St. Bernard, Dante’s final guide, now begins to point out to him several of the major Saints who occupy significant places of honor within the Heavenly Rose. Seated below the Virgin Mary is Eve, and below her is Rachel. Beatrice sits to her right. From the Virgin Mary in a direct line downward through the Rose sit famous Hebrew women. This line separates one side of the Rose from the other. To the left of these biblical women the seats are filled with souls from the Old Testament era who placed their faith in the future coming of Christ. All the seats here are filled. To the right are souls from the New Testament era who placed their faith in Christ already come. There are still empty seats on this side, but both sides will be equally filled at the end of time. Directly opposite the Virgin Mary sits John the Baptist, and down from him is a long row of saintly men. Seated to Mary’s left is Adam, and to her right is St. Peter, with Moses to his right. Directly across from St. Peter is St. Anne, the mother of Mary, and opposite Adam sits St. Lucy, who sent Beatrice to save Dante when he was lost in the Dark Wood. St. Bernard also explains to Dante that the lower portion of the Rose – on both sides – is filled with the souls of innocent children who died before reaching the age of reason. Dante wonders why some of these innocents are seated higher or lower than others. St. Bernard explains that there is no particular merit involved on their part, but simply the gracious love of God and the movement of grace which, in the end, is beyond our comprehension. Following these explanations, Dante witnesses a downpouring of love and joy upon the Virgin Mary from all the angels who soar above the Rose, and the angel Gabriel stands before her saying ‘Ave, Maria!’ Seeing that Dante’s time is running short, St. Bernard tells him to look into the brilliance of the godhead and to join him in praying to Mary, who will strengthen him for the final part of his journey.
Filled with holy love, St. Bernard graciously assumed his role as my guide and began to explain what I was seeing there before me. “She who opened the wound of sin that Mary would close and heal sits lovingly at her feet. Directly below her, in the third tier, sits Rachel. And there to her right you can see your beloved Beatrice in glory. Below Rachel is Sarah, the wife of Abraham; and below her Rebecca, then Judith, and Ruth, the great-grandmother of David who, seeking forgiveness for his grievous sin, prayed ‘Miserere mei.’ Thus, moving down through the Rose row by row, you can see them as I name them.
“And continuing from the seventh row all the way down are seated generations of famous Hebrew women. Depending on which way their faith viewed the Christ, they form a dividing line up and down the ranks of this sacred amphitheater. On this side, where all the seats are filled, sit those whose faith yearned for Christ still to come. On that side, where you see empty seats among its tiers, are those who set their faith on Christ already come.
“Just as on this side, from the throne of Heaven’s Queen downward there is a dividing line, so directly across from Mary on the other side is the throne of holy John the Baptist who lived in the desert, was martyred by Herod, and then spent two more years in Hell. Below him, in the line that divides the Rose on this side, sit Francis, Benedict, Augustine, and other saintly men descending all the way to where we stand.
“Furthermore, enjoy another wonder of God’s divine plan: both sides of this great garden of faith – those who looked forward to Christ and those who rejoice in his coming – will be filled with equal numbers of holy souls. And know further that in the lower portion of this amphitheater, on both sides of the dividing line, are souls who earned their seats through the merits of others, not their own, under certain conditions. Every one of them was absolved of any sin before reaching the age in which they could make free choices. Look at their sweet faces and listen to their children’s voices to see this for yourself.
“But now you are perplexed, and I can read your doubts. So let me loosen the knot which your straining thoughts have bound you with. In this vast and eternal realm nothing happens by chance. Just as you have seen that there is no sorrow, hunger, or thirst here, so everything else is governed by eternal law and fits as perfectly as the ring on your finger. And thus it is that all these young souls, who arrived here before their elders, are not without cause ranked higher or lower because of their merits. No. Rather, our King, whose love fills us with such delight in this place that no soul could wish for more, in creating all souls out of sheer joy, variously bestows on each one as much grace as He pleases. Let this fact settle your thoughts. Holy Scripture clearly lays this out in the story of the twins, Esau and Jacob, who wrestled with each other within their mother’s womb, and who came out very differently. Thus it is fitting that God’s highest light should fill these young souls with as much grace as He pleases. In the end, they are not ranked according to the merit of their works, but simply by the gift of God’s grace, whose workings are beyond our ability to comprehend.
“During the first age of man on earth, the salvation of children rested on the faith of their parents. When that age ended, it was by virtue of circumcision that innocent souls could reach Heaven. But when Christ ushered in a new age, salvation came through baptism. Without it, innocent souls were remanded to Limbo. Now, then, raise your eyes to the splendor of that countenance which most resembles Christ. Only through her power will you be fortified to look upon her Son.”
At that moment, all the angels who soar within the heights of that immense gathering of souls poured down upon her such a rain of joy that nothing I had seen up to this point could have held me in greater wonder, or shown me so close a likeness to God! Then that loving spirit, who had long ago bowed humbly before her, stood before with his great wings spread wide and sang to her again: Ave, Maria, gratia plena. From every side of that blessed Court the joyful souls joined him in hymns of praise, their faces growing brighter as they sang.
Once again, I turned with respect to that kindly guide whose loving devotion to Mary caused him to shine like the morning star at sunrise. “O holy father, for my sake you willingly descended from your eternal throne to stand down here with me. Tell me who that glorious angel is who, with such joy stands before the Queen of Heaven burning with love and looking directly into her beautiful eyes?”
And he replied: “He is filled with as much light and grace as an angel or a soul might possess, and we would have it this way. For he is the one who brought the palm of blessing to Mary when, in her own body, the Son of God willed to become human like us. Now follow with your eyes the words I speak and I will point out to you the great patricians of this most just and holy kingdom. Those two most blessed souls who sit on either side of our Empress are, as it were, the two roots of this Rose. The one sitting to her left is Adam, whose reckless appetite still causes mankind to taste the bitter shame of sin. The one on her right is the Father of our Holy Church, he to whom Christ gave the keys to this splendid Flower. Next to him sits the beloved disciple who, before he died, wrote about the troubled years ahead for the lovely Bride Christ won for himself when he died upon the Cross. Beside the one on the left sits Moses, who led the stubborn Israelites, though God fed them with his holy manna. Directly across from Peter you will see Anna, who looks with joyful love upon her daughter as she sings Hosanna. Opposite Adam sits Lucy, who sent your Beatrice to you when you were headed on the path to ruin.
“But now that your journey is nearing its end, let us stop here as a good tailor would who cuts the cloak from the cloth he still has, and let us fix our sight upon the First Love so that, gazing at Him, you may penetrate as far as possible the radiance of His glory. And to prevent you from falling backwards when you think you are rising, we need to request in prayer the grace we need from she who has the power to help you. Follow me now with your heart’s devotion and attend to my words.”
And he began to say this holy prayer: