In Canto 31 of the Paradiso, Dante’s understanding of the structure of the rose strengthens as he notices that there are two celestial soldieries of the Church Triumphant present before him—the first is seated and includes all the saints, and the second is in flight between God and each individual saint. This second soldiery is comprised of angels whom Dante likens to “a swarm of bees who in one motion dive into the flowers, and in the next return the sweetness of their labors to the hive…” [lines 7-9]. These fly “ceaselessly to the many-petaled rose and ceaselessly [return] into that light in which their ceaseless love has its repose.” [lines 10-12] The pollen that they are spreading is the ardor of God’s peace and mercy.
Notice, reader, what we’re seeing here. St. Thomas, the Angelic doctor, teaches us that the angels have no common nature. Each one is like a snowflake, entirely unique and totally different from any other one. A look at their activity, then, is revealing. These angels are moving back and forth between God and the great stadium of disembodied saintly human souls who together constitute the Mystic Rose. The angels are ministering to the needs of the saints. They are the great intermediaries between man and God, having been known as His messengers by those on earth and here demonstrating that they continue that work in heaven.
Each unique angel was designed by God to minister to a particular quality of each human person. We have already seen the gradations of grace each soul is capable of receiving over our time in the first eight spheres of Paradise, but what we have not yet been shown is the great diversity that enables society to work. This is later explained by St. Catherine of Siena who said that the reason God creates us in such diversity is so that we will come together relationally due to the importance of sharing our gifts with one another in the community within which we were formed. We have already seen from the suicides in the seventh circle of hell that the injustice they committed was not to themselves but to the community whose social fabric was torn apart by their self-slaughter. Heaven, here, is modeling the importance of this diversity vis-à-vis the unique traits of character found in each human person.
We know that our human souls, which are spiritual in nature, are the form of our material bodies and, remembering Statius’s explanation from Canto 25 of the Purgatorio, re-form all their senses from the air after our deaths. Angels do not need senses as an aid to their reason because they do not reason but simply intuit. Nor do angels have memory, for their minds are not divided into past and present moments. All the same, we are, in some sense, superior to angels if God created them primarily to minister to our needs.
This realization should put to rest all Manichean arguments concerning the evil nature of the material world. If we matter, then matter matters, and if matter matters enough for us to be resurrected in our material bodies, then matter must be as important as spirit as far as we are concerned. All the more important does our stewardship of the earth and its resources become! The soul, after all, is the form of our material bodies, as Dante has made clear, and it is the soul that seeks rest in God no matter its state.
This swarm of bees with which Dante begins the canto, for that reason, should not give us too much pause. They are messengers of God, so it makes sense that we would see them, in their natural hive, performing that function, moving between God and man with the fullness of God’s love as their active principle. As much as they serve God, we also have to note that they additionally serve man and are subservient to us in that regard. After all, their Queen—the Blessed Virgin Mary—is, after all, a composite being, both material and spiritual, while they themselves are simpler beings with no material nature.
Mary has more than a thousand festive angels dancing about her, and is smiling at their play. So ineffable is Mary’s beauty and bliss that Dante does not even try to describe it (we have the idea that Mary outshines Beatrice to the degree that Beatrice’s heavenly state outshines her earthly beauty). As Dante gazes, he realizes that Bernard’s own zeal and ardor strengthen his, sending new fire through him in a way similar to how our witnessing others sitting with us in Eucharistic devotion strengthens our own resolve in prayer.
Surely, there’s something about Mary that is important for us to know, and we have come into fullness of knowledge at this point as we behold our Mother and remember that this entire journey has been a Marian one in the sense that it was due to her influence that Virgil was commissioned to bring Dante to this point. For what purpose did she do that? The answer is simple. She did for Dante what she does for each of us—point us to her Son, Jesus Christ, Who is both justice and mercy.
Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, OP, 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.