The Long Journey Upwards

As to the surface of a fish-pond, calm and clear,
the fish draw close to what they see above them,
believing it to be their food,
so I saw more than a thousand splendors
drawing toward us, and from each was heard:
“Lo, one who will increase our love!”
And as these shades approached,
each one of them seemed filled with joy,
so brilliant was the light that shone from them.
Dante, Paradiso Canto V, ll. 100-08

This scene occurs when Beatrice and Dante have risen to the orbit of Mercury, the second heaven. The spirits who dwell there rush to Dante saying, “Ecco chi crescerà li nostri amori” “Lo, one who will increase our love.”

These are hard words. We often approach people as objects or as competition for scarce resources, time, and affection. People become either barriers or a means to accomplish our goals. In my own life I too often find people to be interruptions, others who break into my mental solitude with trivial bits of information. But there, in Dante’s heaven, it is different.

New arrivals to this heaven are welcomed as new opportunities to love. Love, even on earth, runs counter to the natural laws which govern matter. Our individual share of love only increases when it is shared, while the quickest way to lose love is to hoard it.

On Sunday mornings I help with a class of 2nd and 3rd graders at my church. As I sat at the coloring table one morning, I fell into a conversation with a cheery faced girl. We exchanged complements on each other’s drawings and talked art philosophy. As we finished our drawings she turned to me and said, with perfect honesty and grace, “I’m so glad you’re here.” How does one respond to such a sweet salute? The only way one can. “I’m so glad you’re here too” I said, and meant it. But to be able to say those words in honesty is a rare thing for me. Which brings us back to the second sphere.

In the sphere of Mercury dwell those who were ambitious on earth. During their life on earth they gave and received much flattery; the false proclamation of “Lo, one who will increase our love” and I’m glad you’re here.” But flattery doesn’t exist in heaven. Those who made a life of flattery have their own place in hell. The spirits of heaven speak with a honesty and fullness of being that is not possible for those still on earth. Their worldly ambition has been transmuted into an eagerness to love.

On earth, we would likely mistrust such words if they came from anyone other than a child or lover. They are powerful, which means they have that much more ability to harm when they are misused. We have been conditioned to be on our guard against them, to not let anyone take advantage of us by flattery. I’ve had the words, “I’m so glad you’re here,” spoken to me many times, but they have seldom struck me as they did on that Sunday. So often they have been spoken without fullness of being; by someone in passing who does not have the time to exchange any other words with me. They are gladdened by their idea of the you rather than the you itself.

If it were possible to view every person as an new opportunity to love simply by speaking the words, the task would be easy. But it is not so simple. Being fallen, we are likely to misuse them, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The blessed spirits in Dante’s heaven have had their love purged of sin by the long journey up Mount Purgatory. They have had their memories cleansed and refreshed by the waters of Lethe and Eunoë. Someday, before I die, I hope to be able to reach that point where I can more often say to those I meet, “Lo, here is one who will increase our love” and truly mean it. The distance between where my heart is now and where I want to be is long, but it is a journey well worth making.

N.B. For the key line I have used the translation given by Charles Williams in The Figure of Beatrice. 

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