Within that heaven which most receives His light
Was I, and saw such things as man nor knows
Nor skills to tell, returning from that height;
For when our intellect is drawing close
To its desire, its paths are so profound
That memory cannot follow where it goes.
Canto I, lines 1-9
Dorothy Sayers, translatorDante
We all know the Belinda Carlisle’s song “Heaven is a Place on Earth” but it’s not a sentiment Dante would have shared. Heaven is beyond human understanding, description, or the constraints of time. If we cannot understand it, let along fully imagine it, then how can we bring it to earth?
The state of the present world could certain do with a bit of heaven. The war between Russia and Ukraine drags on, plastic is choking the oceans, inflation is at a 40-year high, and even the earth is convulsing. When Mt. Etna erupted in February, it was the first major eruption in 30 years, according to Reuters.
Dante’s answer is that we can’t. Not as it actually exists. Heaven and it’s unity is something which Earth cannot have, however hard we try to make it so. Of course, his reasoning is on the basis of the Christian idea of a fallen creation.
If true love can’t bring heaven to earth, what can? The answer is that any love we experience here is still just a reflection–a dim reflection–of what love truly is.
Love is Unity to the Divine
For Dante in Catholic Europe as for many other religions, the purest form of love is expressed with a soul’s unity to the Divine whether you call that Divine essence God, Allah, Yahweh, or the Universe.
Without unification, love isn’t possible. In Hell, we saw people divided from each other, themselves, and from the ability to feel or care for anything beyond their own errors. In Purgatory, we saw souls learning what it meant to become one with the Divine. It was hard, laborious, and often painful.
But it was essential so that they could receive, appreciate, and become fully unified the Divine essence.
Love is Limitless which means it is beyond Earth
Human beings are limited creatures. Dante’s trip through Hell shows the limitations of human beings at its most extreme in its most basic form: the unwillingness to choose good.
In Purgatory, we learn the nature of these sins is a basic lack of understanding of the full and complete nature of love. In Paradise, we start to understand what that love looks like.
And it goes beyond having warm feelings. There is a unity with the Divine Will and there are layers to Paradise which correspond to the planets and yet are all Paradise.
There is a reason why Dante’s Paradise is basically a trip through space. Heaven is beyond Earth–the only way to allegorically show this was to put Heaven in the stars themselves. If you consider what Dante knew about space, it’s remarkable little to what we know now.
For him, it was representative of the infinity which lies beyond the human realm.
Love is Beyond Time
Dante’s trips through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven supposedly takes place within the course of a week. Thanks to Dorothy Sayer’s translation work, we have good timelines for Hell and Purgatory. There isn’t such a clear timeline for Paradise.
There are other, more practical reasons for this beside the possibility Dante himself no longer cared about time in Paradise. However, for the purposes of his allegory, I think that is what we should take away from the lack of a timeline.
In Paradise, time no longer matters because God is there. There is no time with God–for he is outside of it completely.
This is an idea which we human latch onto very easily. Love is timeless. We are drawn to stories of “true love” whether they are fairy tales like The Princess Bride or space odysseys like Interstellar.
Love on Earth
Love cannot make heaven a place on Earth because it’s only an echo of its true form. All it can do is remind us there is more out there, even if we cannot understand it. It can remind us that we are more together than we are apart.
Love isn’t impossible on Earth–the ecological movement alone is evident that love is very possible on Earth. So is the outpouring of support for Tonga after the disastrous volcanic eruption last year, or the war in Ukraine. But it’s a shadow of what it is outside of time and space.
I cannot think of a purer form of love than already war-torn veterans turning around and going off to fight for a country that isn’t their own simply because the people there need help. Or the civilians in surround nations hosting strangers in their homes because theirs are gone.
That is love and it goes beyond the petty borders of our bodies, nations, or political alliances.
So, while we show the Earth a little love, let us not lose heart. We may not be able to bring heaven to earth, but we can show its reflection in our actions.
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