This Canto is filled with light and love, including three visions given to Dante the Pilgrim which basically tell him that those struggling with Wrath also need to “lighten up” and let go of the desire to strike back and destroy. Particularly after the venom of Guido in Canto XIV and against the black cloud of wrath which is looming in the last lines of this Canto looking toward the darkness of Canto XVI, this seems to be a place of rest, joy, light and love; an oasis in a hard climb up the Seven Storey Mountain. We have an the Angel of Mercy, so filled with light that it outshines the sun. We have Virgil speaking of love shared in glory, of a loving mother in Mary and a loving, wise father who calms Pisistratus and a forgiving Stephen the Protomartyr.
Let’s walk through a little of this Canto, but again, it is crucial for those of you who wish to truly experience Dante at his finest, to read the primary material with the attached commentary in your own versions. I will not go through these Cantos line by line, creating a commentary that you should have in your own hands already, but I will share what delights and insights I have after reading and re-reading each Canto in several translations.
As a physics and math major in undergraduate school, I was absolutely delighted with Dante the Poet’s aside on the law of reflection he obviously learned this from studying either Euclid or Albert Magnus. It comes in vs. 16 and is used to explain how the light from the sun and the angel struck his eyes so fiercely. [Yes, I’m still the dude that my wife called “Kelby Calculus”…]
16 As, when from water or a mirror, a reflected beam
Come quando da l'acqua o da lo specchio
17 leaps back the other way, rising
salta lo raggio a l'opposita parte,
18 at the angle it took in its descent,
salendo sù per lo modo parecchio
19 and from the plumb line of a stone
a quel che scende, e tanto si diparte
20 will deviate an equal distance,
dal cader de la pietra in igual tratta,
21 as shown by science and experiment,
sì come mostra esperïenza e arte;
Out of all the translations I use, it was John Ciardi’s commentary that got it exactly right, even using an illustration of the law of equal reflection, including the “plumb line” down the middle. In Dante’s universe, the physical laws on earth are taken as seriously as the metaphysical laws of love in heaven, which we will look at later in the Canto.
While the light is almost blinding to him now, Virgil explains to Dante the Pilgrim that he will grow accustomed to it as he sees more and more of these heavenly messengers and remains in God’s ever increasing light filled presence. I wondered, just as an aside, if that might also work in my own spiritual walk; the more I see God’s hand at work in my life and in this world, does that mean it will also increase my capacity to see God in ever more subtle and wonderful ways? Will my eyes grow more discerning? Regardless, it is true that one usually finds only that which one is seeking: try to find evil and it will be discovered everywhere, try to uncover Grace and one is surprised to see that the swamp is filled with fireflies and burgeoning new life.
Carols are sung as Dante the Pilgrim leaves this second level, particularly the beatitude “Blessed are the Merciful” from Matthew 5:7. Mercy is in fact required to be healed of Envy and have that “P” removed from one’s forehead. Thomas Aquinas addresses this directly:
“Envy is the direct opposite of Mercy… for the envious man is saddened by his neighbor’s prosperity, whereas the merciful man is saddened by his neighbor’s misfortune; hence the envious are not merciful, and conversely…” Just an aside, I’ve also found it fascinating that “misericordes” could also be translated as ‘tenderhearted’ or ‘sympathetic,’ qualities that might be more applicable to us in the 21st century.
Now come the lessons from Virgil. Dante the Pilgrim shows how far he still has to go as he struggles to understand Guido’s biting reflection on humanity’s incapacity to share and celebrate in another’s good fortune.
44 'What did the spirit from Romagna mean
"Che volse dir lo spirto di Romagna,
45 when he spoke of things that can't be shared?'
e 'divieto' e 'consorte' menzionando?"
46 He replied: 'Of his worst fault he knows the cost.
Per ch'elli a me: "Di sua maggior magagna
47 Thus it is no wonder he condemns it, in the hope
conosce il danno; e però non s'ammiri
48 that fewer souls will have a reason to lament.
se ne riprende perché men si piagna.
49 'Because your appetites are fixed on things
Perché s'appuntano i vostri disiri
50 that, divided, lessen each one's share…
dove per compagnia parte si scema…
The lesson on reflecting light above is now expanded into the shared light of love which enriches all who participate in it in the celestial realm. This is not about giving a friend a book to read, while all the while reminding the friend not to lose it because it is, in reality, still YOUR book. This is about giving all away and receiving even more back because love increases as it is shared and received.
67 'That infinite and ineffable Good,
Quello infinito e ineffabil bene
68 which dwells on high, speeds toward love
che là sù è, così corre ad amore
69 as a ray of sunlight to a shining body.
com' a lucido corpo raggio vene.
70 'It returns the love it finds in equal measure,
Tanto si dà quanto trova d'ardore;
71 so that, if more of ardor is extended,
sì che, quantunque carità si stende,
72 eternal Goodness will augment Its own.
cresce sovr' essa l'etterno valore.
73 'And the more souls there are who love on high,
E quanta gente più là sù s'intende,
74 the more there is to love, the more of loving,
più v'è da bene amare, e più vi s'ama,
75 for like a mirror each returns it to the other.
e come specchio l'uno a l'altro rende.
The reciprocity of love is all through this section, in the very vocabulary used. “Love” is used in four different ways here, showing us its different sides: amare, ama, amore, carita. The word “piu = more” is used with sharing and reflection and love an astounding eight times in eight lines. One does not loan love based on the quality of the other, but it is totally dependent on the openness of one’s own heart.
“The beings who are first to know God [the highest order of angelic being] and who, more than others, desire the divine virtue have been deemed worthy to become prime workers of the power and activity which imitate God, as far as possible. In their goodness they raise their inferiors to become, so far as possible, their rivals. They ungrudgingly impart to them the glorious ray which has visited them so that their inferiors may pass this on to those yet further below them. Hence, on each level, predecessor hands on to successor whatever of the divine light he has received…” [301C]
Envy has no ground on which to stand in this atmosphere of divine sharing. And we will discover in the lower levels of Paradiso why where one is in the hierarchy of heaven matters not: this is no competition and if one can receive and give love, then one is content.
The next level is all about the sin of Wrath, and we have three visions this time, as opposed to carved statues or shouted lessons. Dante the Pilgrim receives them as he staggers along, blindly, only able to see what is presented to him in these lessons. Briefly, we have this:
The Sin = Wrath
The Cure = Meekness
The Examples = Kin, Friends, Enemies
Virgil basically reminds Dante the Pilgrim that play time is over and they now have to get back to work, for there are five more “P’s” to be erased from his forehead, and the next one is darkly roiling just ahead: WRATH.