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Dr. Patrick Gardner: “Dante, the Pope, and the Mother of Mercy”

Posted: November 9, 2015

A Tutor Talk by Dr. Patrick Gardner

Note: Periodically members of the Thomas Aquinas College teaching faculty or chaplaincy present informal lectures, followed by question-and-answer sessions, on campus. These late-afternoon gatherings afford an opportunity for speakers to discuss topics of great interest to them and to share their thoughts with other members of the community. Dr. Patrick Gardner delivered the following talk on November 4, 2015:



Love that Reaches into the Abyss:
Dante, the Pope, and the Mother of Mercy

by Dr. Patrick Gardner


1  Introduction

Most of you know that Pope Francis has proclaimed an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, beginning on the upcoming Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This was announced in early April, in a Bull entitled Misericordiae Vultus, “The Face of Mercy.” Less well-known is a papal document from early May, a letter to the Italian Senate on the occasion of 750th anniversary of the birth of Dante Alighieri. There the Holy Father expressed his hope that this anniversary would inspire renewed understanding and appreciation of Dante’s great poem, the Divine Comedy — in preparation for the Year of Mercy.


Now for me, being asked by the Pope to read more Dante is not much of a test of the virtue of obedience. All the same, I was given pause when I first heard of this recommendation; in years of reading Dante, I had never thought of him as a poet of mercy.


You can add that to the list of reasons why I’m not the Pope. It did not take long to realize that the Holy Father’s suggestion showed him to be a profound and extraordinary reader of Dante. I say this not because he needs my commendation, or because I am qualified to give it anyhow, but out of gratitude and wonder at what he has helped me to see in a poem whose greatest themes I thought I knew.


In this lecture, then, I will attempt a partial answer to the question, “How is the Divine Comedy a poem of mercy?” And I hope thereby to help you to take up the Pope’s suggestion to read the poem in that light, including — indeed especially — any of you who would be reading it for the first time. I may disappoint, but that is my aim; in any case if you are expecting serious scholarship, whether literary or theological, I’m afraid you will likely be disappointed. There are a few serious theological bits, but I stole them from my sister.1


My thesis, my answer to the question posed, can be given in one word: Mary. You are probably looking for a few more words. What I mean is that the effort to see the thread of mercy running throughout and defining the whole Divine Comedy will become, as I hope to show, a training of our gaze on the Blessed Virgin, whose centrality to the poem is like a secret hiding in plain sight, an often silent but surrounding presence. With our eyes on the Mother of Mercy, we may with God’s grace and her intercession read the poem with the fruit that the Holy Father wants us to enjoy.


2  Mercy as the End of the Poem

Now I will try to connect those dots. You will have gathered that it is not a commonplace in Dante scholarship to see mercy at the heart of the Divine Comedy. In fact, I can recall a conference some years ago, where I was listening to one of the greatest living Dantists today — from whom I have learned a great deal — namely Robert Hollander. He was answering the question: if one had to choose a single word as the ratio, the keystone of the whole poem, what would it be? He did not hesitate: giustizia, justice.


There’s a great deal of reason in that. One bit of evidence in its favor, however accidental and merely empirical, is the sheer frequency of the word. Giusto or giustizia shows up more than 70 times in the poem, including one very remarkable case in which a Latin equivalent is actually portrayed in the action: in the heavenly sphere of Jupiter, the souls of just rulers, appearing as birds, flock together to become living letters of a phrase from the Book of Wisdom: DILIGITE IUSTITIAM, QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM.2 Now ‘justice’ is hardly the most frequent noun in the poem, but even by this superficial standard it is a major theme, and by the same standard it blows mercy out of the water: misericordia, the one Italian word which unambiguously means ‘mercy’, and the Latin miserere together occur just seven times. (If you are wondering what noun is the most frequent, hold that thought.) To take a more substantive standard, reflecting on the poem, it is hard to see any idea more clearly present in every part and in the whole, more fundamental and thoroughgoing both as explicit theme and as implicit ordering principle, than ‘justice’.


So what does Pope Francis have to say for mercy? In the letter already mentioned, he calls Dante “a prophet of hope, a herald of humanity’s possible redemption and liberation, of profound change in every man and woman, of all humanity.”3


Now at first this seems to pull the knot tighter. How shall we regard as a ‘prophet of hope’ the poet whose most famous single line (at least as rendered in English) — what everyone knows of Dante who knows nothing else of him — is “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”? Dante’s poem, by design, shows us for the most part men and women beyond hope, humanity past the possibility of redemption or liberation — either because that possibility has been definitively closed off in Hell, or because it has already been actualized in Heaven. And where there is no hope of betterment, what scope is there for mercy to operate? Now Purgatory indeed remains a realm of hope and change, where mercy might yet be shown anew; yet the stakes are not the same as in this life. Anyhow, ‘one out of three ain’t bad’ won’t suffice to get at the Holy Father’s meaning.


But in the same document he points us towards an answer. He quotes Dante’s letter to Can Grande della Scala (the poet’s patron in exile), in which the poet comments on the then-unfinished Divine Comedy as a whole. Dante says: “... the subject of the whole work, taken literally, is the state of souls after death... but the subject of the whole work, taken allegorically, is man, as by the merits or demerits of his free will he is liable to the rewards or penalties of justice.”4 Another one for justice, it may seem; but he goes on to say (and here is what the Pope mentions): “the purpose of the work in whole and in part is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of bliss.”5


Now here, in Dante’s own claims about the subject and purpose of his poem, are two great lights to illumine our reading, to make that reading — as the Pope calls it — ‘non-reductive’.


In the Inferno especially, but throughout the poem, we cannot help attending to, we are very likely to be fascinated with, questions of who has ended up where, and why. Of course we are — that is literally the subject of the poem, and its author is stoking the fires of fascination left and right. `How many popes has he put down here? Wait, one of them wasn’t even dead yet?’ `Well, I didn’t expect Ulysses there.’ `Cato? You mean that Cato?’ Dante the poet often invites such reactions. Moreover, Dante the character in the poem indulges in such reactions of his own, frequently upon meeting some of his contemporary Italians — so that, vicariously, our own surprises can extend to names we’d never heard before: “Are you here, Ser Brunetto?” (Inf. XV.30); “Judge Nino! You made it through!” (cf. Purg. VIII.53).


But we must remember — that is only the literal subject of the poem. It must be our first concern, as any other sense of a text is built upon the literal; but if it is our only concern we will miss the point, whether we judge Dante’s ‘placements’ favorably or not. Taken literally, the work is about souls, after death; taken allegorically, it is about man — body and soul, in this life, who is free and who by his choices has both reward and punishment before him. I use the term ‘allegory’ because Dante uses it, but I do not want to get tripped up on its associations now and then; so let me paraphrase what I just said: the real subject of the poem is you. If that’s frightening, recall the sequel: the poem is about you because its aim is to help you — to bring you out of the state of misery. This is to say, it is a work of mercy.


Thus to the extent that we can rely on this letter, we very nearly have it in the poet’s own words that the Divine Comedy is connected to mercy as to its end or purpose. What remains is for us to see, within the poem, just how it really is about us the readers, and how its content indeed can help open us, or turn us, towards divine mercy. So, to the poem.

3  Mercy (and Mary) at the Beginning of the Poem

I trust I do not have to issue a ‘spoiler alert’ before saying that the protagonist of the poem starts badly, and ends better. He starts, to be more exact, in a vale of tears. There is a dark wood as well — famously, from the opening lines: “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost” (Inf. I.1-3) But the wood lies in a “valley that had pierced my heart with fear” (15), Dante recalls, into which he had gone astray, and spent a terrible night. How or why has Dante gone astray? We are not quite told; we will have to pick that up somehow as we go. He reaches the edge of the valley and tries to ascend, but is rebuffed by fierce animals; it seems he will be lost indeed, but for the sudden and indeed miraculous appearance of a guide — not any guide, but Virgil (or rather the ghost of Virgil), the glory of Roman poetry.


How did Virgil get here? Does he fly about looking for poets in distress? He himself tells us that he came to Dante because he was sent, by a blessed lady to whom Dante was devoted and who has taken pity on him. You may have heard already the name Beatrice, the Florentine girl who enraptured the young Dante at a distance and became a sort of living vision of grace and beauty in his mind and poetry for the rest of his life; is this the blessed lady? Yes and no; Beatrice indeed came to Virgil, knowing that this was the sort of guide needed for the first and most perilous stage of Dante’s restoration. But she herself was sent, by St. Lucy, to whom also Dante apparently had a special devotion. So Lucy first saw and moved to aid Dante in his plight? No, she too was sent; so far we have only moved movers, so we have not yet explained the motion at all.


So how did it begin? Virgil repeats for Dante what Beatrice told him: “In Heaven there is a gracious lady who has such pity of this impediment to which I send you that stern judgment is broken thereabove.” (Inf. II.94-96) We are not told the name of this gracious lady, this donna gentile, nor will we have the joy of hearing her name pass any lips until all of Hell is past; but it is not in doubt.


This, then is the beginning of the action of the poem, the principle of all the mediated movement that will save our pilgrim gone astray: Mary had pity, and divine judgment, a judgment of Dante’s just desert, was broken. Now any careful reader of the poem knows this by the second canto; but it is remarkably easy to let it slip into forgetfulness or irrelevance. For at this point, you the reader will be only at the beginning of an arduous journey, a journey literally spanning heaven and earth, and the struggle of that itinerary tends to fill the imagination. Yet what Virgil tells us, brief as the account may be, is that the journey in the poem is only the second half of the journey of Dante’s salvation, and in truth the easier half, since the great initial movement has already been made: Mary’s pity reached down from heaven into the pit, and then Beatrice followed in the trail thus blazed.

4  Mercy through the Inferno

If we keep this principle of the journey firmly in mind — that the narrative we read in the Inferno is not the tale of the torments and back-stories of the damned but is that of a single man being shown mercy by being shown these things — it will change how we read, even though at any moment both mercy and the Blessed Virgin may seem very far away. For one thing, when we see that harrowing sign, ‘Abandon all hope...’, we will recall that we are witnessing its violation! For Dante enters, and he does not abandon hope; and if he is a very exceptional case, well, every reader may do the same with him.


And that is the key: first to see ourselves in Dante the pilgrim, and then through his eyes even to see ourselves in the damned, so that the seeds of damnation we carry about in ourselves might be seen and torn out. Now, I realize that to suggest ‘identifying with the protagonist’, or any character in a narrative, is about as trite a piece of advice as I could give. (I could rephrase by telling you all really to go to Hell; but that’s no better.) Still, I hope that by giving an example of how effectively Dante puts the mirror up to man, and explaining what I mean by ‘identifying’, I’ll be a bit more useful, or at least will give something worth disagreeing with.


The episode of Paolo and Francesca, the lovers whose doleful tale is told early in the Inferno, in the circle of the Lustful, is famous not only for the pathos in the lovers’ story but in the suffering of the pilgrim — he is so moved with pity, after hearing Francesca’s account, that he faints. Let us listen in on that account, indeed lovely and piteous: “Love, which is quickly kindled in the gentle heart, seized this one for the fair form that was taken from me, and the way of it afflicts me still. Love, which absolves no loved one from loving, seized me so strongly with delight in him that, as you see, it does not leave me even now. Love brought us to one death. Caina awaits him who quenched our life.” (Inf. V.100-7) The last line means that they were murdered on account of their love; Caina is a lower place in Hell.


So: apparently we have a regular Romeo and Juliet here, an enticingly tragic love story. We may then forgive Dante’s curiosity when he asks Francesca to say more: what was the fateful moment, how exactly did it happen? “One day, for pastime, we read of Lancelot, how love constrained him; we were alone, suspecting nothing. Several times that reading urged our eyes to meet and took the color from our faces, but one moment alone it was that overcame us. When we read how the longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, this one, who never shall be parted from me, kissed my mouth all trembling. A Gallehault was the book and he who wrote it; that day we read no farther in it” (127-38).


Here is our pilgrim’s first true encounter with a soul in torment; and what has it to do with mercy? Two ‘beautiful people’, unsuspecting; some pleasant reading; a near occasion presented by some unscrupulous author; a moment’s indiscretion; then sudden discovery, death, and eternal damnation. Is this even just?


Now here is where we must be wary of the temptation to make our chief role as readers the judge of Dante’s judgments. That is precisely Francesca’s trap; and not a few readers have fallen in. Through such episodes they come to regard Dante the poet as merciless and the poem in the main a tragedy, despite its title; or else (if they are religiously jaded readers) they may discover a subversive Dante, a kindred secular soul stuck in the Middle Ages, subtly showing up the injustice of God’s judgment, without daring to say so in so many words. To clear away that fog, all we must do is: (1) read carefully, and (2) see ourselves there — sympathize indeed, but with the sorry state of the sinner, not the sin.


First, careful reading. Let us look again at what Francesca does and does not tell us. What she does tell us, as to the basic facts, I have already told — that she and Paolo were: good-looking; victims of Love and a romantic Arthurian novel; and quickly slain for their tryst. Pretty thin on the facts, actually, for all her words. But if we look in the surrounding text we do learn a bit more. Immediately after describing how he fainted, the poet continues: “At the return of my mind which had closed itself before the piteousness of the two kinsfolk...” (Inf. VI.1-2) Kinsfolk? What is this? The word here (cognati) means simply in-laws; Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother. That is an interesting little, circumstantial detail.


Now, evidently Dante knew something of the story of these two already — he guesses Francesca’s name. It must have been a notorious affair at the time; and we latecomers can get filled in by way of the usual commentaries or notes. So perhaps there is not meant to be any great revelation in the addition of this little, circumstantial detail after the story is past. Perhaps the fact that it was a story of adultery does not detract from its pathos — or even adds to it, for some readers. Yet is it not remarkable that, in Francesca’s own eagerness to pour out her tale to a sympathetic listener, and Dante’s own eagerness to hear all the sordid details, not a word should drop that allows us to give this thing its proper name? (Save a subtle hint of analogy to Lancelot and Guinevere; that a brother was involved we might have deduced from ‘Caina’, the realm of Cain.) And we are forced to ask: can we trust her? Should we trust any of the damned?


By this I do not mean that we should suspect them of simply lying, or even being self-consciously misleading. Here is where we need a certain kind of sympathy, of ‘identifying’ with a character, in addition to close reading. What I mean is that we should recall the way that we speak, to ourselves or others, in our worst fits of self-justification, of self-pity. We do not simply fabricate, but oh, what webs we still may weave — by distortion, omission, euphemism — by which to hide from our own selves (if only for a little while) the name of the thing, a plain account of ‘what I did and did not do’.


Now with an eye to that state of soul, and with the little, circumstantial detail we’ve learned, let us hear again her words: “Love, which absolves no loved one from loving, seized me so strongly with delight in him that, as you see, it does not leave me even now.” The whole thing is dressed up quite beautifully in the sweet sadness of an Arthurian tragedy, but, really, what is she saying? She is still saying what she said to herself to lead herself to this pass — `I can’t do otherwise! Love is a merciless god!’ She blamed a book and its tale of Lancelot; but as we listen to her, do we not see that she has written this story herself, a story of adultery glossed over with a courtly and poetic neo-paganism? The book was a prop to fit her theme! And for a moment, it worked — her story turned Dante’s head, as she said Lancelot’s turned hers; and perhaps ours as well?


I don’t want to get carried away; but we must see that Dante, the pilgrim, does get carried away — overcome, he says, by pity. Pity, pietà, is a word sprinkled throughout this scene and a critical one for the whole poem, especially in light of our theme of mercy. At the outset of the journey into Hell, Dante had spoken of preparing himself for “la guerra sì del cammino e sì della pietate” (Inf. II.4-5), the war of the way and of the pity. `The war of the pity’ is a strange thing to say; but the canto of Francesca gives it proof. When Dante sees the souls of the lustful battered about ceaselessly by a “hellish hurricane” of “warring winds” (31), he learns “that to such torment are condemned the carnal sinners, who subject reason to desire” (37-39); and when Virgil names some of the ‘Who’s who’ among them, “the ladies and the knights of old” as he puts it, the pilgrim says, “pity overcame me and I was as one bewildered” (71-72) — lost, to be exact, smarrito. This is exactly the word used at the very beginning of the poem to describe his state in the dark wood: a morally benighted state. And again, when Francesca finishes her story: “for pity I swooned, as if in death” (140-41).


What is pity here? Why must it be fought? Like our English word, the Italian pietà can be synonymous with mercy, but can also mean something rather different, as all too clearly it does here. Here pity is a passion, a force overwhelming reason — rather like Francesca’s use of ‘Love’, it gives the word a bad name. That is to say, indulging this pity is very like the sin being punished here: reason subjected to desire, whether the desire of “sweet sighs” (118) and lovely bodies, or of the bittersweet sighs of sympathy with doomed desire.


We are, as it were, inside the sin when we listen to Francesca; it is a terribly true psychology. Other visions of Hell, before and after Dante, show external torments in some way befitting the sins; that is almost the rule of the genre. But Dante has given us something else. He has the fitting externals, too; but these are backdrops to the real picture: the picture of sin in the soul, still in act, with all distractions stripped away; the picture of the great gift of human reason turned to a lower good, ‘subjecting reason to desire’ right before us and indeed at us: using all its powers of rhetoric in a paean to desire.


In the course of his journey through Inferno, Dante has actually to overcome this kind of pity — not to become pitiless, but to root out from his heart the sympathy for sin which he shows here. With some sins, it is true, he has no battle to fight; we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But we cannot forget that his journey is the war of the pity; and sooner or later we readers will very likely have the need and the chance to fight it as well. If we are able, it is because of Dante’s own insight into the human soul, and the power of his poetry to show a soul’s earthly desires fixed in eternity — which he has done as a mercy to us.


But let us leave the abyss, and raise our eyes towards the stars.

5  Mercy (and Mary) in the Purgatorio

I am not going to dwell at comparable length in Purgatorio, however. This is in part because I don’t want to try your patience. But more importantly, I aim to assist your reading of the Divine Comedy in the light of mercy, and as I indicated earlier, Purgatory is the exception which does not require much explanation in that regard. It is most evidently a realm of mercy in particulars, as various moments therein will make abundantly and joyously clear. Moreover, as my thesis is that Mary is the key to seeing this poem of mercy, again Purgatorio will largely take care of itself: e.g., the Blessed Virgin is remembered as an exemplar of a particular virtue on each of the seven terraces of the mountain of purgation, leading the Church suffering onward to blessedness each step of the way.


But I cannot resist a brief stop at one episode. I said at the outset that the answer to the question, ‘How is the Divine Comedy a story of mercy?’ can be answered in exactly one word. In Purgatorio there is a microcosm in which this is literally true. The pilgrim meets Buonconte di Montefeltro, a captain of the forces against which Dante himself had fought in the battle of Campaldino, one high-water mark in the ceaseless ebb and flow of internecine strife in Tuscany that so shaped the poet’s life. Buonconte died from wounds received in the battle, but his body was never found; this was, we gather from his words, the abrupt ending of rather an impious life. But then: as his life spilled away, his soul unshriven and so lately full of slaughter, he ended on one word, “nel nome di Maria fini’ ” (V.101), and so expired. And this is why we find him where we do: on the way to blessedness, if somewhat delayed in accordance with his own spiritual tardiness. Ah, but why was his body never found? (Dante is still taking advantage of this journey’s singular opportunities for the exclusive interview, the inside story.) Upon Buonconte’s death there appears an angel of Satan, who had been waiting to collect a soul that had — as it seemed — its destination marked and postage paid long since. He is suddenly disappointed, and cries out at the angel of God depriving him: “You carry off the eternal part of him for one little tear... but of the rest I will make other disposal!” (106-8). And that body he casts to the elements.


I suppose that we here will not be worried by the devil’s complaint. Buonconte evidently did have real contrition — as even ‘one little tear’ may evidence — and of course, this is enough. But while it might make for a moving vignette, might we not object that it is a dangerous exception to advertise? Certainly it would be, if one were to take from it comfort in delaying contrition; but that is not really very likely. What I want to attend to is that, in a way, in Buonconte we are seeing not the exception but the rule; or better, amongst all the saved souls whom we encounter, no one takes us so immediately as he does to the principle of the mercy each has received in salvation, the principle of the communication of divine mercy to the whole world — one word, the name of Mary. And to show that Dante in fact means this, I turn now to the Paradiso.

6  Mercy (and Mary) in the Paradiso

If you are reading the Divine Comedy for the first time as a whole, you are likely to find Paradiso to be the most difficult of the three realms to enjoy. I hope that doesn’t say something about you. I don’t mean to imply that you don’t belong there — at least not you especially; this is a very common reaction for first-time readers, at least in our age. Maybe that does say something about our age. But in any case, be of good hope: even in these latter days it is possible to acquire a taste for Heaven.


The obstacle is that in the other two realms, the narrative of the poem has to a large extent turned upon personalities, characters and their miniature histories which fascinate us and draw us from episode to episode (just like Francesca or Buonconte). There is also a good deal of discourse, in Inferno and Purgatorio, on questions political, philosophical, and theological; but it is usually taken up by and through these very concrete characters. In Paradiso, however, while we continue to meet individual souls and to learn their personal stories, there is something transparent about them (in some cases literally). The narrative now seems to move from discourse to discourse; and with the exception of Beatrice, who is Dante’s guide for most of this realm and who remains a powerful presence throughout, the souls of the blessed can seem to fade in and out without relieving the abstraction.


Now in that statement of a ‘first impression’, you may detect already the way to surmount this obstacle. It is really true that the blessed have made themselves transparent to the will of God; but we know by faith that in so doing they have not lost but rather found themselves, their own personalities. One character, Piccarda dei Donati, shows this paradox perfectly. She is in fact a ‘well-known character in Paradiso’, which sounds like an exception to the rule I just mentioned, and so she is; but on the other hand, what makes her memorable? We meet her early on, among souls who appear in the lowest sphere of the heavens because of broken vows in life. Piccarda explains to Dante how it is that there can be gradations in Heaven, even though every soul is perfectly happy. It comes down to this, which becomes a famous verse: “In His will is our peace” (III.85). So she is memorable by the simple, sweet way in which she expresses her own transparency to God’s will.


I think we can find this throughout Paradiso. We must first take seriously the theology and philosophy — and by that I mean, not merely to accept it as true (or, if we quibble with some parts, at least intelligible and important), but to allow Dante to make things new for us, even the most common and central truths and prayers of the faith. The more we do that, the more we will come to love this final canticle and feel the presence of persons there, who have emptied themselves to be filled with God’s grace. And if we do that we will also see beyond doubt that mercy is at the heart of the poem; mercy surrounds the poem.


Let me, as before, take one canto by which to illustrate some of these general remarks. Canto VII provides a good test case: it consists almost entirely of a multipart theological discourse by Beatrice; and it is very much concerned with the relation between justice and mercy; although at first blush — just like the poem as a whole — it seems to be dominated by the former. Recall the superficial standard of word-frequency; by that measure this is the leading canto for justice: giusto or giustizia is used here more often than in any other canto in the whole poem. This is not surprising, in context: the question which occasions Beatrice’s long discourse is how a just vengeance can be justly avenged. In the previous canto, the emperor Justinian tells us that such was the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70: a vengeance, taken by divine justice, against the Jews. For what? For the crucifixion; and yet the crucifixion was itself the “vengeance of the ancient sin” (VI.93) — it was a penalty that, in Adam, was justly incurred by all human nature.


We cannot now delve fully into this question; for present purposes, merely note: first, that the very framing of the question seems almost antithetical to mercy; and second, that in order to answer it, Beatrice must give a summary Christology and soteriology, a theology of how we were saved by Christ; for the paradox presented by Justinian is really just a facet of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and Passion.


So, a question of just vengeance leads Beatrice to give her Cur Deus homo, her account of why God chose this way to redeem us: becoming man, and suffering death. At the cusp of this part of the discourse she pauses, and makes what may seem a mere pedagogical aside, telling the pilgrim Dante: “Fix now your eyes within the abyss of the Eternal Counsel, as closely fastened on my words as you are able” (VII.94-96). I’ll treat it as an aside for now, but remember the words, ‘fix your eyes within the abyss of the Eternal Counsel.’ For the moment, she continues: “Man within his own limits, could never make satisfaction, for not being able to descend in humility, by subsequent obedience, so far as in his disobedience he had intended to ascend” (97-100) — hence God had to act, if man was to be restored. God might simply have pardoned the offence, wiped the slate clean; but this is unworthy of the divine goodness. The giver of every perfect gift, of whom all creation is pure gift, was not content with clemency but gave Himself, “to make man sufficient to uplift himself again” (116). And then, the kicker: “all other modes were scanty in respect to justice, if the Son of God had not humbled himself to become incarnate” (118-20).


Clemency, pardon: this is what we often mean when we say ‘mercy’; and then mercy can indeed be opposed to justice — at least, to one particular penalty, the one says ‘yea’ and the other ‘nay’. That way God did not take — because it was not enough of a gift; because it is too little a mercy that competes with justice. A greater mercy will contain justice.


Self-gift cuts the knot. By giving Himself, emptying himself to be born among us, God granted us a gift much more, infinitely more, than merely ignoring our sins, remitting the penalty; yet at the same time, because of the truth of the gift — because the Son did not merely use a man as his messenger, but was given over to become man in truth — our redemption was also made in justice: there was one who descended far enough in humility to pay the debt, and that one was a Son of Man, a descendant of Adam according to the flesh. The zero-sum game has been itself overruled; justice was perfectly fulfilled not through less mercy but through more.


In fact, this was a mercy than which no greater can be conceived. Pope Francis, in Misericordiae Vultus, quotes St. Thomas to this effect: nothing manifests God’s power so much as His mercy.6 For one who has mercy supplies for another’s defect, remedies another’s pain, not under the aspect of a debt, but simply because it is a defect, which out of an abundance of goodness one has power to remedy. It is the virtue of the superior as superior, of the one who has and owes not, but nonetheless gives to the one who has not and is owed nothing. And what greater defect than sin and the prospect of eternal death, what remedy greater than sharing God’s own life, can we conceive?


This is mercy proper; by this account we can see why clemency is only partial mercy. It is indeed a remission of misery by a superior, done without obligation; yet it is by definition only a partial remedy: it can remove the external causes of pain and penalty deserved by wrongdoing, but at the same time it must withhold a good. For punishment, justly given, achieves the good of justice; and although how much good it does to the soul of the wrongdoer depends on how his will stands to the suffering, nonetheless, he contributes to the restoration of a common good willy-nilly — by the very fact of his suffering. To dismiss or disregard a wrong by definition cannot make the wrong right, and that is a persisting evil which the recipient of clemency may well feel in himself.


We can also now put a finger more precisely on what was lacking in the pity which so exercised Dante in the Inferno. This too had a part of true mercy; again following St. Thomas, a man is called merciful (misericors) in the first place because he makes another’s misery his own (takes it to heart, cor). That was indeed the act of the pilgrim’s pity before Francesca. But the merciful man makes another’s misery his own so as to heal it by what remedy he can confer — that is the whole purpose and the sense of making it his own: this misery was a thing outside his person and his obligations, he had nothing to do with it, except through this virtue by which he reaches out to take the misery into his own heart as a goad to action, just as much as he would act for a misery really his own. Now compare the pilgrim’s pity in the Inferno: with Francesca, Dante made another’s misery his own in order to wallow in it. Likewise we often speak of a self-pity actually opposed to remedying a fault. And so having only the suffering of mercy but not its purpose and action, it becomes in a way opposed to mercy.


The divine pity, of course, is on the other extreme: it has the purpose and action of mercy while transcending the suffering. For God is never made miserable in His divinity by taking on another’s misery; rather His mercy consists wholly in the removing of the other’s misery. Yet it is truly mercy still — there is not less but more reaching out to another’s defect when the one needing nothing absolutely, having all goodness and thus all motivation for action whatsoever in Himself, looks upon the one needing everything, and gives.


As the Pope says (again in Misericordiae vultus), “God does not deny justice. He rather envelops it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice... Christ... in his death and resurrection brings salvation together with a mercy that justifies.”7 Love — merciful love — is the foundation of justice. This describes our redemption — hence the term ‘justification’, a gratuitous making-right in which God freely gives us the very righting of the wrong we did Him — but it also describes creation itself. In the beginning, there was mercy. St. Thomas calls mercy the prima radix of every work of God; indeed it is the root of the very justice which is in every work of God.8 Charles De Koninck put it this way: “In justice itself, there is more of mercy than of justice.”9 For without the gratuitous gift of being, reaching out into the absolute poverty, the abyss of non-being — the spirit moving over the deep — nothing could subsequently be owed us; there could be no debts to be repaid.


Now in drawing together the mercy of redemption with the mercy of creation I am not only following St. Thomas but also Dante. The connection is present in Paradiso VII, which (as we have seen) explains just vengeance by redemptive mercy;10 but the mercy of creation appears more fully near the end of the journey, in Paradiso XXIX. Only this close to the Beatific Vision is it time to ask such a question as, ‘Why did God create?’ Beatrice gives such answer as can be given: “Not to increase His store of goodness, a thing impossible, but that His splendor shining back, might say, ‘Subsisto’, in His eternity, beyond time, beyond any other limit, as it pleased Him, in these new loves, Eternal Love unfolded” (13-18).


So in all things there was mercy, from the beginning; the very existence of all things is a mercy, at bottom and at every moment. Is that not already cause for great hope? And yet — who could have fathomed the depth of mercy that God had in store for man after he had become liable to avenging justice? In the beginning, God looked into the abyss of nothingness and saw new loves, He reached out and offered a share in His being; when He looked out into the deeper and darker abyss of sin, the degradation of a blackened world, what did He see?


‘I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem” (Song 1:4).


That is how the Divine Office answers this question, as Charles De Koninck pointed out, for it attributes these words from the Song of Songs to the Blessed Virgin.11 Dante will give us his version of the same answer through the mouth of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, that loving exegete of the Song of Songs, who is the pilgrim’s last guide at the end of his journey, the last soul who by speech prepares him for the very vision of God. Here is how Bernard begins the 100th and final canto of the Divine Comedy — with a prayer: ‘Virgin mother, daughter of thy Son, humble and exalted more than any creature, fixed goal of the eternal counsel...” (Par. XXXIII.1-3). You didn’t forget, did you, the words of Beatrice? ‘Fix your eye into the abyss of the eternal counsel’ — and you will see why God became man. Mary is the fixed term of the eternal counsel; she is at the bottom of the abyss, more humble than any creature, and thus exalted beyond all creation. She alone of all of us in meekness and purity of heart knew fully and did not resent her nothingness before the Lord; and thus she was at the bottom, the foundation, of the unfathomable abyss of the eternal counsel, the depth of love which was from all eternity preparing her to receive Himself. “Deep is calling to deep, in the roar of waters; your torrents and all your waves swept over me.” (Ps. 42:7)


For she came first — she was the fixed terminus, the goal, the target. We, of course, must follow things as they appear, and so we say: first Eve, then the Fall, then the need for a remedy, then the New Eve. But for the Maker, the final, perfect product is the first thing in mind, the goal of further counsel. God creates Eve knowing the evil that will follow; but, as St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Dante and many others will tell us, if God allows evil, we know that He will bring greater good out of it, however mysterious the way of it may be to us or however long may be the wait for that good to appear. But the reason for creation in the first place — if a reason can be given — is that it might be loveable, good: He saw that it was good, and altogether, very good. So if God will bring a greater good out of a good creation marred by evil, that greater good at the end is the very first reason he creates. The world was created so that God might become man to free us from our sins; that is, the whole cosmos was created, above all, to house Mary, the house of God.


Now let me return to Bernard’s prayer, in the final canto, the fixed terminus of Dante’s poetic vision. His praise of the Blessed Virgin concludes: “In thee is mercy, in thee pity, in thee munificence, in thee is found whatever of goodness is in any creature” (19-21). Here again we must let Dante make familiar piety new to us; for the exaltation of Mary is so familiar, we may not notice that these lines have told us that she is a common good of all creation — she has, in herself, whatever goodness is in any creature; and so she is better than any creature, or the whole creation taken together, since it is already even more ‘taken together’ in her. How can we fathom this — that Mary has all the goodness of all the angels? Dante, through St. Bernard, has given the answer in the same lines: “In thee, mercy.”


What good is there in any creature, or in all creation? Nothing but what it has received from God’s mercy. Where will be the greatest good in creation, or the sum of all goods? It will be in whatever part of creation is most receptive, most lowly, most self-emptying before God. To that part God showed His mercy infinitely, by filling her womb with Himself. Therefore she is not merely a great recipient of the divine mercy; she is the divine mercy, outside of God himself. For the whole extent of that mercy, outside of God himself, is simply all creation, whose goodness God willed to supply from His own superabundance; and Mary is the whole goodness of creation in one being — that is what Bernard has said.


That is why she is the Mother of Mercy, the channel of God’s mercy to all the rest of creation. That is why she is our hope, and our only hope. Dante’s Bernard again: “Whoso would have grace and has not recourse to thee, his desire seeks to fly without wings” (14-15). We will not come to her without humility; to deny our own misery, our poverty, is to close our minds to mercy, and that is to leave ourselves to oblivion, to the void. But by the same fact there is never cause to despair. Precisely because the universe owes its being to mercy, to God’s gratuitous calling being out of the abyss, and the Church owes its being to a mercy transcending all creation, how great must be our confidence! However low man abases himself, we know with certainty that this very abasement will be the occasion for yet greater acts of mercy; since it was just for this that we were brought into the world.


So you will, I hope, see in the journey of Dante. I know that I have hardly begun to trace its outline, marking but a few waypoints from the valley of tears to the Empyrean, as things worth looking out for in advance. One last thing: I asked you — two or three years ago, near the beginning of this lecture — to hold on for a while to the idle and trivial question of what noun occurs more often than any other in the Divine Comedy. Well, the ‘eyes’ have it — it is occhio, the eye. My last piece of advice, in this scattered and threadbare guide, is to keep an eye on the significance of eyes, as you go through the poem, the moreso the higher you go; and you may find the ending all the better prepared-for.


Bernard finishes his prayer by acknowledging that Dante can only come to the vision of God by turning to Mary — literally: he must look into her eyes; I will add, he must look into the face of mercy. ‘The Face of Mercy’ is, again, the title the Holy Father gave to his announcement of the Jubilee Year; he refers it to the face of Christ; but there is no disagreement. For Bernard had said: “Look now upon the face which most resembles Christ, for only its brightness can prepare you to see Christ” (XXXII.85-87). Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy; and His face is a human face, which resembles one other, from which its features were taken, as every child from its mother. Looking into her eyes, and seeing reflected in them the Light of that infinite goodness upon which she gazes, Dante himself is finally raised up to some brief and partial flash of that vision. May your reading of his poem of mercy help in some way to turn your eyes ever more to her.



1Katherine Gardner, The Lord Possessed Me in the Beginning of His Ways: Mary and the Trinitarian Order of the Universe. A Commentary on Charles De Koninck’s Ego Sapientia: The Wisdom That Is Mary, unpublished doctoral dissertation (Ave Maria University, 2013).


2Paradiso XVIII.91-93. Unless otherwise noted, quotations of the poem in Italian or English translation are taken from: The Divine Comedy, trans. Charles S. Singleton, 6 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1975).


3“Message of His Holiness Pope Francis to the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture for the Solemn Celebration of the 750th Anniversary of the Birth of the Supreme Poet Dante Alighieri,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 4 May 2015, accessed 22 October 2015,


4“Est ergo subiectum totius operis, litteraliter tantum accepti, status animarum post mortem... Si vero accipiatur opus allegorice, subiectum est homo prout merendo et demerendo per arbitrii libertatem iustitie premiandi et puniendi obnoxius est.” Epistola XIII, 24-25, Princeton Dante Project, accessed 22 October 2015,


5“... finis totius et partis est removere viventes in hac vita de statu miserie et perducere ad statum felicitatis.” Ibid., 39.


6Misericordiae vultus: Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 11 April 2015, accessed 28 October 2015,, § 6. Cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 30. a. 4.


7Ibid., § 21, 20.


8Summa theologiae, I, q. XXI, a. 4.


9“Dans la justice elle-même, il y a plus de miséricorde que de justice.” “Misericorde et redemption,” unpublished lecture notes, c. 1940-41, in Charles De Koninck Papers, Jacques Maritain Center (University of Notre Dame), CDK 22/Folder 11.1c, pp. 47-68, transcribed by Katherine Gardner.


10“The Divine Goodness, which spurns all envy from itself, burning within itself so sparkles that It displays the eternal beauties.” Par. VII.64-66.


11Ego sapientia: La sagesse qui est Marie (Québec: Éditions de l’Université Laval, 1943), part II passim. An unpublished translation by Ronald McArthur is available:, accessed 28 October 2015; or see the translation by Ralph McInerny, Ego Sapientia: The Wisdom that is Mary, in The Writings of Charles De Koninck, vol. 2 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), pp. 1-62.

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