Conversation in Rome
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The sun fell silent, a distant memory, swallowed into the gaping darkness of the dank cavern.
Clanking footsteps bounced slightly metallic echoes off the damp stone walls, a kind of thumping ring. The air hung with the musk of waste, bodies long unwashed, the dusty pungency of mildew. Disagreeable duty indeed. Torchlight danced off the glistening rock, casting weird shadows across the narrow hallway. The flickering offered little guidance as the guard peered at the small scroll containing his orders, as he sorted the cells. An occasional bat overhead or rat underfoot, its domain disturbed by leathered feet, complained with timid chirping.
“This is it,” he instructed the jailor.
A gnarled key fit loosely into the crude lock and turned with a creak. The door scraped the floor as it swung open. A soldier arose gently, a limp prisoner dangling from his wrist, the two linked by a manacled chain. Though the soldier hung his arm low to minimize jostling his prisoner’s arm, the man stirred awake.
“I’m your relief,” the guard announced brusquely. “Here are my orders.”
“Very well,” said the other, looking to the prisoner. “I must leave now.”
The jailer fumbled through his huge ring of keys.
“Grace go with you,” the prisoner yawned. He sat passively as the jailer transferred the cuff from one soldier to the other. Metallic clicking snapped the air as the manacles bound the prisoner to the burly man and the door clanged shut again: Roman security successfully subdued the elderly man. The prisoner blinked as he considered his new guard.
“Where is Marcellus?”
“Marcellus will no longer be coming. I will stand guard over you for second shift, until I can get new orders.”
“What has happened to Marcellus?” The prisoner’s eyes showed concern beyond his own comfort.
“He has been reassigned. The tribune has heard evil reports of him, what he takes away from this cell. You have earned a bad reputation in Caesar’s court. It’s best not to gain too much attention there, as Marcellus has learned. Nero has felt little restraint since killing his mother.”
“Very well then. I will gladly give up my nap for you this evening.”
“I have the habit of sleeping at the end of each shift. That way I awake at the changing of manacles, and can talk with each guard. But since you’re new, I’ll make an exception and not sleep.”
“Good. Perhaps that will keep me awake. Caesar likes his soldiers alert on duty. His likes and dislikes are prone to erupt upon the unsuspecting like Vesuvius.”
“He has a bit of his uncle in him, doesn’t he?”
“You’d best not mean Caligula. Perhaps he does, but no one in his right mind would make the comparison. It’s better for me not to speak of the emperor at all – watch my step so it doesn’t lead me into the arena.”
“I reside here for his sake.”
“Is he not to hear your case?”
“Yes, though at this rate I have my doubts. But more so, I am constrained to witness before him.”
“Your words have already landed Marcellus in hot water.”
“Really? Is he in danger?” The eyes returned.
“Oh, probably not. But he can forget about promotion, I wager.”
“So I convert to your care now?”
“For the shift.”
“And what is your name?”
The guard joined the prisoner upon the low stone slab, making himself as comfortable as possible. The ancient dungeon showed its age. This interior cell offered no window, but even in the dim light the guard could see slime clinging to the ceiling.
“What hangs there on the doorpost? Have you permission for that?”
“A mezuzah. It contains holy writings. The centurion Julius instructed the jailor to allow it.”
“Oh, a religious rite is it?”
“It used to be. Now that I understand it, it is only empty tradition – but traditions still offer their comforts to me, and to my brothers as they visit.”
“Oh, do you have brothers? How many?”
“More than you can imagine. Two await with me here in chains, though I don’t know where. Have you heard of prisoners called Aristarchus, or Epaphroditus? They are Greeks.”
“I’m new, remember? It’s enough to try to remember your name.”
“Most call me Paul. That’s simple enough.”
The guard rested his head against the wall, his helmet hitting with a clunk.
The prison continued. “I’ve heard much about the arena, and I understand why you wish to avoid it. Most of the games distress me. What I wonder most at is the hippodrome, and the great chariot races. What a sight that must be! I used to enjoy the footraces quite a bit as a youth in Tarsus. But then I was sent to Jerusalem to study, and my religious order’s robes hung well too long to run in. Athletics wonderfully demonstrates the beauty of God’s creation, though the arena corrupts the uplifting value of physical endeavor. Is it true your people sport naked?”
“That’s the Greeks.”
“Oh. But it is best to not even think upon such things.”
“I know what you mean. Some of the games give rise to such liaisons, particularly with the nobility. Rome’s not what it once was. In my own lifetime, the things I’ve seen. Men are not what they used to be.”
“Yes, they are. Our race has always betrayed God. Even my own people, selected out generations ago, have betrayed their Christ.”
“Christ? You follow that sect?”
“Is it Bacchus? I thought you were a Jew.”
“Yes. The Christians claim their leader died and returned from the dead, right? That’s just the legend of Bacchus.”
“Hmm. No, it’s not Bacchus. There is a difference.”
“I have seen the risen Christ.”
The guard thought a moment. “I can see Bacchus, too. At his temple.”
“That is just a statue, an idol of stone. I have seen the Christ in His living flesh, the one who fashioned that stone before an artist’s imagination carved it.”
“Well, Bacchus’ statue is real, more real to the empire than any of your gods. Bacchus-worship is a legal religion in the empire. You had better watch out, if your enemies call you Christian. We have a bizarre collection of religions here in Rome, but at least they’re legal. Caesar takes easy offense at competing gods.”
“I am a Jew, living out the fulfillment of Judaism. Our ancient writings all preached of this appointed time. Caesar allows Judaism, and I am no enemy to Caesar.”
“But you’re drawing in Romans, like Marcellus. He is not a Jew.”
“Nor must he become one. He therefore puts his livelihood and liberty at risk, though I dare say he counts it as nothing compared to the promises. The Jews hate me for drawing in what we call goy goy – gentiles – and now Romans accuse me of stealing proselytes. I can’t please anybody! But, if by wearing chains I appease the Lord’s enemies, then I am content to wear the chains for all. I will give my life.”
“I could give my life up for the soldier next to me, as long as he is willing to give his for mine. But only in battle.”
“Life lies before us a battle, and we often find ourselves losing. For centuries my people have struggled this way, always waiting, seldom seeing, often forgetting. It can be a curse to receive a promise – we’re expected to live by it, a great blessing we believe is coming, but we’re not allowed to see. Then it appears, and so many miss it, because it doesn’t look like what they expect. A word of warning – don’t put faith in your own perceptions. Learn to know truth! I am most blessed of all men, and yet here I remain, waiting again.”
“I had a Jew once, a woman merchant; she talked like that sometimes. She sold the best olive oil I ever had – she spiced it with something. Her name was Miriama, I think – do you know her?”
“Miriam is a common name in a vast world. I doubt I’ve crossed her path.”
“You would remember her oil. But then came the divine Claudius’ decree driving your people from the city. Not so many here since.”
“Ironic, then, that here I sit, held captive in your fair Rome. Does that not seem foolishness to you?”
“Perhaps. To top it off, you have no olive oil.”
The prisoner chuckled. “No, but perhaps I have something else to anoint you. Claudius’ ruling left many homeless and destitute, and he will not be the last to persecute my kinsmen. They have fallen under the curse of Solomon, become a byword among the nations. They have rejected the very one sent to save them. But God will maintain them unto the end.”
“Is it true you cut off your phallus?”
“You Jews. Do you really cut – you know …”
“Just the foreskin – do you not see me here? I had a Jewish father, you know.”
“Well, yeah. I guess I’ve never considered that.”
“We circumcise as another religious rite. Now it is no more than empty tradition.”
The guard shuddered. “I couldn’t do that.”
“If you were of my people, you’d have no choice. You’d be only eight days old.”
“That’s what it would take, to hold me down. Give me a full two weeks, and I’d fight you for it.”
The two fell silent for a moment.
“Why were you arrested?” asked the guard, ready to change the subject.
“For preaching the gospel of the Jews’ messiah – it means the same as the Greeks’ ‘christ.’ They accused me of taking a gentile into their temple. In this way they hoped to ambush me and do me in, but I appealed to the governor to take my case to Caesar. In this way I arrived in Rome, as God commanded.”
“Why wouldn’t the Jews believe in this anointed one?”
“They find offense in the suffering that had to be made for them. But this is true among all nations. The word of truth is for those who can hear, those for whom God will lift the veil from their eyes. But that is not important for you to know now.”
“I have no idea what you mean, anyway. Certainly each man can hear and see as well as the next.”
“Well, you’re a soldier – have you ever tried on a Corinthian helmet?”
“Those old Greek models? Yes, I did once; I thought I’d put my head in a vise.”
“Exactly. You could not hear, or see but straight forward?”
“I couldn’t see at all past that stupid nose guard. It made me go cross-eyed.”
“So Caesar has granted you a blessing by providing Roman helmets instead, with nothing before your eyes or ears.”
“Surely. He wouldn’t send out an army that can’t see or hear.”
“As well God blesses His army by opening their eyes and ears. He makes sure His people do see, and hear.”
“Listening to you is like trying to chase a butterfly.”
“Perhaps you will understand later.”
“It’s of no consequence. Rome allows everyone to choose his own god. What works for one may not work for another. There are plenty to choose from.”
“But which is the truth?”
“A different truth for each man.”
“There is a truth, and He is one, and one day all will see Him and know the truth. By Him all will be either saved or judged. I long for everyone who hears my voice to know the truth now, before judgment falls. My work is like Noah’s, who condemned the world by building the ark that offered salvation. As soon as he was safe, the deluge came, and the floodwaters swallowed up every living thing save those eight of his family who believed in God’s judgment and mercy.”
“Yes, everyone knows about the great flood, I have heard the story. But you told it wrong – only two were saved.”
“Yes, of course. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha climbed Mt. Parnassus, where Jupiter could see their piety. So his anger against mankind calmed, and he withdrew the flood, and the couple repopulated the Earth.”
“By themselves? How?”
“They threw rocks behind them as they walked the world, and each stone became a person.”
“Yes, the gods have said so. The old ones, at that.”
“Doesn’t seem likely though.”
“Well – that’s what the priests say, anyway,” the guard said flatly.
“Every place I’ve traveled has a local version of the story – people floating in a ziggurat, or a dragon swallowing up the water. Always something that doesn’t seem likely. The stories always have a kernel of truth, though, as it was taught by Noah. But his sons were like the rest of us, and his sons’ sons, so over time the truth got lost in fable and superstition. Still, you must see that God has not turned His back upon gentiles. He left you a nugget of truth as a witness to the truth He sent me to preach to you. And so it is with Bacchus.”
The guard hesitated. “I hardly think a flood from thousands of years ago has anything to do with me. I try to keep my distance from the seas, anyway. They can’t be trusted.”
“You’re exactly right about that – I’ve surely had my fill of the sea. I’ve seen shipwreck three times – on my way here we had to cast aground on Melita. While we searched about for supplies, the natives built us a grand fire. I tossed in a few branches, and then this crazy snake leapt out and clamped onto my hand. Oh, I can still see the malevolent look of its cold eye as it hung on grimly, though not so cold at the moment, I suppose – I cast it back into the flames. Serpents – that snake gave me no end of trouble.”
“Did you suffer long from the bite, then?”
“No, not at all. I was fit and full of spittle all day, dancing a jig upon the dry land. The natives then decided I was not so much a rogue, and decided to make me a god. They could not have bitten me deeper than the serpent if they’d wished. I’d have rather died. So, please, treat me as a prisoner.”
“Yes. Well.” The prisoner expected at least a smile.
“Anyway, you see you Romans are not the only ones who will make a god of a man.”
“At least in Rome the Senate has to vote on divinity. And it comes only to the Caesars, not mere survivors of snakebite.”
“Still, we all come into and leave the world in the same way. No mind can make sense of a man becoming a god.”
“Why not? Why shouldn’t a great man earn divinity? The Caesars are the greatest men who’ve ever walked the Earth.”
“Great in their own ways, I suppose. Caligula was great in his insanity, no?”
“I told you about Caligula.”
“Ah, what more can your rulers do to me? Caligula made himself first into a god, then into a laughingstock. Who can truly take up a task and show himself worthy before God, like some Greek hero? What must a man do to make God owe him even life? What level of greatness is necessary? You, Dominicus, are your accomplishments, chaining yourself to a cripple, enough to earn divinity?”
“I’ve given it no thought.”
“You are unique, then, no doubt. All of creation tells us, ultimately, no man can save himself from death. We all are consigned to dust, and will face our maker on His terms.”
“This truth you’re so sure of?”
“Yes. Before Him, all human striving falls to nothing. As you say, you Romans believe in a multitude of gods, and their legends overflow with squabbles, gods who manipulate and scheme against each other. But the real God has no need to struggle – He simply is, He simply does. As one of our prophets said, ‘Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the heat of His anger?’ What God foreordains, no power or principality can oppose. He will cause it to happen.”
“I know nothing and care nothing about your prophets.”
“Of course not. Yet here you sit, chained to me, and by no mistake.”
“Well, then, if your God is so great, why doesn’t He deliver you from bearing these chains?”
“Same reason as you – it’s my job. He will deliver me in His way, in His time. Meanwhile, I am learning to content myself with seeing His judgments fulfilled.”
“Doesn’t that say something about your god? What use is a god who doesn’t make your life good?”
“You’re being distracted by the nose guard again. Perhaps God will yet take the helmet off.”
“You try to trick me; I see why Caesar’s court mistrusts you. You use my training against me. But Roman soldiers are strong; together we make an army no power can stand against.”
“Oh, yes, the legions of Rome stand more mighty than all the armies of history.”
“Not just in might, but in honor.”
“Is it truly so? My people would disagree.”
“That is the art of an army, to maintain discipline and squelch the mob instinct. The same training that makes a man master himself can turn him into a ravening beast. I admit I have seen the discipline break down. A few years ago I fought the Britons under Quintus Veranius. You might know his name, for he once was governor in your region. Four legions went to battle to subdue the Welsh, a pale race of barbaric, hairy satyrs. They fought like crazed apes. As we marched across them, families fled to a druid center at a place they call Anglesey, a crude formation of magnificent stones that we brought down to the ground. The men broke ranks, and many forced vile passions upon the women and children. Then they were skewered like so many geese, two or three to a spear. I myself …”
The guard paused, his mind dwelling for a moment in a different time.
“At his best, when a man joins with others,” he continued, “marching ten leagues a day, then lays a road that he might march thirteen, he learns the honor of serving for a greater cause, the unity of many joined together. When he sleeps one hundred abreast under the stars, when he sees the multitudes of the heavens bound together and knows he is a part of the greatness of Rome, then he realizes that his strength lies with his commitment to his brothers in arms.”
“But here you are alone. Here God bares your weakness, because you are alone, and alone you will stand before Him one day, as will each man and woman from the battle at Anglesey. Only in your weakness will God reveal Himself, for He chooses to work so. Only those who totally give up their self-reliance does He totally give victory. I myself bear the scars – He made me blind so I could see. Still my eyes are weak, but I would gladly have plunged them into darkness forever, in order to see.”
“See? You try more tricks. You make no sense, and try to confuse me.”
“No tricks, just foolishness. Even you gentiles make endless sacrifice to your gods, to win their favor. I tell you God’s way – though I am weak and unworthy before God, one lives who is strong, who is worthy, one who owns all the favor of God. He gives His worthiness to me.”
“Who is this one who is so great?” the guard’s sarcasm too flat to even echo.
“The Greeks call Him Iesous.”
“Does he have such mighty power, then?”
“The might of His voice can lay low every soldier of Rome, and can overturn every stone of your roads.”
“You’re right about one thing: You talk like a fool. So you’ve seen this risen god – let me tell you what I see. I see a soldier of your Christ sitting here in bonds. And I see a soldier of Rome, armed with pilum and gladius, able to pierce you at any moment, at the order of my officer. I see the strength of an eternal empire holding prisoner a Jew in rags. This is the power that I honor, and I have pledged my allegiance to it, even unto death. I don’t care if I even saw your Iesous with my own eyes, I will not bow to his greatness until my own heart persuades me.”
“That is what I mean.”
“Phagh!” The guard waved his hand dismissively, and his chain clanked.
“I have one favor to ask of you, though you trust me not. Please allow me these visitors. I desire no physical comforts, but I have some important letters to send, and I expect my brother Tychicus to fetch them for delivery. There is another man, Onesimus, who may come with him. They must be allowed to carry these letters.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Can you read Greek?”
“Sure – some.”
“Perhaps you could read over the letters – look for mistakes. I am but a backwoods Hebrew, and little do I know. Also my brother Luke – please let him in when he comes. He has an ointment of aloes that eases the chafing of these manacles.”
“Is he some kind of doctor?”
“He is a better doctor to me than all the Greeks in the world.”
The waning drip-drip of a distant water clock gave testimony to the looming end of the shift. The prisoner sat against the wall, his eyes shut, humming softly under his breath:
“In Him it did please all the fullness to tabernacle,
And through Him to reconcile the all things to Himself,
Having made peace through the blood of His cross
Through Him, whether the things upon the earth,
Whether the things in the heavens.”
Listening to the prisoner’s faint singing, the guard cast a sidelong glance to his face, placid in rest. “You need to realize you’re in prison.”
The prisoner fell silent. Slowly increasing footsteps slapped the floor stones of the hallway, until a grinding sound arose from the door of metal bars. The guard rose to his feet as a Roman soldier strode into the cell briskly.
“Paul!” said Angelicus, as the jailor turned the key upon his manacle. “I have questions for you.”
“Shh!” the prisoner replied with loud secrecy. “If you speak so loudly, you too will be reassigned.” His playful glance met the guard’s eyes.
“I bring word from Epaphroditus’ guard as well,” said Angelicus enthusiastically.
The guard paused at the sound of his voice, and paused a second time. He looked to the prisoner.
“I will talk with you again. Next time.”
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