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Ascension as the Path to Holiness
The narrator's journey is one of upward moment. Beginning with his summoning by the guide Beatrice, he learns the sin is the barrier separating the heavens from Earth but also preventing the free, unhindered ascension of all souls. The soul naturally is weightless and rises of its own accord, but sin prevents this in the living body. Since he's been privileged to receive a tour of the heavens, the narrator is instructed to set is attention upward. He rises through all the levels of heaven until he reaches the Ascension in Emporium, the highest of places. Here once more he is instructed, this time by Saint Bernard, to look upward. There he sees the most pure, bright light ever. This directional association with holiness is a common them of the Christian religion, so it is unsurprising that Dante chooses to run with the idea. Contrast this with the classical Greek concept of the Underworld, which is just as layered and complex as Dante's heavens but positioned below the Earth and more closely resembling Purgatory than Heaven.
Each of the saints and apostles whom the narrator meets on his journey emphasize the power of free will in the human's life. They all recognize that the greatest gift they received from their Creator is the freedom to choose and execute one's own will. Despite the fact that this very freedom opens the soul to the corruption of sin, the choice itself is the only means by which a soul can praise God. The dichotomy of desire is what causes man trouble. Rather than devoting himself to loyalty to God, the sinner will be tempted and give in to the temptation to sin out of selfish ambition. And he has been granted the free will to do so. On the other hand, the saints learned to devote themselves to God, exercising their free will to understand him better and worship him better.
Each of the heavens represents a level of reward which a soul can attain in the afterlife. This system is merit-based, meaning the individual is judged according to its work during life. As there are many levels of Heaven in Dante's conception of it, there must necessarily be numerous methods by which the soul can depart from God's service. Even those who lived devoted, godly lives, such as the nuns who were kidnapped and raped, are held to an extremely high standard. They can only attain the lowest level of heaven because they left their vows unfulfilled. Apparently God takes matters of honor of the utmost sincerity. As the narrator learns, there is no cheating in heaven. The deeds of one's life receive the utmost just recognition in heaven.
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