By Fr. Marcus Pollard
Of the three realms described in the Divine Comedy, the Paradiso is the most difficult to think about and imagine. In the Inferno, Dante takes us down into the earth where we witness hell’s punishments. The subject is naturally graphic and easy to picture. We have seen caves and can imagine the various punishments. With the Purgatorio, we ascend the mountain of purification to be freed of the wounds of sin. We’ve all seen mountains and most of us have hiked a few. And we’re all sinners too. So there is no problem here, imagining the Purgatorio. How can we picture to ourselves, though, what is being described for us in the Paradiso? How do we imagine being transported through the heavenly spheres? How can we imagine to ourselves the sort of glory and perfection of the saints encountered here? The whole medieval idea of the spheres is foreign to us moderns, and they are unlike anything we have ever seen. Moreover, on a day to day basis, rather than meeting saints, we probably have more experience with sinners—ourselves and others. So in the Paradiso, we are really moving into uncharted territory. It’s really even more frightening, in a certain sense, than the Inferno.
With Canto 5 of the Paradiso, Dante and Beatrice are at the end of their stay in the first sphere of heaven, the circle of the moon. They have been discussing the challenge of constancy in the spiritual life and especially the fortitude or courage needed to be faithful to one’s vows. Beatrice points out that the greatest power man has in his likeness to God is the soul’s power of free will to follow truth and goodness. Therefore it is essential that it be used well.
When one freely makes a vow to God, such as the vow of celibate chastity, the vow has two elements. There is the substance of what is promised. There is also the fact of the freely given pact with God. The first element, the substance may be returned or even dispensed. However, the second, the free gift of self cannot be taken back without a permanent loss. There is no compensation, nothing equal for which it might be exchanged. Giving up the free gift of self, the soul has lost something of infinite value which it can never make up.
We live in an era when everything seems fluid. Culture is rapidly changing (I hesitate to describe it as evolving), technology is developing, privacy is disappearing, home life is in turmoil, social media is flourishing while the scourge of isolation and loneliness spreads. One casualty of this is our faith in a person’s word. We’re not surprised when the news media distort facts or when politicians lie. We should pray for prudence and fortitude. With prudence, we can be careful about making promises, and with fortitude, we can keep the promises we have already made. We can also pray for appreciation and gratitude. May God give us all appreciation and gratitude for the relationships that we do have with people we can trust. How precious are such people and such relationships!
Moving out into the heavenly spheres in the Paradiso is a little like moving out into the unfamiliar and uncertain territory that this our modern world is becoming. There is so much uncertainty and so much that one might be apprehensive and fearful about. Ultimately, however, we must come back to the virtue of hope. With hope we cling to the truth of God’s love and the unfolding of His plan for us. With hope we can launch out into the unknown with the assurance that the Lord is with us and is leading us to a destination that is ultimately going to prove familiar to us—the destination of heaven which is our true home.
Fr. Marcus Pollard has been ordained for 25 years and is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, VA. He is currently serving as Pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Falls Church, VA. He has an M. Div. from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD and an M.A. from the Notre Dame Catechetical Institute.