There is a marvelous, wondrous moment in the latter part of this canto. After Dante asks questions that cannot be answered, after Dante wonders why there is no music to be heard in this level so close to God, after St. Peter Damien appears so close to Dante and comes closer, as Dante, so full of perplexity, introduces the topic of predestination, there is a moment when St. Peter begins to spin. “[T]hat lamp of grace like a millstone at full speed, making an axle of its own center, began to spin in place.” [lines 79-81] As St. Peter tells his story, other souls gather to him, “…downward in circling flight, from rung to rung; and grow more radiant with every turning.” [lines 136-138] I see these souls turning, moving, until they finally “burst forth in a unison of love: a cry so loud the like of it has not been heard on earth.” [lines 139-141] They move from dance to song. Dante, of course, faints, just as St. Peter predicted.
I am reminded, in the spinning, the turning, of the classic American Shaker song Simple Gifts. St. Peter Damien spins where he should be, and the Shakers gloried in the dancing, the turning that brings us where we should be.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.
This is, of course, a dance, a spin, a turn. It brings simplicity—which is really to do God’s will. Peter Damien, as he enters into the whirling dance, marks his full compliance with God’s will, the joyful acceptance of the dance of the Predestined. For true simplicity, true purity of heart, is to will only one thing, what God wills—this is the Simplest Gift. This is the true dance of the saints of God. The joy of dancing the steps ordained by God brings a shout of joy. And then Dante faints—a vicarious ecstasy.
Can we ask to dance? Can we learn the steps? Can we freely choose to abandon our freedom to the choreography of God? Do ya, do ya, do ya, do ya wanna dance?
Fr. Joe McCaffrey is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester and pastor of Nativity BVM parish in Brockport, NY. His graduate work was done at St. Bernard’s Seminary, Colgate Rochester, and Syracuse University. He taught Philosophy and Religious Studies at Elmira College and Syracuse University. His main interests at present are Ignatian Spirituality, guiding the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life (19th Annotation), and baseball.