Dante’s Paradise: Canto 3 Retelling —Piccarda and the Empress Constance (Unfulfilment of Religious Vows)

Chapter 3: Moon — Piccarda and the Empress Constance (Unfulfilment of Religious Vows)

Dante was happy with what he had learned from Beatrice, and he raised his eyes, thinking to speak to her. But immediately he saw before him, vaguely, faces. The faces were indistinct; looking at each face was like looking at a pearl lying against pearly white skin.

Dante looked behind him, thinking that they were reflections. In doing so, he made a mistake that was the opposite of the mistake Narcissus had made. Narcissus had seen his own reflection in a pool of water, and he fell in love with it, mistaking a reflection for a real thing. Dante, however, mistook what is real for reflections. The faces really were in front of him, pale and indistinct as they were.

Beatrice saw Dante turn around. She smiled and said to him, “Don’t be surprised at my smiling at your mistake. The evidence is in front of your eyes, but you do not believe it. You look in back of yourself although nothing is there to see. The faces you see in front of you really are in front of you. They are here because they broke their vows. They are here so that you may learn from them. Speak to them. Believe what they say. They are perfected souls who are blessed by God, and they will not mislead you.”

Dante faced the souls, and to the soul who seemed most anxious to talk to him he said, “Soul, you who are well created and who enjoy Paradise and endless life, things whose goodness cannot be truly known until they are experienced, please tell me who you are and please tell me your fate.”

The soul, happy, replied, “We are filled with love, as is our Creator, and we will happily respond to a just request such as the one that you have made.

“I was a nun: a virgin sister. Think, and remember, and you will find that you know me. You have not recognized me because I am more beautiful than ever I was on Earth. I am Piccarda.”

Dante thought, Indeed, I remember you, Piccarda. You are a member of the Donati family, whom I know well in Florence. Your brother is Forese Donati, who while alive exchanged comic insult poems with me. I recently saw Forese being purged of gluttony on ledge six of the Mountain of Purgatory. Cianfa Donati, another member of the Donati family, is among the thieves in the Inferno. Forese told me that Corso, his brother, will end up in Hell. Obviously, your family does not get you into Heaven or Hell; your own freely willed actions do that.

Piccarda continued, “I and the other souls appear here because we failed to keep our vows in some way. We promised something, and we did not do what we promised.”

Dante thought, You were a nun, Piccarda, but your evil brother, Corso, forced you to leave your religious order and get married. You made a vow as a nun, but because of Corso you could not keep your vow. You had entered a nunnery, but Corso, who is both a brute and your brother, forced you to leave the nunnery and make a political marriage — a marriage that politically benefited Corso.

Beatrice thought, Corso, Piccarda’s brother, is the leader of the Black Guelfs in Florence, and he is the person who will persuade Pope Boniface VIII to send Charles of Valois and his troops to Florence — the military action that will lead to the exile of Dante from Florence. Corso will attempt to gain control of Florence, but he will fail. He will be captured, and when he tries to escape, he will take a spear to the throat and die. He will die on 6 October 1308.

Piccarda continued, “I and the other souls you see are appearing here on the Moon, which is the slowest Sphere.”

Beatrice thought, The closer a Sphere is to the Earth, according to Dante’s medieval beliefs, the slower it moves. The Moon is the closest to the Earth, and therefore it moves the slowest. The Primum Mobile is the furthest away from the Earth, and therefore it moves the fastest.

Piccarda continued, “We are in the slowest Sphere, and we are happy to be here because this is where God put us. We are here because of our failure to keep our vows in some way.”

Dante replied, “Your face is transformed. It glows and is brilliant and is more beautiful than it was on Earth. I did not recognize you until you spoke to me, but now I remember and know you. Please tell me something. All of you souls I see here are happy, and all of you souls are in the slowest and the lowest Sphere. Do any of you wish to be in a higher Sphere? Do any of you wish to be higher in Paradise?”

Piccarda and the other souls smiled, and Piccarda, as happy as a woman newly in love, said, “We want only what we have, nothing more. We want only what God gives us. Our desires are aligned with the will of God. If we wished to be higher in Paradise, then our desires would not be aligned with the will of God, and we would not be perfected souls.

“Think about love and what it is. To be here is to exist in Love. All who are in Paradise exist in Love. Our will and God’s will are perfectly aligned, and we feel Perfect Love. All in Paradise are happy with whichever heavenly Sphere they are associated. We find our peace in the will of God. Everyone in Paradise is perfectly happy and blissful. All of us souls experience all the happiness that we are capable of experiencing.”

Dante knew then that all of the Spheres reflect God’s glory. He also knew that in some Spheres God’s glory can be seen more clearly and in some Spheres God’s glory can be seen less clearly. Dante also knew that no one needs to have a perfect life on Earth to be in Paradise later. If people would need to be perfect on Earth in order to be in Paradise later, Paradise would be empty. Nevertheless, Paradise is a meritocracy.

Dante asked Piccarda for more details about her unfulfilled vow.

Piccarda responded, “Saint Clare, the founder of the Franciscan Order of Poor Clares, inspired me to become a nun in her order. She had been a noblewoman of wealth and beauty, and in 1212, she and Saint Francis founded the first Franciscan convent for women. Saint Clare had great virtue, and she is in the Mystic Empyrean with God. I left mundane things to follow her, and I joined the Poor Clares. I resided in the convent, and I made a religious vow to be a nun for the rest of my life. But men, led by my brother Corso, all of whom understood hate more than they understood love, took me — by force — from the convent. Corso forced me to marry to seal a political alliance that would benefit him.

“This soul to my right also experiences the love of God, and she also experienced what I experienced on Earth. She, also, was a nun. She, also, was forced to leave the convent. She, also, was forced to marry. Even though she was forced to do all these things, she wore — in her heart — the habit of a nun. This soul on Earth was the Empress Constance. Her father-in-law was Frederick Barbarossa. Her son is the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Her grandson is Manfred.”

Dante thought, Constance, of course, is in Paradise, but her son, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, is in the Inferno with the other heretics. Constance’s grandson, Manfred, is among the Late Repentant (in the group of the excommunicated) in AntePurgatoryPrepurgatory. Once again, we see that family does not determine where you end up in the afterlife. Also, we see an Empress side by side with a member of the Florentine middle class. In Paradise, royalty and commoners mix.

Having finished speaking, Piccarda sang “Ave Maria”:

“Hail, Mary,

“Full of grace,

“The Lord is with you.

“Blessed are you

“And blessed

“Is the fruit of your womb.

“Holy Mary,

“Mother of God,

“Pray for us

“Sinners

“Now and in

“The hour of our death.”

Singing, she disappeared as if sinking into deep water.

Dante turned to Beatrice, but she was shining so brightly that he could not look at her, and so he found it difficult to ask her questions.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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