Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 5

Dante is taken aback by the increasing luminance of Beatrice’s beauty, and she reminds him that the light of God is also filling him with a similar radiance. Then she takes up another of Dante’s questions: whether one can compensate for an unfulfilled vow. In an important statement, she tells Dante that God’s greatest gift to us is our free will, the gift most like Himself! Because the two nuns’ broken vows is still on his mind, she tells Dante that when one makes such vows one also sacrifices their free will as part of the ritual – a sacrifice that God consents to. Here she admits to what Dante is already thinking – that the Church does allow for dispensations of vows, but she urges him now to follow her logic more closely. First, she tells Dante that if a vow is to be dispensed, it must be replaced with one and a half times more than the original. At the same time, she notes that there are some vows that are so solemn, they cannot be substituted for; and giving two examples of foolish vows, she urges Christians not to take vows lightly. Having finished her lesson, Beatrice looks up into the heavens and becomes even more beautiful as she and Dante now rise up to the sphere of Mercury. There, the spirits glow with joy and rush toward the new arrivals, open to answer any question Dante may have.

            “Don’t be amazed if I flame forth with love that makes me shine more brilliantly than your earthly eyes can withstand. It comes from that perfect vision which moves always toward more perfection the more good it sees. And I can see that the Eternal Light already shines within your mind which, when you see It, It kindles eternal love. When a person’s love is led toward some other thing, it is because that other love is a glimmer of this Eternal Light which, though not clearly seen, still shines through that thing. And now you wish to learn whether some compensation can be made for broken vows that would cancel the debt incurred by those unfulfilled promises.”

            So this canto began with these words of my Beatrice, and immediately she answered my question with her holy words. “God’s greatest gift to us, given as the Creator, is the gift he holds most dear, and is the one most like Himself: our free will. And only creatures with the powers of intellect are so endowed. With this in mind, it should be clear to you that a vow is sacred because God consents to your own consenting. When God and the votary place their seals upon the promise, the priceless gift of our free will becomes the sacrifice the will willingly wills. This being the case, what possible substitute could be offered in place of it? Can one now make use of what is no longer theirs? Would you do good works with what does not belong to you?

            “By now, I hope you see the basic outline of the problem you raise. But, since you also know that the Church does grant dispensations from vows once they are made – which might seem to contradict what I just told you – you’ll need to remain at the table a while longer because the food you’re eating is difficult to digest. So proceed now with an open mind and keep in there what I will tell you, because if it doesn’t stay it cannot be called knowledge.

            “Basically, the sacrifice we’re talking about requires two things: first is the actual vow itself, and second is the solemn nature of the vow. This second part – the solemn nature of the vow – cannot be cancelled except by fulfilling it. This is what I was referring to precisely a moment ago. So, for example, the Hebrews were required by their Law to offer sacrifice. But they could also exchange one offering for another. This is what is referred to as the substance of the vow, and no wrongdoing is incurred if one substance takes the place of another.

            “However, it must be absolutely clear that this substitution cannot simply be made on one’s own. It must be approved by Holy Church. Furthermore, there must be no further thought of exchange if what is newly promised does not include all of the previous promise – and half as much again.

            “Above this, however, it must also be understood that there are certain vows that, once made, are of such value that what is sacrificed cannot be substituted. Thus, do not make your vows lightly. Be faithful to them! On the other hand, do not make foolish vows as did Jephthah. What he ended up doing was far worse than if he had admitted he was wrong! Just as foolish was the great Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in a ritual that still calls forth tears. 

            “Christians, beware of making vows too quickly, lest you become like a feather that flutters in the wind, or think that just any water will wash you clean! You have the two Testaments and you have the Church’s great Shepherd. These are all you need. If greed entices you away from what you vowed, be firm in your resolve, not like mindless sheep. Seeing such, any Jew would single you out with scorn! Don’t be the lamb who abandons its mother’s milk for a silly game – much to its own harm!”

            As Beatrice finished speaking, she turned toward that highest sphere in the heavens with a look of yearning that transfigured her lovely face. Though I was filled with more questions, her silence brought calm to my eager mind; and like a speeding arrow that hits the target even before the bow-string stops vibrating, we shot up into the next realm of Heaven. And as we entered into the brilliance of Mercury’s light, my lovely lady had a look of such tremendous joy that the planet itself shone even more brightly. If that lovely star seemed to smile in its new-found beauty, you can only imagine what was going on within me – a mere changeable man.

            In a clear, still pool of water, you’ve seen how fish rush toward something fallen in, thinking it is food. So it was here: more than a thousand splendors moved quickly toward us, each one crying out: “Look! One more comes who will increase our love.” As they moved closer to us, their joy became visible in their radiant beauty. Imagine how much you would crave to hear more if I were to stop right here without telling you what happened next. And so I hope you will understand how eager I was to learn everything about these glowing spirits as they stopped before us.

            Before my thoughts had even ordered themselves one of these splendors spoke to me in words that glowed with joy: “O soul born for the joy of Heaven, you who by God’s grace see the thrones of the eternal triumph even before you have left your earthly life, see how God’s heavenly light fills us with its brilliance. Whatever you wish to know from us, we will gladly tell you.”

            And Beatrice quickly urged me to reply: “Don’t be afraid to speak now. You may trust them as if they were gods!”

            “I see how you nest there within the splendor of your own light, and when you smile the light that pours from your eyes is dazzling,” I said. “But, O beauteous soul, I don’t know who you are, or why you are present here in this sphere hidden from us by the rays of the sun.”

            And as I spoke with that glimmering spirit its radiance increased even more than before. Just as the orb of the sun, breaking through the vapors that hide it, disappears in the brilliance of its own light, even so, this orb of sheer joy hid itself from me in the effulgence of its light as it answered me in the following canto.