Dante’s Paradise: Canto 31 Retelling — Mystic Empyrean — Saint Bernard

Chapter 31: Mystic EmpyreanSaint Bernard

Dante looked and saw the White Rose, and making up the White Rose was the host of the saved souls: those whom Christ had made His own with the Cross. Some of these souls had made appearances to Dante in the physical Spheres, although they had been and were really in the Mystic Empyrean.

And he saw the other host: the Angels who soar between God and the saved souls. The Angels celebrate God Who made them, Who loves them, and Whom they love. The Angels were like bees who go to flowers and then return to the hive of Paradise. They visit the host of saved souls and then return to God: the source of love.

The faces of the Angels were red, their wings were gold, and their bodies were whiter than the snow that falls on Earth.

The Angels go back and forth from the souls and from God. They bring graces from God to the souls, and they bring praises from the souls to God.

The Angels did not block the light of God from Dante’s eyes. On Earth, if a body comes in between a person and the Sun, the light of the Sun is blocked. Such laws of nature are not found in the Mystic Empyrean.

God’s glory is seen in the entire universe. In some places His glory can be seen more clearly. In some places His glory can be seen less clearly. Merit determines whether God’s glory is seen more clearly or less clearly in human beings. This applies to the physical universe, and it applies to the Mystic Empyrean, but in the Mystic Empyrean, God’s glory is very clearly seen in all souls, although it is more clearly seen in some souls than in others.

In this kingdom of joy, the saved souls, whether from Old Testament times or from newer times, all looked upon the same goal: God. This Sole Light was also a Triune Light. This Light is the source of joy, and this Light is needed now on Earth.

Imagine barbarians coming to Rome for the first time and looking at its splendors and monuments and art. Such barbarians would be amazed. Imagine how much more amazement struck Dante — who had come to Paradise from Earth. Imagine how much more amazement struck Dante — who had come to Paradise, a place filled with sane people, and had left Florence, a place not filled with sane people.

Dante was stupefied by what he was seeing, and he was joyful because he was seeing it. He was happy that no one — not even Beatrice — was speaking to him until he had a few moments to stare.

Dante was like a pilgrim who had reached the end of his journey and was standing in the temple, and he was trying to fill his memory so that he could describe what he had seen to the people back home.

Therefore, Dante tried to look everywhere. His eyes sought to see all the saved souls; his eyes went from tier to tier, up and down, and from side to side and back again. He saw faces that were filled with love and clad in white robes and light and smiles.

Dante had seen the major parts of Paradise, but not its details, and wanting to ask questions, he turned to his side, expecting to see Beatrice, but she was not there!

Instead, he saw an elder who wore the white robes of the saints of Paradise. He had the love of a father, and he had the joy of a saved soul.

Dante asked him, “She — where is she?”

The elder replied, “Beatrice asked me to leave my seat in the Rose and help you complete your journey by making sure that you see everything that you need to see. You can see Beatrice in the Rose; she is in the third from the highest tier. That is the place that her own merit deserves.”

Dante did not speak; instead, he raised his eyes and looked at Beatrice in all her glory. Beatrice was far away, but Dante clearly saw her. Such clarity of vision at such a distance is not possible on Earth.

Dante thanked her in his thoughts, knowing that Beatrice would learn his thoughts by looking into the mind of God: “Lady, thank you for going into the Inferno to talk to Virgil and leaving your footprints there so that I might be saved. Because of your good deed, I have seen Paradise, and I recognize the excellence of all things here.

“You have led me from bondage to freedom, from exile to home. To do so, you have done everything that you are able to do. I hope that I can be as generous as you have been so that when I return to Paradise, my soul may please you.”

Beatrice looked at Dante and smiled, and then she looked at God.

The elder said to Dante, “The final stage of your journey is at hand; your final lessons must be learned. To bring this about, sacred love and prayer have sent me. You still have not seen everything that you need to see. You still are not seeing God directly; you are seeing a reflection of God.

“You will receive help from Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Queen of Paradise. I know that this is true. I am devoted to Mary. I am Bernard.”

Dante the Pilgrim thought, My new guide is Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. He lived in the 12th century, and he was a member of the Cistercian religious order. Saint Bernard was a contemplative. He was a reformer. As a reformer, he wrote the pope. He advised the pope to focus on spiritual things and to cease his focus on political things. He was a preacher, and he was a poet.

Bernard called for the Second Crusade. In that crusade, Cacciaguida, my ancestor, died a martyr.

Twenty-one years after his death, Bernard was canonized.

Dante the Poet thought, Saint Bernard is the final guide of Dante the Pilgrim — a younger me. Each of the guides helps prepare me — that is, the Pilgrim — either for the next guide or for my final vision. Virgil got me ready to be guided by Beatrice. Beatrice got me ready to be guided by Saint Bernard. Saint Bernard will get Dante the Pilgrim ready to see God.

Each of my three major guides — Virgil, Beatrice, and Saint Bernard — has important knowledge. Virgil knows Human Reason. Beatrice knows Revelation. Saint Bernard knows Mystical Contemplation. Saint Bernard will prepare Dante the Pilgrim to see God more clearly. Only Mystical Contemplation can do that. Saint Bernard himself had a vision of God during his lifetime.

A fervent Christian from a faraway place like Croatia may go as a pilgrim to see the Veronica: a piece of cloth on which Christ wiped the blood and sweat away from His face as He walked to be crucified on Calvary. That cloth bears the true image of Christ, and the pilgrim from Croatia looks at it, amazed at seeing how Jesus looked.

Dante felt much like that as he looked at Saint Bernard, who — while still living — had seen a vision of God as he contemplated.

Saint Bernard said, “You are a son of grace; you have received an important gift from God. However, you have more to see, and you will not see it as long as you are looking at me.

“Raise your eyes high. Look up at the highest tier. Look up at Mary, the Mother of Christ and the Queen of Paradise.”

Dante raised his eyes. At dawn, the East is much brighter than the West. Dante looked at Mary, and just like the East outshining the West, she outshone the other souls.

The Sun at noon outshines everything around it. Just like that, Mary outshone all the souls on either side of her.

And around the brightness that is Mary, Dante saw more than a thousand Angels with outstretched wings — each Angel had a unique personality and a unique art and a unique motion.

And Dante saw Mary, smiling at the Angels, beautiful with a beauty that was reflected in Saint Bernard’s eyes.

Dante the Poet thought, I remember Mary and I remember Mary’s beauty, but even if I had the words to describe the least part of her beauty, I would not.

Saint Bernard saw Dante the Pilgrim looking devotedly at Mary, and he turned to Mary and looked at her with so much love that Dante had even more devotion in his gaze.

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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