When we moved to California and bought our first home, I enthusiastically set out to decorate it. I knew that I wanted a picture of the Annunciation to hang at the bottom of our stairs so that every morning it might inspire me to make my own little fiat as I walked downstairs to begin the day. I scoured the Internet for a painting that depicted the light reflecting from the luminous angel Gabriel on Mary’s face as she said her yes. This is still the first image I imagine when this feast comes each year.
I suppose it’s also what I was expecting when I opened the Vatican website this morning upon learning that Pope Francis had issued a new apostolic letter. Instead, I was met with Candor Lucis Aeternae, The Splendor of Light Eternal, on Dante and his works, commemorating the seven centuries since his death. It was not the letter I expected, but, as I read it, I couldn’t help but notice Dante’s own fiat.
Dante Alighieri was active in public life in thirteenth century Florence, holding notable political offices. However in the midst of conflict and unrest, he was exiled and knew a sentence of death awaited him should he return to his home. As Francis described in the letter, Dante became “a ‘pensive pilgrim’ reduced to a state of ‘grievous poverty’.” This greatly wounded Dante precisely because he loved Florence and desperately wanted to return.
Although devastated, Dante took what he witnessed and experienced to speak against injustice, sin and hypocrisy not in the political arena, but through what was available to him: the art of poetry. Understanding that his experiences were not his individually but related to a greater whole of human experiences, he channeled his pain into writings so transcendent that we still study them seven centuries later. What at the time he could have seen only as failure or misfortune has now clearly given rise to far greater good through the beauty and inspiration of his works.
This is so often how God works when we allow God to use our misfortune, ostracization, and pain in accord with his will. Indeed, very often those doing good around us have stories of marginalization or harm that have wounded but also compelled them. When we are able to acknowledge our wounds alongside others’, refusing to allow bitterness to take over while still trusting God to work, we can act in the service of God for all.
For Dante, his insights into the human heart are still adding to our understanding, all these years later:
Dante, pondering his life of exile, radical uncertainty, fragility, and constant moving from place to place, sublimated and transformed his personal experience, making it a paradigm of the human condition, viewed as a journey – spiritual and physical – that continues until it reaches its goal. Here two fundamental themes of Dante’s entire work come to the fore, namely, that every existential journey begins with an innate desire in the human heart and that this desire attains fulfillment in the happiness bestowed by the vision of the Love who is God.
For all the tragic, sorrowful and distressing events he experienced, the great poet never surrendered or succumbed. He refused to repress his heart’s yearning for fulfilment and happiness or to resign himself to injustice, hypocrisy, the arrogance of the powerful or the selfishness that turns our world into “the threshing-floor that maketh us so proud” (Par. XXII, 151).
When we make our own fiats to God, as we remember both Mary and Dante did, we allow ourselves to become malleable, like clay in the Potter’s hands. Detaching ourselves from our own visions and goals, we surrender to God’s. Mary did this with complete willingness ahead of time: she offered her fiat explicitly before she conceived Jesus. For most of us, our fiats are in response to events of our lives, not to the message of an angel. Dante did not consent to his exile. Instead, his fiat came in accepting it and allowing God to work not through his worldly accomplishments–which undoubtedly Dante desired–but through other means. Paradoxically, it was only because of this surrender that he was able to produce works that would resound through time, even to the present day.
We should reflect on this today, the feast of the Annunciation. How ready are we to change our own courses, to step outside of our comfort zones to act creatively when God asks? How can we stretch ourselves so that our fiats are more and more willing, closer to the complete willingness of Mary? How are we being asked to trust God, that even when painful things occur and our lives are interrupted, he is there working all things for our good?
Dante’s own personal encounter with pain and sin allowed him to see God’s work in his life even more deeply. As the apostolic letter describes, the greatness of his witness was shaped by his most devastating experiences.
Dante the exile, the pilgrim, powerless yet confirmed by the profound interior experience that had changed his life, was reborn as a result of the vision that, from the depths of hell, from the ultimate degradation of our humanity, elevated him to the very vision of God. He thus emerged as the herald of a new existence, the prophet of a new humanity that thirsts for peace and happiness.
While many of us will not be remembered seven hundred years from now, it is still true that in our own lives, our pain and suffering can change our lives and give us new birth. We too can emerge as “herald[s] of a new existence,” on a prophetic mission to point beyond the suffering and evil of the world while working with God to transform it. If we can make our own fiats–“God let your will, not mine be done”–our lives will point beyond ourselves to God’s own life.
Perhaps we more easily see Mary’s fiat in a luminous painting, beautifully adorning our walls, but still think of her prophetic openness as unachievable for us. It is here that Pope Francis challenges us to see fiat in a new way, in the particular story of an ostracized man whose openness to God changed his life–and the world. Dante’s life and work invite us to let the light pass through them to enlighten oun lives. May we, like Mary, the first disciple, continually say yes so that our lives may bring forth the light of Christ to others.
Image: “The Annunciation,” Henry Ossawa Tanner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons