Dante’s Paradise: Canto 28 Retelling — Primum Mobile — The Hierarchy of Angels

Chapter 28: Primum Mobile — The Hierarchy of Angels

Dante the Poet thought, At this time Beatrice and I were in the Primum Mobile, the outer edge and end of the material universe. What lay ahead of us? The Mystic Empyrean!

The Mystic Empyrean lies beyond the Primum Mobile. Actually, “lies beyond” is misleading, as the Mystic Empyrean does not exist in space and time. However, because we are human beings who exist in space and time we have to use language metaphorically when we speak of the Mystic Empyrean.

The Mystic Empyrean is the goal of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey. It is also the goal of every Christian. It is the place where God dwells. Of course, here again “place” is a word that is used metaphorically.

Here in the Primum Mobile, Dante the Pilgrim was able to look at the places he has been, and now he will be able to look ahead to where he is going.

Beatrice had finished her criticism of corrupt Humankind, to which Dante the Pilgrim had paid close attention.

Just like a person can first catch sight of a candle in a mirror and then turn to see the candle, so did Dante catch sight of something in Beatrice’s lovely eyes — the eyes that had made him love her — before he turned to see that sight directly.

In the Primum Mobile, anyone who looks deeply — as do the contemplatives — will see what Dante the Pilgrim saw.

Dante saw a Point of brilliant light. The Point was like a mathematical point in that it was immaterial and nonspatial. The Point’s light was so brilliant that Dante was forced to shut his eyes. Because the Point of brilliant light is immaterial and nonspatial, the smallest star that we can see on Earth looked like a Moon compared in size compared to the Point of brilliant light.

At times, a halo seems to surround the Moon. As close as the halo is to the Moon, a ring of fire is around the brilliant Point. This ring of fire moved fast — faster than the Primum Mobile, which is the fastest of all the Spheres, moves.

A second ring of fire circled the first ring of fire. A third ring of fire circled the second ring of fire. A fourth ring of fire circled the third ring of fire. A fifth ring of fire circled the fourth ring of fire. A sixth ring of fire circled the fifth ring of fire. A seventh ring of fire circled the sixth ring of fire.

The seventh ring of fire was so large that if the rainbow of Iris, the messenger of the gods, were to be extended into a full circle, it would not be big enough to encompass the seventh circle.

An eighth ring of fire circled the seventh ring of fire. A ninth ring of fire circled the eighth ring of fire.

The further each circle of fire was from the Point, the slower it moved. The first ring of fire, which was closest to the Point, was also the brightest ring of fire. It was the closest to God: the Pure Spark of Being.

Beatrice thought, What Dante sees now is the opposite of the “reality” that Dante thinks he sees on Earth. In that “reality,” the Spheres move faster the further they are from the Earth.

Why the difference?

Dante is now seeing Ultimate Reality, which is God-centered. Ultimate Reality is much different from the “reality” that Dante thinks he sees on Earth. That “reality” is centered on the Earth, not on God. God is at the center of Ultimate Reality. The Earth is at the center of the “reality” that Humankind sees. At the center of the Earth is Lucifer’s place in the Inferno.

Beatrice helped Dante to understand what he was seeing: “You see the Point on which the heavens and nature depend.

“Look at the circle — the ring of fire — closest to the Point. It spins so fast because it is motivated by the love that comes from the Point.”

Dante replied, “If the universe I see from Earth were ordered like what I see here, I would not be puzzled. But in the universe I see from Earth, the Spheres that are furthest from Earth are more Godlike and move faster. But here I see that the Sphere that is closest to the Point is most Godlike and moves fastest.

“Please explain why the two sights — the one from Earth and the one from here — are different.”

Beatrice said, “The relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world is not easy to understand. If you do not understand it, it is in part because no one has seen what you are seeing here and therefore no one has tried to explain what you are seeing here.

“If you wish to be enlightened, listen carefully.

“In the material world, the course of a Sphere is wide or narrow according to how close it is to God and therefore according to how much virtue courses through it.

“A Sphere that is close to God — and the Primum Mobile is the closest Sphere to God in the material world — will have more goodness and therefore will have a greater size, and so the Primum Mobile is the largest of all the Spheres in the material world.

“The Primum Mobile in the material world corresponds to the circle that is closest to God in the spiritual world. In the spiritual world, do not look at the size of the circle; instead, look at the power of the circle. In the physical world, the smallest circle is the circle closest to God — the Point — and so it is the circle that has the most power.

“Nine rings of fire surround the Point. The closer a ring of fire is to the Point of brilliant light, the faster it moves. The nine whirling rings of fire are the nine orders of Angels.

“The Point of brilliant light is God, Whom you are seeing from a distance.

“This seems to you to be the reverse of what you living human beings see in nature. Living human beings in the Middle Ages see the Earth as the center, and the Spheres around the Earth become more and more divine the farther they are from Earth. Here, however, the Point of brilliant light is divine, and the rings of fire whirling around are holier the closer they are to the Point of brilliant light.

“What you are seeing now is Ultimate Reality, and not the inside-out version of reality that living human beings see on Earth.

“Of course, Ultimate Reality has God at the center — not the Earth. Circling around God are the orders of Angels.”

In Italy, the wind that is thought to be the mildest sent by the god Boreas is the wind that comes from the Northeast and blows the clouds away. Beatrice’s words were like a wind that blew the clouds from Dante’s mind. He knew, of course, that she had spoken the truth.

And now Dante saw what seemed to be sparks in the nine rings of fire. How many sparks? A chessboard has 64 same-sized squares. Imagine that the first square is associated with the number 1, and imagine that the second square is double that: 2. Imagine that the number keeps doubling for all the remaining squares. The number arrived at that way is over 18 quintillion — a quintillion is a 1 followed by 18 zeros. The number of the Angels of the various orders in Paradise is much more than 18 quintillion — mortals cannot conceive of the actual number.

Dante heard them sing “Hosanna” to the Point Who is God, who had appointed each Angel to the Angel’s position in Paradise.

Beatrice knew that Dante was confused by what he was seeing, and she explained the orders of Angels to him.

She said, “Each order of Angel is associated with a heavenly Sphere. The circle closest to the Point is the order of Angels who loves God most and has the most understanding. In the first two rings closest to the Point are the Seraphim and the Cherubim. They spin swiftly and they see God most clearly and they seek to grow closer to God. The Seraphim are associated with the Primum Mobile, and the Cherubim are associated with the Fixed Stars. The third order of Angels in the first Triad is the Thrones, who are associated with Saturn and contemplation.

“All of these nine orders of Angels have bliss equal to the depth that they are able to see the mind of God. First they see God, and then they love God. Merit determines how deeply they see into the mind of God.

“The second Triad of Angels can be visualized as flowers in bloom. Here in Paradise no frost will ever harm a flower. The second Triad of Angels sings ‘Hosanna’ eternally. The Dominions are associated with Jupiter and justice. The Virtues are associated with Mars and courage. The Powers are associated with the Sun and wisdom.

“The third Triad of Angels consists of the Principalities, who are associated with Venus and love; the Archangels, who are associated with Mercury and hope; and the Angels, who are associated with the Moon and faith. The orders of Angels dance, and the Angels are jubilant.

“All of the orders of Angels look toward God.”

Dante the Poet thought, When Beatrice names the orders of the Angels, she does so in threes:

The Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones.

The Dominations, Virtues, and Powers.

The Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

Three is an important number of Christianity because of the Trinity.

Of course, we can put all the Angels in three groups:

1) The good Angels in Paradise.

2) The bad Angels who rebelled with Lucifer.

3) The neutral Angels who did not take a stand and who are now in the Vestibule of Hell, rejected by both Paradise and the Inferno.

Beatrice continued, “Pope Saint Gregory the Great had a different way of listing the orders of Angels, but he was mistaken. When he reached Paradise, he realized that he had been mistaken — and he smiled! The person who listed the Angels correctly was Dionysius the Areopagite, who converted to Christianity because of the preaching of Saint Paul, who traveled to Paradise and taught Dionysius about the orders of Angels.”

Beatrice thought, Dante the Poet, as you write these lines, you are smiling, too. When you wrote The Banquet, you followed Gregory’s incorrect arrangement of the orders of Angels, not the correct arrangement of Dionysus.

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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