Paradise Canto XXI: (Seventh Heaven: Sphere of Saturn)
Dante turns to face Beatrice, but she is not smiling.
She explains that were she to smile, Dante would turn to ashes because they've climbed so high that they've reached the point where Dante's mortal senses cannot bear the brilliance of God's reflected love.
She announces that they are now in the Seventh Heaven.
Beatrice tells him to look where he'd usually look and he'll see the reflected image of what comes next.
So Dante looks at Beatrice's eyes. There he sees the landscape of Saturn reflected. And rising from it is a magnificent golden ladder extending so high that Dante cannot see its top.
Climbing down the steps of the ladder are thousands upon thousands of souls. Dante compares their movements, gathering together and flitting about once they reach the surface of Saturn, to the movement of a flock of jackdaws.
Dante turns his attention to the nearest soul and thinks that he is so bright, he must be eager to speak. But he must await permission from Beatrice before speaking to the soul.
At this unspoken thought, Beatrice promptly gives the signal and Dante's words are unleashed.
Dante asks the aforementioned soul why he stepped up so close and why there's an unnatural silence in this sphere, whereas every other sphere has thundered with glorious music.
The soul chooses to answer the second question first. It's quiet here, he says, because were we to sing, we'd burst your eardrums. In other words, Dante's mortal hearing could not handle the glory of song at this level of Heaven.
In response to the first, the soul answers that he descended the golden ladder with the express purpose of meeting Dante. But he qualifies his answer with a humbling remark: it's not that God particularly favors this soul more than the others, only that this soul is governed by God's will and thus obeys when told to move down the ladder.
Okay, says Dante, I understand that you've aligned your will with God's, but I still don't understand why you in particular were predestined to meet me.
Before he can even say the last words, though, the spirit begins spinning as fast as it can go.
Predictably, his spinning only makes the soul grow brighter, and he replies, my sight is good which is why God blesses me with so much grace, but stop asking why, Dante. Nobody can know the mind of God. And you would do well to remind your fellow men of that when you return below.
His haughty words make Dante take a step back. Thoroughly humbled, Dante meekly asks the soul his identity.
The blazing soul responds that he once worshipped God in a place called Catria, specifically in the monastery of Santa Croce di Forte Avellana. In his meditation there, he was happy to live on a diet of veggies cooked only in olive juice.
That monastery, the soul continues, used to turn out virtuous souls like clockwork, but "it is now barren." Then he names himself as St. Peter Damian. Dante nods in realization.
St. Peter Damian continues his story. He was called "Peter the Sinner" when he first came to the monastery. From this place, he was reluctantly dragged out and eventually became a cardinal.
This gives Peter an opportunity to blast the Papal Seat. He recounts how popes were once good, as when St. Paul wore the hat; he walked "barefoot" and was "lean." But now, Peter shakes his head, the popes are "so plump / that they have need of one to prop them up / on this side, one of that, and one in front, / and one to hoist them saddleward."
Peter's words have attracted the souls, who are now gathered round in a spectacle of light; when Peter stops speaking, they cry out in agreement. And Dante drops like an anchor. Their combined voices have overwhelmed his senses, as St. Peter warned before.