We enter Canto 32 as Dante is gazing in rapture upon his beloved Beatrice: “My eyes were so insistent, so intent on finding satisfaction for their ten year thirst that every other sense was spent” [lines 1-4]. But he is swiftly reprimanded as the handmaidens deliver their heavenly smackdown, “You stare too fixedly.” Dante obeys. It’s perhaps a reminder that Dante is not ready to gaze upon the beatific vision until he has understood the gift of mercy that is won through Christ’s death on the cross.
Beatrice asks Dante to turn his attention to the events unfolding before him: a procession towards the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The procession is meant to reveal to Dante Adam’s sin and Christ’s triumph over it. The procession is led by the griffin, who represents Christ. The procession travels to the Tree of Knowledge, where the griffin is congratulated for not eating of the forbidden fruit, like Adam did: “Blessed are you, whose beak does not, O griffin, pluck the sweet-tasting fruit that is forbidden and then afflicts the belly that has eaten!” [lines 43-45] The griffin then ties the chariot to the dead tree, and the tree is created anew, blossoming and blooming with life.
This canto calls us to reflect on the mercy of Christ on the cross, the moment when Christ also made us new. This scene reminds us of the words in the Easter Proclamation, The Exultet, which has some profound lines, among which the following come immediately to mind:
“O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”
The happy fault of the sin of Adam is called “truly necessary.” It is indeed a mystery which asks us to try to understand the bountiful and merciful act of Christ. Without sin, our loving Father cannot forgive us, because in creating man, he creates one whose sins he may forgive and upon whom he can pour his radical and unconditional love.
The mystery of Adam and his “necessary sin” should inspire us to deepen our mercy towards others. If, in his infinite mercy, Christ has forgiven us, then we have no choice but to be merciful towards others. Christ, in his Resurrection shows us that there is never too much mercy. Faults, wounds, sin and distress will always tempt us to withhold our mercy towards others, or to only give a small amount to whomever we find it easier to forgive. But, just as we learn in the Gospel to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Mt 8:22), and just as Christ always forgives us, no matter the gravity of our sin, so also we should always forgive our neighbor.
As the bystanders in Canto 32 praise and thank the griffin for not eating the fruit, we should recognize with gratitude the gift of mercy that Christ has won for each of us and follow his example as we pass this mercy on. This canto calls us to reflect on the universal church and to stare, not fixedly at our daily distractions, but rather to gaze fixedly at Christ and his triumph over evil—his mercy.
Ms. Lucy Bennett is a senior English major at the University of Dallas. She currently writes for the University of Dallas newspaper, The University News.