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Dante’s Magnificent Vision of the Resurrection of the Flesh
by Anthony Esolen
Mars Hill, about A.D. 51. You’re a raffish Jew from the outback, one Paul of Tarsus, by way of Palestine, Antioch, and all the cowtowns of Asia Minor. You’re going to preach the Good News to well-heeled Athenians who have long lost any vibrant belief in the gods, or any real devotion to their country; though they probably still practice gymnastics, and a couple of them may recite Homer.
You’re no great orator, and you don’t have much of a body, but that’s all right. The Athenians will be polite enough to listen to you anyway. What else do they have to do? Not a lot, as your friend Luke will remark.
So you preach the one God by whom we live and move and have our being. The Athenians have a vague insight about him already, you tell them: You’ve seen their shrine to “the unknown god.” They don’t necessarily believe all that rubbish about Zeus sleeping with his sister Hera; that may be for plowboys in Thessaly, but not for Athenians. One ruler of the universe? They’re not surprised, nor did you think they would be. A Son of God? Depends on what you mean by “Son”; they’ll keep listening.
The immortality of the soul? Really smart people (Athenians, for example) are flattered by the notion. Their own Plato suggested it; maybe the soul lives on in some timeless realm of ideas; maybe it is absorbed into universal being; maybe it returns after a thousand years for another cycle of plants and animals and lawyers and human beings. Why not stop there, with God and his Son and our immortal souls?
But Paul had to talk about the resurrection of the body, knowing that unless Christ is raised in the body our faith is vain. And when they hear that, the Athenians look at the rumpled little Jew, probably wondering why he would want that body back again, shake their heads, smile, and go home.
The Strangest Tenet
There is no stranger tenet of the Creed—to us as much as to the Greeks—than that of the resurrection of the body, this limited and lumpish thing that grows old and decays and dies. If it is hard to see how the body can rise again, it may be harder to see why we would want it to rise again. Why not do what Plato would recommend, and slip this husk of flesh and be free? The Greek symbol for the psyche was the butterfly. Butterflies don’t want their cocoons back—why should man?
Not that we have a choice. Scripture clearly reveals that Christ rose in the body, and that everyone else will, too. And after the Incarnation, no good Christian dare scoff at mere flesh. “By his stripes,” says the prophet, “we were healed.” Not by his grim Stoic fortitude, but by his stripes: his obedience in the body, unto death. The resurrection of the body follows from Christ’s having assumed a body to save mankind and return us to our original and fleshly innocence. What Christ assumes, Christ redeems.
And why not? Tertullian compares the flesh, limned by the hand of God, to a setting for a jewel. If together body and soul have sinned on earth, then body and soul redeemed together should be made lovely in the life to come. The tongue that sang God’s praises on earth should sing his praises hereafter. Indeed, you might say that the tongue was made for just that purpose: not to speak here on earth, and then be exalted as a glorified vocal appendage in Heaven, but to sing those very praises in Heaven, for which our early and still stuttering songs here on earth prepare us.
So let us grant that the body is a good thing, and that it has a purpose not fulfilled by life on earth. Still, if it were logically possible, would it not be even better for us to rise as incorporeal beings, like the angels? Would we not, in their company, still sing hosanna, and know and love? Would there be anything missing in our happiness if we were resurrected free of the flesh? What is the body good for?
The City of Man
In The Divine Comedy, his great poetic journey to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, Dante pondered these questions, pondered them as a Christian artist, theologian, and citizen of that corrupt town called Florence, whence with the other leaders of his party he would be unjustly exiled in the prime of his life, never to return. Is it possible that Florence could point us toward an answer?
Dante thought so; let us see how. With his guide, Virgil the great poet of the Roman Empire, he has descended into Hell to view, and learn from, the punishments of the damned.
He is in the circle of the gluttons, speaking to Ciacco (“Hog”), a bon vivant whose excessive eating and drinking were a corruption of his fellowship with other men. The merest trace of that conviviality remains. Unlike all the other souls in this circle, Ciacco manages to jerk himself up out of the cold slush to ask Dante to look at him, speak to him, and remember him to his countrymen above.
That is all he’ll ever be able to do; the bodies of the gluttons are vanity, indistinguishable from the mire through which the poets tread. And after Ciacco has slumped back down among the others, he will never speak again, says Virgil, until the trump of judgment, when every man “shall reassume his flesh and form, and hear/ his sentence thundering through eternity.”
And what does Dante speak about with Ciacco, this ruined soul who will dwell in silence forevermore? Gluttony? Not exactly. They talk about bodies. Dante asks him about “our party-riven city and its people.” Ciacco delivers a terse and bleak prophecy, tells Dante that some of the most noted city leaders are deeper in Hell, asks to be remembered, and announces that the conversation is over.
That is the strange context for Dante’s first question on the resurrection of the flesh: a discussion with a drinking man about a particular city, Florence, at a particular time, with particular people. For Dante wonders: Will the punishments of the sinners be harsher after the last judgment, or not quite so harsh, or just the same? Virgil responds by reminding Dante of Aristotle, who taught that “when a thing at last is whole/ it feels more pleasure—so it feels more pain.”
Since we are body-soul unions, we will find the perfection of our bliss, or our utter loss of that perfection, only when body and soul are reunited. At the resurrection, the damned will then be more “perfect,” so to speak; more perfectly damned, dwelling as ruined human beings in a city that is no city but utter alienation from God and one another. They will not attain, says Virgil, to “their true perfection and man’s end.”
And what is that end? Man is insufficient unto himself, as Aristotle saw. He is made for conversation and fellowship, and thus can attain his fulfillment only within a city. But the name of that city is not Florence (or Paris or London or Pittsburgh, for that matter) but the New Jerusalem.
The Good Body
What, then, is the body good for? Why do we cherish it so? Dante’s answer is simple and stunning. The body is for other people. The body is for love. Think of the angels again. They are not extended in space and time; their knowledge and their unity are founded directly in God.
But the human soul is the sort of form meant for a human body. This is a richer idea than we know. We not only have bodies; we make bodies. We make children, but we also make cities like Florence, and churches. Our love is given through the body; our union, though founded in God, is mediated through the body.
This is as it should be. Richard of Saint Victor said that the world was created as it was, because it was going to be redeemed as it would be redeemed, by the Word made flesh. Not only, then, did the Son became flesh to redeem fleshly man, but man was made in the flesh that he might be redeemed by the Incarnate Son.
Christ assumed a body that he might be like us; and we have bodies, make bodies, and unite in bodies, that we might be like Christ, and one in Christ. To put it another way, the resurrection of the body is for the communion of saints.
In Hell, it is ever an aggravation of your punishment to have somebody else nearby, moaning, shivering, wailing, blaspheming, stinking. If the damned could flee to the suburbs, they would—unless Hell itself is already the essence of suburb, the place where you dwell with a throng of others who also all want to dwell alone. The resurrection of the flesh must make that alienation all the more acute, as the damned recoil from others they do not want to touch.
In the Body
But as soon as Dante and Virgil make their way out of Hell and into Purgatory, where they will journey among the saved, human community returns, and with it a longing for the body. The souls pray for one another, and for us; they remember their old cities, often with righteous indignation; they are seldom alone, and never alone in spirit.
But they are still shadows: Below the bluffs of Purgatory Mountain, Dante meets a flock of newly arrived souls. These are amazed to hear Virgil say that Dante is still alive, in the body, and one of them suddenly presses through the throng “to take me in his arms with love so warm/ he moved me in return to do the same.” It is Casella, a companion of Dante’s youth, one who had set his friend’s love poetry to music.
But as Virgil’s hero Aeneas found in Elysium, you cannot embrace a ghost. Dante’s arms pass through Casella three times, when, with a smile, Casella steps back and tells his friend to cease. Their friendship burns brightly, but without the body the fullness of that friendship is not possible, not yet, not until the resurrection of the body.
But there is a third man in that scene, Virgil, the one who wrote of Aeneas and the founding of Rome, and who knows that he is not a member of the body of Christ, and thus that the friendship that Dante and Casella will enjoy will never be his. Indeed, the shadowiness of all communion outside of the resurrected Christ is shown in another scene of profound humanity, of desire for love and friendship and unity.
Virgil and Dante have felt the earth tremble, as a shout reechoes round the mountain. They walk on in silent wonder, when a shade appears and speaks to them as “Christ appeared to two men on the road/ after he had arisen from the tomb,” saying, “My brothers, may the peace of God be with you.”
Recall that on the road to Emmaus the disciples were with Jesus and not with Jesus. They did not know who he was until they stopped at an inn, for a meal. Only when they had gathered round the table, only at the breaking of the bread, did they know him whose flesh was real flesh; then he vanished from sight. Similarly, Dante and Virgil do not know who their fellow traveler is—I cannot say companion, because they can break no bread together.
It is the Roman poet Statius, who describes his immense debt to Virgil, who he does not know is standing beside him:
“The brilliant seeds that set my love afire
flashed from the divine flame that kindled me
and lit the lamps of many a thousand more—
Of the Aeneid I mean: for all I am
of poet, it was my mama and my nurse.
Without it, all my work weighs not a dram.
And I’d consent to spend an extra year—
could I have lived on earth when Virgil lived—
suffering for my sins in exile here!”
Statius loved Virgil and Virgil’s work. It was his mama: the relation is intimate, the image is particular and bodily. So fervent is that love, that when Dante reveals to Statius that Virgil himself is walking with them, the Roman disciple falls to his knees and (again like Aeneas in the underworld) offers to embrace a shadow, this time with the added pathos that he himself is yet a shadow and has forgotten it, such is his wonder.
The scene is like, but unlike, that at Emmaus. The flesh is not real flesh. The three are united in their devotion to poetry and to Rome, but only two will dwell “where Christ is Roman, in that Rome above.” The most Roman among them will not. The communion is incomplete.
Paradise in the Body
The damned form a crowded anti-city, and dread the resurrection; the saints in Purgatory dwell in fellowship yet long for their purgation, that they may see God, even though it may be before the resurrection. But to see what the perfect and eternal Body is like, we must accompany the poet, with his new guide the blessed Beatrice, to Paradise . There we will learn that the resurrected body not only will raise the joy of the blessed, but that in it will be redeemed and restored all the love and communion we once knew in the body and through the body, on earth.
We learn, for one, of the true Christian’s longing for the body. In the sphere of the stars, Dante must pass a bachelor’s exam on faith, hope, and love, administered in turn by the three great apostles who saw Christ transfigured: Peter, James, and John. James finishes his questions by asking Dante what he hopes for. Surprisingly, Dante does not say first, “I hope to see the beatific vision” or “I hope to see Christ face to face.” Instead, he replies that he hopes to be among the elect, “robed with a double robe in their true land,/ His land, which is this life of Paradise.”
He is speaking of the resurrection of the flesh, to be clothed with a “double robe,” body and soul, in one’s patria: one’s fatherland, Jerusalem. It is not simply that a man will have his flesh again, but that he will dwell among his true countrymen, who will also have the flesh. He will enjoy in the body the Body of Christ.
Immediately, “as a glad maiden rises for the dance,” another light appears to join his fellows Peter and James. Beatrice identifies him:
“This is the man who lay upon the breast
of Christ our Pelican; who was chosen for
the glorious duty, from the very Cross.”
The glee of a wedding celebration gives way to the solemn wonder of Dante’s heavenly guide Beatrice, who like “a still and silent spouse” looks upon John. He is defined here by the body and by his nearness to the body of Christ: he “who lay upon the breast of Christ our Pelican,” privileged to feel the warmth of Christ’s affection, the warmth of his very flesh, as they and their brothers ate that supper in Jerusalem, and privileged to take care of the aging Mary, whose flesh bore Christ in the flesh.
Christ, says Aquinas in his famous hymn, is the pious Pelican who gave of his flesh to cleanse man from sin (the pelican was thought to prick its own breast so that its young might feed upon its blood). The apostle whom Jesus loved: that is how John identifies himself in his Gospel. But Dante implies that he was the apostle who fed the fullest of the Body of Christ in that first Eucharist.
So it is that we not only long for the body, we long for the love that the body is for. Dante feels that longing here. Remembering the risen Christ’s words, applied to John, that some of his disciples might not see death before the coming of the kingdom, Dante stares at the light, trying to see John—John’s face, his body—as eagerly as a man may squint to catch an eclipse of the sun.
But John advises him kindly to cease; the double robe is not yet his. Again, as with Casella on the mountainside, Dante makes a mistake about someone’s body. He wants to see John, a natural and laudable desire, though in error here. Staring so hard at the light of John, he goes temporarily blind, and only after he answers John’s questions about love—love that embraces God and all the creatures of the universe—is his sight restored.
In fact, our love for the small and the particular, for the bodily, will not cloud the heavenly vision; precisely in Christ will that love be refined. The body is not an impediment to glory. Thomas Aquinas tells us so in the supplement to his Summa, but it is the poet whose imagery captures the joyous community of the resurrection of the flesh.
For when Dante and Beatrice reach the sunlight-flooded circle of the wise, they are greeted by Aquinas himself, who names his fellow souls, who make up a garland of twelve stars. Here, with his typical imagery of feasting, he comes round to Solomon, the wisest of all:
Most beautiful among us, the fifth light
breathes with such love that all the world below
is gluttonous to hear of him: within
That radiance is the high mind blessed to know
to such great depths, no second ever rose
who saw so much, if what is true is true.
This description causes Dante to wonder. He is thinking about the making of bodies: only twice was the universe at the perfect astronomical position to stamp our worldly clay with a “perfect seal,” namely, at the creation of Adam and the conception of Christ. Surely this soul cannot have been endowed with the perfections of those two.
The answer to the pilgrim’s confusion will frame Dante’s insight into what the resurrection of the flesh is for. Solomon, says Thomas, did not pray to be the finest logician or mathematician in the world. He prayed for the wisdom to rule his people well.
He was the ruler of a body—and we may recall his most famous decision, offering to divide a baby in half to determine which of two quarrelling women was its true mother. That is why he and not Thomas will answer Dante’s unspoken question about the resurrection of the flesh. A king, not a theologian, answers, because the flesh and its concerns fall directly under the purview of a king, and only theoretically under the purview of the theologian.
Dante, through Beatrice, poses the question, the converse of the question he had asked Virgil in Hell: Will you retain this brightness at the resurrection? If so, how, “when your forms are visible once more,” can that superabundant brilliance not bring you pain?
It would seem that the question (posed by Aquinas in the Summa) is one of physics or metaphysics, but Dante treats it as a question about love. It is about the workings of God’s grace in the human intellect and heart, and the heart’s consequent outpouring of love for God and for neighbor.
The poet begins with an image of feasting and joy, of bodies in harmony—the souls who hear the question are like high-tripping “dancers dancing in a merry reel,” joyous, and eager to hear the answer they know already. He reminds us of the bodily death that is our gateway to the feast, noting that he who laments the fact that we must die to reach Heaven “does not see/ the sweet refreshment of the eternal rain.”
Still building towards that climax, he describes the hymn the garlanding souls sing, praising God as Trinity, Incarnate Word, and Creator of all bodies defined and limited by their creation:
That ever-living One and Two and Three
that ever reigns in Three and Two and One,
uncircumscribed and circumscribing all,
Three times was hymned in praise by every one
of those souls in so sweet a melody
as would reward all merit.
We are about to hear from Solomon himself, Solomon the King and also the singer of the great wedding song, and in a bold move Dante associates him and his answer with the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation: For Solomon’s voice is as gentle as “the angel’s when he spoke/ To Mary.” Finally the answer comes, couched in logical terms that overleap logic as only love can leap:
“In the feast of Paradise,
for the length of eternity our love
will fold us in the vestment of these rays.
They blaze according to the ardor of
that love, ardor from vision, vision as wide
and deep as grace abounding far above
Our worth allows. When, blessed and glorified,
the flesh is robed about us once again,
we shall be lovelier for being whole;
Whence the gift of illuminating grace
granted us by the highest Good, shall grow—
light that disposes us to see His face,
And in that light then must our vision grow,
grow then the ardent love it sets aflame,
wherein the radiance of the flesh shall grow.”
The argument is inexorable. Our brightness depends upon the ardor of our love, and that ardor depends upon the depth of the blessed vision God grants us by his grace. When our flesh is raised in glory, we will be made perfect, because we will be perfected as human beings, as unions of soul and body. But that union is a greater grace; and grace deepens our vision of God, gives us more light “to see his face.” But the more we see of God, the more deeply and ardently will we love, and the more ardently we love, the brighter we will shine.
The answer is more than theology; it is breathless delight before the face of the beloved, like the glee of ladies dancing. And as for that brightness of the flesh, Dante asserts that not only will it not be lost in the brightness of the soul, it will exceed that brightness. Not an impediment—far otherwise! It will be like a fiery coal whose incandescence outshines the flames themselves, even the flame of the soul, conquered by “the luminous flesh.”
Nowhere has the nobility of the risen body been so splendidly described; but Dante is not finished. He saves the true joy of it all for last: the family, the communion, other people:
So prompt and ready was the loud “Amen!”
I heard from both the one and the other choir,
their yearning for their flesh was clearly seen,
Maybe not for themselves, but for their mamas,
their fathers, and the others they held dear
before they had become eternal flames.
Their mamas—“ le mamme”! At a stroke, what is risen is not just the flesh but all the love that ever was expressed through it: a mama, leaning over the crib as she sings her child to sleep; a father, plowing a field in the heat to earn his family’s bread; a neighbor, meeting you on the streets of Florence as the chapel bells summon the people to worship.
If only Virgil could be here. For the next soul Dante meets will embody every earthly devotion whereof the old sage had written. He is a father devoted to his family, a loyal citizen, a dutiful subject of the Empire, and a soldier for the faith. He is Cacciaguida, Dante’s great-great-grandfather. His greeting of Dante raises the resignation of Virgil to a realm of expectant joy:
With such a loving piety for his son,
if we may trust our greater muse, Anchises
once hailed Aeneas in Elysium.
“O blood of mine, O grace of God poured out
over the brim! For whom has Heaven’s door
been opened twice, as it has been for you?”
In the Aeneid, the hero’s father hailed him in the underworld in the same words Cacciaguida uses here. But there is no “grace of God” in Virgil, and it is not “Heaven’s door” that is opened, and when Aeneas tries to return the greeting, his arms pass through his father, as Dante’s passed through Casella. But here the bittersweet of that reunion is washed away, because the pilgrim and his forefather know that a day will come when the arms will clasp true flesh.
“O blood of mine,” he exclaims, quoting Virgil, but here in Paradise “blood” means more than “descendant”: The body is raised, the blood is raised; the family is redeemed, all human loves are redeemed. And that is what Cacciaguida will speak to Dante about: families, mamas at the cradle, city fathers, the good life of old Florence—a shadow of the New Jerusalem, because it was a city at peace.
Beholding Face to Face
Dante does not see the face of Cacciaguida, nor that of John. But when he has risen to the realm of divine fire, he suddenly does see faces other than Beatrice’s; for in the Lord do we find our faces and our brotherhood again. He turns to Beatrice, but to his surprise she is looking upon Dante from far above.
Instead there stands beside him a reverend father, moved by love to assist Dante at the end of his long journey. He directs Dante’s attention to the communion of saints, for looking on their felicity “will hone/ your sight for climbing to the rays of God.” Then this elder identifies himself by his love:
“The Queen of Heaven, for whom I wholly burn
in love, will grant us every grace we need.
I am Bernard, her faithful champion.”
Dante is stunned. His wonder, he says, is as great as that of a pilgrim from faraway Croatia, who journeys to Rome to view the cloth that wiped the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary—a pilgrim so hungry to see that sight that as he sits in the church and gazes upon it, he thinks, “And did you look like this—was this your face,/ O Jesus Christ my Lord and very God?”
The simile is daring, but apt. One is led to Christ by the faces of others, for Christ shines in them; and one longs to see Christ’s own face, the face of one’s Redeemer and brother. Hence, to look upon the good father Bernard now is an earnest of the feast to come. And if the Church, the communion of saints, one’s noble father, one’s loving mama, even one’s city, is to lead one to the Incarnate Christ, then surely, Dante suggests, there is one person above all who will lead us to him. Says Bernard, preparing the pilgrim for his final vision:
“Into the face that most resembles Christ
now look: for by her radiance only she
can render you prepared for seeing Christ.”
How does Mary most resemble Christ? A lesser poet would give us theology or moral philosophy. Dante gives us the body: Mary’s is the face that most resembles Christ. Only a child or a poetic genius would see immediately why. She is his mother. She is the mamma who from her body gave life and light to mamas and fathers and all others we hold dear. If she prepares us to see Christ, she prepares us to see her Son.
The Final Mystery
That is the final mystery of the Comedy: the Incarnation, Enfleshing, God made man, binding up all other images of the triune God’s union with his people and their union with one another. The poet, in the presence of God, longs to see, gazing into the “reflected radiance” of the Second Person. Suddenly and mysteriously that radiance appears “tinted with the figure of a man.”
How can it be? Reason and theology stand mute. The vision is of a body, and is granted by love:
As a geometer struggles all he can
to measure out the circle by the square,
but all his cogitation cannot gain
The principle he lacks: so did I stare
at this strange sight, to make the image fit
the aureole, and see it enter there:
But mine were not the feathers for that flight.
Save that the truth I longed for came to me
smiting my mind with lightning flashing bright.
Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.
Already were all my will and my desires
turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by
The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
We friends to whom it has been granted, let us rejoice and believe.
The references to The Divine Comedy are, in order: conversation with Ciacco, Inf. 6.37–93; Virgil’s insights, Inf. 6.103–111; Casella, Purg. 2.77–78; Statius, Purg. 21.7–13 & 94–102; Christ is Roman, Purg. 32.105 ; Dante’s exam, Par. 25.88–96; another light, Par. 25.103–114; Aquinas, Par. 10.109–114; Dante’s question, Par. 14.10–18; brightness of the flesh, Par. 14.52–60 & 61–66; Cacciaguida, Par. 15.25–36; Communion of Saints, Par. 31.97–111; Solomon, Par. 14.19–66 ; Bernard, Par. 32.85–87; the Second Person, Par. 33.127–145. The quotations are taken from Anthony Esolen’s translation of The Divine Comedy, published by the Modern Library.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.