Dante’s Paradise: Canto 22 Retelling — Saturn — Saint Benedict

Chapter 22: Saturn — Saint Benedict

Shocked by the cry of the souls, Dante turned toward Beatrice the way a little boy runs to his mother when he is startled.

Beatrice calmed Dante just like a mother would calm a son.

She said to him, “You are in Paradise, and here every act is correct. You have heard a cry of righteous zeal. Think now of what would have happened if these souls had sang or if I had smiled — all these souls did was to give a single cry of righteous zeal, and you are shaken.

“You were unable to make out the words they cried, but if you had you would know the vengeance that God will wreak against the religious who are unworthy. But I will tell you that you will witness that vengeance while you are still alive.

“God’s vengeance arrives at exactly the right time, although the guilty think it arrives too early and the innocent think it arrives too late.

“But now look at the souls again. Let me speak to you and guide your eyes so that you see many remarkable souls.”

Dante turned and saw hundreds of bright globes of fire; each globe was a soul. Dante restrained himself and did not speak. He wanted to speak, but he did not want to risk offending Beatrice or anyone else. He was like a Benedictine monk who would not speak until spoken to.

Then the largest, most brilliant light came forward and spoke to Dante. This light knew that Dante wanted information, and this light was willing to help Dante.

The light said to Dante, “If you knew the love we souls have for you, you would speak to us and share your thoughts. I know you have a question. Let me answer it without your asking it so that I do not cause you delay and so that you may continue your journey through Paradise.

“Monte Cassino in Italy was filled with pagans while I was alive. I was the first to be a missionary to them and teach them about Jesus Christ and the One True God.

“Grace shone on me, and I was successful as a missionary. I reclaimed for God many towns in the region. I converted the pagans to Christianity.

“The flames — the lights — around me were all contemplatives. They experienced the Divine Love that brings forth good thoughts and good deeds.”

Dante thought, This soul is Saint Benedict, and he was a sixth-century Italian monk. He is a contemplative; in fact, he is known as the founder of Western monasticism. He founded a monastery at Monte Cassino. Lots of pagans were around Monte Cassino when Saint Benedict founded his monastery there, and so Saint Benedict acted as a missionary, converting pagans to Christianity. In the Rule of Saint Benedict, which most Western Catholic monks follow, the monks are contemplatives, they live in a cloister, and they pray in a group many times a day.

Saint Benedict continued, “These two souls here are Saint Macarius the Younger of Alexandria, who died in 404 C.E. and is known as the founder of Eastern monasticism, and Saint Romuald, who died in 1027 C.E. and helped reform Benedictinism in the 11st century. He is known as the founder of the order of Reformed Benedictines.

“And here are my brother monks who stayed in cloisters and kept a good heart.”

Dante said to Saint Benedict, “Thank you for the love you have shown me by speaking to me, and thank you for all of your good intentions. You make me feel confident enough to ask you a question: Do I have enough grace to be able to see your face instead of this light?”

Saint Benedict replied, “Your desire will be fulfilled, but not in this Sphere. In the Mystic Empyrean you will be able to see my face and the faces of the other saved souls. At that time and in that space — in the Mystic Empyrean that is beyond time and space — all wishes are good and all wishes are fulfilled. Only in the Mystic Empyrean are all wishes perfect, ripe, and whole.

“Only in the Mystic Empyrean are no space and no time. The Ladder reaches to the Mystic Empyrean, and so you cannot see the end of the Ladder. Jacob is the one who dreamed about the Ladder reaching to the Mystic Empyrean and about Angels climbing it.”

Dante thought, The Ladder is a symbol of communication between God and Humankind. We read the story of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28:12-16. Jacob dreamed, and he saw a Ladder set up on the Earth, and the top of it reached to Paradise. He saw the Angels of God ascending and descending on it. The Ladder is also a symbol of Spiritual Vision. Each rung of the Ladder represents knowledge of the Divine that the contemplative has achieved.

Saint Benedict continued, “But these days no one attempts to climb the Ladder. To do so would require lifting a foot from off the Earth, and this is something that people these days regard as asking too much.

“I wrote the Regula Monachorum, but since no one follows these rules, they are not worth the parchment they are written on — and neither is my Order.

“The cells that used to be for monks in my Order are now stalls for beasts.

“The cowls that monks in my Order used to wear are now rotten bags of rotten meal.

“The sin of usury is a serious sin, but even worse in God’s eyes is the desire for money that makes monks insane. The monks desire money that is supposed to be used for the poor; the monks want to use the money for the monks’ illegitimate children and mistresses.

“Many monks start out well but are soon corrupted. To flourish, monks must have the proper conditions. Their good beginning must last longer than it takes an oak tree to form an acorn.

“Look at how people build faith. Peter built faith without silver and gold. I built faith with praying and fasting. Saint Francis built faith with humbleness.”

Dante thought, Saint Benedict was a great missionary. Why? He was a contemplative. Contemplatives pray, and they have discipline. They have roots in spiritual discipline.

It is a good idea for us to be also rooted in spiritual discipline. If we want to make positive changes in the world, we need to have good roots.

We can build on the work of others. People in different historical eras need different things, but we can build on the good work that has been done before us. Saint Peter did not want silver and gold. Saint Benedict stressed praying and fasting. Saint Francis was humble.

In Saint Francis’ day, what was needed was humility, and so he was humble. However, he also prayed and fasted, just as Saint Benedict recommended. He also did not need silver and gold, just as Saint Peter recommended.

Did Saint Francis build a new church? No. He reformed the old church. He built on the foundations that had been made by others.

Throughout the universe are things that can lead us back to God. The founders of religious orders that I see on Saturn are people who have found things that lead us back to God.

We need to use the wisdom of other people. These contemplatives have found things that can lead us back to God, so why shouldn’t we be aware of and make use of them? One of the good things that we can do in our lives is to investigate different religious orders and see what truth we can find in them.

Saint Benedict continued, “The Church needs intervention to be saved. Divine interventions have occurred before. God made the Jordan flow backwards, and he parted the Red Sea so that the Jews could escape from Egypt. These Divine interventions are much greater than the intervention that is now needed to save the Church.”

Saint Benedict then withdrew, and he and the other souls swept up the Ladder like a whirlwind.

Beatrice made a gesture, and she and Dante swept up the Ladder. Her gesture made Dante’s body light.

Their movement up the Ladder was fast, much faster than the speeds achieved by Humankind on Earth.

As quickly as you can remove a finger from the heat of a fire, Dante and Beatrice had risen to the next Sphere: that of the Fixed Stars. The planets move around the night sky, but the Fixed Stars are fixed into position and do not move relative to each other.

Dante and Beatrice entered the constellation of Gemini. In Dante’s time, the stars and planets were thought to influence those born in their sign. Dante was born a Gemini. The people of Dante’s time thought that Geminis are inclined to pursue the arts and intellectual endeavors.

Dante was happy to enter his own sign when he entered the Sphere of the Fixed Stars. He knew that soon he would pass beyond this Sphere into the Mystic Empyrean.

Beatrice said to him, “You are very close now to your destination. You will see the final blessedness, so work now to keep your vision clear.

“Look back now at the distance we have traveled. We have crossed the universe. Look back now, and soon you will know much joy.”

Dante looked back, and he saw all of the Spheres that he and Beatrice had visited, and he saw the Earth, which looked so paltry that he smiled.

He thought, In the grand scheme of things, the Earth is not worth much. The best minds will not value it highly, and the wisest men will think about things other than the Earth. The Earth is our abode for now, but it is not the center of value of the universe. The center of value of the universe is actually beyond the universe, in the realm in which God dwells.

Dante looked at the Moon; on this side, the side not facing the Earth, it had no spots. He looked straight at and into the Sun without hurting his eyes. He saw Mercury and Venus, which were very close to the Sun. He saw Jupiter, which was temperate in between the heat of Mars and the coolness of Saturn. He was able to see how these planets moved.

He saw all seven planets that were known by medieval people. He saw that they were vast. He saw that they spun swiftly. He saw the distance between their Spheres.

He saw the Earth: a patch of dust on which Humankind commits sins.

And then he turned and looked at the eyes of Beatrice.

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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