In our first canto of the Paradiso, Dante, for help in describing the ineffable, calls upon Apollo, the father of the muses, the god of poetry, and, as the sun god, the symbol of the one True God. Still in his mortal body, his senses adjusting to the new circumstances of his growing godlikeness, Dante cannot stare so fixedly at the sun, but he can stare fixedly upon Beatrice, the representative of divine revelation, whose eyes stare unblinkingly at God. That’s us standing there with him, focusing on the mysteries God has revealed. We are not quite ready for the direct vision of God, but we will attain this goal by the end of the Paradiso. For now, though, we have a journey to make, flying through the heavens.
A person on a boat staring out at sea may have a sense of movement. He may not, however, notice he’s moving until he turns back to look at the distance between him and the shore. In the same way, when Dante realizes he’s flying, he’s perplexed. Beatrice explains that it would be a greater marvel if he, freed of all weight and dross, fell back to earth instead of flying off of it. She proceeds to explain how everything reaches its proper station in its supernatural end. This is an important point, and it at once illustrates the contrapasso of heaven and the structure of the entire cosmos.
At the end of our journey thirty-two cantos from now, we’ll have flown through ten spheres of Heaven, and it will be useful for us to know from the beginning that what Dante the poet is attempting to do in this journey is similar to what he accomplished in Hell and Purgatory, which is to represent states of Being in spatial terms. The ten spheres of Heaven, then, are presented to us as levels of grace, which is a degree of measurement concerning God’s participation in the activity of man based on the extent to which man participated in the activity of God.
Analogously, every person in Heaven has a full cup of grace, but not every person’s cup is the same size. Some people’s cups could have been greater, as we’ll see, had those who hold them been more true to God’s presence in their lives than they actually were while on earth. While everyone is equally in the presence of God, furthermore, some experience a greater sense of that presence than others because of the size of their cups. As we’d expect, we find that she who is fullest of grace in all of heaven is its queen, Mary.
So, this brings us back to us. Beatrice explains that “oftentimes the form of a thing does not respond to the intent of the art…” She means to say, here, that our souls, which are the form of our bodies, are destined for supernatural happiness but often fall short of the mark. Why? We look to Matthew 21:28-31 for guidance on this: “What do you think?” Jesus asks, “There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.‘” “’I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
We hem and haw when told to be holy, but those of us who actually do it fulfill the Father’s will. The hypocrites say, “Yeah, sure, we’ll do it,” but they do not, and so they will see those who have a true conversion of heart even after a life of iniquity enter heaven while they remain outside. Here, in Canto 1, we begin this upward journey of conversion and cooperation with grace. Let’s not fall short of the mark.
Dr. Sebastian Mahfood is a Lay Dominican of the Province of Saint Albert the Great, and serves as Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Through the Catholic Distance Learning Network, he sponsors the Digital Dante contest (www.digitaldante.org), which each year awards a Dante medallion to the person who submits the best digital interpretation of some aspect of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He lives in St. Louis, MO, with his wife, Dr. Stephanie Mahfood, and children, Alexander and Eva Ruth.