Paradiso -- Canto XXI

Saturn, Saint Peter Damian





6 Semele was turned to ashes for wanting to see her divine lover Jupiter in his heavenly glory (Metamorphoses III, 253-315).




13 The seventh sphere is Saturn, the heaven of the "cool" contemplatives. Saturn himself, father of Jupiter, ruled Crete during the Golden Age (ll. 26-27).









29 The ladder was an accepted symbol of contemplation because of Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:12)









43 The soul is  Saint Peter Damian (who identifies himself in l. 121), born of poor parents in Ravenna around 1007. He became abbot of his monastery of Fonte Avellana in 1043 and, unwillingly, cardinal-archbishop of Ostia in 1057. He died in 1072 and was declared a doctor of the Church in 1828.




















































127 Cephas is Saint Peter and the vessel of the Holy Spirit is Saint Paul.

          By now my eyes fixed once more on the face
          Of my own lady, and with them my mind,
          And it withdrew from every other thought.
          She did not smile, but, "If I were to smile,"
5         She said to me, "why then you would become
          Like Semele when she turned into ashes,
          "Because my beauty which, as you have seen,
          All up the steps of the eternal palace
          Is more inflamed the higher we ascend
10       "So burns that, if it were not tempered here,
          Your mortal powers would shatter at its flash,
          Just like a branch struck by a lightning bolt.
          "We have wafted upward to the seventh splendor
          Which underneath the burning Lion’s breast
15       Beams down below now mingling might with might.
          "Fasten your mind on where your eyes are fixed
          And make them mirrors for the figure which
          Within this mirror shall be shown to you."
          Whoever will recall how gladly I
20       Pastured my sight upon her blissful face,
          When I now turned my thoughts to a new field,
          Shall know how deep the joy that I then felt,
          In so obeying my celestial guide,
          By balancing one side and then the other.
25       Within the crystal, circling round the world,
          That bears the name of its beloved leader
          During whose rule all wickedness lay dead,
          I saw a ladder, glimmering like gold
          Lit by a sunbeam, running up so high
30       That my sight could not trace it to the top.
          I saw so many splendors stepping down
          On all its rungs that I thought every star
          In heaven was cascading down from it,
          And just as jackdaws at the break of day
35       Through natural instinct fly about together
          In order to warm up their frigid feathers,
          Then some, without returning, soar away,
          Some wheel around to where they started off,
          While others stay on circling in the sky:
40       Such flights, it seemed to me, the sparkling swarm
          Which gathered all together now performed,
          As soon as it had touched a certain rung.
          The soul that halted closest to us both
          Became so bright that I said in my thought,
45       "I clearly see the love you signal me.
          "But she from whom I await the how and when
          Of speech and silence, holds her peace, so I,
          Against my wishes, do well not to question."
          At this, then, she, who saw my silent caution
50       In her vision of Him who sees all things,
          Observed to me, "Set free your fervent wish."
          And I began, "No merit of my own
          Will make me worthy of your answering me,
          But for her sake who lets me question you,
55       "O blessed life that lies concealed inside
          Your own elation, please reveal to me
          The reason you are placed so close to me,
          "And tell me why within this wheeling sphere
          The sweet symphony of paradise is silent,
60       Which through the spheres below sounds so devoutly."
          "You have the sight and hearing of a mortal,"
          He answered me; "there is no singing here
          For the same reason Beatrice has not smiled.
          "Down on the holy ladder’s rungs I stepped
65       So far to offer you warm-hearted welcome
          With my talk and the light that mantles me:
          "It was not stronger love that made me swifter,
          For love as strong or stronger burns up there,
          As all these flaming stars declare to you,
70       "But the high charity which makes us prompt
          To serve the wisdom governing the world
          Assigns us to our place as you perceive."
          "I plainly see," I said, "O sacred lamp,
          How liberal love is ample in this court
75       For following eternal providence,
          "But this is what seems hard for me to grasp:
          Why you alone of all your company
          Were so selected to perform this office."
          I scarcely finished saying this last word
80       When, using its own center as an axis,
          The light went whirling round like a fast millstone.
          The love from in that midpoint then replied,
          "Divine light comes to focus here on me
          By piercing through the beams embracing me:
85       "Its power, fusing with my sight, uplifts
          My soul so high above itself, I see
          The Supreme Being from which it flows out.
          "From this sight comes the joy with which I flame,
          For as my seeing sharpens, so I match
90       The sharpness of my flame to equal it.
          "But that soul who in heaven burns the brightest,
          That seraph with his eye most fixed on God,
          Could not resolve the question you have asked,
          "For what you seek lies hidden down so deep
95       In the abyss of the eternal bidding,
          It is cut off from all created vision.
          "And when you go back to the mortal world,
          Take this news with you, that none may presume
          To move his feet toward so profound a goal.
100     "The mind is light here, on earth it is smoke.
          Consider, then, how it can do down there
          What it cannot do up here with heaven’s help."
          His words put such a limit on me that
          I left the question and withdrew myself
105      So far as to ask humbly who he was.
          "Between the coasts of Italy and not
          Too distant from your homeland, peaks rise up
          So high that thunder sounds far lower down
          "And form a hump that is called Catria,
110      Beneath which lies a sacred hermitage
          Once wholly given over to pure worship."
          So he began to speak to me a third time,
          Then added, "In that cloister I became
          So steadfast in the service of our God
115     "That with food seasoned just with olive-juice
          Lightheartedly I bore both heat and cold,
          Content with thoughtful prayers of contemplation.
          "That monastery used to yield a harvest
          Of rich abundance to these heavens — now,
120     How bare it has become must soon be shown!
          "I was, in that place, Peter Damian,
          And Peter the Sinner, in the Abbey of
          Our Lady on the Adriatic shore.
          "Little was left me of my mortal life
125      When I was called and forced to wear the hat
          That’s always handed down from bad to worse.
          "Cephas once came, and came the mighty vessel
          The Holy Spirit chose, barefoot and lean,
          Eating their food at any wayside inn.
130      "Now modern pastors need people to prop
          Their heavy bodies, on this side and on that,
          With one to lead and one to hold their trains.
          "They spread out their fur mantles on their palfreys
          So that two beasts trot on beneath one hide.
135     O patience, that you put up with so much!"
          With these words I saw more flames stepping down
          From rung to rung and whirling while they came,
          And every whirl intensified their beauty.
          They flocked around this spirit and stood still
140     And lifted up a shout so deep in sound
          That nothing heard on earth resembles it.
          The thunder dashed me so, I could not grasp it.
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