Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Paradise: Canto XXXIII

One of the most significant cantos in Dante`s Divine Comedy is Canto XXXIII.

In this the last Canto, Dante`s final guide, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, prays to the Virgin Mary that Dante may have grace given him to contemplate the brightness of the Divine Majesty. This is granted.

Dante feels his soul swell with new power and grow calm in rapture as his eyes are permitted the direct vision of God.

Dante then himself prays to God for ability to show forth some part of the celestial glory in his writings.

Lastly, he is admitted to a glimpse of the great mystery; the Trinity, and the Union of Man with God. There is no measure of how long the vision endures. It passes, and Dante is once more mortal and fallible. Raised by God's presence, he had looked into the Mystery and had begun to understand its power and majesty.

Returned to himself, there is no power in him capable of speaking the truth of what he saw. Yet the impress of the truth is stamped upon his soul, which he now knows will return to be one with God's Love.


"Virgin mother, daughter of your Son,
Humbler and higher than all other creatures,
Fixed aim and goal of the eternal plan,

"You are the one who lifted human nature
5 To such nobility that its own Maker
Did not disdain to be made of its making.

"Within your womb was lit once more the flame
Of that love through whose warmth this flower opened
To its full bloom in everlasting peace.

10 "To us up here you are the torch of noon
Blazing with love, and for the mortals down there
You are the living fountainhead of hope.

"Lady, you are so highly placed and helpful,
Whoever seeks grace and does not call on you
15 Wants his desires to fly up without wings.

"Your loving heart not only offers aid
To those who ask for it, but oftentimes
Free-handedly anticipates the asking.

"In you is mercy, in you largeheartedness,
20 In you compassion, and in you is found
Whatever good exists in any creature.

"Now this man who from down the deepest pit
Of the whole universe up to this point
Has seen the lives of spirits, one by one,

25 "Begs by your grace that you will give him strength
To enable him to rise on with his eyes
Still higher to the summit of salvation.

"And I, who never burned for my own vision
More than I burn for his, pour out to you
30 All of my prayers, and pray they be sufficient

"For you to scatter from him by your prayers
Every last cloud of his mortality
That he may see revealed the highest Pleasure.

"I pray you also, Queen, for you can do
35 Whatever you will, that after he has seen
This vision, you keep his affections wholesome.

"Watch and restrain his human impulses:
See Beatrice with so many blessed spirits
Clasping their hands to join me in this prayer."

40 The eyes God loves and reverences the most,
Fastened upon this praying saint, displayed
How deeply she is pleased by devout prayer.

Then her eyes turned to the eternal Light
Into whose depth we may believe the eyes
45 Of no other creature penetrates more clearly.

And I, now drawing closer to the end
Of every longing, lifted to that end,
Just as I should, the flame of all my longing.

Bernard gave me a signal and a smile
50 To look straight up, but by myself already
I was intent as he would have me be,

Because my sight, becoming crystal clear,
Was piercing deeper and deeper through the rays
Of that deep Light which in itself is true.

55 From that point on, my power to see was stronger
Than speech that fails before such sights can show,
As memory falls short of the beyond.

As someone who while dreaming sees a vision
And, after he has dreamed, the feeling stays
60 Impressed, but all the rest slips from his mind,

I am like that, for almost all my seeing
Now falls away, but sweetness sprung from it
Still drips down, drop by drop, into my heart.

So is the snow unsealed beneath the sunlight;
65 So were the sayings of the Sibyl upon
The light leaves left to drift off in the wind.

O highest Light, lifted up so far
Above all mortal thinking, lend my mind,
Once more, a little of what you were like,

70 And grant my tongue such powerful expression
That it may leave behind a single spark
Of glory for a people still to come.

For by returning some spark to my mind
75 And sounding out a little in these lines,
Your triumph shall be thought of more profoundly.

I think I would have been lost in a daze
With the dazzling I endured from that live beam
If my eyes once had turned away from it.

I remember I grew bolder for this reason
80 In bearing up with it, until I merged
My gazing with the infinite Goodness.

O grace abounding, by which I have dared
To fix my eyes through the eternal Light
So deeply that my sight was spent in it!

85 Within its depths I saw gathered together,
Bound by love into a single volume,
Leaves that lie scattered through the universe.

Substance and accidents and their relations
I saw as though they fused in such a way
90 That what I say is but a gleam of light.

The universal pattern of this knot
I believe I saw, because in telling this,
I feel my gladness growing ever larger.

One moment made more slip my memory than
95 Twenty-five centuries reft from the adventure
That awed Neptune with the shadow of the Argo.

So my mind, held in absolute suspense,
Was staring fixed, intent, and motionless,
And by its staring grew the more inflamed.

100 Within that Light a person is so changed
It is impossible to give consent
Ever to turn from it to other sights

Because the Good, the object of the will,
Is gathered all in it, and out of it
105 The thing that there is perfect has some flaw.

Now shall my telling of what I remember
Fall far below the babbling of a baby
Still bathing its tongue at the mother’s breast.

Not that there is more than a single semblance
110 Within that living Light on which I looked
And which is always what it was before,

But by the sight that gathered strength in me
As I gazed on, what was One in appearance
Was altering for me as I was changing.

115 In the profound and shining-clear Existence
Of the deep Light appeared to me three circles
Of one dimension and three different colors.

One seemed to be reflected by the other,
Rainbow by rainbow, while the third seemed fire
120 Breathed equally from one and from the other.

O how pale now is language and how paltry
For my conception! And for what I saw
My words are not enough to call them meager.

O everlasting Light, you dwell alone
125 In yourself, know yourself alone, and known
And knowing, love and smile upon yourself!

That middle circle which appeared in you
To be conceived as a reflected light,
After my eyes had studied it a while,

130 Within itself and in its coloring
Seemed to be painted with our human likeness
So that my eyes were wholly focused on it.

As the geometer who sets himself
To square the circle and who cannot find,
135 For all his thought, the principle he needs,

Just so was I on seeing this new vision
I wanted to see how our image fuses
Into the circle and finds its place in it,

Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
140 Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

145 By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.


Prayer to the Virgin

Saint Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin praises her as the aim and purpose of creation since through her the Son of God was a human being; through her, in turn, human beings return to the Son.

The prayer to the Virgin at the beginning of the Canto, which Dante derived from St. Bernard, seems to have been Chaucer's favorite passage in the Divine Comedy. He quotes it in The Prioress' Tale in the Canterbury Tales. He adapts it for the "Invocation to the Virgin" that is part of the introduction to The Second Nun's Tale.

More recently, Popes have quoted with approval this part of Dante`s Canto, especially Pope John Paul II and more recently Pope Benedict XVI.

A few quotations will suffice to illustrate this.

Benedict XVI

Message for Lent 2006 (29 September, 2005)

Angelus 8 December 2006

Angelus 8 December 2005

John Paul II

Apostolic Letter: Rosarium Virginis Mariae
paragraph 16: Praying to Christ with Mary

Encyclical of John Paul II on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church promulgated on 25 March 1987 (Redemptoris Mater)

Sunday, 31 August 1997
Address at a Reading of Dante`s Divine Comedy
Sunday, 31 August 1997

Homily at Conclusion of 20th International Marian Congress
24th September 2000

Speech at Pastoral Visit to Velletri and Frascati
7th September 1980

Homily at the end of the Month of Mary
31st May 1979

Angelus Talk at Pastoral Visit to Diocese of Siena
14th September 1980

Angelus Talk
8th December 2001


The Three Beatific Visions

Three moments of vision make up the movement of the final canto, climaxing in the last face to face meeting with the Incarnate Son. In the first moment, Dante views the world as composed of numerous pages bound together in a single volume within the eternal light:

Within its depths I saw gathered together,
Bound by love into a single volume,
Leaves that lie scattered through the universe.
(Paradise XXXIII, 85-87)

The image is all important because, the poet states, he believes he saw in it "the universal pattern of this knot" that makes the whole cohere in one. The famous metaphor, in fact, contains a meaning too often missed. The volume here is a sacred text: in the book of nature we are to read the Word of God, the Lord revealed in the book of the Gospels.

The second moment of vision comes in the form of the three circles of Light; they are of "one dimension and three different colors":

One seemed to be reflected by the other,
Rainbow by rainbow, while the third seemed fire
Breathed equally from one and from the other.
(Paradise XXXIII, 118-120)

The poet confesses that his words fail to match his conception of the Trinity. All he can manage is to exclaim in the form of a prayer:

O everlasting Light, you dwell alone
In yourself, know yourself alone, and known
And knowing, love and smile upon yourself!
(Paradise XXXIII, 124-126)

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gaze, meditate, and smile upon its Self — the Three in One — circle within circle within circle as the Knower, Known, and Knowing and the Lover, Loved, and Loving.

The essential oneness and circularity of God, always coming back on itself (while subtly emphasizing the intimate connection between God and the Virgin) is expressed through the sound of the original words in Italian:

O luce etterna che sole in te sidi
sola t'intendi, e da te intelletta
e intendente te ami e arridi!

(Paradiso 33, 124-26)

The moment of the third vision arrives, the epitome and apex of the poem:

That middle circle which appeared in you
To be conceived as a reflected light,
After my eyes had studied it a while,

Within itself and in its coloring
Seemed to be painted with our human likeness
So that my eyes were wholly focused on it.
(Paradise XXXIII. 127-132)

Fascinated and drawn to this likeness of our features (nostra effige), Dante longs to know how in "this new vision" our image fuses into "the circle and finds its place in it." His own capacities fail, but then he is "struck by lightning" and grasps the God-man in the center as embodying divine Light that shines from within the features through the eyes. Gaze meets gaze, and the seer becomes one with the "Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

Again both Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II have used and referred to these poetic visions, most notably by Benedict XVI in relation to his first encyclical.

Benedict XVI

Address to the participants at meeting of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum"
Sala Clementina: Monday, 23 January 2006

"The cosmic excursion in which Dante, in his "Divine Comedy", wishes to involve the reader, ends in front of the perennial Light that is God himself, before that Light which is at the same time "the love that moves the sun and the other stars" (Par. XXXIII, v. 145). Light and love are one and the same. They are the primordial creative powers that move the universe.

If these words in Dante's Paradiso betray the thought of Aristotle, who saw in the eros the power that moves the world, Dante nevertheless perceives something completely new and inconceivable for the Greek philosopher. Not only that the eternal Light is shown in three circles which Dante addresses using those terse verses familiar to us: "O everlasting Light, you dwell alone/In yourself, know yourself alone, and known/And knowing, love and smile upon yourself!" (Par. XXXIII, vv. 124-126).

As a matter of fact, even more overwhelming than this revelation of God as a trinitarian circle of knowledge and love, is the perception of a human face - the face of Jesus Christ - which, to Dante, appears in the central circle of the Light. God, infinite Light, whose immeasurable mystery the Greek philosopher perceived, this God has a human face and - we may add - a human heart.

This vision of Dante reveals, on the one hand, the continuity between Christian faith in God and the search developed by reason and by the world of religions; on the other, however, a novelty appears that surpasses all human research, the novelty that only God himself can reveal to us: the novelty of a love that moved God to take on a human face, even to take on flesh and blood, the entire human being.

The eros of God is not only a primordial cosmic power; it is love that created man and that bows down over him, as the Good Samaritan bent down to the wounded and robbed man, lying on the side of the road that went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Today, the word "love" is so spoiled, worn out and abused that one almost fears to pronounce it. And yet, it is a fundamental word, an expression of the primordial reality. We cannot simply abandon it, but we must take it up again, purify it and bring it to its original splendour so that it can illumine our life and guide it on the right path.

This is the understanding that led me to choose "love" as the theme of my first Encyclical. I wanted to try to express for our time and our existence some of what Dante boldly summed up in his vision. He tells of a "sight" that "was altering" as he "gazed on" it and was being interiorly changed (cf. Par. XXXIII, vv. 112-114).

It is precisely this: faith becomes a vision-understanding that transforms us. It was my aim to shed light on the centrality of faith in God; in that God who took on a human face and heart.

Faith is not a theory that can be personalized or even set aside. It is something very concrete: it is the criteria that determines our lifestyle. In an epoch where hostility and greed have become superpowers, an epoch where we support the abuse of religion to the point of deifying hatred, neutral rationality alone cannot protect us. We need the living God, who loved us even to death. And so, in this Encyclical, the themes "God", "Christ" and "Love" are fused together as the central guide of Christian faith. I wanted to reveal the humanity of faith, of which eros is a part; the "yes" of man to his bodiliness created by God, a "yes" that in an indissoluble matrimony between man and woman finds its form rooted in creation. "


John Paul II

Homily in Warsaw at closing of National Eucharistic Congress
14th June 1987

Talk to a Group of Employees of ENEL
29th November 1980

Talk at the Opening of an Exhibition of Dante in the Vatican
30th May 1985

Talk to the Council of the Dante Alighieri Society
13th June 1996

More recently the influence of Dante`s Paradise is seen in and Address of Cardinal James Stafford at the Annual Conference of the "Society of Catholic Liturgy" at Northampton, Pennsylvania on 21st September 2006