By Caitlin Bootsma
In Canto 9, we find ourselves still in the sphere of Venus—a curious place that is in Paradise, though far from its heights. This particular location gives Dante an opportunity to see how justice and mercy are not contrary to one another, but rather work in together for our spiritual benefit.
Dante encounters Cunizza, the sister of an infamous tyrant. Dante feels she must know his very thoughts because she is united in love with God through her place in heaven. It is through this same union with the will of God that Cunizza shares a prophecy about the people of Italy who sin so grievously that even the “scourge of war” does not make them repent [line 9]. She relates,
But soon it will come to pass that Paduan blood,
And soon, will stain the waters of Vicenza
Because people shunned their duty there. [lines 46-48]
This destruction, she says, is justified because it is the way in which “God shines his judgments down on us.” It is, in other words, justice. But what about God being a God of mercy? Would God really allow people to be punished in this way for their sins? Cunizza sheds some light on this quandary when she explains how, looking back, she understands her own history of immoderate love on earth, landing her in lower realms of Paradise:
But we do not repent, we smile instead;
Not at the sin—this does not come to mind—
But at the Power that orders and provides.
From here we gaze upon that art which works
with such effective love; we see the Good
By which the world below returns above. [lines 103-108]
She is content, knowing that God’s mercy allowed even her mistakes to be the vehicle through which she saw God’s goodness. In other words, God knows our weaknesses and works through them to draw us closer to eternal life.
Then, of course, there is the figure or Rahab who “was the first to rise among the souls redeemed in Christ’s great triumph.” [lines 119-120] Rahab was a prostitute, known as the “Whore of Jericho”. Yet, it was partly because of her efforts that the Israelites regained the Promised Land. She hid Joshua’s spies before the Battle of Jericho, enabling them to carry out God’s will. Like each one of us, Rahab’s life was far from perfect. She, as a prostitute, sinned. However, this same woman chose to demonstrate courage and virtue by risking her life and helping the Israelites. Was it God’s mercy (forgiving her sins) or His judgment (rewarding her good deeds) that landed her in heaven? I would argue that it was both.
Going back to the terrible prophecy about Paduan blood, we can ask again: “How could a merciful God let this happen?” It is abundantly clear as Dante travels in Paradise that God’s ways are not always our ways. We learn from Cunizzo’s life and from Rahab’s that God makes use of many circumstances to inspire us to repentance and holiness. Is it possible that the blood spilt because of God’s judgment will also turn into an opportunity for people to receive His mercy as they turn and recognize the error of their ways?
The Year of Mercy is certainly an opportunity for each one of us to experience the joint gifts of God’s Justice and Mercy. In His Justice, we are able to recognize sin for what it is—a willfully chosen act that separates us from God. When we have this recognition, we are then primed to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.
It is no coincidence that both contrition and penance are important parts of the Sacrament of Confession. True contrition for our sins allows us to receive the grace of the sacrament—God’s mercy. Penance is a matter of justice; we have been forgiven, but we also must atone for what we have done wrong.
As Dante moves through the outer rings of Paradise, we begin to glimpse more fully God’s plan for us. He seeks to work through our strengths and our weaknesses, turning each moment into an opportunity to receive His grace and mercy.
Mrs. Caitlin Bootsma is the editor of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum as well as the Communications Director for Fuzati, a Catholic Marketing company. She lives in Richmond with her husband and two sons.