Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 3

Having understood the answers Beatrice gave to his previous questions about the nature of the Moon, Dante quite unexpectedly sees what he thinks are reflections of faces before him. Turning around, but seeing no one, he turns back and Beatrice explains that what he sees are real spirits who are here because they broke their vows. The first spirit reveals that she was Dante’s cousin, Piccarda Donati. Dante wants to know whether the spirits here wish to be higher in Heaven than they are. Piccarda tells Dante more about her life and then states that all of spirits here are completely happy and fulfilled exactly where they are because their station here is in complete accord with the will of God. Then Piccarda introduces the empress Constance whose life as a nun and forcible removal from the convent mirrored her own.

            She who filled my heart with love when we were young, had now filled it with the beauty of truth revealed in her arguments and proofs. And as I raised my eyes to hers, both to acknowledge my errors and her wisdom, there appeared in front of me an unexpected vision that captured my attention so deeply that all intention of thanking Beatrice went out of my head.

            Just as we can see a faint image of ourselves reflected back when we look through a clear pane of glass, or the faint image that reflects back at us in a clear pool of still water – an image so pale that, for example, we might not distinguish a lovely pearl upon a white brow – well, such faces as these I saw there, and they were eager to speak with me. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image in a pool of water and never looked away, when I saw these faces I thought they were reflections, so I turned around to find out who they were. And there was no one there!

            Puzzled at this, I turned around again and looked at Beatrice, whose gorgeous eyes sparkled as she smiled at me. “Don’t be surprised at me smiling,” she said. “Your reaction just now – turning around to stare at nothing – shows that you still don’t trust the evidence before you. What you see here before you are real beings. They appear in this place because they failed to keep their vows. You are most welcome to speak with them. Listen to what they tell you and trust what they say because the very light of God fills them with the truth.”

            And so I, filled with desire, said to that spirit who seemed most anxious to speak: “O soul so beautifully created, O you who taste the sweetness of everlasting life which can only be known in Heaven, I would be pleased if you would graciously reveal to me your identity and tell me how you come to be here.”

            With eyes lit by her smile, she replied: “The love that fills us could never deny your request because He wills that our love be like Love Himself. In life I was a virgin sister, and if you probe your memory you will remember me as your cousin Piccarda, though I am far more beautiful now than I was. I am here among all these other blessed spirits within this slowest of the heavenly spheres. What we desire is stirred within us by God’s Holy Spirit, and in conforming to his will we rejoice. Our position here in this lowly sphere has been allotted to us because we failed to fully keep the vows we made or gave less than what we had promised.”

            And I replied, “I did not immediately recall your face because all of your faces here shine with a divine radiance that transforms them far beyond mere memory. But as you speak the recollection of your face comes quickly to me. Please tell me, though: don’t all of you happy souls here long to be even higher in Heaven than this place? Don’t you long to see more and to be loved more by Love?”

            All the shades there smiled gently at my question, and her reply came in words so filled with bliss she seemed to burn with the very fire of love. “My dear brother, the power of God’s love moderates our will in such a way that we desire no more than what we have. We long for this alone. If we wanted a place higher than this, then our wills would not be in harmony with His will which wills us to be here. Think about how love works and it will be clear to you that there is no discord here because to be here is to exist in Love itself. To be sure, the very essence of our existence in this most blessèd place is to live here within the happy confines of His will alone. The varying ranks within this heavenly realm are as much a part of the nature of this glorious place as is that King Whose will is our will too. In His will we are at peace. It is the sea from which all being and all creation come.”

            As she spoke this, it became clear to me that every place in Heaven is Heaven, and that God’s light shines in different ways in all these places. But just as at table we might find ourselves filled with one food but desiring another, saying thank you for this one but asking for that, so did I wish to know more about Piccarda’s unfulfilled vows.

            She began, “As a young girl, I chose to follow in the footsteps of St. Clare, whose holy life and virtue are praised higher up. I took her veil and chose to follow till death her rule that wedded me to the Bridegroom who was pleased to accept my sacred vows. But then by violence, hateful men forced me away from the happy seclusion of my cloister, and only God knows what then became of me.

            “This lovely spirit here, my companion who shines with the full radiance of our lowly sphere, knows well what I say because her life mirrored mine. She was also a sister, and from her, too, our holy veil was ripped away by men of worldly strife. And yet she kept that veil over heart for the rest of her days. This lovely light is the spirit of the Empress Constance. She was compelled to marry Henry VI and became the mother of Frederick II.”

            Having supplied me with the answer I sought, this gracious and lightsome spirit began to sing “Ave, Maria,” and as she did so, she faded slowly from my sight as though sinking into the deeps.

When she had vanished completely, I turned my eyes back to my lovely Beatrice – now completely absorbed in her. But the brilliance of her own light suddenly burst upon me so brightly that it was hard for me to look at her, and even harder now to question her.