By David Wallace
The heavenly procession which began its journey in Canto 29 now comes to a halt in Canto 30. The sevenfold light leading the procession reminds us of the seven golden lampstands as well as the “seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” that we read about in the Apocalypse (Apoc 4:5). It is the presence of the Sacrum Septenarium, the Holy Spirit, the power responsible for Dante’s conversion of heart.
As the group of prophets, those twenty-four elders representing the Jewish numbering of the books of the Old Testament, turns to the chariot, as if to point to the One whom they foreshadow, heaven rings out a line from the Song of Songs: Veni, sponsa, de Libano (the “sponsa” or bride, allegorically speaking, is a soul wedded to Christ). Just as man and woman come together as one flesh, so too does Christ and the Church come together in such a way that the Church can actually be called the “Body of Christ.” So also does the individual believer become joined to his Lord. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
Beatrice is coming, yet all shout: Benedictus qui venis! The masculine form of the verb remains, pointing toward Christ. Here, Dante is approaching the judgment of Christ through his faithful servant Beatrice. A “rain of flowers” [line 20] and a “nebula of flowers” [line 28] envelope the chariot like the cloud of God’s glory. We—and Dante—see her: “A lady—over her white veil / an olive crown and, under her green cloak, / her gown, the color of eternal flame” [lines 30-33]. The white, the green, and the fiery red refer to the theological virtues—Faith, Hope, and Charity. Her olive crown refers to the highest of the seven gifts of the sevenfold Spirit—Wisdom. She possess these virtues and this gift in abundance. Her veil reminds us of the hiddenness of Christ under the veils of bread and wine, but also of Christ abiding with us in our neighbor, in the ones to whom we are to show boundless mercy.
Beatrice is the object of Dante’s love, but confronted by her presence, this sinful man runs to his pagan guide Virgil, as a child running to his own mother…only to find that Virgil is gone. Up to this point, Virgil has been both mother and “sweet father” to Dante [line 50]. Once Beatrice appears, however, Virgil leaves Dante; natural virtue cannot lead Dante any further. We then hear Beatrice speak when she utters the Pilgrim’s name for the first and only time it appears in the entire Commedia. “Do not weep,” she says. His beloved becomes now like an admiral, and with “regal sternness” declares: “Yes, look at me! Yes, I am Beatrice!” [line 73] But he doesn’t look. As the Jewish mob might look away at Pilate’s ecce homo, or as the elderly lady bows her head deeply during mass at the ecce Agnus Dei, so Dante lowers his head and sees himself reflected in the stream. Filled with shame, however, he can’t even look at himself. Before the harshness of Beatrice, he feels guilt and finds emptiness within himself.
The grace of repentance, a true metanoia—the changing of the mind—is about to befall Dante. The angels begin the thirtieth psalm (according to the vulgata enumeration): In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum; in justitia tua libera me. In thy justice deliver me! There is no distinction in God. His justice is His mercy. Love hurts. Dante describes his heart encased in ice, an echo of the traitors frozen in place in the Inferno. Upon hearing the psalm, sensing the pity of the angelic choir, “from my breast, / through mouth and eyes, anguish came pouring forth” [lines 98-99]. Shame, guilt, abjection, and finally anguished tears.
“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” says our Lord, “than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). The heavenly hosts and the saints are aware of us; they pray for us. “With your eyes fixed on the eternal day,” says Beatrice to the angelic choir, “darkness of night or sleep cannot conceal / from you a single act performed on earth” [lines 103-105]. In reminding the angels of Dante, he himself is convicted “to match his guilt with grief” [line 108]. Dante was endowed with natural talent and with great gifts of God’s grace. Finding himself in la sua vita nova—the new life of the state of grace—“he would have reaped abundantly” from those gifts [line 116-117]. But Dante found himself a protagonist in the parable of the sower: “Others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mk 4:18-19). When Beatrice died, when she changed life for Life and passed into her “second age,” Dante loved her less and began a life of wandering, “pursuing simulacra of the good.”
We always choose what is good. The free will cannot truly choose evil, as evil is the privation of a due good. We choose either an intrinsic good—which ultimately leads to beatitude—or we, like Dante, choose what is an apparent good. I do evil because it is pleasurable to me, because it gets me what I want. It fulfills what I think is best for me. The apparent good is a beautiful façade adorning hideous architecture within.
In the last chapter of Vita Nuova, Dante writes of something extraordinary. “After I wrote this sonnet [about Beatrice] there came to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blessed one until I would be capable of writing about her in a nobler way.” This account gives meaning to Beatrice’s speech: “I prayed that inspiration come to him / through dreams and other means: in vain I tried / to call him back, so little did he care” [lines 133-135]. A simple Muse cannot save Dante. Only attrition—sorrow for sin arising from the dread of hell—can bring Dante to repentance: “there was no other way to save his soul / except to have him see the Damned in Hell” [lines 137-138].
How often do we enter the confessional motivated only by self-interest? Are we, like Dante, fearful of our destiny such that we try to convince ourselves to say that we’re sorry only “because I dread the loss of Heaven and fear the pains of Hell,” or do we truly express our sorrow for our sins with tears “most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love”? We, like Dante, need “penitence poured forth in guilty tears” [line 145].
Yes, attrition is based on fear, but fear comes in two forms: servile and filial. Servile fear is that of a slave who wants to please his master only to avoid the whip. Filial fear, on the other hand, is that of a son who wants to please his father to avoid displeasing him. Filial fear for the children of God is a divine gift. The gift of the fear of the Lord—timor Domini—is the beginning of wisdom, according to the Scriptures (Ps 111:10; Prov 9:10). A healthy fear of our heavenly Father reminds us that we are indeed His children. “For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:6-7).
Canto 30 begins with an allegorical presentation of the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit. Dante encounters the Christ-like Beatrice, crowned with Wisdom, the highest of the Spirit’s gifts, and Dante finally begins the slow and painful process of repentance. By returning us to the gift of the Spirit at the conclusion of the canto, we come to recognize in our own lives, through the Pilgrim who represents us, the working of the Holy Spirit in leading us to repentance and to the ultimate freedom of the children of God.
Mr. David Wallace is Director of Religious Education at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield, VA, and a lecturer in catechetics and evangelization at the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology. He lives in Front Royal, VA, with his wife and their five boys.