By Mr. David Wallace
With the help of Beatrice the Pilgrim Dante now sees the physical universe from a spiritual point of view. Seeing through each of the celestial spheres, Dante beholds the “Pure Spark of Being” on which depends “all nature and all of the heavens.” Beatrice then guides him through the angelic choirs responsible for governing each of the nine spheres. This canto offers modern readers with two points for reflection: seeing the universe with the eyes of faith and recognizing the angelic world around us.
Saint Paul reminds his Ephesian readers—and us of course—that in Christ and through the Holy Spirit we have had the “eyes of [our] hearts enlightened” (Eph 1:18) so that we can perceive the hoped-for rewards of Heaven won for us by the One who sits “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (v. 21). The eyes of our hearts are illumined by the same fiery light of God’s love which Beatrice describes as the cause of the great speed of the innermost circle: “Love’s fire burns it into motion” [line 45]. Dante cannot grasp why his earthly conception of the universe doesn’t correspond to what he now beholds from this spiritual perspective: “it still has to be made clear to me why / the model and the copy are at odds, / for on my own I fail to understand” [lines 55-57]. Are we too guilty of failing to see our lives and the world around us with the eyes of our hearts enlightened?
Saint Paul tells us that we have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). Do we go about our business with the mind of Christ? Do we live our lives, run our errands, feed and clothe and educate our children with the mind of Christ? Do we love our spouses with the mind of Christ? Do we read Scripture and pray in, with, and through the mind of Christ so that our hearts might burn within us as He opens the Word of God to us (cf. Lk 24:32)? The Psalmist prays, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105); do we allow God’s word to shed light on our life’s path and direct our actions so that we can say with Dante, “I saw the truth shine like a clear star in the heavens” [line 86-87]?
Seeing the world with the eyes of faith also requires a conscious awareness of the angelic powers around us. Beatrice explains that the circles which move the heavens are the choirs of angels as traditionally ordered by Pseudo-Dionysius of the Areopagite, understood in the ancient Christian mind to be the same Dionysius converted by Saint Paul and taught the things of heaven by the Apostle. The seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels—this is the celestial hierarchy, the names of whose members are remembered in the Eucharistic Preface at each Mass: “And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim…” It is they whom we join in singing the Thrice-Holy Hymn of victory. “I heard them sing ‘Hosanna,’ choir on choir, / to the Fixed Point that holds each to his ubi, / the place they were and will be forever” [lines 94-96].
Jesus taught his disciples not to forsake the little children, for “in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). Each one of us has a guardian angel. Are the eyes of our hearts open to their actions in our lives? Do we ask for their light, their protection, and their guidance? Are we aware of the spiritual combat that goes on around us in this fallen world which follows “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2)? Finally, as we near the conclusion of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, when we have focused our attention on bringing the Lover of Mankind, the Philanthropos, to our fellow man, have we heeded the instruction of the Epistle to the Hebrews? “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2).
David Wallace is Director of Religious Education at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield, VA, and a lecturer in catechetics and evangelization at the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology. He lives in Front Royal, VA, with his wife and their five boys.