St Benedict approaches Dante and begins to tell him about his life.
"Cassino on the spur of the hill doth lie
About whose summit, once, there dwelt a herd
Of people pagan and perverse, There I,
The first, bore up the tidings of the Word...
That I reclaimed the neighboring villages
From wrongful worship and impiety.
(Canto XXII. 37-45)
The Goths had destroyed the town of Cassino and the people, due to a lack of priests, were lapsing into paganism. On top was a temple dedicated to Apollo where the people worshipped. So he set about c. 520 AD converting the people back to Christ. Gradually a monastery was built and St. Benedict wrote the Rule by which the monks live.
Dante ask St. Benedict--
"Father, I pray thee, reassure thy son:
Can I behold thee as thou truly are,
With face uncovered? May such a grace be won?"
(Canto XXII. 58-60)
St. Benedict tells Dante that his wish can only be realized on the last sphere where there is no space or pole. The ascent of man's soul toward God may be visualized as a ladder whose top is vanishing into the empty sky. Here St. Benedict recalls the biblical vision of Jacob
"But Jacob, in a vision which was sent
Of angel figures moving up and down,
Saw where the ladder's loftiest section went." (Canto XXII. 70-72)
It is interesting to note that St. Benedict made a connection between his rule and Jacob's ladder.
"If we wish to reach the greatest height of humility, and speedily to arrive at that heavenly exaltation ... we must erect the ladder which appeared to Jacob in his dream, by means of which angels were shown to him ascending and descending (cf Gen. 28:12). Without a doubt, we understand this ascending and descending to be nothing else but that we descend by pride and ascend by humility. The erected ladder, however, is our life in the present world, which, if the heart is humble, is by the Lord lifted up to heaven. For we say that our body and our soul are the two sides of this ladder; and into these sides the divine calling hath inserted various degrees of humility or discipline which we must mount." (The Rule of St. Benedict #7)
But, Benedict sees that now, that is, in Dante's time --
"No foot stirs now to reach the rungs; to crown
Iniquity, there is my house men sit
Smirching with wasted ink my Rule's renown." (Canto XXII. 73-75)
Now Dante is being propelled by Beatrice toward the sphere of fixed stars and finds himself in the constellation of Gemini of which he writes,
|"O stars of glory, from whose light on high
A mighty virtue poured forth, to you
I owe such genius as doth in me lies;
|With you there rose and sank again from view
He who is father of all life below
When my first breath in Tuscany I drew."
(Canto XXII. 112-117
At first glance the above verses seem to indicate Dante's belief in astrology. Did he? Well yes and no. If we mean by astrology the foretelling of the future by observing the stars, Dante certainly did not believe this because in the Inferno he places soothsayers in hell and wrote, "Who could be more wicked than the man who tries to bend divine will to his own!" (Canto XX. 29-30)
But there is a sense in which men of the Middle Ages felt at home under stellar influences. Man and stars were both creatures of God and as such were seen to have an influence upon man's life. "Those of the Middle Ages, whose minds were focused on divine power, could wonder at the thought that, when each of us came into the world, the divine grace that delighted in this unique individual was accompanied by an entire universe's being part of the tools of this creation. The divine art declared that all of the planets would have some influence, at this singular time and place, in welcoming a new soul that was different from any other." (Elizabeth G. Melillo, Ph.D.) Certainly God, the master of creation knows all the relationships of creatures to the whole cosmos but for us to try to figure out what this relationship means, except on a physical level, has proves futile. Certainly the "star of Bethlehem" signaled the birth of a great king not of its own accord but because God guided its position and enlightened the Magi to interpret such a sign correctly. St. Thomas Aquinas in discussing FATE states that according to some Fate was nothing else but the disposition of the stars under which one is begotten or born. St. Thomas admits that some inclinations in corporal natures are caused by heavenly bodies but that the will can hinder these cosmic effects. (Summa, Q. 115. Art.4 & Q. 116 Art 1) It is in this light that we must judge Dante's astrology which was an accepted science in his day.
Finally, Beatrice directs Dante to look back on the planets he has visited till he saw earth.
"So with my vision I went traversing
The seven planets till this globe I saw,
Whereat I smiled, it seemed so poor a thing."
(Canto XXII. 133-135)
Canto XXIII: Heaven of Fixed Stars, Christ With Saints