“Canto 33: Mystic Empyrean — Saint Bernard prays to Mary; The Trinity and Christ’s Dual Nature”
- What does Saint Bernard do at the beginning of Canto 33?
We are now at the end of The Divine Comedy. This is Canto 33 of the Paradise, and it is Canto 100 of The Divine Comedy.
Saint Bernard’s purpose as a guide is to prepare Dante to look at God. So far, Dante has seen God from a distance, but he has not seen God fully. He has not seen God as the Trinity.
Now that Saint Bernard has prepared Dante to see God, he now prays to Mary. It will be through Mary’s intercession that Dante is able to see God.
Saint Bernard was important in the Middle Ages in part because of his devotion to Mary, so he is a good choice to pray to Mary and to praise her.
Saint Bernard’s monastic order is that of the Cistercians. Supposedly, the white robes of the Cistercian order came from Mary, who gave them to Saint Bernard.
- Which kind of language does Saint Bernard use in the beginning of his prayer to Mary?
The language that Saint Bernard uses in his prayer to Mary is the language of paradox:
“Oh Virgin Mother, daughter of your son,
most humble, most exalted of all creatures
chosen of God in His eternal plan,”
Actually, we have a trinity of paradoxes in these first two lines of Saint Bernard’s prayer:
- “Virgin Mother” (Musa 33.1)
- “daughter of your son” (Musa 33.1)
- “most humble, most exalted of all creatures” (Musa 33.2)
This is a definition of paradox:
In literature, the paradox is an anomalous juxtaposition of incongruous ideas for the sake of striking exposition or unexpected insight.
The language of paradox is not the language that we use in everyday life. Dante must use a new kind of language because of the things that he is trying to describe at the end of The Divine Comedy.
Dante is trying to describe the “ineffable” — something that cannot be described adequately in words. In other words, he is trying to eff the ineffable, and to do that, he has to use language that is not ordinary language.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux also tells Mary who Dante is, and in a brief six lines, we get the story of The Divine Comedyso far:
“Now doth this man, who from the lowest depth
Of the universe as far as here has seen
One after one the spiritual lives,
Supplicate thee through grace for so much power
That with his eyes he may uplift himself
Higher towards the uttermost salvation.”
- For what does Saint Bernard ask in his prayer to Mary?
Saint Bernard is asking Mary for a favor, but a favor for Dante, not for himself.
Saint Bernard prays that Dante be allowed to see God face to face.
In his prayer to Mary, Saint Bernard says that he burns to help Dante:
“And I, who never burned for my own seeing
More than I do for his, all of my prayers
Proffer to thee, and pray they come not short,
That thou wouldst scatter from him every cloud
Of his mortality so with thy prayers,
That the Chief Pleasure be to him displayed.”
Saint Bernard also prays that Dante be protected when he returns to Earth as a living man:
“Still farther do I pray thee, Queen, who canst
Whate’er thou wilt, that sound thou mayst preserve
After so great a vision his affections.
Let thy protection conquer human movements;
See Beatrice and all the blessed ones
My prayers to second clasp their hands to thee!”
Here we see again just how helpful the souls in Paradise are.
The last time that Beatrice is referred to in The Divine Comedy, she is adding her prayer to that of Saint Bernard. Beatrice — and the other souls in Paradise — are praying to Mary that she allow him to see God face to face.
- Why is Dante the Poet unable to explain everything he sees in Canto 33?
Dante is now back on Earth writing The Divine Comedyand trying to remember what he saw in his final moments in Paradise, something that is difficult for him to do.
Two themes in this section of the last canto of The Divine Comedyare these:
- The inadequacy of language.
- The inadequacy of memory.
Both language and his memory fail Dante as he tries to describe the sight of God.
Dante the Poet writes:
One instant brings me more forgetfulness
than five and twenty centuries brought the quest
that stunned Neptune when he saw Argo’s keel.
In one instant, Dante forgot very much of his vision. He forgot in that one instant more than the sea-god Neptune has forgotten in the 2,500 years since he saw the Argo, the first ship, which was captained by Jason.
The sight of the Argowas remarkable to Neptune, and the sight of God was remarkable to Dante.
- How is Dante similar to Jason?
Jason in the Argowas in quest of something remarkable — the Golden Fleece. In The Divine Comedy, Dante has been in quest of something remarkable — the sight of God.
The ram with the Golden Fleece rescued a child: Phrixus, the son of Athamas and Nephele in southeastern Greece. Athamas had married Nephele, and she bore him two children: a son named Phrixus and a daughter named Helle. But Athamas ceased to love Nephele, and he married Ino. Nephele left. Ino was a cruel stepmother to Phrixus and Helle, and she plotted against them and wanted them to die. Nephele returned to rescue her children. She sent them a winged ram whose fleece was made of gold. Phrixus and Helle climbed on top of the ram, which flew them over the sea. Unfortunately, Helle fell off the ram into the sea, which thereafter was called the Hellespont in honor of her. The ram carried Phrixus from Greece to Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Phrixus lived there in the palace of King Aeetes, and he sacrificed the ram to the sea-god Poseidon. He skinned the ram and hung its Golden Fleece on a tree where a huge snake guarded it. This is the Golden Fleece that Jason and the heroes who sailed with him sought.
One of the things that Jason did was not just go in search of the Golden Fleece — he brought it back with him. Dante has also brought back something from his journey. Dante has brought back the knowledge that resulted in the creation of The Divine Comedy.
To create The Divine Comedy, of course, Dante needs the right language. This is something that he prays for:
O Light Supreme, that dost so far uplift thee
From the conceits of mortals, to my mind
Of what thou didst appear re-lend a little,
And make my tongue of so great puissance,
That but a single sparkle of thy glory
It may bequeath unto the future people;
For by returning to my memory somewhat,
And by a little sounding in these verses,
More of thy victory shall be conceived!
Like Saint Bernard, Dante prays for something that will benefit someone other than himself. The Divine Comedywill benefit the many people who will read it seriously.
- What is Dante’s job when he returns to his Earthly existence?
What does Dante see when he experiences God’s presence? He writes,
I saw how it contains within its depths
all things bound in a single book by love
of which creation is the scattered leaves:
“All things” refers to the universe.
Dante’s job back on Earth is to write The Divine Comedy. In doing so, he will be describing all of the afterlife.
- Can Dante adequately describe what he saw?
Again, Dante talks about the inadequacy of his words to describe ultimate reality:
Shorter henceforward will my language fall
Of what I yet remember, than an infant’s
Who still his tongue doth moisten at the breast.
What is Dante’s opinion of the words he uses to describe ultimate reality? They are like baby-talk.
The Divine Comedy is one of the greatest poems ever written. It is over 14,000 lines long. Yet Dante says that the part of it that describes his vision of God is baby-talk!
- When we are in Paradise, we will experience God. That experience will never grow boring because God is infinite.
Paradise will not be boring. When saved souls are in Paradise, they will experience God. That experience will never grow boring:
Not that within the Living Light there was
more than the sole aspect of the Divine
which always is what It has always been.
yet as I learned to see more, and the power
of vision grew in me, that single aspect
as I changed, seemed to me to change Itself.
Not only is God infinite, but also we continue to grow in Paradise. We grow more and more able to experience God.
Of course, God is perfect, and God never changes, but our experience of God can change.
Similarly, our experience of great works of literature such as The Divine Comedycan change, even though the words of The Divine Comedyremain the same. Students often prefer the Inferno, perhaps because they are sinning. Middle-aged adults such as myself often prefer the Purgatory, perhaps because we are regretting our sins. Religious people such as nuns and priests often prefer the Paradise, perhaps because they are readying themselves to see God.
Of course, The Divine Comedyis not scripture, although I am sure that God would approve of The Divine Comedy.
Here Dante attempts to describe his vision, even though he says that his words are like baby-talk:
Within Its depthless clarity of substance
I saw the Great Light shine into three circles
in three clear colors bound in one same space;
the first seemed to reflect the next like rainbow
on rainbow, and the third was like a flame
equally breathed forth by the other two.
Here Dante attempts to describe his vision of the Trinity. God is Three, and yet God is One. God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and together they are One God.
In addition, Dante attempts to describe his vision of the incarnation of Christ. In the Incarnation, Christ assumed bodily form.
Of course, Dante is well aware that his words are inadequate to describe what he saw:
O how all speech is feeble and falls short
Of my conceit, and this to what I saw
Is such, ’tis not enough to call it little!
O Light Eterne, sole in thyself that dwellest,
Sole knowest thyself, and, known unto thyself
And knowing, lovest and smilest on thyself!
That circulation, which being thus conceived
Appeared in thee as a reflected light,
When somewhat contemplated by mine eyes,
Within itself, of its own very colour
Seemed to me painted with our effigy,
Wherefore my sight was all absorbed therein.
Christ in His incarnation was fully human and fully divine. This is what Dante sees when he sees “man’s very image” (Musa 33.131) when he looks at the Trinity.
Of course, the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ are Mysteries: These are things that human reason cannot comprehend. Dante writes,
As the geometrician, who endeavours
To square the circle, and discovers not,
By taking thought, the principle he wants,
Even such was I at that new apparition;
I wished to see how the image to the circle
Conformed itself, and how it there finds place;
Squaring the circle is a traditional Greek mathematical problem. This information comes from Wikipedia:
Squaring the circleis a problem proposed by ancientgeometers. It is the challenge to construct a squarewith the same area as a given circleby using only a finite number of steps with compass and straightedge. More abstractly and more precisely, it may be taken to ask whether specified axiomsof Euclidean geometryconcerning the existence of lines and circles entail the existence of such a square.
In 1882, the task was proven to be impossible, as a consequence of the Lindemann–Weierstrass theoremwhich proves that pi[…] is a transcendental, rather than algebraic irrational number; that is, it is not the rootof any polynomialwith rational coefficients. It had been known for some decades before then that if[pi] weretranscendental then the construction would be impossible, but that [pi] istranscendental was not proven until 1882. Approximate squaring to any given non-perfect accuracy, on the other hand, is possible in a finite number of steps, as a consequence of the fact that there are rational numbers arbitrarily close to [pi].
Date Downloaded: 27 December 2008
Both the square and the circle are symbols. The circle is a symbol for the infinite, and the square is a circle for the human.
Dante is unable to understand what he sees on his own, but he receives divine help:
But my own wings were not enough for this,
Had it not been that then my mind there smote
A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.
Dante ends his poem with these words:
Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
Dante has had a mystical, ineffable experience, but he is able to say about his experience that God is Love and God is “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Musa 33.144).
All three canticles end with the word “stars.” The Paradiseends with Dante’s vision of God. This is the best place to end The Divine Comedy.
This vision of God gives Dante the authority to write The Divine Comedy. Without this vision of God, Dante would probably not be able to write The Divine Comedy.
- When you finish reading The Divine Comedy, you are now ready to read The Divine Comedy.
Dante scholars William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman say this about Dante’s Divine Comedy, “[w]hen you finish reading The Divine Comedy, you are now ready to read The Divine Comedy” (Dante’sDivine Comedy, Part 2, p. 194).
What they mean by that is something that is true of all great books. Each time you read a great book, you can learn more from it. This is very true of The Divine Comedy. For example, you have to read all of The Divine Comedyto understand it. Anyone who reads only Dante’s Infernowill have an incomplete picture of the entire Divine Comedy. For example, if you read only Dante’s Inferno, you have only an incomplete picture of Dante’s treatment of lust, which he addresses in the Inferno, but also in the Purgatoryand the Paradise.
Having been through The Divine Comedy, you are now ready to read it again. This time when you read the Inferno, you will know that you are getting only part of the story. You will be able to read the Infernowith knowledge of what the Purgatoryand the Paradisesay. You will be able to re-read The Divine Comedyand continue to make connections among the three canticles.
You have used this discussion guide as a guide to the epic poem, and approaching a major work of literature such as The Divine Comedywith a guide can be a good idea, but now you can approach the epic poem on your own.
William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman have had interesting experiences through the years of seeing how that has, in fact, taken place with some of Dante’s readers (their students). Cook and Herzman taught the Divine Comedyinside a maximum-security prison, at Attica Correctional Facility. This poem had a great impact on the prisoners who had read it, and it had the greatest impact on prisoners who were not Christian, but who instead were Muslims. These are people who were able to make The Divine Comedyan important part of their experience.
- Your favorite part of The Divine Comedydepends on who you are. Your favorite part can change over time.
Re-reading The Divine Comedyat various points in your life can be rewarding because you can bring your own experiences to The Divine Comedy. As I have mentioned before, young people tend to respond especially to the Inferno, and middle-aged people (and inmates) tend to respond especially to the Purgatory. And religious people tend to respond especially to the Paradise.
- If you read The Divine Comedy once, have you really read it?
The Divine Comedy is one of those books that repay re-readings.
Poet T.S. Eliot once met novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Their hostess showed Mr. Eliot a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedyand said that she had read it. Mr. Eliot corrected her: “You have begun to read it.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
DANTE PDFs and LINKs
INFERNO KINDLE EBOOK
INFERNO SMASHWORDS (EBOOKS)
PURGATORY KINDLE EBOOK
PURGATORY SMASHWORDS (EBOOKS)
PARADISE KINDLE EBOOK
PARADISE SMASHWORDS (EBOOKS)
DIVINE COMEDY KINDLE EBOOK
DIVINE COMEDY SMASHWORDS (EBOOKS)
DIVINE COMEDY PAPERBACK
Here are links to my retellings of Dante’s Inferno,Purgatoryand Paradise.
PURGATORY: CANTO 1 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 2 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 3 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 4 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 5 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 6 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 7 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 8 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 9 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 10 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 11 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 12 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 13 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 14 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 15 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 16 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 17 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 18 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 19 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 20 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 21 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 22 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 23 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 24 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 25 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 26 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 27 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 28 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 29 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 30 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 31 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 32 RETELLING
PURGATORY: CANTO 33 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 1 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 2 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 3 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 4 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 5 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 6 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 7 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 8 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 9 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 10 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 11 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 12 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 13 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 14 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 15 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 16 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 17 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 18 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 19 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 22 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 23 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 24 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 25 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 26 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 27 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 28 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 29 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 30 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 31 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 32 RETELLING
PARADISE: CANTO 33 RETELLING