We come now to the last few cantos before Dante the Pilgrim enters Paradise. There is a need on the part of Dante the Poet to celebrate his guide and to also show Virgil’s inability to continue as his guide into the higher spiritual realms. To do this, we have one of the other great “pagan” poets, Statius, whom Dante the Poet brings onto the stage as a “figura Christi,” the Christ figure in this final approach. Indeed, this is made quite clear in the opening lines of Canto XXI. Dante the Pilgrim remarks that he continues to thirst for spiritual insight, just as the Samaritan woman thirsted in the 4th chapter of the Gospel of John. Indeed, she and Dante the Pilgrim may have felt the THIRST, but were not, as yet, aware of the depth of the need or the Grace in the Gift. The Samaritan woman only wanted magic water that would not necessitate her constantly going back to the well in the heat of midday. Yet, there is a deeper thirst as seen in her wandering eye, her numerous husbands and lovers, her lack of self-respect and acceptance in the wider community. Jesus brings her the greatest gift which is completely unexpected by her.
Indeed, Statius does the same for Dante the Pilgrim and his guide. He comes upon them as that figura Christi, just as found in the post resurrection appearance by Christ to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. There are obvious parallels which Dante the Poet does not want us to miss.
7 And lo, as Luke sets down for us that Christ,
Ed ecco, sì come ne scrive Luca
8 just risen from the cave that was his sepulcher,
che Cristo apparve a' due ch'erano in via,
9 revealed himself to two He walked with on the road,
già surto fuor de la sepulcral buca,
10 there appeared a shade who had come up behind us
ci apparve un'ombra, e dietro a noi venìa,
Just as Christ walked with them, gradually opening their eyes, revealing more and more to them through his teaching and talk and at table, so too are there revelations and eyes opened as these three poets walk and talk together. Unlike the Christ in Luke 24, however, all three poets will be surprised and find new revelations from one another. Over the next few Cantos, Statius will reveal but also then learn, much himself. For instance, he explains the reason for earthquake, which was his own acceptance that now was the time for he to move to higher ground; it is his own admission that his time in Purgatory is done. When that happens, all of Mt. Purgatory erupts in one great Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
67 'And I, who have been prostrate in this pain
E io, che son giaciuto a questa doglia
68 five hundred years and more, just now felt
cinquecent' anni e più, pur mo sentii
69 my freed will seek a better threshold.
libera volontà di miglior soglia:
70 'That is why you felt the earth shake
però sentisti il tremoto e li pii
71 and heard the pious spirits of this mountain
spiriti per lo monte render lode
72 praise the Lord--may He soon raise them!'
a quel Segnor, che tosto sù li 'nvii."
This is taking Paul’s statement about the Body of Christ being one quite seriously and literally:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
[1 Corinthians 12:26 NRSV]
We are reminded yet again that one cannot put Dante the Poet into a stereotypical position of simply being a Medieval Catholic, or simply wanting to share secular philosophy and poetry, or wanting to justify Florentine political maneuvers. He connects at all these levels and does far more, surprising anyone willing to study and journey with him with an open mind and heart. Here we have, like Cato at the beginning of the Purgatorio, an unexpected revelation as to who God chooses and accepts. Like Cato, Statius was not a known follower of Christ. And yet, in Dante’s religious and poetic imagination, he describes his ‘calling’ as a poet and his coming to faith in a most remarkable way. It was not through personally witnessing Jesus, since he was born after the Crucifixion, and it was not through seeing and hearing the followers of Christ. Rather it was in the reading of a secular ode: the Aeneid.
94 'The sparks that kindled the fire in me
Al mio ardor fuor seme le faville,
95 came from the holy flame
che mi scaldar, de la divina fiamma
96 from which more than a thousand have been lit--
onde sono allumati più di mille;
97 'I mean the Aeneid. When I wrote poetry
de l'Eneïda dico, la qual mamma
98 it was my mamma and my nurse.
fummi, e fummi nutrice, poetando:
Like Statius, I too was one who was set on the path to faith in God by a secular road. For me, it was the study of Quantum Field Theory in my fourth year of a Physics / Mathematics major in college. I was so captivated by it all, it led me to new discoveries in many areas. Here, Statius tells them that poetry set him on fire and fed him on his way. The sparks from that ‘holy flame’ lit him up too, but the Aeneid also nurtured him in unexpected and unimagined ways, much like a loving mother who nourishes a child and then sets her free to move into realms unimagined by the mother. Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and many others have found that poetry, knowledge and truth found in secular and scientific writings can lead us into the areas of higher learning and spiritual wisdom. Dante the Poet uses the science of his day, the great poets and philosophers of the past and the Biblical insights of his church to create a work of exquisite power and beauty.
Dante the Poet creates a marvelous meeting between the two great poets of antiquity as a way of expressing his own gratitude for the Aeneid and its author. While we have no idea of whether Statius actually WAS a Christian, we do know that he was profoundly grateful for the Aeneid and Virgil. At the end of his own ode to Thebes, the Thebaid, he writes this:
So thrive, I pray, but do not envy the divine Aeneid.
Follow well back. Always adore her traces.
If any envy clouds you, it will fade;
When I am gone, due honor will be paid.
(Thebaid 12.816-819, Charles Stanley Ross, trans.)
When Statius discovers who the guide actual is for Dante the Pilgrim, he desires to embrace his feet, but of course, that is impossible, not only for the pair of shades, but also because at this level of spiritual maturity, one must kneel and embrace only for the holiest of reasons. While Statius wrote that he would “always adore” the Aeneid, Virgil helps him to remember that there is only One worthy of all adoration.
130 Already he was stooping to embrace my teacher's feet,
Già s'inchinava ad abbracciar li piedi
131 but Virgil said: 'Brother, do not do so,
al mio dottor, ma el li disse: "Frate,
132 for you are a shade and you behold a shade.'
non far, ché tu se' ombra e ombra vedi."
133 And the other, rising: 'Now you can understand
Ed ei surgendo: "Or puoi la quantitate
134 the measure of the love for you that warms me,
comprender de l'amor ch'a te mi scalda,
135 when I forget our emptiness
quand' io dismento nostra vanitate,
136 and treat our shades as bodied things.'
trattando l'ombre come cosa salda."
Statius and Virgil will create a tight bond in the coming Cantos, including Dante the Pilgrim as they go along. We have a real sense of Friendship as a noble classical goal as seen in Aristotle’s “On Friendship” in his Ethics, but also as a Christian gift, as revealed in Jesus statement:
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
John 15:12–15 (NRSV)
This focus on the binding of friendship between Statius and Virgil is lovely to follow. I am reminded of another medieval writing on friendship by the Cistercian Monk Aelred of Rievaulx: “Spiritual Friendship.”
…those who have no friends are to be compared to beasts for they have no one with whom to rejoice, no one to whom they can unburden their hearts, or with whom to share their inspirations and illuminations…. A friend is another self to whom you can speak on equal terms, to whom you can confess your failings, to whom you can make known your progress, or lack of it, without blushing, one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart.
We have here an opportunity for Virgil to experience true Christian fellowship at its best; the only time he will have a chance to do so, since we know he is relegated to his plain in limbo. It is a gift which Dante the Poet creates for his ‘mentor’ before they must separate from each other on this journey.