By Fr. David Tedesche
In the second canto of the Paradiso, we continue our rapid journey to the stars begun in the first canto. We can picture Beatrice whose limbs in relation to one another are motionless like a sculpture on the façade of Notre-Dame Cathedral. She is serenely gazing upward, her eyes aimed presumably at her stellar destination. And yet her body in relation to her astral goal is moving almost as rapidly as the revolution of the spheres. Dante flies in tandem with her. He says, “the inborn and perpetual thirst for the deiform realm bore us away, swift almost as you see the heavens.” [lines 19-21] When they arrive at the first “star”—the moon—they enter into its substance and proceed to discuss some finer points of medieval science. This erudite discussion, though, is not the topic of this post. Instead, what I would like to dwell on is what I would call the teleological orientation of Dante’s poetic imagination as here seen in this early canto.
The heavenly realms exercise an almost magnetic power over Beatrice and her poet friend, swiftly drawing them to themselves. The word “thirst” is even used to describe this power of attraction [line 19]. Could Dante be alluding here to Psalm 42? “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Ps 42:1-2) In any event, the pilgrims move from the surface of the earth to the moon “perhaps in that time that a bolt strikes, flies and from the catch is released…” [lines 23-24] At first, one might think that the poet is merely highlighting the great speed of their journey to the moon. Beatrice and Dante fly to the moon as fast an arrow. But notice the order in which the various phases of this metaphorical arrow’s flight is recounted. The arrow’s final striking of the target is listed first. Here is a special instance of Dante’s teleological imagination. Compare this to St. Thomas’ well known dictum, “Although the end be last in the order of execution, yet it is first in the order of the agent’s intention. And it is this way that it is a cause.” (S.T. I-II, q. 1, art. 1)
In any endeavor that takes foresight and planning, putting first things first in your mind and then directing your efforts and energy towards them as your goal is the path to success. This is true also in the spiritual life, and it is this wisdom that permeates the entirety of the Divine Comedy. But this wisdom is nowhere seen more clearly than in the Paradiso whose heavenly realms are not just journeyed through but themselves actively move the pilgrims.
This reminds me of the countless stories of Near Death Experiences I have heard about and read over the years. A common feature characterizing many of these testimonies is what is called a “life-review”. The person who comes face to face with their own final end is able to look back over their whole life and appreciate from that privileged vantage point all the things they have done well and all the things they wish they hadn’t done. When they are given their second chance back on earth, this experience of the “life-review” exerts a special causal power over how they live their lives. It’s a sort of real life version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.
Just recently, I found on YouTube a testimony by a Jewish Catholic convert by the name of Roy Schoeman who was given some very remarkable graces that eventuated in his coming into communion with the Catholic Church. A key turning point in his spiritual journey was a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But a year before that vision, God gave him a mystical experience on a beach in Cape Cod. From one moment to the next, he found himself in the presence of God, seeing his life as though he were looking back over it after he had died. He saw in an instant everything that he would be happy about and everything he would have wished he had done differently. He saw that his two greatest regrets when he died were (1) all the time and energy he had wasted worrying about not being loved when all along at every moment of his life he was held in an ocean of love greater than he could have imagined existed, and (2) every hour he had wasted not doing anything of any value in the eyes of heaven.
When after this experience he went back to his workaday life, he was a changed man in every way. He was happy for the first time since he was a child. Nothing bothered him. He knew God arranged everything for the good. He had always worried about life not having any meaning, and now he saw clearly that every minute of our life holds the potential for an infinite depth of meaning. Every moment of our life provides for us an opportunity to make a moral choice. We have the opportunity to pray. We have the opportunity to do something for which we will be grateful for all eternity.
Just like that arrow that we see striking its mark before its release, starting with heaven in mind is a good way to make sure our arrows are properly nocked and ready to fly. This is what Dante does for us in the Divine Comedy and especially in its third part, the Paradiso. This is his teleological imagination at work for us, not only for our entertainment but also for our spiritual instruction and guidance.
Fr. David Tedesche is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He is currently serving as pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish. This parish consists of St. Michael’s in Lyons, NY, St. John the Evangelist in Clyde, NY, and St. Patrick’s in Savannah, NY. He also serves as Theological Consultant for Faith Development Ministry for the Diocese of Rochester. He has advanced degrees in Philosophy and Theology and, before entering seminary, was a high school English teacher at Johnsburg Central School in North Creek, NY.