By Fr. George Heyman
Canto 18 opens with Dante sorrowing over his exile from his beloved Florence. However, Beatrice encourages him to take his mind off the bitter prophecy, commenting that she is “close to him who lightens every unjust hurt.” [lines 5-6] Dante turns to Beatrice, and the very sight of her brings him solace and hope. Beatrice has assured Dante that ultimately God is on his side. As she brings Dante back from his moment of depression to the matters at hand, she reminds him that Cacciaguida still has more to tell him about his journey through the fifth heaven.
Cacciaguida tells Dante that among the souls forming the image of the cross were many heroes of old whose mention would make his poem even richer. He mentions Joshua the companion of Moses who lead the Israelites into the Promised Land; Judas Maccabeus, the second century BC Jewish warrior who led the revolt against the Greek occupation of Israel; Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 and restorer of the Roman Empire in the West; Roland, nephew of Charlemagne, who was betrayed by Ganelon and immortalized in the epic poem The Song of Roland; William of Orange, the medieval warrior who died in 812; Renouard, a character in the Old French romance cycles on William, Duke of Orange; Duke Geoffrey of Bouillon , leader of the first Crusade (1096) who defeated the Muslims and became the first Christian king of Jerusalem; and finally Robert Guiscard, a notable Norman warrior who died in 1085.
Dante tries to remember all those names as Cacciaguida disappears among the lights and Beatrice begins to radiate even more beautifully. Dante knows that this a signal that they’ll be advancing to the next heaven—Jupiter. As he arrives he beholds the artistry of the brilliance of these souls who appear to be in a choreographed dance. They form letters in their air through their dancing. He invokes the aid of the godly Pegasea, one of the muses, to help him understand and remember the exact words formed by these letters. He finally is able figure out exactly what the message says: diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram, “Love justice, you who judge the earth.” After forming the last letter ‘M’, Dante sees even more souls descend to enhance the dance. He compares this sight to a shower of sparks that arise when one pokes a burning log.
When the dance is complete, the final ‘M’ has taken the shape of an eagle’s head, and then as other lights appear the entire image of an eagle now emerges. In medieval Florence the eagle was a symbol of justice, and Dante thanks God that justice has appeared in the heavens. The eagle also was a well-known symbol for the city of Rome, and this leads Dante to critique the imperial capital, praying that God’s anger would “fall upon those who would buy and sell within the temple whose walls were built by miracles and martyrs” [line 121]. Rallying against the clerical abuses of the Roman Church, Dante levels his final critique, (without mentioning Pope John XXII by name). “But you who only write to then erase, remember this: Peter and Paul, who died to save the vines you spoil, are still alive” [line 130].
The imagery of this Canto highlight Dante’s firm conviction that amid this world’s corruption, justice itself will ultimately prevail. The injustices he suffered at the hands of the Florentine nobility as well as the injustices he saw in the Roman Church will ultimately be vindicated in heaven. The dance of the saintly souls on Jupiter recalls the prophetic invitation of the Prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you? But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). In its biblical usage justice, does not depend on a blind evaluation of what’s fair (the image of a figure blindly holding a pair of scales). Rather, to be just, in the sense that Micah refers, is ultimately to be equated with “loving kindness” and “humble walking”—all in the sight of God. To be just is to be like God. St. Paul will say that we are justified, that is, placed into a proper relationship with God, by faith (Galatians 2:16). Within the boundaries of this relationship, we have deep trust and a sense that God walks with us when we are exiled, when we are in pain, amid the unfairness we often experience in this world. The justice of God is embedded in God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness and God’s care for the least and the forgotten among us. The dance of the souls in Canto 18 reminds the leaders of this world that they must love justice itself! The clarion call for a just world would make forgiveness, mercy, and compassion, as well as an equitable distribution of wealth and resources the hallmarks of any political entity. Unfortunately, people, nations and rulers in our world simply do not “love justice.” If they did, the violence, war, and terror that we see each night on the news, that we read about each and every day in our publications, that we inflict on others us would ultimately cease. Would that all the leaders, (as well as all citizens of planet earth) see the same dance as did Dante! Would that we all sincerely “loved justice” enough to create a world that truly reflects the wonder and glory of God!
Fr. George Heyman has been a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY, for 34 years. Currently he is the President and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, NY. In addition to his teaching responsibilities in the area of biblical studies and early Christian origins, he is also Director of Professional Development and Ministerial Certification for the Diocese of Rochester.