Dante’s apology of the saints

In the Paradiso, Dante reveals the “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of by St. Paul in Hebrews 12:1. This use of individuals rather than merely abstract types throughout the Divine Comedy is essential to Dante’s presentation. It is not “saints” and “sinners” in the abstract who are blessed or condemned. It is, he continually reminds us, real people, like ourselves, who populate Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. And it is not difficult to extrapolate from this that each of us will someday be a denizen of one of these places. In this way, Dante’s tour of Heaven in the Paradiso acts an apology for the Christian faith. In answer to the test of the pragmatic, whether Christianity indeed accomplishes what it claims to accomplish, namely the redemption and sanctification of human beings, Dante provides a panoply of saints who furnish proof of truth of Christianity’s claims.

Throughout the Paradiso, Dante observes a multitude of souls whose redemption has been brought about by the saving activity of Christ, pointing out various individuals who catch his attention. As if to emphasize that these souls are indeed like us, Dante begins his journey through Heaven on the Moon, where the souls of those who broke their vows dwell (Canto III). These are clearly human beings, imperfect and often failing, but who nonetheless have been saved and now dwell in the presence of God. Piccarda, the first person with whom Dante has an extended dialogue in Heaven, further drives this point home. She is not, for Dante, a figure from the distant past, only read about in books or told about in stories extolling her virtues, but rather a quite human figure and a close relation, the sister of a friend.

The first three spheres of Paradise, in fact, are designated by Dante as the dwellings of those souls who fell short in their virtue yet are saved and enjoy the beatific vision even if not in equal measure with the inhabitants of other, higher spheres. As Dante explains, “everywhere / in Heaven is Paradise, though the high Good / does not rain down His grace on all souls there / Equally” (Canto III). On Mercury, he visits those who led virtuous lives but whose fault was seeking virtue for fame (Canto V). On Venus, Dante sees those whose love for earthly pleasures was intemperate (Canto VIII).

As Dante continues his journey, he advances to the higher spheres, each of which contain a group of souls who exhibited a certain virtue or quality in their lives. On the Sun, he encounters those who were marked by their wisdom (Canto X). On Mars, he sees the warriors who fought in defense of the Church (Canto XIV). On Jupiter, Dante finds those kings and other leaders who ruled their domains with justice (Canto XVIII). On Saturn, Dante meets those who lived the contemplative life (Canto XXI). Finally, Dante ascends to the sphere of the fixed stars and speaks with the apostles Peter, James, and John, who symbolize faith, hope, and love, respectively.

Although the saints are treated as symbols of the various virtues in the higher spheres, Dante takes special care to emphasize that they have not lost their individuality. They are not, as in the Hindu conception of the afterlife, assumed into divinity with a consequent loss of all distinguishing characteristics. On the contrary, they are not redeemed only in the abstraction of their common human nature, but in their individual characteristics as well. St. Peter, for example, retains the impetuosity he so frequently displayed on earth, as when he cut off the ear of Malchus with his sword in a rash attempt to defend Christ (John 18:10). What had been hotheadedness on earth, however, is transfigured into righteous indignation in Heaven, which Peter displays in his burning redness as he unleashes a diatribe against the corruptions and corrupters of the Papacy in Canto XXVII.

The final saint to whose presence Dante is treated is, of course, the Virgin Mary, traditionally considered by Christians to be the greatest of the saints. As St. Anselm of Milan rhetorically asked while extolling the various perfections and virtues of Mary, “What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory Itself chose?” Yet, importantly for Dante as for the whole history of Christian thought on the subject, even she who bore God is a human being like ourselves.

A faith without saints is not a saving faith because it is a faith in which none are saved, none redeemed, and none sanctified. In presenting this vast multitude of saints, Dante offers a sound argument in favor of the Christian faith. Here, he says, is the proof for the truth of Christianity, that, in spite of my human, all too human, failings, “the Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen (2 Tim. 4:18).

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