“… think carefully what love is and you’ll see …”
This line hands you the key to the poem, if you haven’t picked it up already. The universe of Dante is a hierarchy, where every individual’s place in the order is determined by the love in their own heart.
Dante has asked the spirit – luminous shade barely visible against the silver light all around – Dante is standing inside the shining sphere of the moon – How can you be happy here in the lowest realm of Paradise? Knowing as you do that God’s light shines more brightly elsewhere, in the upper regions of Heaven that you will never see.
The spirit answers that it is because they love God that they accept their place in the hierarchy. They do so not grudgingly. They accept their place because it is right.
Lower down, on the mountain of Purgatory, the pilgrim might have noticed the same thing going on. The path up the mountain is there for all to walk on, and yet the spirits remain on their terrace and suffer their punishment, and do not continue up. Why not? We are told: it is because they lack the will to do so.
Just as in life they were shown God’s love but chose to distract themselves from it – perhaps pursuing worldly wealth, or vengeful dreams against neighbours, or gluttony for food and drink – so here in Purgatory they lack the will to face God’s light.
They are unwilling to enter Heaven for now. They will remain here on the mountain and be purged of their sins, and then with a thunderclap they will suddenly find their will returned to them – it was there all along, perhaps they can remember as children having felt a pure love of God – and suddenly they can journey up the mountain.
To seek is to find – to want to know God’s love is to know it. And so when the Earthly Paradise is reached at the top of the mountain, and the pilgrim is ready to enter Heaven, he ascends like an arrow from a bow. He’s beamed up to Paradise by an act of sheer will.
By God’s grace, since it was God that gave you that free will.
Compare these blessed spirits on their journey to Paradise with those that Dante met in Hell, those who will forever remain shut away from God’s light. They too have chosen, and find their place in the order of things determined by the love they hold in their own hearts. Self-love keeps them there in the dark, hearing nothing but the continual sound of their own cries. They will never find the will to enter Heaven, having buried themselves firmly in their own sin.
The cruelty of a system that includes eternal punishment might seem staggering. It seemed so even to Dante, that medieval man himself, who at first showed pity to the shades in Hell and was rebuked by Virgil for it. To pity the damned is to deny the justice in the will of God, says Dante’s guide, and is itself a sin. It is not our place to understand God’s justice. Only to believe in its rightness.
I think it’s futile to try to argue with the medieval minds we encounter. They won’t listen to reason. Better for us to listen to the stuttering of these alien souls – and perhaps we’ll notice the resonances in our own faltering logic. Our own cravings for authority, order, and judgement. And, in noting the distance of centuries that lies between us and Dante, perhaps we’ll come to question those modern impulses we find in ourselves that we are so quick to condemn in souls that we call “medieval.”
(I’ve been reading Dante’s Paradise, translated by Mark Musa. The line quoted at the beginning is Canto 3, line 76.)