Newly freed from his trials in purgatory, the Roman poet Statius joins Dante and Virgil in canto 22 on their climb up the mountain. It is in this canto that we hear the fullness of Virgil’s influence on Statius’ life, furthering the connections between art and conversion in canto 12 as discussed by Dr. Cook. As the three walk towards the ring of gluttony, Virgil inquires as to how Statius wound up in the ring of avarice. Statius’ sin was, in fact, the opposite of avarice, seen in his “immoderate spending.” [line 35] It was Virgil’s own words that caused Statius to reconsider his actions, but not only as a spendthrift. Statius credits his conversion to Christianity to Virgil’s poetry:
“‘You were the one,’ said [Statius], ‘who first invited me to sip of the springs in the grottoes on Parnassus, and then you lighted me the way to God. You did as one upon the road at night who holds a torch that those behind may see, though he himself’s unaided by the light, saying, ‘From Heaven descends a newborn son; the morning of humanity returns, and a new age of justice has begun. A poet you made me, and a Christian too.’” [lines 63b-73]
The poetry of Virgil served as a source of inspiration and transformation for Statius, even though Virgil wrote before the birth of Jesus. By engaging Statius’ mind and heart, Virgil gave the perfect echo to the words of the apostles, whom Statius calls the “messengers of the eternal reign.” [line 76] The good news, proclaimed by the new preachers, provided the context for Virgil’s poetry to connect with Statius in a way that drew him closer to Christ.
In this way we see the willingness of our merciful God to use everything in our lives to draw us closer. For Statius, it was Virgil’s poetry viewed through the lens of the words of the apostles that caused the moment of clarity, propelling him on a new path. We see in canto 22, that which provides us inspiration, that which engages our imagination, and all that opens our eyes to the possibility of a God who loves us deeply, is used by that same God to pull us further on our journey of faith.
We, in turn, are called to be witnesses to others as well, and serve in some way as a bridge to God’s mercy. Here we see the further shortcomings of Statius, who out of fear, kept his conversion secret and therefore spent four centuries in the fourth ring of Purgatory [line 92]. If our merciful God uses all to bring us closer into relationship, then we must live that mercy out for others. We must extend ourselves past our comfort zones, even in the midst of persecution, in the hopes that some part of our experience will inspire others to hear anew the messengers of the eternal reign. We may, like Virgil, have no idea how our actions, our art, our writings, or any other form of our witness may serve as a light to others on the path of conversion. Nonetheless, out of love and our own understanding of God’s mercy, we must do what we can to contribute to that light.
As the three poets walk toward the ring of gluttony, a disembodied voice calls out the example of Mary, who “thought more of what would make the wedding feast complete and honorable than of her mouth, which now pleads for your sake.” [lines 142-144] In the transition from the conversations on conversion to the trials of the gluttonous, Mary is again our bridge to understanding the best course. She embodies the merciful heart that seeks out the needs and hopes of others in order that they may more fully know our Lord and God. May we strive to follow her example, and live lives of mercy for the good of all.
Dr. Shannon Loughlin has worked in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY, for 16 years and currently serves as the Associate Director of Pastoral Services. She has a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology and a Masters in Pastoral Ministry, both from Duquesne University. Her undergraduate work was at SUNY Geneseo.