Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 33

This final canto of the poem begins with St. Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin Mary that she grant Dante the grace to be able to look into the very Light of God. Graciously, she receives the saint’s prayer and Dante follows her gaze toward the blinding splendor of the godhead. Dante tells us that his vision reached such unimaginable heights that both memory and words fall short in his attempt to describe for us what he saw, though the sweetness of the experience remains tangibly within him. As he experiences how God is pure union, within  the depths of his vision he sees how every created thing is bound together by love in a great volume whose pages are scattered across the universe. He clearly sees how within God all separate creations and their unique properties come together as one. Realizing that the more he sees the more he wants to see, Dante tells us it would be impossible to turn away from this vision he is privileged to enjoy. Peering even further into the Divine Light, Dante sees three circles of three different colors all occupying the same space – his image of the Trinity. He is particularly fascinated by the second circle upon which is imprinted the visage of a man. Completely engaged by this sight, but realizing he cannot fully comprehend it, he compares himself to a geometer attempting the impossible: squaring a circle. And it is only at this point that Dante has a final flash of understanding. Realizing that his grand poem can soar no higher than this, and that his will and his desires are in complete harmony, he lets himself and his grand poem be moved by the same Love that propels the sun and all the stars.

            “O Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, more humble yet more exalted than all other creatures. Chosen to fulfill the eternal plan of God, you brought nobility to our human nature such, that He who created us did not disdain becoming one of us. And so, within your womb the flame of love was rekindled, whose warmth brought this Rose to full bloom in peace everlasting.

            “For all of us in this eternal place, you are the noonday torch of love; and for those on earth, you are a living fountain of hope. Lady so great and worthy, whoever seeks for divine grace without first calling upon you would be like one hoping to fly without wings. Not only does your love and kindness come to those who request it; most often it rushes to those who need it even before they ask! You are filled with tender mercy, generosity, and compassion. Whatever virtues are found in God’s creatures, all of them are found in you!

            “This man has journeyed from the deepest pit in the universe to this highest Heaven, and along the way he has witnessed the lives of spirits, one by one. By your grace, he now requests from you the strength to raise his vision to the ultimate salvation. And I, dear Lady, who never desired my own vision more than I now burn for his, I pour out all my prayers to you – and I hope they are enough – that, joined with your prayers, his mortal vision might be heightened even more so that he can witness with his own eyes the very Summit of Joy. O Queen who can achieve whatever you desire, I pray also that, after his vision,  you will keep his affections wholesome and protect him from mortal passions. See Beatrice and all the Saints: their hands are clasped in prayer as they join me in  praying to you.”

            The holy Virgin’s eyes, so loved and revered by God, looked graciously upon that elderly Saint who prayed to her, making clear to us how pleased she was to receive his prayer. Then she looked directly into the depths of the  Eternal Light, which no other creature can penetrate more clearly. And there I was, with the end of my great journey in sight, straining with all my might to raise my fervent desire toward the heights to which her eyes directed me. With a happy smile, my saintly guide was pointing upward, but already I was doing what he wished, for as my vision grew ever more clear, I was able to peer within the sublime Light of Truth Itself!

            From that point on the power of my vision rose to such unimaginable heights that both words and memory fail me. I was like one who awakens from a powerful dream and still feels the intensity of what he saw but cannot recall it to mind. My vision almost fades away, but within my heart I still feel the sweetness of what I saw. In the same way do footprints melt in the sun or, as we read in legend, the Sibyl’s oracles written on leaves were swept away by the wind.

            O Highest Light, exalted so far above our feeble understanding, give back to my mind a small part of what You were like, and give my tongue such power that I might capture for future generations a glimpse of Your infinite Glory. In this small way, then, may the vision You bestowed on me be revealed to those who read my poem.

            I think I would have become utterly senseless if I had turned away from the brilliance of that Living Light, and this empowered me to gaze all the more into It so that my vision could merge into the Infinite Goodness I beheld. O generous grace that enabled me keep my eyes fixed on that Eternal Light, so deeply was my vision rapt within it!

            I saw within those depths how all created things are contained there, bound by love into one great volume, whose pages are written on and scattered across the universe. I clearly saw the relationship between all separate things and their various qualities joined together now, yet even this was only a small part of that infinite Light. I believe that I now grasped the universal form of this joining together, for even as I speak now I feel the intense joy this vision brought me. Yet my recollection of that moment is more difficult to maintain than the fact that more than twenty-five hundred years ago, Neptune was awestruck when, from the depths of the sea, he saw the first ship glide silently above him. Thus was my mind intent on only one thing: to gaze ever more deeply into the Light, for the more I saw, the more I yearned to see!

            To behold that Light is to be so consumed within it and changed that one would never think of turning away, because everything within it is good and everything outside that might seem perfect is defective. Unfortunately, the few things I recall are less than even a baby at the breast. Not that this Living Light was changeable, because it has, and always will have, only one aspect. But the more I saw, the more the vision grew within me.

            And as I seemed to change, that Light Itself seemed to change. For now, within Its depths I clearly saw three distinct circles of three colors, but bound together within the same space. Like two rainbows, the first circle reflected the next, and the third was like fire, breathed forth equally by both the others. My words here cannot adequately express my weak recollection, which itself is weak because even it is far from what I actually saw. O Eternal Light, living within Yourself alone, and knowing only Yourself, Your love radiates itself in glory, knowing and being known.

            As I gazed intently on the reflection of the first circle’s movement within the second one, there appeared to be imprinted upon it the image of a man, and I became completely focused on it. Like a geometer who strives but cannot uncover the principle whereby the circle might be squared, just so did I grapple with this new mystery before me, as I struggled to discern how the image of our humanity could fit within that circle. In the end, my wings were not able to take me to those heights, but like a bolt of lightning that flashed within my mind,  I suddenly understood and my great desire was fulfilled.

            At this point my towering fantasy lost its power, but my will and desire came together like a perfectly balanced wheel turned by that Love which moves the sun and all the stars.