Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 31 – why is God asleep?

 Heaven blushes at the iniquities of the Church on earth. Photo by Blue Stahli Luân

Mystics often describe their relationship with God as a love affair. Dante’s is full of joy, even ecstasy, but he also gets angry with God – a less acceptable emotion that is harder to deal with. In Paradiso 27 we see the poet moving from one extreme to the other, then turning to Beatrice for a better understanding of the problem of evil.

We are on the very fringes of space and time, in the heaven of the fixed stars. In previous cantos St Peter, the first pope and the rock on which the Church is built, has examined Dante on matters of faith, followed by St James and St John on hope and charity. Dante having passed the exam, as it were, Canto 27 begins with all paradise singing “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost”.

The poet hears this outpouring of song and sees it as un riso dell’universo, “a smile of the universe” – one of many examples of synaesthesia in the Comedy. Enraptured, he bursts out:

Then comes an abrupt change of mood. The choir stops singing and St Peter, a flaming torch that had begun to grow even brighter, tells Dante not to be surprised at what will happen next: he, and all the others in paradise, will change colour!

There follows a vehement denunciation of the papacy that would have shocked Dante’s early readers:

 St Peter’s Rome, the saint’s burial place. A “sewer”, according to Dante. Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg via Wikimedia

St Peter is referring to Boniface VIII, a pope whose addiction to power and wealth has already, in Dante’s judgement, reserved him a place in hell (see Note 10). The thrice-repeated il luogo mio captures the saint’s rising indignation and disbelief at this imposter, who takes the part of Lucifer himself. He is almost choking on his words!

Dante meets St Peter. Mid-sixteenth century woodcut (left) and drawing by Gustave Doré via Wikimedia

The blushing of heaven that accompanies Peter’s denunciation is compared to a red sky at sunrise or sunset, a natural image of great beauty:

Even Beatrice turns red – like a woman hearing of another’s shame. And the gravity of Peter’s condemnation is reinforced when Dante recalls a similar event at the time of Christ’s crucifixion:

St Peter cites specific cases of betrayal – the Bride of Christ sold for gold, the keys of heaven used as a heraldic device in war. He cries out in anguish at the degraded state of the Church: 

This is the furious accusation of a disappointed lover! Dante puts feelings into Peter’s mouth that are clearly his own. None would be more tempted to feel angry with God than a Number One enneagram such as him, righteous anger being the driving force of this character type. Throughout the Comedy, he rails against the evils of Florence and Rome just as Christ does against Jerusalem. A God who permits such evils must be asleep at the wheel.

Revealingly, Dante has Peter tell him he must speak out when he returns to earth:

As this shocking outburst tells us, Dante didn’t hesitate to follow Peter’s instruction!

After Peter’s denunciation, the silent host of the redeemed streams upward like a reverse snowfall, another startlingly beautiful image in this canto of “special effects”, but one that refutes the natural order evoked earlier, demonstrating once again that spiritual reality works by different rules. These “snowflakes” (to rehabilitate the word) are “falling upwards” towards their spiritual home in the Empyrean, as Mark Vernon puts it in his excellent book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A guide to the spiritual journey. Dante watches them until they disappear from sight in the vastness at the frontier of time and space. Beatrice bids him look down again and he sees part of “this little threshing floor”, including “the mad track of Ulysses” (see Note 11), as night advances across the world, far below. He is looking back into time, from a place beyond it. But is there even a place any more? “This heaven has no other where but the divine mind,” Beatrice explains.

Against this dizzying backcloth – a view, from the edge of eternity, of the entire created universe, suffused in sunset tones – Beatrice closes out the canto by telling Dante, sadly but calmly, more about the problem of evil in the world. In showing him that evil is universal, woven into the very fabric of time and place, she is, I think, trying to soothe his hurt, to make him more resigned, more philosophical.

Human degeneracy is an abuse of time, Beatrice says, such that time works for evil, not for good. Thus we see sound plums turn bad in the rain, and children lose faith and innocence with the passing years: while they still lisp, they love and heed their mother; later, when their speech is perfect, they long to see her buried. As Sinclair says, such things are the “refusal and reversal of the whole purpose of creation”.

Yet time is also the cure. As the red sky slowly fades, its hue softening and deepening into grey, then black, Beatrice promises the eventual redemption of the world. “These lofty circles shall shine forth…. and then the fleet shall run on the straight course, and good fruit shall follow the flower.”

Impatient spirits such as Dante’s have trouble believing the likes of Julian of Norwich when they say, “All shall be well.” Yes, but when?, we clamour. Beatrice doesn’t say, Dante by this late stage of his life having lost his belief in the imminent coming of a wise and just secular ruler. Perhaps that’s just as well: to expect an earthly solution to the problem of evil is to misunderstand Jesus’s message and mission, just as Judas Iscariot does. Jesus was never meant to be King of the Jews in a literal, worldly sense.

Time will cure earth’s ills, says Beatrice. Photo from NASA via Wikimedia

Sonny Kapur, the charismatic but chaotic manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in the eponymous film, has this delightful riff on the problem of evil:

“Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, then, trust me, it’s not yet the end.”

I think Beatrice would agree with him. She’d probably give him one of her smiles. She might even giggle.

Laughter doesn’t stop bad stuff from happening, of course. But it can be an effective antidote to the pain and grief that evil leaves in its wake, especially for people on a mission to set the world to rights. Lighten up, Dante and co!

Genius line:
‘O difesa di Dio, perchè pur giaci?’ A cry of despair at God’s seeming indifference to evil.