Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 28

Following Beatrice’s lament over the sad state of affairs on Earth, Dante sees deep within her magnificent eyes a tiny speck of light so powerful he cannot continue to look at it. Circling this small point are a series of nine fiery rings of light, each rotating slightly slower than the one ahead of it, the farthest out moving the slowest. Beatrice explains to Dante that these are the nine ranks of angels circling God. The inner ring, the Seraphim, moves the fastest because it is closest to God, and the rest move proportionately slower the farther they are from God (though all distance is relative here). Realizing that he sees the “model” of which our cosmos is but a “copy,” Dante is confused about why they don’t match. Again, Beatrice explains, and she also tells Dante that the angels’ motion is directly proportionate to their vision of the Godhead. Moreover, she tells him, the act of seeing God is first; only then does love follow. She ends by using Dionysius’ ordering and names each grouping of the angels. 

            After Beatrice – who imparadised my mind – had brought to light the truth of our miserable state on earth, I was like one who unexpectedly sees in a mirror the reflection of a light behind him. Turning around to make sure of what he sees, he discovers that both image and reality match like notes and the rhythm of music. In this case, the mirror was actually Beatrice’s beautiful eyes, which divine Love had used to take hold of me, and when I turned around I saw what happens when one looks deeply into them. There I saw a minute point of light that shot forth rays of light so intense the eyes are forced to close in the face of such power. The smallest star we might see from earth, if placed alongside that point of light like two stars, would appear as a tiny moon. As a halo might appear not far from a star when seen through airy vapors, as close as that there whirled around this point of light a ring of fire spinning faster than our universe’s largest and fastest-moving sphere. And this one was circled by a second ring, and then a third, a fourth, a fifth after that, and then the sixth. The seventh ring spread so far out that Juno’s rainbow, if it went full-circle, could not contain it. Following this, the eighth and ninth rings completed the set, each ring spinning slower the farther it was from the first ring – and that one burning with the clearest flame because, I think, it rotates closest to the Essence of all Being and partakes the most of Its pure Truth.

            She who saw both my eagerness to understand and my confusion said, “All of nature, all the heavens – everything, flows from that single Point. Do you see the flaming ring closest to it? It spins so fast because it is infused with the great fire of Love.”

            And I asked: “If the universe was arranged the way I see those great whirling rings, I would have no question. But seen from here, it appears the other way around, that the farther the spheres are from the earth, the closer they are to God. So, standing here in this glorious temple of the angels, where love and light are its only boundaries, I wish to understand clearly why the model and the copy do not match. Left to myself, I cannot make sense of this.”

            Beatrice replied: “It is not surprising that you cannot untie a knot like this. It is so tight because you have never tried to loosen it. Listen to what I will tell you now, if you want to understand, and focus your mind on what I propose. The path and size of these material spheres we have traveled through is larger or smaller depending on the power that flows down through all their parts. The greater the goodness, the greater the bliss. And greater bliss requires a greater body if its parts are equally perfect. So, this greatest and fastest sphere, which moves all the rest in the heavens, corresponds to the inner ring you see there, which moves the fastest because it is endowed with the most love and knowledge. Therefore, if you measure the power of those beings – that appear to you as rings – rather than their circumference, you will discover a wonderful order at work: the greater power of those angelic Intelligences corresponds to the greater or lesser closeness of each ring to the center point.”

            As when a wind from the northeast will make the skies clear and tranquil, purifying the air so that the heavens can be seen in all their glory, such was my mind when I heard Beatrice’s explanation. The truth of what she said shone like a lovely star in the heavens.

            Then, at that moment, from each of those fiery rings there came an immense burst of sparks as though molten iron were being poured out. Each spark stayed with its own fiery ring, but the number of them was thousands more than if you doubled each square on a chessboard! Then I heard that choir of countless spirits, with one voice, sing “Hosanna” to that Fixed Point which holds each spirit where it was and where it will be forever.

            And she who could read my mind saw that I was now confused by what I saw. “The first and second ring,” she said, “contain the Seraphim and Cherubim. They spin within their circles at such great speed longing to become as much as possible like that Great Light. And they do so in proportion to their sight. Completing the first triad of God’s angelic family is the third circle of those angelic loves, called the Thrones of the Divine Aspect. Know this: all the angels exist in joy beyond measure according to how deeply their vision enables them to fathom that Truth wherein all minds find rest. In this way, you now understand that their eternal happiness rests first on the act of seeing God; only then do they love Him – which is the second step. In accord with Divine Grace and their good will is their vision ranked, and thus they proceed outward from choir to choir.

            “The second triad blossoms here in heaven’s eternal springtime where no frost ruins the buds, and forever they sing out their three-fold “Hosanna!” In this arrangement of blessed angels are found the Dominions first, then the Virtues, and third the Powers. The outer triad of dancing spirits is comprised of the Principalities first, followed by the Archangels, and the last joyful choir – the Angels.

            As each rank of angels looks upward toward the Divinity, it pours downward upon the rest the power it receives from above – all drawn toward God. Dionysius, who spent his life in zealous contemplation of all God’s holy ministers, named and ordered them the same way I do. Much later, Pope Gregory made changes in this ordering, but when he died and came to Heaven, he laughed at his error when he saw the truth. If you wonder how a living mortal received these heavenly truths, they and many other truths about the angels were revealed to him by St. Paul who witnessed what he spoke about.”