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by Dante Alighieri

Paradiso Paradise Canto XXXIII: (Tenth Heaven: the Empyrean) Summary

  • Bernard's eloquent prayer to Mary first praises her for allowing mankind to redeem itself through her son, Christ. Her love was the foundation on which the rose was built. To the souls here, Mary is the torch of charity, and to the mortals below, she is hope.
  • Bernard then appeals to her compassion, saying that those who would advance even higher than this point may not make it far without her loving-kindness. She is known for helping all those who beseech her, as well as many who have not yet done so. This man, Dante, who has come through all the Divine Realms, begs to receive enough virtue to rise even further and see the face of God. St. Bernard also asks that Dante remember what he saw to help him in his poetic mission.
  • Suddenly the entire host of Heaven joins in the prayer, including Beatrice.
  • The Virgin Mary gazes down on Dante with approving eyes, then raises them to the Light above.
  • Bernard, smiling, signals for Dante to look up as well. Dante is way ahead of the game, his face ardently upturned and his vision improving with every second that passes.
  • Everything he sees from this point, however, is too great for words and even his memory fails him when he thinks of it. He only remembers it as if in a dream, can recall only the sweetness of the memory. He compares his loss of language to the mischievous wind which carried away the leaves on which the prophetess Sibyl wrote (in the Aeneid).
  • Now, Dante prays to God to please allow him to remember some glimmer of what he saw as he looked into the light. He begs for the memory so that he can convey its glory in his poetry and help bring people of the future to Heaven.
  • The Light which Dante sees is so bright that he is afraid if he turns away from it, he will lose his path.
  • In the Light, he fancies seeing an image: a book, bound by love, which lists and categorizes all the scattered information in the universe.
  • Dante's memory about this experience is so dim that he argues the twenty-five centuries since the Argonauts' journey has never produced as much forgetfulness.
  • The Light is so beautiful and perfect that Dante never wants to look away from it; anything else seen after this would seem defective.
  • From here on, Dante claims, his memory is so feeble that his words must be as weak as those of an infant at his mother's breast.
  • Even as he gazes at God, the image alters. Three circles appear, each in three different colors, but all the same size. The second circle reflects the first, and third circle is fiery with the love exuded by the first two.
  • After a little while, Dante notices, the second circle "within itself and colored like itself, / to me seemed painted with our effigy." Wait, seeing a figure the same color as its surroundings? That's not possible, right?
  • Dante agrees and tries to figure out how this can be, but his efforts are futile.
  • When Dante finds he cannot solve the mystery of the Incarnation on his own, he sees a flash of light, and suddenly he gets his wish. He understands; but we are not allowed this final solution because with this ultimate burst of God's love, Dante's memory disappears, and he is conscious of nothing but his free will, at long last in complete harmony with God's will.

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