blind yourself looking for what is not here? My body is but earth now, and it lies with all the others awaiting the final call of God. Two Lights, and only two, rose directly to this our realm in body and soul. Explain this when you return to your world.”
As he spoke, the dancing and music of that blessèd trio stopped – like rowers who drop their oars together at a whistle or to prevent fatigue. But how can I explain what I felt when I turned to look at Beatrice – she so close to me, we in Paradise – and I was blind!