David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 22: Saturn — Saint Benedict”

“Canto 22: Saturn — Saint Benedict”

  • The way that poets work in the Purgatory, contemplatives work in Paradise.We met poets at the beginning and at the end of the Purgatory. Similarly, we meet contemplatives at the beginning and at the end of the Paradise.

In Purgatory, Dante first meets and talks with Casella, a poet, and he continues to meet and talk with many poets throughout the Purgatory. At the end, Dante meets Statius, who accompanies him to the top of the Mountain of Purgatory.

In Paradise, Dante meets Piccarda Donati, a contemplative, and talks to her. At the end of Paradise, Dante meets and talks with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who is also a contemplative. He also sees Saint Benedict and other contemplatives on the planet Saturn. We see many contemplatives in Paradise, just as we saw many poets in Purgatory. Many of these contemplatives are founders of religious orders.

Of course, Dante learns from the people he meets in the afterlife. Peter Damian is a model for Dante to follow. Peter Damian was a contemplative who was able to experience God, but he left the contemplative life because the Pope needed him to help reform the Church. Similarly, at the end of the Paradise, Dante is going to be able to experience God. This is his own kind of contemplative experience. However, like Peter Damian, Dante is going to have to leave. He is not ready to stay in Paradise. Instead, Dante has work to accomplish on Earth: He has to write The Divine Comedy. Later, after his death, is the time for Dante to stay in Paradise permanently. Like Peter Damian, Dante will be a reformer.

  • Why did the saints shout at the end of Canto 21?

We certainly learn something good about Paradise here. Beatrice

Said to me: “Knowest thou not thou art in heaven,

And knowest thou not that heaven is holy all

And what is done here cometh from good zeal?”

(Longfellow 22.7-9)

At the end of Canto 21, the saints shouted, but Dante was not able to understand what they said. Beatrice explains that the saints were shouting that vengeance for evil will soon come:

“In which [the shout of the saints] if thou hadst understood its prayers

Already would be known to thee the vengeance

Which thou shalt look upon before thou diest.”

(Longfellow 22.13-15)

  • Write a brief character analysis of Saint Benedict. Who is he, historically?

At this point, Dante sees many souls. Saint Benedict approaches and speaks with Dante.

Saint Benedict is a contemplative; in fact, he is known as the founder of Western monasticism.

Other souls here are Saint Macarius (died 404), who was influential in Eastern monasticism, and Saint Romuald (died 1027), who helped reform Benedictinism in the 11st century. He is known as the founder of the order of Reformed Benedictines.

Saint Benedict was a 6th-century Italian monk. In the Rule of Saint Benedict, which most Western Catholic monks follow, the monks are contemplatives, they live in a cloister, and they pray in a group many times a day.

In Canto 22, Saint Benedict shares his biography, starting with the founding of his monastery at Monte Cassino:

“That mountain on whose slope Cassino stands

Was frequented of old upon its summit

By a deluded folk and ill-disposed;

And I am he who first up thither bore

The name of Him who brought upon the earth

The truth that so much sublimateth us.

And such abundant grace upon me shone

That all the neighbouring towns I drew away

From the impious worship that seduced the world.”

(Longfellow 22.37-45)

Lots of pagans were around Monte Cassino when Saint Benedict founded his monastery there, and so Saint Benedict acted as a missionary, converting pagans to Christianity.

Saint Benedict criticizes the corruption of his day:

“It was the patriarch Jacob who saw

our ladder stretch to touch the final height,

the time he dreamed of it so thronged with angels.

But now no man will lift a foot from earth

and try to climb it, and my Rule is worth

the wasted parchment it is written on.”

(Musa 22.70-75)

Saint Benedict, however, is aware that much-needed reforms will come.

  • What made Saint Benedict a great missionary?

Saint Benedict was a great missionary. Why? He was a contemplative. Contemplatives pray, and they have discipline. They have roots in spiritual discipline.

Dante suggests that it is a good idea for us to be also rooted in spiritual discipline. If you want to make positive changes in the world, you need to have good roots.

Another thing that we can learn here is that we build on the work of others. Certainly scientists learn from the work of other scientists, and then they push on and hope to make new discoveries. (The past really does affect the future, either positively or negatively. If you are obese now, you have probably been overeating for a long time. If you are middle-aged and fit now, you have probably been taking care of your body for a long time.)

Fortunately, some things from the past are very positive. Saint Benedict says,

“Peter began with neither gold nor silver,

And I with orison and abstinence,

And Francis with humility his convent.”

(Longfellow 22.88-90)

People in different historical eras need different things, but we can build on the good work that has been done before us. Saint Peter did not want silver and gold. Saint Benedict stressed praying and fasting. Saint Francis was humble.

In Saint Francis’ day, what was needed was humility, and so he was humble. However, he also prayed and fasted, as Saint Benedict recommended. He also did not need silver and gold, just as Saint Peter recommended.

Did Saint Francis build a new church? No, he reformed the old church. He built on the foundations that had been made by others.

At the beginning of the Paradisewe read these words:

The glory of the One Who moves all things

penetrates all the universe, reflecting

in one part more and in another less.

(Musa 1.1-3)

Throughout the universe are things that can lead us back to God. The founders of religious orders whom we see on Saturn are people who have found things that lead us back to God.

Dante is using the wisdom of other people. These contemplatives have found things that can lead us back to God, so why shouldn’t we be aware of and make use of them?

In my opinion, one of the good things that we can do in our lives is to investigate other religious orders and even other religions and see what truth we can find in them.

  • When Dante the Pilgrim enters the constellation of Gemini, he looks back on Earth. What is his reaction to that sight?

Dante and Beatrice enter the constellation of Gemini — that is, the sphere of the fixed stars.

Beatrice tells Dante to look back. He does so:

My vision travelled back through all the spheres,

through seven heavens, and then I saw our globe;

it made me smile, it looked so paltry there.

(Musa 22.133-135)

Of course, “our globe” (Musa 22.134) refers to the Earth.

Dante now sees things from a wider perspective. The things that so concern us here on Earth seem “paltry” (Musa 22.135) from a distance.

Then he turns his eyes to look at the beautiful eyes of Beatrice.

Dante, of course, is going to return to Earth — “the puny threshing-ground that drives / us mad” (Musa 22.151-152). Now, however, he can see it from a wider perspective, a perspective that will be useful when he writes The Divine Comedy.

The Earth is our abode for now, but it is not the center of value of the universe. The center of value of the universe is actually beyond the universe, in the realm in which God dwells.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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PARADISE: CANTO 21  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 22  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 23  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 24  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 27  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 29  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 30  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 31  RETELLING

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