The Divine Comedy, Part 3: Paradise (Penguin Classics)

Paradiso - Dante Alighieri, Dorothy L. Sayers, Barbara Reynolds The "Paradiso" is the climax of Dante's great "Commedia". This is what we've been waiting for since we opened to page one of "Inferno". And what do we find here? Many, it would seem, find disappointment and boredom. After the horror and close calls in "Inferno" and the gruesome purgations and labor of "Purgatorio", Dante now proceeds upward through increasing beauty and light until he comes to be in the very presence of God, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That's it. At first glance it seems to be a bit of a let down. No action, no suspense, only increasing bliss. How dull it all seems, but is it really? The typical modern reaction to Dante's final book says less about the "Paradiso" and more about our understanding of theology, God, and Heaven.Even among Christians, there is a tendency today to misunderstand the point of Heaven. We talk about the wonders we will encounter, the joy of being reunited with loved ones in a sinless state, the meaning of vocation in eternity (judging angels, etc), and so on. True and desirable as these things may be, they fall short of the mark. The real goal of heaven, the end for which we strive is not a family reunion, but to be united with God Himself. He is the prize, the reward for all of Christ's and our sufferings. The saints in Purgatory long to be with God, not with each other. Beatrice, the personification of theology and the symbol of God's beauty is not what Dante is really looking for. She eventually steps aside to allow Dante to move closer to God, and so great is his desire for God at this point that he does not really miss her. If I may use an illustration, the first time I visited the Louvre, I went very early to beat the crowd and was among the first 100 or so people to enter the museum. Wanting to see the Mona Lisa without having to wade through a crowd, I made a beeline through the Grand Gallery for her. The gallery was empty except for me and my wife, and as we made our way down, ignoring the masterpieces on either side of us, the staircase at the far end of the gallery slowly revealed a statue. It was the "Winged Victory" of Samothrace. I did not know she was there and her appearance was a complete surprise to me. I was so overpowered by her sudden appearance and her great beauty that I almost fell down weeping. I wanted to forget the Mona Lisa and stay by Winged Victory and drink her in. I think that this, in the most infinitely small way, is similar to the way in which God's appearance to us in Paradise will affect us. We will be overwhelmed by His beauty, glory, and splendor. An eternity will not be too long a period of time to dwell on HIm and drink Him in. This is what Dante understood about God that so many of us have forgotten. This is the point of the "Paradiso". There is suspense, there is action here, but of a different sort than we have been taught to expect by our action-movie glutted society. The suspense comes from the anticipation of the final consummation of the soul with God. As Dante ascends through each of the heavens, the sense of anticipation grows. The feeling is like that of a child waiting for Christmas. Every day it gets closer and the suspense grows until they are ready to burst with excitement on Christmas Eve. So it is with Dante as he gets closer to God. His soul is overwhelmed, he is so anxious to get there he does not even realize that Beatrice is gone until her absence is pointed out to him. And then the event finally arrives. Words fail him completely as the mystery of the Trinity is revealed to him, just like the child on Christmas morning is so wrapped up in the moment they cannot find words to express their joy. Even better, it is like the anticipation felt by a bride or groom as their wedding day approaches. As the day draws near the hours drag by and the couple feel as though they might burst from the pending excitement. Then the hour arrives, the bride comes down the aisle, and there are no words the groom can utter to express the delight he experiences when her hand is placed in his. This is the best I can do. Words fail me in trying to describe the "Commedia" and what it has meant to me. I could exhaust superlatives, but to what end? Hundreds of books have been written on the "Commedia" by greater minds than mine and their works put my poor efforts to shame. Hopefully, though, I have encouraged someone out there to look into reading the "Commedia", or have encouraged someone who read it but might feel a little isolated in their appreciation of it.