Thursday, July 07, 2005

Fetters in Twain

Sufficient time has passed, to the point where I don’t remember much visual detail, but the impressions are revived every now and again in broad, vivid emotional recollection. After 34 years, I am still unsure as to the timing of this wave, but it washes over me occasionally, and I am glad.
One of the things that we don’t really experience, here in the New World, is the phenomenon of ancient cities, destroyed and rebuilt on the resulting ruins, century upon century. Rome is such a city. I remember quipping to my friends, with all the cynicism that a 14-year old could muster, that Rome was “like Tijuana, the dirt was just 1400 years older.” It is true that youth is wasted upon the young. Reaching parts of old Rome requires descending from the modern city to excavated and preserved levels, which only adds to one’s sense of leaving current time as well as space. This stuff is way old, and it smells old as one leaves the light and heat of the day to descend into the streets of the Forum – yes, the original one – and then into Mamertine Prison.
My efforts to refresh my memory today tell me that there is no confirmation that Saints Paul and Peter were ever here; it still does not diminish the effect that it had upon me, as I’m sure it continues to have upon others. I was with a tour group of about 14 people, mostly teens with a few sponsors, including my parents. Our Father, who art in Temecula, had specifically requested this particular stop on our Roman Holiday.
This prison was initially created as a cistern, with two chambers. The lower one was originally only accessed via a hole in its roof – prisoners were lowered (or thrown) into the lower section. I clearly remember a large metal door that was shown to lead into the ancient sewer system, and was informed that some unfortunates that did not survive their incarceration were merely disposed of in this manner. Having endured what at that point seemed a lifetime of Sunday school lessons depicting Peter and Paul singing the doors of prisons open, those illustrations paled into oblivion. This was a serious place, and a cold, dank, dark hole where the only access to light and life was controlled by taunting soldiers above, in conditions not much better than one’s own. Gazing at the bricks, feeling the cold in the midst of what I knew was a hot Summer’s day a couple of centuries above me, in the silence found only in subterranean places or perhaps deep space – I think I got a sense of how cold, hungry, and utterly alone one could be. I am happy to say that that’s the closest I’ve ever been to incarceration, so far. Perhaps this memory is one reason why.
Then comes the moment that means so much to me. We held hands, in a circle within the cistern, and began to sing an old hymn. My initial 14-year old resistance to the “corny-ness” of the moment began to melt within me as the familiar words began to take on a gripping reality:
“Once I was bound by sin’s galling fetters,
Chained like a slave, I suffered in vain.
Then I received a glorious freedom,
Freedom that rent my fetters in twain.
Glorious Freedom, Wonderful Freedom!
No more in chains of sin I repine
Jesus the glorious Emancipator
Now and Forever, He shall be mine!"
I don’t remember leaving the prison. I really don’t remember anything else from that day. I do know that a lot of things came into clearer focus for me that day – what others had done for me, the power of faith. Increasingly, over the years, gratitude to my parents for providing such an opportunity for me, that enabling such experiences was a pretty important calling. That light can truly pierce the darkness, in all its forms, in the darkest of places. That’s a few of them. I suppose, in a sense, it’s given me a certain confidence that things are never quite that bad, that there’s a spirit available in the worst circumstances, that God will never “leave me or forsake me.” As I said, it’s a feeling I get every once in a while . . .