By Fr. Christopher Seiler
If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)
As the fourteenth canto opens, Beatrice takes over from St. Thomas. She poses the next question that has arisen in the heart of Dante. He wonders about the brilliance of the blessed souls in the resurrection. Do they retain their glorious appearance when they regain their bodies?
The voice of the “light most fully radiant with divinity” [lines 33-34], Solomon the Wise, gently responds to the inquiry. He explains the relationship between grace, vision, love, and glory in the blessed. For all eternity, the saints will radiate the glory of God. Their blazing radiance is measured according to the fervor of the love that burns in their hearts. The more they love, the more they glow with love’s fire. Their ardor is proportioned in turn by their share in the vision of God. This vision is itself the fruit of the length and depth and height and breadth of grace that was in the saint as he left this life. Grace prepares for vision; vision blossoms into love; and love leads to light. The interrelation and mutual dependence of these realities is the perennial teaching of the Church (cf. CCC 1022 and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Sup. 93.1). Thus, each one will be able to share in the vision and glory of God in the life to come according to the grace and love he attains to in this life. As St. John of the Cross so famously said, “In the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” (cf. CCC 1022) Christians find in this teaching an impetus to outdo each other in love. For to love more in this life enlarges the heart and soul of man to receive more fully of the life of God in heaven. No doubt, all the blessed are perfectly happy, each according to his just measure, but let us pray for the grace to be not mere thimbles of water, but immense cisterns prepared to receive a flood of God’s goodness.
Having delineated the correlation between these eschatological realities, Solomon assures Dante that the reunion of soul and body will not hinder the glory of the soul. Rather, glory will increase upon the reunion. The body will be glorified with the glory of the soul. As the body of Christ was radiant on Tabor, so will the bodies of the blessed be penetrated by the light of heaven. The body will glow as “a fiery coal that gives off flame” [line 52]. Here in the third heaven, Dante sees that the true destiny of the human person is distant from the horror that he saw so long ago in the wood of the suicides, whose bodies hang from their gnarled branches eternally divided from themselves (cf. Inferno, 13). Here, the poet sees the harmony and profound unity that is meant to exist between the soul and the body.
To this truth about their future, the blessed respond with a hearty “Amen.” They are longing for the day of their incorporation. Yet their longing is less for their own selves than for a return to the fullness of their human relations: “for their mamas, their fathers, and the others they held dear…” [lines 64-65] Esolen speaks beautifully about this desire for the return of embodied existence: “To love a human being is also to love the body. To love the body is to love the small, the local, the particular. It is to love those things enjoyed by that body—even to love Florence, or to use Burke’s phrase, the small platoon into which one was born. It is to love Bag End and the beer from a particularly good harvest. For Dante, the small and the local are delicately expressed in terms of human intimacy.” (Introduction, xxvii)
Thus, the truth of the embodied human person perdures in time and in eternity. The saints, in loving God and contemplating his Face, can still long to see the faces of their friends and family. The superabundance of Divine Goodness does not destroy the goods of nature, but elevates and perfects them. This is the wisdom of the saints. We must labor to love here as they love there. This will involve us in the messiness of the mundane and the occasional chaos that accompanies corporeal existence, but it is through the particular that we learn to love the Universal; through embracing the visible we attain to the Invisible.
No sooner has he learned this lesson than Dante is taken up into the next heaven: the heaven of Mars. Here in the realm of the God of War, he encounters the saints who warred for God and his Church—the heroes of faith who, by taking up the cross of the crusader or donning the robe of the martyr, competed well in the arena of life. These warriors of Christ are arrayed in the shape of the cross.
The souls dart about with levity and joy between the two beams of a Byzantine Cross. He hears the song of the victor saints but can only make out the words “Arise” and “Conquer.” The heroes are praising the true Victor, Christ, who by dying on the wood of the cross and rising from the grave has definitively destroyed sin and death. Their eternal reward is to radiate the glory of the same Cross they embraced in their earthly pilgrimage.
The fifth heaven is even more glorious than the last, and the Poet concludes this Canto noting that the closer to God one draws, the more radiant all things become. The beauty of each level reflects in a new and more glorious way the One Who is Beauty itself. This truth draws the soul upward in its longing to see the Origin and End of all the rest.
With Dante, we continue our journey to God. This canto offers us a twofold encouragement. Hope abounds in the truth that all that is good in our lives now—even the life of the body—will be perfected and made new in the life to come. The joy of the martyrs further sustains us as we bear our share of the cross that God chooses for us each day. We can trust that by taking up the standard of the cross, we too are being made fit to share in the Victor’s reward for all eternity.
Fr. Christopher Seiler is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He completed his theological studies in Rome at the Pontifical Lateran University. He is the associate pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in St. Louis City and teaches Dogmatic Theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.