Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 22 | Summary

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Summary

Seeing Dante's fear and astonishment, Beatrice consoles him: "Do you not know that you're in Heaven now?" The cry he heard in Canto 21, Beatrice now explains, was a prayer for vengeance upon those who are corrupting the Church. The prayer, she adds, will be answered during Dante's lifetime. Another radiant soul introduces himself as Benedict (c. 480–c. 547), founder of the Western monastic tradition in the first religious order ever established in Europe and based on simple work and prayer. He explains the significance of the ladder, which represents the contemplatives' endless ascent toward true knowledge of God. But nobody on Earth, Benedict complains, can now be bothered to climb such a ladder. Instead, monastic orders—including the Benedictines—have become corrupt and venal institutions, overly concerned with material wealth.

Benedict's soul then flares out and whirls back up the ladder. Beatrice and Dante follow it, making their ascent with miraculous speed under the constellation sign of Gemini, Dante's own, having been born in late May 1265. Before they approach the next sphere of Heaven, however, Dante turns back and looks down at the planets. He sees Earth now as a "small and cheap" thing compared with the vastness and grandeur of God's universe. Earth's glories and hardships, Dante recognizes, need to be kept in perspective.

Analysis

At the end of Canto 21, Dante had two nearly opposite experiences of sound: an unearthly silence followed by an ear-splitting cry. Like the dazzling brightness Dante seems to encounter everywhere (see the Insights for Canto 21), unusual sounds and silences are a reminder of Dante's "guest" status in Heaven. The further he climbs the more apparent becomes the gap between his powers of perception and the spiritual realities surrounding him. He can easily hear, understand, and even enjoy the songs sung by the souls in the fourth and fifth spheres. In the sixth sphere (Jupiter), Dante finds himself able to take in the song but not able to retain it in his memory: it "glides" out of his mind "like falling leaves." Then, in the sphere of Saturn, he cannot hear the song at all. It consists, in spiritual terms, of notes too high for his mortal ears.

The loud cry troubles Dante even more than the silence preceding it. His perplexity underscores an important point about Heaven, one Dante the character (though not Dante the poet) is still learning in this canto. The joy of Paradise is not, as Saint Benedict demonstrates, incompatible with anger. One can be full of the divine presence and still ardently wish for change, even violent change, on Earth. To exist in these seemingly incompatible states, however, requires trust in God's plan and a willingness to wait for His justice. Without these qualities, one lapses into sinful wrath—a state proper to Hell or Purgatory, not to Heaven. Many of the wrathful in Dante's Inferno are, in fact, fully justified in feeling angered at the crimes committed against them. Their sin, from Dante's viewpoint, lies in giving in to that anger and taking matters into their own hands.

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