Rather than seek to create an artificial equality that violates God’s diversity of gifts, find your own unique place in the celestial hierarchy. And once you find your assigned part, take pride in it, without envying those above you in the hierarchy or condescending to those below.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Dante: on Hierarchy

If there is one thing that distinguishes your age from my own, it is the sharply contrasting views we hold on the subject of hierarchy. For us, it means beauty, order, and meaning; for you, it is a relic of the past that needs to be swept away. For us, it is the one thing that gives purpose and dignity to each individual; for you, it is the one thing that stands in the way of the equalization of all people.

If I may be so bold, you are wrong and we are right.

The funny thing is that you know you are wrong. You claim over and over again that all people are the same and should be treated as such, but when it comes to your sports teams or your orchestras or your stage productions, you follow very strict rules of hierarchy. You don’t choose athletes or violinists or actors by lot; if you did, I don’t think anyone would bother to see the show. Even your age recognizes nonsense when it comes face to face with it. Well, most of the time.

But my purpose in this letter is not to ridicule you for your inconsistencies. Every age has its own blind spots and sacred cows, mine just as much as yours.

No, what I would like to share with you in this letter is what I myself learned about hierarchy as I ascended upward though the nine levels of paradise.

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The first seven levels of paradise, I discovered, correspond with the seven planets: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. In each of those heavenly spheres, I met the souls of blessed saints whose lives embodied the virtues of the appropriate planet. Since the first of these spheres, the Moon, was responsible for causing lunacy and fickleness upon the earth, it was only natural that it housed those who had, in one form or another, broken their vows.

One such breaker of an oath was Piccarda, a nun who had been forced to leave the convent and forsake her triple vow of poverty, obedience, and chastity. As I spoke with her, a question formed in my mind that I believe many of you would have asked had you been in my place. What I wanted to know is whether she was happy in the sphere of the moon, or if she desired to move upward to another sphere that was closer to God.

To my surprise, I found that she not only accepted her position in the hierarchy of heaven but was glad of it. For her, being at the bottom of the hierarchy did not mean that she was of less value than other people or that those other people were arrogant snobs who thought themselves better and holier than her. No, it meant simply that she was exactly where God wanted her to be.

Indeed, she made it clear to me that she would not be happier in a higher sphere, for then she would be outside the perfect will of God. What did she mean by the will of God? Not some crushing edict from on high that demanded she be silent and obey, but a greater plan that she felt honored and privileged to participate in.

Hierarchy, for Piccarda, was the safeguard, not the eradicator of her personality. It bolstered, rather than effaced her individual identity, strengthening her sense of purpose and calling and binding her closer to the Author of that purpose and calling.

Piccarda was like an eight ounce jar filled with eight ounces of water. For such a jar, that would mark the height of fullness and completion. But imagine if she, the happy eight ounce jar, had wished for the same amount of water that was contained in a larger, twelve ounce jar and then gotten her wish. She would not have been happy, for the extra four ounces would have spilled out of her and perhaps even caused her pain.

In the same way, the hierarchy I experienced in paradise—not just in the sphere of the moon, but in all of the spheres—was one of perfect fullness. The saints knew who they were and were content to be in that portion of heaven that would allow them to be filled with all the divine glory that they could hold.

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Oh, my friends of the future, your passion for equality blinds you, as it blinded me for awhile, to the reality of heaven. We will not, when we die, be merged into some amorphous One Soul; we will not be like individual drops that lose themselves in the ocean or individual grains of sand tossed together indiscriminately on the shore.

We are, I learned on my journey, like a fleet of ships traveling across the tide of time and eternity in search of our proper port around God. Oftentimes, we go off course and are buffeted by wind and storm, but if we trim our sails and stay the course, we will, eventually, reach that port to which we have been drawn all our lives.

Some of those ports will be closer and some further away from God, but that is not because God loves some of us less than others, but because we each have a different capacity for receiving and taking into ourselves the glory of God. Do you really desire to be an eight ounce jar flooded with twelve ounces of water? If so, you do not understand the grand order and design of heaven. There, in that glorious place, there is neither lack nor waste, only perfect consummation.

As I was taught from the lips of one of the lovers in the sphere of Venus, we are, each of us, born with a diversity of gifts. God loves plenitude, not sameness, and he distributes his gifts and talents with excessive, even riotous variety.

Sadly, the world too often overlooks God’s plan and pushes active men who should be kings to be monks and contemplative men who should be monks to be kings.

Rather than seek to create an artificial equality that violates God’s diversity of gifts, find your own unique place in the celestial hierarchy. And once you find your assigned part, take pride in it, without envying those above you in the hierarchy or condescending to those below.

—Dante

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The featured image is “Adoration of the Kings” by Jan Gossaert, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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