In the long stretches of pagan night—before, that is, Christ suffered to illumine and redeem the dark—only the most illusory sphere of light existed on the far side of death. Infinitely remote, it remained that unreachable vault of sky to which the vast number of the unredeemed vainly sought entry. Because the time had not yet come for God, in the form of the Suffering Servant, his Son, to enter and set right the broken world, the soul of man was not free to soar heavenward. Pagan man might aspire to, but he could never attain the true abode of God, in whose blessed company the baptized alone were free to bask. As a result, the whole of pagan antiquity remained steeped in sadness.
We see this so plainly on the faces of those good and upright pagans whom Dante has placed in the First Circle of Hell, their appearance betraying neither joy nor grief. “They have committed no sin,” explains Virgil, who is among their number, “and if they have merits, / That is not enough, because they are not baptized, / Which all must be, to enter the faith which is yours/.” Consigned thus to Limbo, the souls of the unbaptized languish there forever, where, save for the sound of sighing, they do not suffer. Nor do they hope.
How different is the destiny marked out for the followers of Christ! Nothing less than an eternal vision of God awaits those who, in the evening of their lives, to recall the beautiful line from St. John of the Cross, have been examined on love and not found wanting. Then will the words spoken by Christ resound for them: “Well done good and faithful servant; enter now the Kingdom your Father has prepared for you.”
In the final cantos from the Paradiso, we see Dante enter those same precincts of eternal felicity. There he is granted a glimpse of the Trinity, the inner life of God, plunging him into the Mystery at the heart of all reality. But in order for him to obtain so singular a grace, Dante must first intercede with she who is the Mother and Mediatrix of all grace. For it is on the Lady of Heaven alone that success in so sublime an endeavor will depend. “Look now upon the face which most resembles / That of Christ,” St. Bernard will exhort him, “because only its brightness / Can make you capable of seeing Christ.”
The way to the Father is not a roundabout way for it goes through the Son; but only through the Mother may we be certain of having made the connection. She who so exalted our creaturely status, Dante tells us, that the Creator himself did not disdain to become a creature. How then can Dante not succeed in seeing the face of God if she who gave birth to the Incarnate Word were to introduce him? Indeed, she is his only option, there being no other way to Heaven except through the Gate of Heaven. As St. Bernard reveals in his wonderful prayer to the Mother of God:
Lady, you are so great, and have such power,
That whoever seeks grace without recourse to you
Is like someone wanting to fly without wings.
Bereft of the wings on which he longs to fly to God, Dante would be no better than any poor potsherd of a pagan, who pines for deliverance from sin and death yet, untutored in the operations of grace, cannot find the way thereto. Apart from she who, in Hopkins’ superb line, “mothers each new grace that does now reach our race,” Dante’s hunger for wholeness, for lasting human fulfillment, would fall miserably short of the goal.
In you there is mercy, in you there is pity,
In you magnificence, in you there is
Whatever goodness there ever was in creatures.
On the strength therefore of so sure and powerful a send-up, Dante can hardly refuse Bernard’s offer to solicit the Mother of God in his behalf. And so he listens while the sainted Abbot of Clairvaux, the ardor of whose devotion to the Virgin is among the glories of medieval theology, implores the great Queen of Heaven to assist him in his ascent to God. Grant him grace and strength enough, he begs, “to lift his eyes / Higher towards the ultimate beatitude:
And I, who never burned more for my own vision
Than I do for his, I offer all my prayers.
And pray that they may not be insufficient;
That you may disencumber him of all
Clouds of mortality, with your own prayers,