Dante’s Paradise: Canto 32 Retelling — Mystic Empyrean — Saint Bernard and the Saints in the Rose

Chapter 32: Mystic Empyrean — Saint Bernard and the Saints in the Rose

Still contemplating Mary, Saint Bernard — Dante’s newest guide — wanted Dante to study the Mystic Empyrean with all of its saved souls and good Angels.

Saint Bernard said to Dante, “Eve caused a wound when she ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She deepened the wound when she tempted Adam to also eat of the fruit. Mary closed that wound by giving birth to Christ, who suffered on the Cross to redeem Humankind and to heal original sin.

“Eve, who is beautiful and was directly created by God, sits at the feet of Mary.

“Sitting underneath Eve in one of the thrones of the third tier is Rachel, and Beatrice is by her side. Rachel is known for her contemplation, and Beatrice brought revelation to you.

“As you look down the tiers, you see more Hebrew women. Sarah is the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac. Rebecca is the heroine who killed Holofernes, the general of King Nebuchadnezzar. Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, the writer of the Psalms, who wrote ‘Miserere mei’ — ‘Have mercy on me.’

“This half of the Rose is complete. It is the half that is made up of pagans such as Ripheus and Old Testament souls such as Adam. Many, many Jews are in Paradise.”

Dante thought, These words appear in Psalm 51:1: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness: according to the multitude of Your tender mercies blot out my transgressions.”

In the Dark Wood when I first saw Virgil, I said, “Miserere mei.” The souls in Prepurgatory also sing the “Miserere” as a way to prepare themselves to purge their sins. It is one of the ways that they get ready for Purgatory.

Of course, the souls in the Rose are the souls of the Blest. They are the saved souls who reside in Paradise forever.

Saint Bernard continued, “You can see all these souls as I go downward from tier to tier. Down from where I started is a line of Hebrew women. This vertical line and the vertical line directly opposite them divide the White Rose into two equal parts.

“On the side of the line in which I mentioned the names of a few souls are the souls who believed in the Christ Yet to Come. They lived in pre-Christian times. All of the seats are filled in this part of the White Rose.

“On the other side of this line are those who believed in Christ Already Come. They lived in Christian times. Here are some empty seats. Not all of the seats are filled in this part of the White Rose.

“On the opposite side of this line, John the Baptist sits facing Mary, Mother of God. John was always holy. He suffered in the desert, and he was martyred, and spent two years in Limbo before Christ rescued him during the Harrowing of Hell.

“Sitting in the line below John the Baptist are other saved souls. Saint Francis sits below John the Baptist. Saint Benedict sits below Saint Francis. Saint Augustine, who became the Bishop of Hippo in 396 C.E. and who is the author of City of God and Confessions, sits below Saint Benedict.

“Saint Francis is the perfect imitation of Christ, Saint Benedict is a contemplative, and Saint Augustine is a theologian.

“Others are also sitting down the line.

“The half of the White Rose that is not yet complete is devoted to those who believed in Christ Who had Come. These souls are from the New Testament onward.

“Marvel at how God has organized the White Rose. The seats for saved souls who believed in Christ Yet to Come are equal in number to the seats for saved souls who believed in Christ Who had Come.”

Dante thought, Contrasts are in the Rose: young and old, male and female, Old Testament figures and New Testament figures. The wisdom I saw on the Sun involved complementarity. We have complementarity here in the Mystic Rose.

Saint Bernard continued, “Down from the horizontal center row are saved souls who were saved not through any merit of their own. These are children. They died before they reached the age of reason. They are saved through the mercy of Another and through the merit of others.

“Some of these children died after they were baptized, and some of these children died before baptism existed. Sincere prayers for the dead are heard in Paradise. God knows what He is doing.

“Look at the faces of these children, and listen to their voices. You will know that what I say is true.

“You have some doubts, some questions. Let me try to explain things better.

“Here in the vastness of Paradise, no mistakes are made and nothing by chance occurs. Chance is not present here just as sorrow is not present here, thirst is not present here, and hunger is not present here.

“From before the beginning of time, God has known who will dwell here.

“The souls of children are arranged in tiers that seem to indicate merit, but since these children never reached the age of reason, they have no merit. Nevertheless, everything here is like a perfect fit between a ring and a finger.

“God knows how much bliss these children are able to enjoy, and they receive exactly as much bliss as they can enjoy. Every child in Paradise is happy, and every adult in Paradise is happy.

“God determines each soul’s place in Paradise. This is all we need to know.

“Holy scripture itself shows that children — even twins — are different. Jacob and Esau were twins, but they fought even in their mother’s womb.

“God gave each one the grace he deserved. To you, it may seem as if he judged them according to the color of the child’s hair, or for some trivial reason, but again I say that God knows what He is doing.

“The children are seated not according to their good deeds because they were too young to have done good deeds; instead, they are seated according to God’s knowledge from before the beginning of time and according to God’s grace.

“During the beginning centuries of the existence of Humankind, all that was needed to save the souls of the children was the faith of their parents.

“After this age was completed, for male children to be saved, circumcision was needed.

“After this age was completed, and Christ had been incarnated and crucified, baptism was needed for entry to Paradise, or the child would be sentenced to Limbo.

“Look now at Mary, who most resembles Christ. Only with Mary’s help can you look at Christ.”

Angels — intelligent beings of pure spirit — attended Mary. This sight spellbound Dante. Of all the faces that he had seen in Paradise, Mary’s face seemed most Godlike.

With his wings spread wide, an Angel now sang to her, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” The other Angels and the saved souls joined their voices to his for the remainder of the song.

Dante asked Saint Bernard, “Holy father, you who left his seat in the White Rose to help enlighten me, please answer this question: Who is that Angel who looks into Mary’s eyes with joy, who is so filled with love that he seems to burn like a fire?”

Saint Bernard, who loved and loves Mary, said, “This Angel possesses as much love and joy as is possible for any soul or Angel to possess, and all Angels and all saved souls agree that this is fitting because this is the Angel Gabriel, who appeared before Mary on Earth to announce that she would give birth to the Messiah.

“Now let me explain more about the souls in the White Rose. I will point out to you some of the great patricians.

“Sitting at Mary’s left side is Adam, the Father of Humankind and the man who sinned by eating without God’s permission the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Sitting at Mary’s right side is Saint Peter, the Father of the Church and the man to whom Christ gave the keys of Paradise.

“They are the two roots of the White Rose.

“Saint John the Evangelist in his Revelation prophesied hard times to come for the Church. He sits by Saint Peter’s side.

“Moses sits before Adam. Moses led those who ate manna; they were difficult to lead.

“Across from Saint Peter sits Anna, who does not look at God, but instead looks with love at Mary, her daughter. She is happy as she looks at Mary and sings Hosanna.

“Facing Adam is Saint Lucia, who helped to save your soul when you seemed determined to go to Hell after your death. Saint Lucia went to Beatrice, at the request of Mary, and asked her to talk to Virgil in Limbo as a last-ditch effort — that succeeded — to save your soul.

“But now your time in Paradise is coming to an end. Let us be like a good tailor who uses the cloth he has to the best advantage.

“Let us turn our eyes upon God: the Primal Love.

“You need to look at God directly. You need to penetrate as deeply as you can into His Radiance.

“But lest you backslide into pride by thinking that you can achieve such a vision through your own merit, let us offer a prayer that asks for the gift of directly seeing God. One here has the power to help you directly see God.

“Say the prayer with me. Repeat my words in your heart sincerely.”

Saint Bernard began to pray.

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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