According to Medieval cosmology, the celestial realm contained ten distinct heavens: the spheres of the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the fixed stars, the Primum Mobile, and the Empyrean. Starting from the earth, Dante and Beatrice were visiting each of these celestial realms one by one. In Cantos XXI and XXII, they were in the sphere of Saturn.
To Dante’s surprise, Beatrice was not smiling. In the six lower spheres, she had always smiled. Moreover, her smile became more radiant and her eyes became lovelier whenever she ascended from a lower to a higher sphere.
Beatrice explained that she did not dare to smile in the sphere of Saturn. If she did, Dante would be reduced to ashes, just like Semele when she beheld the radiant panoply of Jupiter.
In the sphere of Saturn, Dante beheld a ladder on which illuminated spirits were descending. They gathered together at a certain point not far from where Dante and Beatrice were standing. Then one spirit approached Dante to welcome him to the sphere of Saturn.
Dante wanted to ask the spirit two questions, but he remained silent until Beatrice gave him permission to express his desires.
Dante was puzzled by the silence that prevailed in the sphere of Saturn. In the lower spheres, he had always heard celestial songs. The spirit explained that the spirits refrained from song for Dante’s sake. If Dante heard songs in the sphere of Saturn, the music would overwhelm his mortal ears.
Dante also wondered what prompted the spirit to approach him while all the others remained a short distance away. The spirit explained that the love that prompted him to greet Dante was not greater than the love that dwelt in the hearts of the other spirits. Rather, he approached Dante because God wanted him to be a one-man welcoming party.
This prompted Dante to ask the spirit why God had chosen him for this task and no one else. Basically, Dante was wrestling with the problem of predestination.
In reply, the spirit explained that he did not know the answer to Dante’s question. Since the rays of God’s love were shining upon him and entering his being, he had a clear vision of the essence of God. However, Dante’s question involved an unfathomable mystery that God had not revealed to any created being, not even to the seraphim nearest His throne.
The spirit urged Dante to tell people below not to waste their time trying to figure out the reasons behind God’s election. If the illuminated minds of celestial spirits did not know the answer, the foggy minds of mortals would never be able to figure it out.
Dante then asked the spirit to identify himself. Dante learned that he was Peter Damian, a monk in the Benedictine monastery of Santa Croce at the foot of Mount Catria not far from Florence. Later in life he became a cardinal, apparently with reluctance. [He was an important figure in history. He was a moving spirit in the reforms carried out by the papacy during the eleventh century, especially by Pope Gregory VII.]
After introducing himself, Peter Damian graphically described the spiritual degeneration of the clergy. This prompted a multitude of spirits to descend and gather around him. They raised an inimitable cry that Dante could not understand. It overpowered Dante’s senses.
Dante turned to Beatrice for comfort. She told him that the cry of the spirits was an expression of their holy zeal. It was a prayer asking God to punish the iniquity of the degenerate clergy described by Peter Damian. The punishment would occur before Dante’s death. [This undoubtedly referred to the humiliation of the papacy effected by the kings of France. Boniface VIII, the pope in 1300, was imprisoned under the auspices of the French king and died a miserable death. Shortly afterward, the papal court was transferred to Avignon, where the French kings could easily control the successive popes. This has become known in history as the Babylonian captivity of the papacy.]
The next spirit with whom Dante conversed was Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Benedictine order, who converted the people on and around Monte Cassino in southern Italy and founded a cloister there. He was born in the latter half of the fifth century and died toward the middle of the sixth. The sources that I consulted do not agree on the exact dates.
After identifying himself, Benedict directed Dante’s attention to the other spirits on Saturn. They were all contemplative spirits. He specifically mentioned two hermits: Macarius and Romualdus.
Dante had one further request. It was impossible to see the features of the spirits because of the brilliant light that surrounded them. Dante asked to see Benedict’s features.
Benedict assured Dante that his request would be granted when he reached the Empyrean, the highest heaven. He also explained the nature of the Empyrean.
While the nine lower spheres revolved about the earth, the Empyrean was static. The top of the ladder which Dante saw in the sphere of Saturn reached the Empyrean. He identified this ladder with the ladder which Jacob saw in a vision when he was sleeping in Bethel.
Benedict then described the deplorable conditions that currently existed in the Benedictine order. Instead of climbing this spiritual ladder, contemporary Benedictines were appropriating the revenues intended for the poor and giving them to their relatives and even worse people.
At the conclusion of Benedict’s discourse, all the spirits swiftly ascended. Prompted by Beatrice, Dante swiftly ascended the ladder with her and reached the eighth sphere, the sphere of the fixed stars.
I have already expressed my own views on monasticism in a previous article in this series. I would like to add an observation concerning the reforms fostered by Peter Damian and Pope Gregory VII.
To an extent, they were good. They opposed the fornication that was rampant among the clergy. Unfortunately, they also persecuted those priests that were legitimately married. They induced many to forsake their wives, contrary to the word of God which says: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matthew 19: 6)
This article is based on the Italian text presented in “Paradiso” of “The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.” This volume also has an English translation by Allen Mandelbaum and notes by Anthony Oldcorn, Daniel Feldman, and Giuseppe di Scipio, both of which I consulted in the preparation of this article.