Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 31

Dante now sees the whole of Heaven open itself to his sight like a great white rose. The saints, seated in their ranks, are attended by countless angels who, like bees among flowers, continually bring them the love of God from the center of that immense amphitheater. Those countless angels never obscure Dante’s view of the saints, and he can see the farthest regions of Heaven as though they were right in front of him. He compares his awe at such a sight to that of the barbarians who were stunned by the majesty of Rome, and like a pilgrim who has reached his destination, he wonders who he will be able to describe such sights when he returns home.

            Knowing that Beatrice will help him make sense of what he sees, Dante turns aside to question her but discovers that she has been replaced by the venerable St. Bernard. The Saint  reveals that Beatrice asked him to lead Dante to the end of his journey, and shows him where his beloved guide is seated near the very top of Heaven. In a loving prayer of thanksgiving, Dante tells Beatrice that he now understands fully the significance of his journey and the importance of her guidance that has brought him from slavery to freedom. And for the last time he sees her smile at him in recognition.

            St. Bernard then urges Dante to let his eyes roam over the entirety of Heaven until he sees the very top, where a light more brilliant than the rising sun reflects the love of God into the faces of all the saints. Filled with loving devotion, both Dante and St. Bernard look into this splendid light.

            There within that White Rose I saw before me the great legion of saints whom Christ wedded with His own sacred blood. And soaring above them, singing to the glory of God who fills them with love, was that legion of angels who, like a swarm of bees, descended upon the saints seated among the Rose’s fragrant petals. Then they returned to the source of all Love  for but a moment, and once again flew back among the souls carrying the love of God into that glorious Rose. Those angels’ faces were like living flames, their bodies whiter than any snow, and their wings were of purest gold. As they flew like bees from tier to tier within that immense Rose, they spread everywhere among the seated saints the peace and love their wings had gathered at the Font of Love Itself. Amazingly, that countless host of busy angels never obscured the vision of all those saints whose sight was fixed constantly on the glorious Light of God. In this everlastingly joyful kingdom, teeming with saints old and new, seeing that Light was their single goal.

            O sacred threefold Light which in one beam shines upon them all, fill them with Your joy and remember us in this tempest of life! If the barbarians, who came from those northern regions spanned by the Dipper’s constellation, were so astonished by Rome and her great monuments – like the Lateran Basilica, imagine me in wondrous amazement arriving here in Heaven – a mortal at a place divine, from unruly Florence to such a wholesome people! I tell you, between my awe and my joy, I was content neither to hear nor to speak!

            I was like a pilgrim now, contented and filled with joy as I looked around the temple I had vowed to visit, and wondering how I would be able to describe it when I returned home. And so I simply let my eyes go wandering up and down through that living light filled with rank on rank of blessed saints. Their happy faces were filled with joy in that light, and their smiles and gestures were matched with dignity and grace.

            By now, I had a general idea of the plan of Paradise, though I hadn’t yet concentrated on any one part of it. So, with eager curiosity to know more, I turned around to ask Beatrice to explain things which were still unclear to me. But, expecting to see her standing there, I was surprised to see, instead, a distinguished elder dressed in the robes of all those saints I had just been looking at. Everything about his appearance and demeanor radiated the joy of the blessed saints and the tender kindness of a loving father.

            “But where is she?” I asked in astonishment. And gently he replied: “Your Beatrice came to me and requested that I leave my place and guide you to the end of this great journey of yours. If you turn now and look toward the highest level of our Heaven you will see her enthroned there as she deserves in the third row from the top.”

            In silent wonder, I turned and looked upward where I saw her seated there in the glory of that eternal light. The distance between us was like that between sky and the bottom of the sea, but it made no difference here, for I saw her as though she were standing right before me.

            “O blessed lady, strength of all my hope, who deigned once to enter Hell itself in order to save me from eternal death, now at last I understand the full effect of everything I have seen on my journey which you ordained. By every means within your power – every step of the way – you led me from slavery into freedom. Keep alive within me always the flame of your generous spirit, so that when my soul – which you have healed – leaves my mortal body, it may be pleasing to you in this place forever.” Thus I prayed, and as I did, though she seemed so far away, she looked down and smiled at me one more time. Then she turned her lovely face to look once more into that Fountain of Eternal Light.

            And now the saintly elder spoke to me once again: “I have been commissioned by prayer and holy love to see that this great pilgrimage of yours reaches its destined conclusion. But first, let your eyes soar upward through every part of this garden of souls, so that what you take in will prepare you for the Divine Vision that awaits you. The Queen of Heaven, for whom love’s flame burns within me, she will give us every grace we need because I am her devoted servant, Bernard.”

            As a pilgrim might come from somewhere like Croatia to look upon our Veronica, which he has longed to see, and now cannot look upon it long enough; and while he sees it there before him, his soul speaks in prayer: “O my Lord Jesus Christ, truly God, is this really what your face looked like?” – just so did I, staring at the holy monk, and seeing the love which, while he lived on earth, enabled him to taste the peace of this heavenly realm.

            Amused at my hesitation, he spoke again. “My dear child of grace,” he said, “how do you expect to fathom the glories of this place if you keep your eyes fixed down here on me? Look up into this holy congregation to the very highest level until you see her, our beloved Queen, to whom this entire realm is happily subject.”

            And so I lifted up my eyes, and with them climbed to the highest point of that great gathering of blessed souls. As the eastern horizon at sunrise is far brighter than the western one, I saw up there a radiance of light that outshone everything else. As in our sky, where we would expect to see the sun – once pulled awry by Phaeton’s reckless chariot – there in those awesome heights that brilliant oriflame of peace outshone everything else. And all around that magnificent light I saw the outstretched wings of countless festal angels, each one unique in splendor and in power.

            There, smiling happily at the angels’ jubilation, I saw with my own eyes a loveliness that reflected its own bliss into the eyes of all those blessed saints. Even if my words were as rich as my memory of that splendid sight, I would never attempt to describe even the smallest portion of such blissful beauty. And my holy guide, Bernard, seeing how my gaze was fixed with such devotion upon the object of his own holy fervor, turned to her with such love in his blessed eyes that mine became even more fervent in their gaze.