Dante’s Paradise: Canto 20 Retelling — Two Pagans in Paradise (Ripheus and Trajan)

Chapter 20: Jupiter — Two Pagans in Paradise (Ripheus and Trajan)

When the Sun sets, the stars become visible.

When the Eagle had been speaking, it had spoken as one. Now, it fell silent, and Dante became aware again of the individual lights who made up the Eagle.

The lights sang, and the lights grew brighter, and although the song was sweet, Dante was unable later to remember it.

The souls who were the lights loved God, and they expressed their love through their light.

A voice began to speak. The sound started in the body of the Eagle, and it sounded like the murmur of a stream. The sound then took shape in the neck of the Eagle just as music takes shape in the neck of a lute or the opening of a flute.

The sound became a voice, and the Eagle spoke through its beak: “A mortal eagle is able to look directly into the Sun. Look now at my eye. Many lights give me form, but the lights who make up my eye are the brightest and the worthiest.

“The light who makes up the pupil of the eye is David, who was a poet. He also danced before the ark of the covenant. This ark — a sacred chest — contained two tablets: On the two tablets were written the Ten Commandments. David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant is one of the exempla of humility on the first ledge of the Mountain of Purgatory.

“Now he knows the value of his poems. He contributed to them, but the Holy Spirit also contributed to them through David, whose bliss is equal to what he contributed to his poems.

“Five lights form my eyebrow. The light closest to my beak is the Emperor Trajan, who was not proud. He was just. Instead of going to war right away, he first helped a widow whose son had been killed. This story is one of the exempla of humility on the first ledge of the Mountain of Purgatory.

“Now he knows what is the penalty for failing to follow Christ. He learned that during the time that he spent in Limbo before he was permitted to enter Paradise.

“Next in the eyebrow is King Hezekiah of Judah. He learned that he was going to die of illness, but he prayed to God, ‘I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before You in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Your sight.’ God heard his prayer and allowed him to live for fifteen more years. God told him, ‘And I will add to your days fifteen years; and I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the King of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake, and for My servant David’s sake.’

“Now he knows that God’s eternal laws never change — not even when God delays events because of a worthy prayer.

“The next light is the Emperor Constantine, who moved the capital of the Roman Empire east to Constantinople in 330 C.E. His doing this left the popes in charge of Rome and the Western part of the Roman Empire. This move by Constantine was disastrous because it made the popes greedy, although Constantine himself had good motives when he made his donation.

“Now he knows that the evil consequences of his action do not harm his soul because his motive was good when he acted. The evil consequences of an action — as long as one’s motive is good — will not harm one’s soul even if the entire world is destroyed by that action. Good motives will help people get into Paradise, and the bad consequences of actions that people do with a good motive will not keep them out of Paradise.

“The next soul in the eyebrow is King William II the Good, King of Naples and Sicily. He is a son who is better than his father: King William I the Bad. King William II was good to religious institutions and to his people, who mourned his death in 1189 C.E. The Kings who followed him — Charles II of Naples, aka Charles the Lame, aka the Cripple of Jerusalem, and Frederick II of Sicily — were bad.

“Now he knows how much Paradise loves a righteous king.

“The final light in the eyebrow is Ripheus of Troy, whom no one in your world would expect to be here. Ripheus is pre-Christian. He is mentioned very briefly in Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid, which recounts the fall of Troy. Ripheus fought with Aeneas against the conquering Achaeans, and he died defending Troy. Ripheus was the most just of all the Trojans, and he was keenest for what was right. People would not expect to see Ripheus in Paradise because he lived centuries before the time of Christ, and he was not a Jew.

“Now he knows more about God’s grace than any living man, although, even he, who is in Paradise, cannot see to the bottom of the depths of the mind of God.”

The Eagle then sang like a lark singing in the sky, and then it fell silent, happy with the last notes of its beautiful song. The Eagle was happy to reflect God’s glory.

Dante was perplexed. These souls included two Jews, two Christians, and two pagans — or at least they seemed to be pagans. How could two pagans be in Paradise?

Dante asked, “How is this possible?”

The lights flashed, happy with the opportunity to enlighten Dante.

The Eagle said to Dante, “I see that you believe that Trajan and Ripheus are in Paradise. You believe that because I told you that. But you do not see how this is possible. You do not understand the cause of their being in Paradise. To you, the truth is hidden.

“You understand the fact, but not the cause or reason. You need to have the cause or reason explained to you.

“The Kingdom of Heaven can be defeated by fervent love and by vibrant hope. In fact, God wants to be defeated in that way. By suffering defeat, God shows mercy, and by showing mercy, God achieves victory. Defeat suffered on an Earthly battlefield is very much different.

“You do not understand why Trajan and Ripheus, whom you believe to be pagans, can be here in Paradise. Actually, when they left their bodies, they were Christians. Trajan had faith in the feet that had already suffered in the Crucifixion, and Ripheus had faith in the feet that would suffer in the Crucifixion.

“The Roman Emperor Trajan lived after the time of Christ. He died in the year 117 C.E., and he did not prosecute Christians.

“Pope Gregory the Great, who died in 604 C.E., was so impressed by the story of Trajan and the woman whose son had been killed that he prayed so fervently for Trajan that the Roman Emperor was brought back to life and taken from Limbo. While alive for the second time, Trajan accepted Christ, and he then died a Christian.

“After the first time he died, the pagan Trajan went to Limbo, but after the second time he died, the Christian Trajan went to Paradise.

“Ripheus, over a thousand years before Christ, so believed in and loved justice that he received God’s grace, which is so deep that no man can see its bottom.

“Because Ripheus so loved righteousness, God opened his eyes and he became a Christian. He hated the pagan gods and tried to warn the people who worshipped them that they were doing wrong.”

Beatrice thought, The pagan gods were not worthy of being worshipped. The pagan gods were powerful, but they were not omnipotent. The pagan gods knew a lot, but they were not omniscient. The pagans were far from being good. They simply did not care much for human beings. Story after story in ancient mythology recounts the gods raping mortals. If a god is to be worthy of being worshipped, that god must be omnibenevolent, and the pagan gods were not even benevolent. The one true God is omnibenevolent and is worthy of being worshipped. Ripheus realized how bad the pagan gods were and how all-good the one true God is.

The Eagle continued, “Ripheus was baptized more than a thousand years before baptism existed. Those three ladies who were at the right wheel of the chariot — Faith, Hope, and Love — were his baptism. Ripheus believed in faith, hope, and love — the theological virtues — so much that his belief was his baptism. Of course, Ripheus’ culture did not know about baptism.

“Predestination exists. From before the beginning of the existence of the universe, God knew who would be saved and who would not be saved. This does not negate free will. God sees the past, the present, and the future all at the same time, and God sees people use their free will to make decisions freely. To people, predestination is a mystery because they do not see as God sees.

“God exists outside of time and space, and so God knows our every action: past, present, and future. God sees us using our free will to either do the right thing or do the wrong thing.

“Be slow to judge, people who live on Earth. Even we saved souls in Paradise do not know who will be saved. We see into the mind of God, but we do not see so deeply that we know that.

“We are not bothered by our lack of this knowledge. We will what God wills, and we are happy with what God wills.”

And so the eagle responded to Dante’s questions with as much information as he was able to understand.

And the two lights who were Trajan and Ripheus quivered as the Eagle sang a song.

Dante the Poet thought, We have limitations. We are unable to explain the mystery of predestination. We are unable to tell who will wind up in the Inferno and who will wind up in Paradise.

None of us can make up a list of 10 things we have to do to in order to get a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. This doesn’t mean that we don’t know lots of things we ought to do and lots of things we ought not to do if we want to make it to Paradise. But we would be arrogant if we were to tell God that we did such-and-such, and therefore God has to let us into Paradise.

One person who did make a list of things to do in order to get into Paradise is Guido da Montefeltro. His list included Repent and Give Up Sin, but of course he failed miserably at sincerely doing these things. Even though Guido metaphorically made his list and checked off all the items, God knew that Guido was trying to scam Him, and therefore Guido ended up in the Inferno.

Of course, Paradise does have good surprises:

A pagan from the Trojan War is in Paradise!

Someone’s earnest prayer helped save a pagan who was already dead!

And since we can’t figure out such things as Salvation and Predestination, perhaps other excellent surprises are in store for us.

Beatrice thought, God is merciful and omnibenevolent. He is an all-loving God. We have a hard time understanding eternal punishment. Interestingly, some Christian mystics, including Julian of Norwich, and some Christian theologians, including Origen, believe in apocatastasis. They believe that all will be well for everybody in the end. In other words, everybody will make it to Paradise in the end. The word apocatastasis means an upset verdict — someone may have been sentenced to eternal damnation, but if that verdict is upset, then that person will make it to Paradise.

I am in Paradise, and I cannot see deeply enough into the mind of God to know everything that will happen in the future, but if everyone, including the worst sinners of all time, eventually makes it to Paradise, it would be a triumph for Unconditional Love.

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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17 Responses to Dante’s Paradise: Canto 20 Retelling — Two Pagans in Paradise (Ripheus and Trajan)

  1. Pingback: Dante’s PARADISE, Canto 20: BRIGHTEST AND WORTHIEST | davidbruceblog #3

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  4. Pingback: Dante’s PURGATORY, Canto 20: BE SLOW TO JUDGE | davidbruceblog #3

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