Dante’s Paradise: Canto 21 Retelling — Saturn — Symbolic Ladder; Saint Peter Damian

Chapter 21: Saturn — Symbolic Ladder; Saint Peter Damian

Dante looked at Beatrice. Beatrice did not smile.

She explained, “Were I to smile in this new Sphere — Saturn — you would be incinerated because you are not yet able to withstand such beauty. You would be incinerated like Semele was when the Roman god Jupiter appeared to her the way he appears to the other gods.”

Dante thought, One should not be temperate in some things. One is Love. Unconditional Love is not temperate. However, even though Beatrice’s beauty is not temperate — she becomes more and more beautiful the closer she rises to Paradise — she demonstrates temperance in how she handles her beauty. For example, she does not smile at me because she knows that if she were to smile, her beauty would blast me to ashes, the way that Semele was blasted to ashes when she asked Jupiter to reveal himself to her in all his glory. In ancient mythology, mortals cannot look at gods in all their glory and survive. This may be why the gods and goddesses so often disguise themselves as mortals when they come among Humankind.

Beatrice and I have risen to the next Sphere: Saturn, which is the planet of temperance. Temperance means moderation; it means not going to extremes. Temperance is one of the cardinal virtues. The four cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

Saint Thomas Aquinas regarded temperance as the disciplining of our instincts toward pleasure.

He was right.

Eating is pleasurable, but a temperate person will not be obese. Sex is pleasurable, but a temperate person will not be a rapist or engage in other kinds of immoral sex. Drinking wine is pleasurable, but a temperate person will not drink excessively.

Temperance is very important, as is shown by the fact that the planet devoted to temperance is the closest to Paradise of the planets devoted to the four cardinal virtues. Other people of my time probably regard wisdom as being more important than temperance, but I, Dante, believe differently.

Beatrice continued, “My beauty grows greater the closer I am to God. If I did not temper my beauty now, you would not be able to withstand it. Without being tempered, my beauty would hit your eyes in the same way that a lightning bolt hits a tree.”

Beatrice asked Dante to look up.

Dante loved looking at Beatrice’s beauty even though she was not smiling, and he loved even more obeying her. He turned his eyes away from her face and looked up.

Saturn is the name of the ancient Roman god who ruled during a Golden Age. Dante saw a Ladder. It was gold, and Saturn was silver, and the Ladder stretched so far that Dante could not see its end.

Coming down the Ladder were many lights — so many that Dante wondered whether every star in the night sky was coming down the rungs of the Ladder.

Dante thought, Four planets are devoted to the cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Each planet has a symbol.

The Sun is devoted to wisdom. Its symbol is the Circle, which is a symbol of Divine Infinity: Infinite Power, Infinite Knowledge, and Infinite Benevolence.

Mars is devoted to courage. Its symbol is the Cross, which is a symbol of Human Salvation.

Jupiter is devoted to justice. Its symbol is the Eagle, which is a symbol of Earthly Order.

Saturn is devoted to temperance. Its symbol is the Ladder, which is a symbol of Spiritual Vision.

Sometimes, crows will flock together as they warm up in the Sun after dawn. After warming up, they will move separately. Some will fly away and not return. Some will fly away and then come back to where they started. Some will fly in the same area where they warmed up.

Some contemplatives will leave their religious house and return to the world. Some contemplatives will make brief trips to the world and then return to their religious house. Some contemplatives will never leave their religious house.

The souls on the Ladder reached a certain rung, and then they stopped.

But one soul nearby glowed brightly, and Dante said to himself, “From your glowing, I can see the love you bear me, but Beatrice, who bids me when to speak and when not to speak, is quiet, and so I am not asking this soul anything, although I would like to.”

Beatrice, who knew Dante’s thoughts, said to him, “Satisfy your desire to ask questions.”

Dante said to the bright soul, “I am not worthy to receive an answer from you, but for the sake of Beatrice, who gives me permission to ask questions, please tell me the answers to two questions. First, why did you come so close to me? Second, why are no souls singing here although souls have been singing in the Spheres below Saturn?”

The bright soul replied and answered Dante’s second question first, “Because you are mortal, your hearing is limited just as your seeing is limited. The souls do not sing here for the same reason that Beatrice does not smile here. You are unable to withstand such beauty.”

Then the bright soul answered Dante’s second question, “I have come so far down the rungs of the Ladder simply so that I can welcome you. I am not here because I love more than other souls — you can see brighter souls on the rungs of the Ladder.

“But God’s love makes us want to serve others and assigns us deeds to do. This is my assigned deed.”

Dante said to the bright soul, “I understand that saved souls freely serve God and God’s omnibenevolence, but how is it that you alone out of all these souls have been the one predestined to answer my questions?”

The bright soul spun around in joy at being able to speak to Dante, and the bright soul said, “God’s love shines on me and joins my sight, and I can see a vision of God. From this vision of God comes my joy.

“By as much as my spiritual vision is clear, my light will be bright.

“But I cannot explain to you the answer to your question. Even the most enlightened of the Seraphim, who are the highest order of Angels and the order of Angels closest to God, cannot answer your question. The explanation you seek is hidden deep in the mind of God — so deep that no human being should seek its answer.

“A mind that is bright in Paradise is dull on Earth. How then could a human being on Earth discover an answer that a soul in Paradise cannot find?”

Dante knew that the bright soul could not answer this question, and so he humbly asked who the bright soul was.

The bright soul answered, “In Italy is the monastery of Santa Croce di Fonte Avella. In my time, it devoted itself to praising God. I served God there, and I ate nothing but plain foods prepared with inexpensive olive oil. I welcomed both heat and cold, and I contemplated God.

“This monastery produced many souls who are in Paradise, but now this monastery is decadent.

“At this monastery I was known as Peter Damian, but at Santa Maria in Porto I was known as Peter the Sinner.

“Not many years on Earth were left to me when Pope Stephen IX made me wear the hat of a cardinal — a hat that seems to pass from bad people to worse people.

“In the early days of the Church, Simon became Cephas, aka Peter. He was lean, and he was barefoot, and he ate whatever food was offered to him. Saint Peter was temperate.

“But modern popes and cardinals need help from many people to push their big butts — grown huge from too much food — up on horses. Modern popes and cardinals are so big-butted and so big in body that when they are on a horse their clothing covers the horse so that it looks like one being is under the clothing.

“God endures so much!”

When Peter Damian said these words, many souls joined him, and all the souls cried out. No one on Earth has heard such an outcry, and the outcry was so loud that Dante could not make out the words of the outcry.

Dante thought, On Saturn, the planet of temperance, we find contemplatives such as Peter Damian. On Earth, the contemplatives contemplate God, and they may occasionally enjoy a direct experience of God.

Peter Damian was a great contemplative who was called away from the contemplative life. He lived in the 11th century C.E., and he was a contemplative who was forced to become a cardinal although he did not want to; instead, he wanted to remain a contemplative.

Pope Stephen IX made Peter Damian a cardinal because the Pope wanted a contemplative such as Peter Damian to help him reform the Church. Contemplatives have the ability to reform. Both Peter Damian and Pope Stephen IX supported the Gregorian Reform.

Because Pope Stephen IX wanted to reform the Church, he found the best man for the job, and he made him a cardinal. (Of course, other reformers existed.) A Simonist pope such as Pope Boniface VIII would have made cardinal whoever offered him the greatest amount of money.

Compare the people who are made cardinals in the two systems. A Simonist wants to be made cardinal but is not qualified to be a cardinal. Peter Damian is qualified to be a cardinal, but he resists being made cardinal until he is convinced that he can do a lot of good as cardinal.

Why are contemplatives so often a good choice for reforming the Church?

Contemplatives are temperate. They do not overindulge in food, sex, or wine.

Why is temperance so important? Temperance is important if we are to develop and use our other virtues. Temperance is a foundation for the other cardinal virtues.

Let’s say that you are addicted to food, sex, and wine. Will you be wise, brave, and just?

If you are drunk all the time, you won’t read books or study or think much.

If you eat way too much, you won’t be able to rescue a child from a burning house because you will be too fat to climb in the window so you can rescue the child.

If you are addicted to sex, you won’t be a just judge because all a pretty (or handsome) defendant has to do to get a verdict of “innocent” is to sleep with you.

Contemplatives, being temperate, avoid these pitfalls, and they keep their eye on the prize.

Beatrice thought, Peter Damian is a model for Dante to follow. Peter Damian was a contemplative who was able to experience God, but he left the contemplative life because the Pope needed him to help reform the Church. Similarly, Dante is going to be able to experience God. This will be his own kind of contemplative experience. However, like Peter Damian, Dante is going to have to leave. He is not ready to stay in Paradise. Instead, Dante has work to accomplish on Earth: He has to write The Divine Comedy. Later, after his death, is the time for Dante to stay in Paradise permanently. Like Peter Damian, Dante will be a reformer.

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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