Nature considered under all its aspects—as the concrete things of creation; in the relation of the divine and human in the Incarnation; as a participant in the interplay with grace and freedom—is central to all Catholic thought. It should not be surprising, then, that it is central to Dante’s Divine Comedy, a poetic microcosm of the faith. The Inferno, in which Dante, guided by Virgil, travels a very strenuous and difficult path, climbing always leftward and down the nine circles of hell, clearly depicts the rejection of the gift of grace and the relation between (deformed) nature and sin, and is perennially popular. The Purgatorio, in which Dante and Virgil climb always rightward and up the mountain’s cornices, “un-spiraling” the turning-in of oneself that is the sign and effect of the sins of hell, is highly praised for the beauty, both natural and spiritual, of the scenes in the Garden of Eden. At the top of the mountain, Virgil vanishes and Beatrice becomes Dante’s guide to Paradiso. No longer climbing, he rises effortlessly through nine spheres, from that of the moon through the sun and planets, to the fixed stars, and then to the Primum Mobile, the gateway to the Empyrean. The Paradiso, the least read of the three canticles (though, for this reader at least, the most beautiful), strikes many people as less concrete than the others, with nature disappearing into the divine, and less interesting—even boring—essentially a repetition of different descriptions of light interspersed with Scholastic expositions. It seems the last place to look for anything significant to be said concerning the theme of nature. But that expectation is due to a failure to grasp fully Dante’s metaphysical and theological vision, best illuminated by what is perhaps an unexpected group of writers, whom this essay seeks to engage. In the end, it is in the Paradiso that we see the fullness of the grace-nature relation in all its spiritual and ontological depth.1
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1. The Empyrean is not a “tenth sphere” of creation; it is rather of a qualitatively different order entirely: the divine mind.