So . . . who’s in Heaven? And how close do they sit to God? And who’s next to them? Is everyone equal? Or are there degrees, and ranks, and grades? Do we have all ages? All genders? Young and old? Is Heaven a diverse place? And the question all of us really want to know: Is there room in it for me?
“From petal to petal, down through the rose”: we learn who sits where, what the seating chart is for Heaven.
The entire Commedia has been one voice explaining how it works (whether the it in question is Inferno, Purgatorio, or Paradiso) to another voice. Most commonly, it’s an old hand around here, such as Vergil in Inferno, or Bernard of Clairvaux here in the Tenth Heaven. The single most voluble, detailed, and patient explainer is Beatrice herself. The power of her intellect is a lifeline to the Divine, the Intellect instilling, literally, intelligence and information into the cosmos.
And the student, always, has been the pilgrim, Dante, amazed, confused, afraid, doubtful, curious, on fire to understand.
In Paradiso, we’ve been traveling throughout Paradise, always ascending toward the One, the Center, the Love informing all, and now that the lesson is about to end – or, more accurately in the poem’s terms, now that vision is about to become one with Vision – the questing, questioning pilgrim beholds, truly, a Rose that is a City that is a Theater that is a Garden: the holy greats of human history, named and nameless, arrayed in orders around the central Love that makes the wildly complex, inflorescent Rose cohere.
Plenty of paradoxes. In a Heaven without place and time, there are places and orders; there appears to be separateness. Individuals such as Mary, Peter, Anna, St. Francis, and others are identified by name, so they must maintain an individual integrity of some sort. But, as we see, they also, mysteriously, all are one, all focused, all gazing lovingly on the Vision that is one with vision. These are individual souls unified into one Flower, one Garden, one City, one Theater, organized around a Center that gives them being and the power to understand and praise.
Repeat: the Vision that is one with vision. To understand is to be at one with the Understood, in a way in which we can’t do it on Earth (although we get intimations of it). Heaven is where perception subsumes us into the object of perception. Observer ceases to be separate from Observed, who is expressed, in the first place, in the observer.
This Lent, we often meditate on the frustrations of being an individual dissoluble from others. We cannot stay fully consistent. Integrity eludes us. Mindfulness stutters or flags. Our attention may be like a searchlight sometimes, but at others it’s more like a flashlight.
But in these last Cantos, Dante suggests that the human self is the deepest of all errors. Not that it does not exist; it is the ultimate gift of the Giver. Only that we mistake it for what it is not. We think our intellect belongs to us, when it really is on a permanent continuum with the divine Intellect. We may be in time and space, but we are never separate from the power-station of Mind.
Consider the saying of Heraclitus, that “the Logos pervades everything, yet every man thinks he has his very own wisdom.” All thinking, mentation, mind, wisdom, and reason, expresses and is pervaded by, partakes in and is not separable from, the Logos, the principle underlying existence and also the principle structuring the way we use our minds. We think we have private versions of the Logos, when our minds and bodies already are penetrated and pervaded by it, and express it in being. That expression, of the mystical Logos (which for Dante and the Christian, is Christ) in the act of understanding, brings the Divine together with the timebound, placebound flesh, in an ineffable mystery. The miracle of human thought is the site, again, of the Incarnation.
Which raises the hair. And makes the knees shake. Which is literally not possible to understand, precisely because nothing is more present to us moment to moment than the movement, origin, foundations, and color of our own thoughts. And since they arise from our minds and are first known to us, and are not accessible to others unless we tell them, we assume they belong to us, and that we have a privileged relation to them. Which we do, but only contingently. Our relation to Mind is fallen, expressed through the flesh. Here in Dante’s Flower/City/Theater/Garden, we maintain the integrity of Self while unified with the Supra-Self.
Logos is the rules, the way things are, so that not only thought but also the structure of mind, and the physical laws of the universe that give rise to body and mind, are continually expressed in the life of body and mind. The life of fallen, enfleshed, ensouled human beings is a fallen version of the Logos-saturated life in Paradise.
It’s beautiful that Beatrice has given way to Mary. Bernard’s love of her is truly moving, his rapt gaze at her (“absorbed in his delight,” both absolutely enthralled with it, and merging with it) throughout the three cantos in which he serves as Dante’s final guide, and his vastly loving prayer to her, are sublime depictions of total connection with loving intercession.
I love the catalogue of holy women first described. It reminds us how Dante has been concerned to include both women and men in the sweep of his poem, and also reminds us of how many holy women are named among the saints. With piercing irony, Eve sits at the seat of Mary:
The wound that Mary closed and healed with ointment
Had been opened and pierced through by the person
Who sits, so beautiful, there at her feet.
Slightly disconcertingly, another echo of the Fall and the Passion sounds, but this permanent reunion of Eve and Mary signals the ultimate reconciliation, when everything, all Christ and humankind went through for the sake of rescue, of salvation, has been made all right.
We see one place, all filled, for those who had faith “Christ would come,” who somehow believed in Him even before the fact of his Incarnation on Earth. Bernard doesn’t go into much detail about who they are or how they could believe in Christ and be rewarded as such. Instead, on the facing side, are “where you see semicircles / Gapped with empty spaces” where sit those “who turned their faces to Christ who had come.” There are a few empty seats, but not many. They await the faithful of this moment on Earth, and not many will qualify.
Then we get to the children sitting in the rose. Bernard senses a doubtful hesitation in the usually vocal pilgrim. These are those “spirits who were freed / Before they had the power of true choice.” The ranks just above them were people who had choice, who had reached the age of reason. But these never got there, through various circumstances. They died as children: “You can observe it clearly in their faces / And in their children’s voices, if you regard them / With care and listen.” There’s no question of judging such souls by their merits, and they are here through a divine mystery. Before Christ, children were saved by their sheer innocence; after Christ, they are saved by circumcision and baptism.
Bernard had begun this part of his tour by saying, “Now wonder at the depth of Providence,” and Dante-pilgrim certainly is, for he can’t understand how children, who died before their time, “hurried to true life” (God, what a great phrase) can be ranked before and behind one another.
Bernard in essence says, it’s how God rolls. There are good reasons, just as there are for the way the entire universe operates. We can’t always know those reasons. Perhaps we can’t ever really know them. Just as in Canto XXXI, Dante sounds the first theme of the limit of language, the limit of being able to express, here we come up against the limit of understanding:
The King, in whom this kingdom comes to rest
In so much love and delight
That no will would dare ask for more
Creating all minds in his joyous sight,
Endows each differently with grace, by
His own pleasure – and here let that suffice.
When I was a boy, it used to disturb me to think that some people were better than others, that some people were smarter, or better at singing, or baseball, or arithmetic. I envied those who excelled me, and I lorded it over those I excelled. And when I thought of Heaven, it seemed unfair that there could be any stratification of ecstasy. If we are One, how can we be arranged and ordered?
The answer is that God’s doing it for God’s own reasons. The fascinating discussion, led by Charles Martel, about why children of the same parents can have such different fates, came to the same ground. We can’t know why. It’s so, and in Heaven, everybody is where they wanted to be throughout life, so no one’s complaining if they’re lower than Mary. In earthbound life, of course, the question of differing fates has the same answer, much less satisfying. Yet, Bernard implies, that state of affairs suits. After we have seen Gabriel flying before Mary, we see what Bernard calls “the roots of the Rose”: Adam, Moses, Peter, John the Baptist. There are conjunctions of angel and human, man and woman, pagan and Christian.
Having beheld the entire, splendidly enfolding Rose, we have come to the moment, when the pilgrim can direct his gaze to God. It’s beautifully done: “Since the moments allotted to you are flying, here we make a period.” A full stop. Two references at once, to Dante-pilgrim’s still essentially timebound mode of understanding. It also reminds us of the timebound experience we have had of the Commedia itself, of all poetry, saturated in time (in rhythm and in length), and that that experience, too, alas, is running toward its period. We’re coming to a full stop, and the moments for this exquisite, immense poem are flying. “Toward the First Love we will direct our eyes,/ So that, looking upon Him, you may penetrate / As much as possible through his effulgence.”
But Dante-pilgrim can’t hope to do that without help. Here, as on Earth, if he needs an Intercessor between himself and God, he goes through the Intercessor of all Intercessors, Mary. “Remember, oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided.” That’s how the prayer goes. “Oh, Mother of the Word Incarnate.” Dante needs “grace from the one who can help you.” We simply can’t get there without grace.
Can there be a better Lenten thought? Maybe not. We simply can’t get there without grace. We need help. We can’t go it alone. It’s a long road, a demanding journey, asking not less than everything, as is fitting and right. So has the Commedia been, and in the next Canto, Dante-pilgrim will both see and fail to recall the full, luculent Lightfall of the Uncreated Word. Not only could he not get there without grace, but also he cannot say it, cannot recall it with justice. He will fail to tell us, and yet his failure tells us all we need to know.
Happy Easter, everyone.