If the best place to begin discussing Purgatorio was its middle, the best place to begin discussing Paradiso is its end. Quite simply stated, the end of the poem was the beginning of the experience described. We are presumably expected to take literally--at least as a fictional premise--Dante's claim that he had a mystical vision of some sort, the vision of God that is described in Paradiso33. Dante was neither the first nor the last person to claim to have experienced such a vision. What makes him unique is his ability to articulate this vision. By its very nature, the mystical transcends human categories. It is ineffable, beyond the expressive powers of language. The initiand granted such a vision is usually inclined either to explain politely that words cannot do justice to what was seen or to descend to inarticulate mumblings. Dante's great triumph is that he was able to embody his vision in his mother tongue and in adaptations of symbols that were traditional and therefore generally decipherable.
Moreover, the way Dante describes his final vision retrospectively illuminates not only Paradiso, but the whole of the Comedy that had preceded it. The souls in the Empyrean at the end of Paradiso spend all of eternity in God's direct presence, continually and lovingly gazing upon Him. The experience is not static. To us in the twentieth century, accustomed to a universe of becoming, a Heaven of Pure Being seems boring. For Dante, such a heaven is the most exciting prospect imaginable, a fitting reward for a life of love and virtue and one particularly satisfying to a man of Dante's intellectual curiosity and aesthetic vision. Much of what Dante saw, he tells us, has been forgotten; his memory could not retain what was so far beyond human categories and modes of thought. What he does remember is that, even though God is unchanging, Dante's perception of God was not. The more he stared at God, the more worthy he became of seeing God, and therefore the more aspects of God's inexhaustible diversity he comprehended (Para33.106-114).
Dante's description of his vision, therefore, consists of at least the six successive stages described for us in this canto. First of all, he describes God as the source of all light (lines 67-84). All of Purgatorio had involved a climb toward the Sun; all of Paradiso has involved a succession of accommodations to increasingly intense manifestations of light. Now, at the end of his journey, Dante stares at the very source of all light.
Stage two: as Dante stares into the light, his vision is consumed by and united with the light:
In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe: substances and accidents and their relations, as though fused together in such a way that what I tell is but a simple light.To say that God, the Creator of the Universe, conceives all things within Himself is a cliché of Christianized Neo-Platonism: the logos imposed the Creator's design upon the material universe. Dante is special, however, in his metaphor of creation as a book. Everything that exists in the material universe, which we see as isolated and discrete, is, from an eternal perspective, part of the single unified volume "written" by God, each of the pages bound to the others by Divine Love.
It is a startling image. On the one hand, it is a reminder of the time-honored Christian-Humanist concept that God wrote two books, the Bible and the book of Nature. All of the created universe, in this view, exists to bring people to God, and in God Dante sees the way each separate leaf clings to the binding of God's creative, salvific, and supportive love. On the other hand, the image reminds us of what Dante himself has tried to do in his poem, to bind together within his own book the various leaves of his own otherwise scattered experiences so they may be of use to his readers. As Charles Singleton has put it, Dante tried in the Comedy to imitate God's way of writing.
The third aspect of God that Dante describes is related to the second: God is "the universal form that binds these thing" (92-93). According to the medieval adaptation of Aristotelian physics, all things in the universe are a combination of matter and form. A statue, for example, combines matter (marble or wood or bronze), with form (an ideal male, female, horse, or whatever). A real horse combines living mammalian matter with equine form. Now Dante understands that ultimately God is the pure form that universally confers life on all things in the material universe.
Fourth, Dante observes that God is the Perfect Good which is the ultimate object of human desire (103-105). Human will is inherently attracted to the Good, but since nothing in creation is perfectly good, this yearning is doomed to be forever unsatisfied and people are doomed to a life-long frustrating search. Only in unity with God is the soul's instinctive quest for the Good satisfied; only thereby can one be "happy."
The final two aspects that Dante perceives in God are theologically explicit or doctrinal, rather than philosophical as the previous four had been. First, Dante sees God in His Trinitarian aspects (115-123). God is three distinct Persons in one Being, and Dante sees this mystery revealed in a vision of three different colored circles blending within the same circumference. The centrality of trinitarian structure to the whole of the Comedy should, by now, be so clear as not to require elaboration.
The sixth and final aspect of God that Dante describes is perhaps a bit less obvious. Within the second of the three circles of colored light, Dante perceives a man's image. The second of the two great mysteries connected with God in Dante's culture is the Incarnation, God's assuming of human form. According to this notion, Jesus is in simultaneous and complete possession of two natures, one human and one divine, within the same second Person of the single unique Being, God. This great central mystery of traditional orthodox Christianity, hammered out partly in response to numerous early Christological heresies, is that Jesus is wholly God, one in Being with the Father, co-eternal with Him, and in no way less totally and entirely Divine. At the same time, in the words of John's gospel, "the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us." While never ceasing to be God, Jesus assumed human form within the womb of the young virgin, Mary, whose betrothal to the carpenter Joseph had never been sexually consummated. According to angelic proclamations in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Mary's conception occurred through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. God is, therefore, literally the Father of Jesus. Mary, his human mother, was herself conceived without the stain of original sin upon her soul (the Immaculate conception). Therefore Jesus, the second Adam in the words of St. Paul, was born with a fully human nature but without the effects of original sin inherited by all offspring of Adam.
While this may seem rather abstract and other-worldly to most people in our own post-Christian world, for people of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the mystery of the Incarnation was (and still is for Christians) cause for celebrating the material universe. Over the centuries, various non-Christian or heretically-Christian sects--Gnostics, Manichees, Catharists, and their kin--asserted that matter is inherently evil. The Spirit can achieve contentment only by escaping the body, by spurning the world of matter. (Catharist Perfecti went so far as to seek re-union with the spiritual world by practicing ritual starvation to the admiration of the sect's catechumens.) By insisting that Jesus was fully human, Christians affirm the sacredness of the material world.
This general tendency of Christianity to value the material world was accentuated in the thirteenth century, perhaps in reaction against heresies such as Catharism. Dominicans led the fight for orthodoxy against sects which denied the value of matter; the greatest of Dominican theologians, Thomas Aquinas, reflects this instinct in his insistence that all human knowledge comes originally from the senses. A person is not an angel, and so human salvation can come only through interaction with this world. Dante's revolutionary emphasis on the realistic representation of external nature and of human emotion expresses in literary fashion a similar Incarnational view of reality, just as surely as such contemporary painters as Giotto and Duccio, and such sculptors as Nicola and Giovanni Pisano give this view of reality visual expression. In the late thirteenth century, many of the greatest artists and thinkers were reaffirming the primacy of external material reality as the medium of knowledge and of salvation, and so it should come as no surprise to find Dante ending his poem with a sudden divine illumination in which the mystery of the Incarnation becomes comprehensible.
Enough of our destination; the best way to see how Dante gets us there is to return to canto 1 of Paradiso which contains in small the basic form of the whole poem: an alternation of a light display with a discursive passage. With an encyclopedist's enthusiasm, Dante examines in Paradiso questions of science, philosophy, and theology, questions as diverse as the differences of human talent, the resurrection of the body, the relationship of free will to predestination, the source of the moon's markings, the implications of faith, hope, and charity, the histories of the Roman Empire and of the mendicant orders, and the classifications of, and functions of, the different orders of angels. Interspersed with such theoretical discourses we find the successive stages of increasing intensities of light to which Dante must grow accustomed if he is to ascend from earth to the Source of all Light.
Thus, back in canto 1, when Dante rises unwittingly from the earthly paradise at the top of purgatory toward the circle of the Moon, he is aware only of the increased intensity of sunlight. Mystified, he wonders why a second sun seems to have been added to the first. Beatrice, who reads Dante's mind, answers his unspoken questions and explains that he is rising through the heavens faster than lightning falls. All things seek their natural home, she goes on; the individual, therefore, purified of the dross of sin, naturally rises to the proper position in the universe that had been denied only by sinfulness. This canto provides our initiation to the alternation that will carry us through the other circles of heaven, the alternation between repeated initiations to new levels of light and lectures by Beatrice and by the others already initiated.
One point worth mentioning before we proceed further is the principle of accommodation that governs Paradiso. Saved souls--Beatrice included, we must assume--never leave God's presence in the Empyrean. They somehow manifest themselves at the various stages of Dante's ascent as an accommodation to his limited human understanding. It is a daring (and effective) literary device whose primary objective may originally have been simply the desire to maintain parallelism among the three canticles. If souls appear in each of nine areas in Inferno and in Purgatorio, they will appear in each of nine areas here. Dante's geocentric vision of the universe had the earth at the physical center of God's creation, surrounded by the seven perfectly circular orbits of the planets, the wandering "stars" that in Dante's day included the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These heavenly bodies "wandered" in that they did not remain consistently positioned relative to each other and to other bodies the way the so-called fixed stars--the constellations--did. These fixed stars were believed to be "fixed," like gems in a setting, within a transparent, crystalline sphere that surrounded the seven smaller spheres and the earth at the center. The Primum Mobile (Latin for "Prime Mover") surrounds the fixed stars, and beyond that is found the Empyrean, loosely identical with the traditional notion of Heaven. It is appropriate that the orbits of the various planets be perfectly spherical, for the images of circles and lines play an important part in Dante's final vision. His rise through the heavens is a straight-line ascent that intersects each of the circles until it finally passes beyond the Primum Mobile and then beyond the human categories of time and space. Lines are common images of time and measurement. Human life goes from cradle to grave, from one point to another, just as surely as all of time goes from the moment of creation to the Last Judgment. Time is a succession of discrete moments, each unique, each radically unrepeatable, that push each other toward the end of time. Rivers are also common images of the flow of time, a succession of billions of drops of water that move inexorably into the eternal-seeming sea.
Circles, by contrast, are traditional symbols of the eternal or of the divine. Unlike a straight line, a point extended through space so that it well never intersect itself, a circle is a point extended through space so that it is at every moment the same distance from a given point, the center. This geometric "perfection" has traditionally been linked by the mystically inclined to Divine Perfection: God is simultaneously the circumference of the universe, containing within Himself all of His creation, and its center, the point that can generate any other point in the universe on the circumference of one of its infinitely numerous concentric circles.
In canto 30, when Dante arrives in the Empyrean, in a real sense beyond time and space, his vision undergoes a radical change from the earthbound to the eternal. Dante sees in the Empyrean a river of light sparkling through a glittering countryside of flowery fields (scenery such as exists nowhere in the world but does exist in the mosaics of Ravenna, the city in which Paradiso was written). Sparks of light shoot back and forth between river and flowers in what seems almost a jeweler's conception of the earthly paradise.
At Beatrice's command, Dante dips his eyes into the river of light, and suddenly all human categories are transformed. The linear river swirls around into a circle, and then gains height as it grows up into a gigantic amphitheatric rose. The flowers along the shore now show themselves as saints, seated in the rose in petals appropriate to their characteristics and in tiers that define their degrees of excellence. The sparks of fire that had seemed like bees darting among the flowers are now seen to be angels, carrying the saints' praises up to God and carrying His love back to the saints. The universe, that had seemed elegant enough as an ornate, bejeweled river, has become in the end a single, circular, perfectly formed and all-encompassing flower that is also a fitting scene for Dante's final vision.
Finally, since light is both the starting and ending point of Paradiso and since Love is obviously central to the Comedy as to any Christian poem, we may well ask (as Dante obviously did) what the relationship is between vision and love. The relationship is expressed at several points in the canticle, but nowhere, perhaps quite so directly as in canto 28: "from which it may be seen that the state of blessedness is founded on the act of vision, not on that which loves, which follows after" (109-111). The same point is made in Solomon's great speech in canto 14 (lines 37-60) and in the opening lines of canto 1.
Souls who see properly love more and make themselves thereby better "reflectors" of God's love. The vision becomes both the cause and the test of love. One who sees the world properly will surely be filled with love for God and other people; one who is not aflame with such love will thereby demonstrate that he or she has not properly seen the world. The ability of the heavenly soul to reflect light increases proportionately as Dante rises through the heavens, signifying thereby their increased ability to see and to love. Once again it should come as no surprise that Dante places such emphasis in his art on direct observation of nature: getting the vision "right," seeing the world as it really is, provides Dante with a means of loving more intensely and ultimately with a means of salvation. Dante's technique may have worked a revolution in literary art, but his own interest in doing so seems to have been as much devotional as stylistic.
We come at last to our final point. Since Paradiso is the third of three canticles, we find here, as we would expect, the fulfillment of several motifs that have extended through Inferno and Purgatorio. It is, first of all, the fulfillment of Dante's journey, and the imagery of the trip, especially of the sea voyage, runs through the whole poem. Inferno begins in the middle of the road of life; Purgatorio begins with the little boat of Dante's genius steering for happier waters; Paradiso begins with a warning to readers ill-equipped in intellect or in faith not to follow Dante's ocean liner out into the open sea in their metaphorical small boats (canto 2, 1-18). The final vision of canto 33 brings this strain of imagery to its conclusion as Dante's voyage of discovery is compared to Jason's quest for the golden fleece on Greek mythology's archetypal and first sea voyage.
Related to the metaphoric journey, the intellectual or spiritual quest, is Dante's literal wanderings as an exile. Starting with canto 6 of Inferno, various Florentines have broadly hinted to Dante about the forthcoming exile from Florence. In canto 17 of Paradiso, in the Heaven of Mars, all hints of exile are clarified by Dante's great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida. Only in Paradise can exile from Florence be placed in proper order: we are all exiles on earth from our proper homeland. Exile is bitter, unquestionably so. Cacciaguida's most famous words attest to this: "You shall come to know how salt is the taste of another's bread, and how hard the path to descend and mount by another man's stairs" (Para, 17, 58-60). If such exile is undeserved, however, and is met with courage and without rancor (harder for Dante apparently than the courage), the exile can become a source of earthly fame and of eternal life.
Dante's final question of Cacciaguida concerns style: should he temper his writing to increase his popularity, or should he write the truth as he sees it, even if it offends potential patrons (106-120)? Cacciaguida's answer (124-143) can stand as the rallying cry of the expatriate artist in any age. "all falsehood set aside, make manifest all that you have seen; and then let them scratch where the itch is." Exile is not, Cacciaguida asserts, to be a defeat for Dante, but a victory. By forcing Dante to exist emotionally and psychologically at the heart of humanity's existential position as exile in the universe, the petty partisan squabblers of central Italy have unintentionally insured the integrity of Dante's vision. Late in his life, when Dante wrote Paradiso, he was apparently reconciled to his circumstances and accepted them as a moral triumph in a way he could never have foreseen in 1300. No one could better explain this to Dante than Cacciaguida. The family may have become petty bourgeois lately, but at its root is the spirit of the crusader, still alive in Dante's soul (or at least in Dante's self-presentation).
Other lesser themes and motifs find their fulfillment in Paradiso, and rather than deal with them in detail we will simply point them out. The relationship of fortune and justice finds its reconciliation in all the discussion of Divine Justice that runs throughout the canticle, as does the relationship of freedom and predestination. The speculation on the problems continues, but the resolution ultimately is that people cannot understand God's Justice. John Calvin himself would be pleased with Dante's insistence that any attempt to hold God to human categories of justice would be idolatry in which we deify categories of our own devising.
Finally, the whole question of authority, imperial and papal, comes to fulfillment in Paradiso. The only character in all of the Comedy whose words occupy an entire canto is Justinian, who speaks all of canto 6, summarizing therein the history of the Roman Empire. It is not Constantine who receives the honor, for Dante's emphasis is not upon Rome as conqueror or as center of Christendom, but upon Rome as lawgiver and Justinian as the great codifier of law. (He is, moreover, the emperor most permanently memorialized in the city of Ravenna where Dante wrote Paradiso.)
If the final word on the empire belongs to Justinian and the final word on partisan politics belongs to Cacciaguida, the final word on the papacy belongs to Peter himself, the first Pope. In canto 27, after Dante is tested in faith, hope and charity, Peter glows fiery red, all heaven falls silent in anticipation,and Peter denounces Boniface VIII for turning Peter's grave into a sewer. All of Heaven blushes red as Peter continues his denunciation of papal corruption. At the conclusion of his speech (canto 27, 64-66), Peter commands Dante to return to earth and tell others what Peter has said. If anyone questions Dante's authority to stand in judgment over Popes, he can reply that he holds this privilege from Peter himself.
Dante's rise through the heavens is effortless, unlike the strenuous climb of Mt. Purgatory. In fact, Dante is never really conscious of his ascent, but only grows aware that something has happened because of some external change in lighting or in Beatrice's beauty. At each of the seven planets along the way, Dante stops and talks with some saved souls, conveniently grouped in some category in a method analogous to what we have come to expect after Inferno and Purgatorio. The souls, we must recall, only seem to be there, to aid in Dante's instruction along the way, and as Dante shares in their experiences and learns from their instruction, he makes himself progressively more worthy of joining them in their proper resting place, with God in the Empyrean.
The seven virtues that danced allegorically around the car of the church in the earthly paradise return as a structural device in Paradiso. The first three planets contain souls that had shown weakness in the theological virtues; the last four contain (manifest rather) souls that had shown strength in the cardinal virtues. The relative weaknesses of the souls in the first three groups parallel the relatively inferior status of these three planets: since they are within the orbit of the Sun, the shadow of the earth occasionally falls upon them. For the final four planets, it is more proper to say that souls are manifested, because none of them ever shows up again in truly human form, but rather as manifestations of light.
In the heaven of the Moon, Dante meets a group of nuns who were inconstant to their vows. Their controlling virtue of Faith was marred, therefore, by a backsliding into infidelity. The women Dante meets here are reminders that salvation is a personal, not a family affair. Piccarda Donati is in Heaven. Her brother, Forese, is in the Circle of Gluttony in Purgatory. Other kinsmen, Buoso Donati and Cianfa Donati are in the Bolgia of the Thieves. (The Donati were a large and occasionally powerful Florentine family: Corso Donati was the infamous leader of the Black Guelfs, and Dante's own wife, Gemma, was herself a Donati.) The second soul Dante meets, Constance, is mother of Frederick II, who is in the tombs of heresy in Inferno, and is grandmother of Manfred, who waits at the base of the mountain in Ante-Purgatory. It is from Piccarda, moreover, that Dante learns of the lack of envy over position in Heaven. People are in Heaven precisely because they have merged their will with God's and no contradictory yearnings are possible. As Piccarda so memorably puts it, "In His will is our peace."
From the contemplative feeling of the Moon, Dante moves on to Mercury, where one immediately senses the entry into the arena of battles and international politics. These are the "hopeful" those whose attention was fixed on future glory, but an earthly glory, and those whose lives of dedication and service to others was marred precisely because it was motivated not by love of God but by human ambition. It is here that Dante meets the great lawgiver, Justinian, and here that we are told the tantalizing little anecdote of Romeo da Villanuova (canto 6, 127-143), interesting because of its obvious parallels to the story of Pier delle Vigne in Inferno, 13 (and of Dante himself). Pier was crushed by his change of fortune; Romeo was ennobled by his.
Finally, in the next Heaven of Venus, Dante comes upon those whose Love was marred by sensuality. It is curious that from the Sensuous Saved Dante receives so many academic lectures--there are probably more discursive passages here than elsewhere in Paradise. Perhaps Dante imagined this as his own eventual destination and was hoping for interesting conversations through eternity. Whatever the reason, it is here that Dante learns of the history of Sicily, the harmony of creation, and the diversity of human talent.
In canto 10, a new movement in the poem begins as Dante and Beatrice, passing beyond the earth's shadow, enter the Heaven of the Sun. Here we encounter Christian intellectuals who exemplify in their various ways the Cardinal Virtue of Prudence. Twelve "splendors of living and transcendent light," souls of Christian philosophers and theologians, as it turns out, surround Dante and Beatrice, arranging themselves like the digits on a clockface. In canto 12, a second circle of twelve souls surrounds the first. In canto 14, finally, as he leaves the Sun, Dante becomes aware of "new subsistences making a ring beyond the other two circumferences," and his reaction, "Oh true sparkling of the Holy Spirit" (76), suggests that the first two circles may bear some relationship to the other two persons of the Trinity.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Dominican of the late 13th century, speaks for the first circle of souls, and St. Bonaventure, Thomas' great Franciscan contemporary, for the second. The two orders of friars frequently feuded in earthly life, but in Heaven such differences are reconciled: a major portion of Thomas' speech praises Francis, and a similar portion of Bonaventure's praises Dominic. In heaven the orders are not antagonistic, but complementary. Just as we need the Sun both for heat and for light, Christendom needs both Francis's fiery love and Dominic's pursuit of knowledge. Finally, the two spokesmen appear in their respective clock faces immediately next to people with whom they had had bitter disputes while alive, Thomas positioned next to Siger of Brabant and Bonaventure next to Joachim of Fiore. All such earthly disputes are forgotten in eternity.
In going from the Sun to Mars, Dante goes from the Heaven of Prudence to the Heaven of Fortitude. The courageous, God's Warriors, are typified by the old crusader, Cacciaguida. Indeed, the very shape of the planet is a constant reminder of the crusades. Against the background of the red planet, the souls, like the tiles of a mosaic, form a composite white cross, making of the entire planet, a gigantic white on red symbol of the crusades. As Dante and Beatrice approach the planet, Cacciaguida, who had been in the right arm, swings in a great arc down to the foot of the cross. From there he condemns Florence's degeneration into effeminacy and partisanship (canto 16), specifies the details of Dante's exile (canto 17), and identifies some of the other souls in the cross (canto 18). As he identifies each hero, the soul streaks through the cross in acknowledgment.
In Jupiter, the planet of Justice, we find one of Dante's most bizarre inventions. The souls of just rulers combine to form letters of the alphabet against the planet's white background, 35 of them in succession, spelling out the Latin sentence, "diligite iustitiam, qui iudicatis terram," that is, "love justice, you who rule the earth." The final letter, M, is then subtly adapted by the shifting of some of the souls, into a fleur-de-lis, and a second adjustment changes it into an eagle, symbolic of imperial Rome. In canto 19, the eagle that is comprised of many different souls assumes a corporate identity and speaks as one. Dante asks these experts on earthly justice to explain divine justice, only to be told that no one can understand something so mysterious. The eagle then takes off, circles Dante, and identifies the souls that make up the eagle's eye, two of whom--in what would seem to be a challenge to earthly justice--are saved despite having died before Christ was born or without having accepted Christianity before death.
In canto 21, Dante moves on to Saturn, a transitional circle that connects upper Heaven to the Planets, while also completing the focus on the Cardinal virtues, celebrating as it does Temperance. Here, in Dante's Heaven for monks, Benedict himself, the great reformer, Peter Damian, and the other monastic saints all gather together into the same celestial monastery. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob had a dream of a golden ladder that stretched up into the sky, with angels moving up and down the rungs. Monastic exegetes regularly interpreted the ladder as a symbol of the way a life of contemplation can carry one from earthly concerns up to the divine. In Heaven, the souls of the Monk-Saints move up and down the ladder like birds, recalling the angelic detail of Jacob's vision. Finally, the ladder serves as the literal transition to upper Heaven, its base resting within the planet, Saturn, and its top disappearing into the next circle of the fixed stars.
Dante spends a great deal of time in the circle of the stars, entering in canto 22 and not leaving until canto 27. In each of these two cantos, Dante takes the time to look back at the circles below him, reminding himself and his readers of how far he has come and remarking on both occasions on the triviality of earth in relationship to the grandeur of the heavens. Dante enters the fixed stars through the constellation Gemini, his birth sign; in Dante's conception, apparently, each saint will enter Heaven by passing back through the constellation which exerted its influence upon his character at birth.
Canto 23 presents four striking images, all broadly based on the world of nature, one of which deserves mention here. All the souls Dante has encountered along the way, "a thousand thousand lights," seem to have risen with Dante from the spheres below to the circle of the fixed stars, prior to returning to the Empyrean so they can be properly positioned for Dante's arrival. Once the symbolic gathering of saints leaves, only four remain behind. Before Dante can proceed further, he has to demonstrate his knowledge of basic dogma. Successively, therefore, in cantos 24, 25, and 26, Peter tests Dante on faith, James, on hope, and John, on Love. (The three apostles seem to be granted this special privilege as examiners, because they were the three witnesses of Jesus' Transfiguration.) At the end of canto 26, finally, Dante meets the fourth remaining figure, Adam. (Are Dante's experiences here normative; perhaps everyone on the way to heaven must meet the father of the race before advancing past this point?)
The final circle, the Primum Mobile, is the hardest of all to describe. It has been called "the heaven of mathematicians," and "the clock works of the Universe." Both statements reflect the fact that this is a difficult part of the poem for the twentieth century reader to understand. Dante learns here which of the nine orders of angels is the controlling intelligence of each of the nine heavens, and he sees the nine orders in a strange inversion of the structure of the universe. In the universe, God, in the Empyrean, surrounds the various spheres of creation that are within. In the Primum Mobile, however, Dante sees God as a point at the center of a circle, with the nine orders of angels spinning around it in concentric circles. As John Ciardi notes, God is, depending upon one's point of view, both he center of all spiritual energy and the all-containing bound and limit of the created universe.
In canto 30, Dante finally enters the Empyrean, completing his return journey to God. The canto is one of the most spectacular in the whole Comedy as Dante undergoes two final refinements of vision before he can see God. First he is struck blind by a lightning-flash (if it's good enough for St. Paul, apparently, it's good enough for all of us), after which God rekindles the candle of his vision (52-54). With newly increased acuity of vision, Dante sees the river of light flowing through the mosaic countryside. The final purification comes from immersing his eyes in the stream, after which he sees the stream as the rose that it truly is.
In canto 31, Beatrice gives away to St. Bernard just as she had herself replaced Virgil as guide in Purgatorio. The Comedy began with the several heavenly ladies interceding on Dante's behalf; now it ends with a return to the phenomenon of saintly intercession. Beatrice gives way to Bernard of Clairvaux, who, among his many accomplishments, was famous for his devotion to Mary the mother of God. In the last canto, he prays to Mary to intercede with her Son to allow Dante the privilege of seeing God. All the saints in the rose join him in his prayer, and Dante is granted the vision which I discussed at the beginning of this essay.
As one final point in the introduction to the Comedy, we should acknowledge how far Dante and we have progressed from the dark wood. Francesca da Rimini seemed such a grand character when first we met her, but from the perspective of Heaven she elicits only sadness instead of sympathy. Her love, grasping and possessive and selfish for all of its courtesy and gentility, is far removed from the selflessness and concern for Dante's true welfare that is shown by Beatrice, Bernard, Mary, and the other saints. The love that was the central concern of the central canto of the central canticle, Purgatorio, receives its final clarification here in the very last canto of Paradiso.