Paradiso Paradise Canto III (First Heaven: the Sphere of the Moon): Summary
After this long lecture, Dante raises his head to the truth, about to confess himself "corrected and convinced."
But his confession is cut short when he's assaulted by a new vision. He sees the pale reflections of many faces in front of him. They're so faint that it's like seeing the reflection of one's face through unpolished glass, shallow water, or a pearl strung on a lady's forehead.
So naturally, Dante turns around, thinking that what he's seeing is reflections in a mirror. But behind him there is nothing.
When he turns with a bewildered look to Beatrice, she answers his question with a knowing smile.
"There is no need to wonder if I smile," she says, "because you reason like a child."
She tells him that he is not seeing reflections, but "true substances" of souls that hover before him. And they are set here in the lowest sphere in Heaven because they broke their vows.
Beatrice urges Dante to listen to them to learn a lesson in truthfulness.
Dante turns to the soul that seems most anxious to talk and begs to know her name and history.
She answers that her sphere – out of its divine charity – would never deny answers to Dante's questions. She tells her story:
On earth, I was a virgin and a nun. You should recognize me; I'm Piccarda (the sister of Forese Donati, whom you met in Purgatory), and I live here in the slowest-revolving sphere. But, don't worry, I'm happy here because I delight in taking my place in God's order. I deserve to be in the lowest level of Heaven because I broke my vows in life.
Dante is still stuck on the implied insult that he was slow in recognizing her. So he makes an excuse, claiming she now looks different than she did on earth. She's shinier.
Having soothed his ego, Dante asks Piccarda if she's really happy here or if she wants to be in a higher sphere?
At this Piccarda and all her buddies smile, like "one[s] who burn with love's first flame."
Instead, she says no, they're all perfectly happy because they bear love for God, whose will put them in their proper places. If she were to want more, her will would be battling with God's and cause discord.
The secret to living happily in blessedness is conforming one's individual will to God's will.
Dante gets it. He realizes that every sphere in Heaven is indeed a paradise, but that "grace does not rain equally from the high good." However, everyone in the Heavens is happy with his or her place, no matter how high or low it is.
Dante asks more questions. He wants to know the rest of Piccarda's story, which he puts in a fancy weaving metaphor as "the web of which her shuttle had not reached the end."
Piccarda tells how she left her pampered life to follow the order of St. Clare, made vows to follow God's laws (namely, to remain virgin), and took her place as a nun. God didn't have a quiet life planned for her, though. Instead, evil men (directed by her brother Corso) abducted her from the cloister and forced her to marry a nobleman. Thus, Piccarda was forced by these violent men to break her vow to God. (By the way, Corso is in Hell.)
Suddenly Piccarda turns to the shining spot on her right and introduces her as the brightest light on the whole moon. She was a fellow sister, who also took her vows of chastity and then was forced to go back into the world and marry against her will.
Finally Piccarda reveals this bright light as Empress Constance of Sicily whose marriage produced the last heir of her royal line.
Because Heaven makes her so very happy, she starts singing a hymn. The "Ave Maria." And as she sings, she vanishes back into the light.
Dante's still full of questions, so he turns to Beatrice, but is blinded by her brilliance and stays silent for the moment.