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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Par. 28-33)

Pentecost reverses Babel. Whereas once language divided humanity, the words of the Apostles, spoken in the Spirit, unite humanity. Peter's speech in Acts 2 causes people to repent, and the newly repentant form a new community where they share with each other and praise God. In other words, Peter's speech helps to create a community of love. Until today, I hadn't thought of Dante as a Pentecostal, but the title fits. Above all, Dante's Commedia celebrates the interdependence of language and love. Although human language falls short of the perfection of God's love, without language human beings would have no access to that love.

The Paradiso hits its crescendo in the final four cantos, and as it hits its crescendo, Dante's words increasingly stretch their meanings. Before he meets St. Bernard, Dante describes what he has learned from Beatrice. Dante writes, "When she who does imparadise my mind (mparadisa la mia mente) / had revealed the truth against / the present life of wretched mortals, / then, as one whose way is lit by a double-candled lamp / held at his back, who suddenly in a mirror sees / the flame before he has seen or even thought of it / and turns to see if the glass is telling him the truth, / and then sees that it reflects things as they are --as notes reflect the score when they are sung --just so do I remember having done, / gazing into the beautiful eyes / which Love had made into the snare that caught me" (Par 28:1-12). Of course, to imparadise is not a verb in English or Italian, but even though Love's snare can catch Dante, it cannot be caught in human language. We see this again the first time he sees St. Bernard's flame. "And that one least removed from the blazing point of light / possessed the clearest flame, because, I think, / it was the one that is the most intruthed by it (per che pi di lei sinvera)" (Par 28:37-39). Again, Dante's words reach beyond themselves. He knows full well that his Italian begins to creak here, but there is no other way to describe how God's truth penetrates Bernard.

What this means, ultimately, is that human language -- even the language of Dante, even the language of the Scriptures -- is not fully adequate to describing God's perfection. As Beatrice tells Dante, "Greater goodness makes for greater blessedness, / and greater bliss takes on a greater body / when all its parts are equal in perfection" (Par 28:67-69). In Canto 30, Dante joyfully laments that his words cannot do justice to Beatrice's perfection: "I declare myself defeated at this point / more than any poet, whether comic or tragic, / was ever thwarted by a topic in his theme, / or, like sunlight striking on the weakest eyes, / the memory of the sweetness of that smile / deprives my mind of my mental powers. / From the first day, when in this life I saw her face / until my vision of her now, pursuit / of her in song has never been cut off. / But now I must desist in my pursuit, / no longer following her beauty in my verse, / as every artist, having reached his limit, must. / Thus I leave her to more glorious trumpeting / than that of my own music, as, laboring on, / I bring my difficult subject toward its close" (Par 30: 22-36). Dante has spent every day since he met Beatrice trying to praise her beauty in song. When he sees her perfection in paradise, when he sees her as she truly is, he recognizes the inadequacy of his own words. And if his words are inadequate, then any human words are inadequate.

As perfect as Beatrice is, her beauty reflects the even greater love of God. And so when Dante reaches the Empyrean, where all the flames continually praise God, he cannot contain his wonder. "I, who had come to things divine from man's estate, / to eternity from time, / from Florence to a people just and sane, / with what amazement must I have been filled! / Indeed, between the wonder and my joy, I was content / neither to hear nor speak a word. / And, as a pilgrim, in the temple of his vow, / content within himself, looks lovingly about / and expects to tell his tale when he gets home, / so, through the living light I let my eyes / range freely through the ranks, now up, now down, / now circling freely all around again" (Par 31:37-48). In the presence of eternity, in the presence of the just and sane, caught between wonder and joy, Dante wants neither to hear words nor to speak them. What could such words tell him that he did not already know? He is content to be in the community of the saints.

Luckily for us, Dante continues to speak and to tell us how the saints praise God in the Empyrean. After Bernard's hymn to Mary, Dante tells us he reached the end of all desire because the ardor of his soul reached its limit. Bernard signals to Dante to look to God, but Dante already has done so. "From that time on my power of sight exceeded / that of speech, which fails at such a vision, / as memory fails at such abundance. / Just as the dreamer, after he awakens, / still stirred by feelings that the dream evoked, / cannot bring the rest of it to mind, / such am I, my vision almost faded from my mind, / while in my heart there still endures / the sweetness that was born of it" (Par 33:55-63). His sight exceeded his speech. Words could no longer do justice to his experience. Dante could not describe the sweetness in his soul.

Yet, again, his words continue. He tells us that as he contemplated the eternal Light of God, he "contemplated in it, by love into a single volume bound, / the pages scattered through the universe: / substances, accidents, and the interplay between them" (Par 33:86-88). The metaphor is suggestive. The universe is God's book whose pages are scattered and whose words contain the interplay between substances and accidents. Dante doesn't tell us he can read the book, of course, but he does tell us it's there. Perhaps all we need to know is that the book is bound in love.

Christianity is a love story. It is the story of a God who created the universe, who, through his Word, became incarnate to enter into a loving relationship with that universe, and who, through his Spirit, joins all creation to love and praise God. This love, Dante tells us, moves the sun and all the other stars. We cannot understand this love without the language that God gives, even though all human responses to God's language fail to praise Gods love fully. Surely, though, Dante's language comes closest.

[For part one of our discussion of the Paradiso, see here. For our discussion on the Purgatorio, see here, and for the Inferno, see here.]  

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Thanks for the trip, Scott--it's been fun and you've been an excellent Virgil!

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.