DANTE: The Divine Comedy
Paradiso Cantos XXIX-XXXIII
Translated by A. S. Kline © 2000 All Rights Reserved
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When Apollo and Artemis, the Sun and Moon, the children of Latona, one in Aries the Ram, the other in Libra the Scales, make the horizon their circle, and the zenith is the point from which both hang, till one rises, the other sets, removing themselves from that zone’s scales, both changing hemispheres, so long as that did Beatrice keep silent, with a smile pictured on her face, gazing intensely at the point whose light overcame me. Then she began to speak: ‘I do not ask, I say, what you wish to hear of, since I have seen the point of Creation, on which every where and when is focused.
In his Eternity beyond time, past all others’ understanding, the eternal Love showed himself, in new love, as he desired: not to gain any good for Himself, since that cannot be, but so that his reflected light, shining, might say: I am. He did not lie there, as if sleeping, before Creation: God’s movement over these waters was not a process of before or after. Form and matter, pure and conjoined, issued into being without flaw, like three arrows from a triple-strung bow, and as a ray of light shines in glass, amber or crystal, so that no time passes between its entry and the illumination, so the triple effect of the Lord shone out instantly into being, without a separate beginning.
Order was co-created, and interwoven with substance: and they were the crown of the universe, in whom pure act was produced: potentiality held the lowest place: in the middle potentiality formed such a knot with act, as can never be untied. Jerome wrote for you about the vast stretch of time in which the created Angels existed, before the rest of the Universe was formed: but the contrary truth I speak is written on many pages of the writers of the Holy Spirit, and you will become aware of it if you look closely: and Reason also sees it in some degree, which cannot allow that the movers of the spheres should exist so long without their spheres’ perfection.
Now you know where and when these Loves were elected, and how, so that three flames of your longing are quenched already. Before one could count twenty, some of the Angels fell, stirring the foundation of your elements. The rest remained, and began the art you see, with such delight, that they never leave their circling. The source of the fall was the cursed pride of Satan, him you saw imprisoned by the whole weight of the universe. Those you see here were humble, recognising themselves as being from that same excellence that made them so quick in understanding: so that their vision was exalted by illuminating grace, and their own virtue, so that they have their will free and entire. And I want you to be certain, and not doubtful, that it is a virtue to receive grace, by opening the affections to it.’
‘Now, if my words have been absorbed, you can contemplate much of this court without further help. But I will go on, because, in your schools, it is taught, that the Angelic nature is such as understands, remembers and wills, and I wish you to see, in its purity, the truth that is confused down there, by the equivocations in such lectures.
These Angelic substances, since they first gathered joy from God’s face, have never turned their eyes from that, from which nothing is hidden, so that their vision is never disturbed by any new object, and there is no need to recall anything to memory, because of divided thoughts. So humans dream, down there, when not asleep: certain that they speak the truth, or uncertain: and there is greater error and shame in the latter.’
‘You do not follow a single track when you philosophise down there: love of display, and the thought it produces, delights you so. But even this is tolerated here with less indignation than when Divine Scripture is twisted or discarded. They forget how great the cost was in blood to sow its seed in the world, and how much he pleases, who keeps it by him, in humility.
Everyone strains his wits to make a display and show his inventiveness: the priests discuss these things, and the scriptures are left silent. One says the moon reversed when Christ suffered, and blocked the sun’s light from shining below, and others that the light vanished by itself: so that the same eclipse occurred for Spain and India, as it did for the Jews. Florence does not have as many Tom, Dick, and Harry’s as this sort of story, proclaimed, each year, from the pulpits here and there: so that the sheep , knowing nothing, return from the pasture fed on air, and not to know their loss is no excuse.
Christ did not say: ‘Go and preach nonsense to the world,’ to his first gathering, but gave them the true foundation: that, and only that, was on their lips: so that they made the Gospels lance and shield in their fight to light the faith. Now a man goes to preach with jokes and grimaces, and if there is loud laughter, his cowl swells, and nothing else is needed. But such a devil is nesting in the hood, that if the crowd could see it, they would know what remission they were trusting in: and from this the foolishness has increased so much, on earth, that people would go with any promise, without proof of evidence. So that the pigs of Saint Anthony, and others more swinish than they, are fattened, by the gains of this false coinage.’
‘But, since we have wandered enough, turn your eyes back, now, to the true path, so that our time and journey may shorten. This Angelic nature has such deep-numbered ranks, that mortal speech and thought have never extended so far: and if you look at what Daniel reveals, you will see that determinate number is lost among his thousands.
The primal light that shines, above it all, is received by it in as many ways as the reflected splendours, with which it pairs. And since affection follows the act of conception, the sweetness of Love is warm, or hotter in them, in various ways. See, now, the breadth and height of Eternal Value, since it has made so many mirrors of itself, in which it is reflected, remaining itself One, as it was before.’
Noon blazes, perhaps six thousand miles from us, and this world’s shadows already slope to a level field, when the centre of Heaven, high above, begins to alter, so that, here and there, a star lacks the power to shine to this depth: and as the brightest handmaiden of the sun advances, so Heaven quenches star after star, till even the loveliest are gone. In the same way, that Triumph, which always plays around the point that overcame me, appearing to be embraced by that which it embraces, faded, little by little, from my vision: so that my seeing nothing, and my love, forced me to turn my eyes towards Beatrice. If that which is said of her, above, were all condensed into one act of praise, it would be too little to answer to this case. The beauty I saw is beyond measure, not only past our reach, but I truly believe that only He, who made it, joys in it completely.
At this time, I hold myself more utterly vanquished, than ever his theme’s weight overcame comic, or, tragic poet. Since, like the sun, in trembling vision, so the memory of the sweet smile, cuts off my memory, from my deepest self. From the first day, in this life, when I saw her face, until this sight, my song has never failed to follow, but now my way must cease the tracking of her beauty through poetry, as every artist must at his furthest reach.
So, as I leave her, to a greater fanfare than my sounding brass, which sounds the close of its arduous subject, she began again to speak, with a leader’s alert gestures and voice, saying: ‘We have issued from the largest sphere, into the Heaven that is pure Light, intellectual Light, filled with Love, Love of true Goodness, filled with Joy, Joy that transcends every Sweetness. Here you will see the Redeemed, and the Angelic, soldiers of Paradise, and the former in their forms that you will see at the Last Judgement.’
As a sudden flash of lightning destroys the visual powers, so as to rob the eye of strength to realise even the clearest objects, so a living light shone round me, leaving me bathed in such a veil of its brightness, that nothing was visible to me. ‘The Love, that stills Heaven, always accepts spirits, into itself, with such a greeting, to fit the candle for its flame.’
As soon as these few words entered me, I felt I surmounted my normal powers, and blazed with such new-created sight that there is no unalloyed light that my eyes could not hold their own with. And I saw brightness, in the form of a river, shining, amber, between banks pricked out with miraculous Spring. Living sparks flashed from this river, and fell into the blossoms on all sides, like gold-set rubies. Then they plunged themselves, again, into the marvellous vortex, as if drunk with the perfumes, and as one entered, another issued out.
‘The high desire that burns and urges you now to acquire knowledge of the things you see, pleases me more the more it intensifies. But you must first drink of this water, before so great a thirst in you can be satisfied.’ So my eyes’ sun spoke to me, then added: ‘The river and the topazes that enter it and exit, and the smile of the grasses, are the shadowy preface to their reality. Not because the things are crude in themselves, but the defect is in you, because you do not have such exalted vision yet.’
Never did infant turn so quickly towards the milk, waking much later than usual, as I did then, bending to the waters that are formed so that we may better ourselves, to make still truer mirrors of my eyes. And my eyelids’ rims no sooner felt it, than their length seemed to alter into roundness. Then the flowers and the sparks changed in front of me into a fuller joyousness, as people, masked, seem other than before if they remove the image that hid them, not their own, and I saw both courts of Heaven, made manifest.
O splendour of God, through which I saw the high Triumph of the kingdom of truth: give me the power to say what I saw.
There is a light, up there, that makes the Creator visible to the creature, who only in seeing him finds its peace: and it extends so far in a circle, that its rim would loosely contain the sun’s light. It whole appearance is formed of rays reflected from the surface of the Primum Mobile, which draws its life and power from them. And as a hillside reflects itself in the water at its foot, as if to view its own beauty, rich in grass and flowers, so, rising above the light, around, around, I saw all of us who have won their way back up there, casting their reflection in more than a thousand ranks.
And if the lowest level attracts so great a light inside it, what of the intensity of the rose’s outer petals? My sight was not lost itself in the height and breadth, but grasped the quality and quantity of joy. Near and far do not add or subtract there, since where God rules without mediation the laws of nature have no relevance.
Beatrice drew me, a man silent, who would speak, into the yellow glow of the eternal Rose, that rises layer on layer, and exudes the perfume of praise, towards the Sun, that makes eternal Spring, saying: ‘Marvel at the vastness of the white-robed gathering! Our City, see how wide its circle! See our thrones, filled, so that few spirits are still awaited there.
The soul, an imperial one on earth, of Henry the Seventh, shall sit on that high seat, that you fix your eyes on because of the crown you already see placed over it, before you yourself dine at this wedding feast: he, who will come to set Italy straight before she is ready for it. Blind greed that mazes you has made you like a little child that chases away its nurse while dying of hunger: and he, Clement, who will be Pope then in the court of divine things, will be such as will not tread the same path as him, openly or in secret. But God will not suffer him long in that sacred office, since he will be forced down where Simon Magus is, for his reward, and push Boniface, him of Anagna lower still.’
That sacred army, that Christ espoused with his blood, displayed itself in the form of a white rose, but the Angel other, that sees and sings the glory, of him who inspires it with love, as it flies, and sings the excellence that has made it as it is, descended continually into the great flower, lovely with so many petals, and climbed again to where its love lives ever, like a swarm of bees, that now plunges into the flowers, and now returns, to where their labour is turned to sweetness.
Their faces were all of living flame, their wings of gold, and the rest of them so white that snow never reached that limit. When they dropped into the flower, they offered, to tier on tier, the peace and ardour that they acquired with beating wings: and the presence of such a vast flying swarm between the flower and what was beyond it, did not dilute the vision or the splendour: because the Divine Light so penetrates the Universe, to the measure of its Value, that nothing has the power to prevent it. This kingdom, safe and happy, crowded with ancient peoples and the new, had sight and Love all turned towards one point.
O triple Light that glitters in their sight, a single star, and so contents them: look down on our tempest! If the Barbarians, coming from those countries that Callisto, the Bear, spans every day, orbiting with her son, Arcas, the little Bear, whom she longs for, if they were stupefied on seeing Rome and her great works, at the time when her palaces exceeded mortal things, what then of me, who had gone to the divine, from the human, to the eternal, from time, and from Florence to a true and just people? With what stupor must I be filled! Truly, what with it, and with my joy, my wish was to hear nothing, and be dumb.
Like a pilgrim who renews himself, by gazing, in the Temple of his vows, and already hopes to retell how it looks, so I led my eyes, crossing the living light, along the levels, up and down, and then around them, circling. I saw faces persuasive of Love, graced by another’s light and their own smile, and with gestures adorned with all honour. My gaze had already taken in the general form of Paradise in its completeness, and my sight had not rested on any one part, and I turned, with re-illumined will, to ask my Lady about things with which my mind was concerned. I intended that, but another sight answered mine: I thought that I would see Beatrice, but I saw an old man dressed like the glorious folk. His eyes and cheeks were full of gentle joy, with kindly gestures as fits a tender father.
And I suddenly said: ‘Where is She?’ at which he replied: ‘Beatrice brought me from my place to lead your desire to its goal: and if you look up at the third circle from the highest level, you will see her again, on that throne her merit has marked out for her.’ I raised my eyes without answering, and saw her, making a crown for herself, by reflecting the eternal light from her person.
No human eye is further from the highest vaults of the thunder, though plunged to the sea’s depths, as my sight was from Beatrice, but that did not affect me, since her image came to me undiluted by any medium.
‘O Lady, in whom my hope has life, and who, for my salvation, suffered to leave your footprints in Hell, I recognise the grace and virtue of all I have seen, through your power and your goodness. You have brought me from slavery to freedom, by all those paths, by all those ways that you had power over. Guard your grace, in me, so that my spirit, which you have made whole, may be acceptable to you when it leaves my body.’ So I prayed: and she, far off though she appeared, smiled, and gazed at me, then turned towards the Eternal Fountain.
And the holy man said: ‘Let your eyes fly around this Garden, so as to consummate your journey perfectly, the mission for which prayer and sacred love sent me: since gazing at it will better fit your sight to climb through the divine light. And the Queen of Heaven, for whom I burn wholly with love, will grant us all grace, because I am her loyal Bernard.’
Like one who comes from Croatia perhaps to see our cloth of Veronica, and is not sated with looking because of its ancient fame, but, as long as it is visible, says, in thought: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true God, was this then your face?’ such was I gazing at the living love of him, who in this world tasted of that peace in contemplation.
He began: ‘Son of grace, this joyful being will not become known to you, merely by keeping your gaze down here at the foot, but look at the circles, to the very farthest, until you see the enthroned Queen of Heaven, to whom this kingdom is subject, and devoted.’
I lifted my eyes, and as, at dawn, the eastern space of the horizon conquers that space where the sun declines, so, as if raising my eyes, from a valley to the mountain, I saw a space, at the edge, exceed all the rest of the ridge in light. And as down here that place where we expect the chariot, that Phaethon failed to guide, is most glowing, and the light is cut away on either side, so was She, that flame of peace, quickened in the centre, tempering the blaze on all sides. And at the mid-point I saw more than a thousand Angels, joying, with outstretched wings, each Angel distinct, in glow and function.
I saw there, a Beauty that was delight, in the eyes of all the other saints, smiling at their dances and their songs. And if I had words as rich as my imagination, I would still not dare to attempt the smallest part of her delightfulness.
Bernard turned his eyes to her, with so much love, when he saw my eyes fixed and attentive gazing towards the source of his own light, that he made mine more eager to gaze again.
He, the contemplative, with his Love fixed on his Delight, freely assumed the office of a teacher, and began these sacred words: ‘The wound, that Mary sealed and anointed, is that which Eve, who is so lovely, at her feet, opened and pierced. In the order, made by the third level, Rachel with Beatrice, sits below her, as you see. Even as I go down the rose, petal by petal, naming their proper names, you can see, descending from level to level, Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, and Ruth, her from whom came David the singer, third in descent, who cried out, from grief at his sin: “Miserere mei: Pity me.’ And down from the seventh, and beyond, again the Hebrew women, separating the flower’s tresses, since they are the wall, that parts the sacred stairway, according to how faith in Christ was realised.
On this side, where the flower is full-blown, in all its petals, those, who believed in Christ to come, are sitting. On the other side, where there are empty seats among them, are the semi-circles of those whose eyes were turned towards the Christ who had come. And as the glorious throne of Heaven’s Lady, and the seats below her, make such a partition, so, next to her, does that of the great Baptist, John, who, ever holy, suffered the desert and a martyr’s death, and then Limbo, for two years space, until Christ came there: and, below him, the separating line, assigned to Francis, Benedict, Augustine, and the others from circle to circle, down to here.’
‘Now marvel at the depth of Divine provision, since both aspects of the faith will fill this Garden equally. And know that, down from the level that cuts across the two divisions, the spirits have their places not because of their own merit, but another’s, given certain conditions, since these are all souls freed before they had exercised true choice.
You can see it by their faces, and their voices, those of children, if you look carefully and listen. Now you doubt, and are silent in your doubting: but I will untie the difficult knot for you, in which your subtle thoughts are entangling you. No chance point has place in all this kingdom, no more than sadness, thirst, or hunger do, because what you see is established by Eternal Law, so that the ring corresponds exactly to the finger.
The ordering of these children, swiftly come to the true life, according to greater or lesser excellence, is not sina causa: without reason. The King, by whom this kingdom rests in such great love, such great delight that the will dares nothing more, when he creates minds, in his joyous sight, of his grace and at his pleasure, grants them diversity: and let the effect suffice as proof. And this is marked, clearly and expressly, in Holy Writ, concerning those twins who struggled in anger in Rebeccah’s womb.
So the Supreme Light must wreathe them worthily, according to the colour of the tresses of such grace. Therefore they are placed at different levels, without regard for the externals, differentiated only by their primal keenness in seeing Him.
So, in ancient times, the parents’ faith alone, combined with innocence, was enough to reach salvation. When those first ages were complete, males needed to gain power in their innocent wings, through the rite of circumcision. But when the time of grace came, then, lacking Christ’s perfect baptism, such innocence was held, there, below.’
‘Now see the face that is most like Christ’s, since its brightness, and no other, has the power to equip you to see Christ.’
I saw such gladness, borne in the sacred Angelic minds created to fly through that altitude, rain down on that face that nothing, I had seen before, seized me with such dumb admiration, or so revealed the semblance of God. And that Love which first came down to Her, singing: ‘Ave, Maria, gratia plena: Hail, Mary, full of grace,’ now spread his wings in front of her. The Divine Canticle was responded to on every side by the court of the blest, so that every face found peace in it.
‘O holy Father, you who accept being here below for my sake, leaving that sweet place, where you sit by eternal sanction, who is that Angel who looks our Queen in the eyes with such joy, so enamoured he seems all on fire?’ So I turned again to his teaching, he who gathered beauty from Mary, as the morning star does from the sun. And he to me: ‘The greatest exultation and chivalry that exists in Angel or in spirit, is all in him: and we would wish it so, since it is Gabriel who brought the palm down to Mary, when the Son of God willed that He should take on our burden.’
‘But now let your eyes come travel, even as I speak, and note the great noble souls, of this most just and pious empire. Those two who sit up there, most blest by being nearest to the Empress, are like two roots of this Rose. Her neighbour on the left is Adam, that father, through whose audacity in tasting the fruit, the human race tastes such bitterness. On the right is Peter, that ancient father of Holy Church to whom Christ entrusted the keys of this beloved flower. And John, sits by his side, who, before he died, saw all the dark prophetic seasons of that fair Bride, who was won with lance and nails: and by Adam’s side, Moses, that leader, rests, under whom the ungrateful, fickle, and mutinous people were fed with manna.
See Saint Anne, sitting opposite Peter, so content to look at her daughter, that she does not remove her gaze to sing Hosanna. And opposite Adam, the greatest father of our family, sits Lucy, who stirred your Lady, when you were bending your brow downwards to ruin.
But since the time of your vision flees, here let us stop, like the careful tailor who cuts the garment according to the cloth, and let us turn our eyes towards the Primal Love, so that gazing at Him, you might penetrate as far as possible into his brightness. Truly grace needs to be acquired by prayer (so that you do not by chance fall back as you beat your wings), grace from Her who has power to help you: and follow me with such affection that your heart is not separated from my words.’ And he began this sacred prayer.
‘Virgin mother, daughter of your Son, humbled, and exalted, more than any other creature, fixed goal of the Eternal Wisdom; you are She who made human nature so noble, that its own Maker did not scorn to become of its making. The Love, beneath whose warmth this flower has grown, in eternal peace, flamed again in your womb. Here you are the noonday torch of Love to us, and down there, among mortal beings, you are a living spring of hope.
Lady you are so great, and of such value, that if any who wishes for grace fails to resort to you, his longing tries to fly without wings. Your kindness not only helps those who ask it, it often freely anticipates the request. In you is tenderness: in you is pity: in you is generosity: in you whatever excellences exist in the creature, combined together.
Now he, who has seen the lives of souls, one by one, from the deepest pool of the universe, even to here, begs you, of your grace, for enough strength to lift his eyes, higher, towards the final bliss: and I, who was never so on fire for my own vision, as I am for his, offer you all my prayers, and pray they may not be wanting, asking that, for him, you might scatter every cloud of his mortality, with your prayers, so that supreme joy might be revealed to him.
And more I beg you, Queen, who can do the things you will: after he has seen so deeply, keep his affections sound. Let your protection overcome human weakness: see Beatrice, with so many saints, folding her hands to pray with me.’
Those eyes, loved by God, and venerated, fixed on the speaker, showed us how greatly devout prayers please her. Then they turned themselves towards the Eternal Light, into which, we must believe, no other creature’s eye finds its way so clearly. And I, who was drawing near the goal of all my longing, quenched as was fitting the ardour of my desire, inside me.
Bernard made a sign to me, and smiled, telling me to look higher, but I was already doing as he asked me, because my sight, as it was purged, was penetrating deeper and deeper, into the beam of the Highest Light, that in itself is Truth.
My vision then was greater than our speech, which fails at such a sight, and memory fails at such an assault. I am like one, who sees in dream, and when the dream is gone an impression, set there, remains, but nothing else comes to mind again, since my vision almost entirely fails me, but the sweetness, born from it, still distils, inside my heart. So the snow loses its impress to the sun: so the Sibyl’s prophecies were lost, on light leaves, in the wind.
O Supreme Light, who lifts so far above mortal thought, lend to my mind again a little of what you seemed then, and give my tongue such power, that it might leave even a single spark of your glory, to those to come: since by returning to my memory, in part, and by sounding in these verses, more of your triumph can be conceived.
I think that I would have been lost, through the keenness of the living ray that I suffered, if my eyes had turned away from it. And so, I remember, I dared to endure it longer, that my gaze might be joined with the Infinite Value. O abundant grace, where I presumed to fix my sight on the Eternal Light, so long, that my sight was wearied!
In its depths I saw in-gathered, and bound by Love into one volume, all things that are scattered through the universe, substance and accident and their relations, as if joined in such a manner that what I speak of is One simplicity of Light. I think I saw the universal form, of that bond, because, in saying it, I feel my heart leap, in greater intensity of joy. A single moment plunged me into deeper stillness, than twenty-five centuries have the enterprise, that made Neptune wonder at Argo’s shadow.
So my mind gazed, fixed, wholly stilled, immoveable, intent, and continually inflamed, by its gazing. Man becomes such in that Light, that to turn away to any other sight is beyond the bounds of possibility. Because the Good, which is the object of the will, is wholly concentrated there, and outside it, what is perfect within it, is defective.
Now my speech will fall further short, of what I remember, than a babe’s, who still moistens his tongue at the breast. Not that there was more than a single form in the Living Light where I gazed, that is always such as it was before, but by means of the faculty of sight that gained strength in me, even as it altered, one sole image quickened to my gaze.
In the profound and shining Being of the deep Light, three circles appeared, of three colours, and one magnitude: one seemed refracted by the other, like Iris’s rainbows, and the third seemed fire breathed equally from both. O how the words fall short, and how feeble compared with my conceiving! And they are such, compared to what I saw, that it is inadequate to call them merely feeble.
O Eternal Light, who only rest in yourself, and know only yourself, who, understood by yourself and knowing yourself, love and smile! Those circles, that seemed to be conceived in you as reflected light, when traversed by my eyes, a little, seemed to be adorned inside themselves, with our image, in its proper colours, and, to that, my sight was wholly committed.
Like a geometer, who sets himself to measure, in radii, the exact circumference of the circle, and who cannot find, by thought, the principle he lacks, so was I, at this new sight: I wished to see how the image fitted the circle, and how it was set in place, but my true wings had not been made for this, if it were not that my mind was struck by lightning, from which its will emerged.
Power, here, failed the deep imagining: but already my desire and will were rolled, like a wheel that is turned, equally, by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.