By Fr. Justin Miller
Paradiso 23 has been called “Gabriel’s Song.” Gabriel indeed makes an appearance by coming down from heaven like a “little torch” of “Angelic Love” to announce the blessedness of Mary’s womb. Yet, this archangelic messenger plays a rather small role in the canto.
As a whole, the canto centers on Dante’s encounter with Christ the Beatific Vision and his diverse diversions therefrom. The manner in which their dialogue and later diversions ensue—the ineffable Christ beckoning Dante to gaze upon his smiling face—captures both the subject and the style of the canto. The verses frolic forward to show Christ’s invitation frustrated by Dante’s inability to comprehend or consistently contemplate His Lord. Via the poetic techniques of enjambment and a cascading narrative of a circulate melodia (see commentary in Barolini’s “The Undivine Comedy,” p. 223-9), Dante’s attention is consistently diverted away from Christ. It is as if the verse journeys from Christ the source to His creation and back again to Christ in a forceful movement that inspires through beauty in lyric and theology.
Dante begins with this encounter with Christ—here metaphorically pictured as heaven’s sun—but cannot keep his gaze fixed on the Lord. At first his attention turns from Christ to Mary, and then to the angels and the archangel, and finally to Beatrice and other saints before concluding with an allusion to St. Peter in the final verse. Dante can receive and live Christ’s invitation to behold His glory for only so long before he turns his gaze to creation—that which merely reflects the glory of Christ’s light.
Those who follow Christ and seek to one day behold the Beatific Vision are surrounded by many would-be “lights.” We remember that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). In our attempt to fix our gaze on Christ and contemplate His beauty and truth, we find that a multitude of screens vie for our attention, and we must dodge a dizzying array of distractions in our world. Would that poetry as spiritually uplifting and lyrically beautiful as Dante’s were our average daily media intake. If it were, our attention might more consistently begin with Christ and divert first to other beautiful things in His creation like Mary, the angels and saints. Instead, it is all too easy to allow proud and vain narratives of our world to drive our attention’s gaze away from Christ and His heavenly call for our lives. Often we are found oscillating between various entertainments in a flutter of our largely unrecognized futility. All the while the loving gaze of Christ beckons us to recollect ourselves and turn to His face.
As is fitting for us pilgrims on this earth, it is the journey that can save us, the journey of faith. Just as the verses of Paradiso 23 run one into another with Christ as their apex and origin, in prayer and perseverance we can run the race of our faith and allow God’s grace and our good, virtuous habits to train us to gaze ever more fully upon the glory of Christ. We can choose our destiny, the destiny that Christ has already chosen for us. These daily choices will require our openness to and dependence on grace. Because what else is there? Will we choose to spend our days on our phones, internet, or watching TV instead of gazing upon the face of the Beloved for all eternity? May we instead put down our devices, turn our attention away from the screens of our life, and turn towards the true light—Jesus Christ our hope of glory. It is in journeying with Christ and to Him—even if it means allowing our ADD-inflicted wills to be crucified—that we will one day be able to behold His glorious gaze and contemplate the Beloved with Mary and all the angels and saints.
Fr. Justin Miller is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester and was just recently ordained on June 4, 2016. He is parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Penfield, NY and also at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Webster, NY. He has degrees from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY, and Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.