My read for the second part of Lent and rounding off the Easter octave has been Quo Vadis a historical novel of ancient Rome by Nobel Prize winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, I read the modern translation by W.S. Kuniczak, which I highly recommend.
It’s a lovely fat novel, more than 500 pages and rich in detail and delightfully realized characters. Though not perhaps for the weak of stomach or the faint of heart as Sienkiewicz does not stint in describing either Nero’s decadence and orgies nor his brutality—both towards the members of his own court and the people of Rome and toward the Christians who he scapegoats and persecutes with a fiendish malice. But the descriptions of brutality are more than balanced by the vision of the faith of the Christians and the richness of Christ’s mercy which stands in such stark contrast to Nero’s abject evil. A perfect book to contemplate in light of Divine Mercy Sunday.
The hero of the novel is Marcus Vinicius, a handsome young soldier recently returned to Rome from the latest Parthian war. Vinicius falls in love with Ligia, daughter of the king of the Ligians, tribal people who live in the area that is modern-day Poland. Ligia was sent to Rome as a hostage and resides in the household of Aulus Platius whose wife Pomponia Graecina, is a secret Christian and who has also converted Ligia to that faith.
When we first meet Vinicius he is visiting his uncle Petronius, who is Nero’s Arbiter of Elegance, an Epicurean who lives for pleasure and beauty. Petronius is thoroughly decadent but shuns anything ugly, cruel, or inelegant; he often reins in some of Nero’s worst impulses and more violent tendencies. Vinicius admires his uncle Petronius and imitates him. Throughout the novel Petronius promotes and encourages the relationship with Ligia while also pushing back against Christianity. At times he stands in clear opposition to Nero at other times he is in opposition to Peter. I liked that the novel had these various layers of tension and a didn’t ever devolve into overly simplistic moralism or black and white thinking. Petronius is hard to pin down and categorize.
Although Vinicius loves Ligia he doesn’t know at first that she’s a Christian, in fact he doesn’t really know who the Christians are or what they believe in. As the novel progresses and Vinicius learns about Christianity he is pulled between his love for Ligia and his love and respect for Petronius. In a way Petronius represents that which is beautiful and noble in pagan Rome. He loves poetry, philosophy, art, music, beauty. He doesn’t believe in the gods, but he finds the images of them beautiful. Petronius hears Paul’s preaching and debates with him and even comes to believe that what Paul preaches is probably true. But Petronius can never bring himself to commit to the Christian faith in part because it would require him to love as his brothers slaves, barbarians, the maimed and poor and the ugly. Also because he is unwilling to die to himself, to embrace the cross and suffering. Nevertheless, Petronius does put his life on the line for Vinicius, braving Nero’s wrath, in order to intercede for Ligia’s life — not out of love for her but for the sake of his nephew. His story is tragic because he comes close, but cannot quite cross the chasm to follow Christ.
And through much of the novel it seems impossible to the reader that Vinicius will make that leap either. So much stands in the way of him becoming a Christian, His Roman arrogance and his lifelong indulgence of his own whims and passions. But when he is seeking Ligia Vinicius hears Peter’s testimony and believes that it is true, the testimony of an eyewitness and he is moved by Peter’s passion and his holiness. He is willing to believe in miracles and divine power and to embrace the faith because it is Ligia’s and he loves her. But Christ also threatens to overturn his entire system of values and way of life. He cannot see how he can become a Christian.
Ligia realizes that she loves Vinicius; but she isn’t sure what to do with that love. She still cannot imagine him ever becoming a Christian. She is confused by her love for this sometimes violent and self-willed pagan soldier and torn apart by her conflicted feelings. After he has been wounded while trying to kidnap her, the Christians take him in and Ligia nurses him. At one point she gives into her feelings and kisses Vinicius (chastely, on the top of his head). But this exchange confuses her further.
Distraught, she goes to confess her confusion to the priest Crispus. And I think this is one of the most powerful scenes in the novel because it so beautifully dramatizes Christian love and mercy. Crispus is a devout and passionate follower of Christ, but he is a type that is still recognizable today: the Christian who is hyperfocused on the evil of sin and necessity of divine judgment and punishment. He is unable to comprehend Christ’s mercy and love and he almost destroys Ligia. Fortunately, Peter intervenes and gently remonstrates with him.
“She poured out her troubles to him, and pleaded with him to let her go away. She could no longer trust herself, she told him. She couldn’t keep denying her love for Vinicius. Staying with him in Miriam’s house, breathing the same air, was impossible for her.
Crispus was stunned. He was an old, judgmental man, fanatical in his religious fervor. He could see why Ligia had to leave the house, but he saw all love other than spiritual as profane and couldn’t forgive her descent into carnality. He was appalled. He was the one who had looked after her since her escape, confirmed her in her faith, and came to love her as a pure and undefiled offering he reserved for God. He saw her as a virginal white lily rising from sound Christian soil, unpolluted by any earthly matter; he couldn’t understand how she could find room anywhere within her for a lesser love. He wanted to offer her to Christ like a jewel, as something precious fashioned for His glory by Crispus’ own hands. The disappointment left him shocked and bitter.
‘Go beg God to forgive you for your sin,’ he groaned. ‘Do it before the demons that possess you complete your destruction and you deny the Savior! God died on the cross for you, to ransom your soul with his blood, but you preferred the love of a man who wanted your body. God’s miracle saved you from him, but you reach out to that son of darkness and soil yourself with lust. What is he? A friend and servant of the Antichrist, his partner in debauchery and crime. Where do you expect him to lead you if not into the put, that foul Sodom where he lives that God’s just anger will scorch any day? I tell you, you’d be better dead than let that serpent crawl into your breast. I’d rather have the walls of this house tumble on your head than have the slimy beast soil you with its venom.’
Then he was ranting, swept away by his own fanatical devotions— not merely angry with the girl but disgusted with all things natural to a human being, loathing humanity itself, and full of bitter contempt for the frailty of women. Scratch a woman, he seemed to be saying, and you’ll always find Eve and the origins of sin. It meant nothing to him that the girl was untouched in any way, or that she had tried to escape from that love and confessed it with humility, regret and contrition. Crispus saw her as a fallen angel; he wanted to lift her to the highest peaks of religious fervor, the plane of dedication where only love for Christ existed, and she fell in love with an Augustan! Just thinking about it made his blood run cold, not to mention the revulsion and the disappointment. No! He couldn’t forgive that! Never! . . . ”
Ligia knew she deserved some blame but nothing like this She thought that leaving Miriam’s home would be a victory over temptation and reduce her guilt. But Crispus turned her into dust in her own eyes; he cheapened everything about her and made her feel contemptible beyond anything she’d ever imagined. The old presbyter was like a father to her since her escape from the Palatine, and she went to him hoping for some compassion and advice, but rather than help her and fortify her determination, he merely destroyed her.”
But then Peter and Paul come to her rescue and dispel Crispus’ error. This scene is a glorious counterpoint to Crispus’ destructive and vengeful distortion of Christianity. Peter also confirms that there is nothing wrong with the path of human love and marriage that Ligia is drawn to. Christ does not forbid human love:
“Ligia thew herself on her knees before Peter and pressed her small head silently into the folds of his robe.
‘May your souls be at peace,’ Peter told them. He noted the girl’s anguish. ‘What has happened here?’
The grim old presbyter burst at once into the whole story while Ligia clutched the apostle’s feet in terrified despair, as if he was the only refuge she could hope to find. Ah, Crisupus cried, shaking with indignation. He had had such hopes for Ligia. . . but she defiled herself with an earthly love . . . For a cruel, lustful profligate who indulged himself in all the depravities of the Roman world. The apostle heard him out quietly to the end, put his gnarled old hand on the girl’s bowed head and raised his own sad eyes to the quivering old priest.
‘Have you heard, Crispus, of the wedding feast at Cana, where our beloved master blessed the love between men and women?’
‘Do you imagine, Crispus, that Christ would turn his back on this gentle child, as fresh and pure as one of the lilies of the field? He who let Mary of Magdale kiss his feet? He who forgave the whore?’
Ligia was racked with sobs. She wept and clutched the apostle’s worn feet all the harder, weak with relief that she hadn’t turned to him in vain. He stooped and turned her shining, tear-stained face toward him.
‘As long as the man you love is blind to the truth,’ he told her, ‘you should avoid him, to keep yourself from stumbling into error. But pray for him. Loving him is not a sin. The fact that you’ve done all you can to escape temptation just adds to your merit. I tell you then, my child: Don’t cry and torment yourself because the grace of the Redeemer has not been taken from you. Your prayers will be heard, and days of joy will follow.’
Crispus was crushed. ‘I sinned against mercy.’ His voice was humble and contrite. ‘I thought she was denying Christ by giving way to an earthly love…’
‘I denied him three times,’ Peter interrupted. ‘Yet he forgave me and let me be a shepherd to his flock.’
‘ . . . because Vinicius is an Augustan,’ the humbled presbyter said, trying to justify himself, ‘one of the masters of the Roman world—‘
‘Christ has moved harder hearts than his,’ Peter said.
‘And I am the living witness,’ the dwarfed ugly Paul of Tarsus added quietly, pointing to himself. ‘No one did more than I to root out and destroy the light of his teaching. I am the executioner and tormenter of his people….
He rose and turned to go, and Crispus saw the hunchbacked, crooked little man for what he really was: a giant who would shake the earth, possess all the lands, and seize the hearts and souls of all their people.”
This might be one of my favorite scenes in the novel, depicting as it does not only Peter’s goodness and Paul’s sanctity, but also Crispus’ wrongheaded brand of fervor. Crispus’ error allows the novel to highlight Christ’s mercy and to show how mercy stands in opposition to a kind of rigid judgmentalism. Crispus’ merciless doomsaying is, sadly, an all too common distortion of Christianity that many take for the real thing. Christ’s love and mercy are forgotten, lost in the fervent hatred of sin and evil. In Quo Vadis Peter and Paul offer a beautiful corrective to Crispus’ distortion.
+ + +
Two more times Crispus is shown sinning against mercy and being corrected by the apostles, first by Peter and then by Paul. The second time is during the burning of Rome when the Christians have taken shelter in an abandoned quarry. The terrified Christians are whipped into a frenzy by Crispus ranting about the need for repentance:
“The hour of his judgment is at hand, the time of doom and anger…. The Lord said he would come again, and now you will see him! But this time he won’t be coming as the sacrificial lamb who offered his blood to redeem your sins but as a terrible judge who will throw sinners and the unbelievers into eternal darkness! Woe to the world! Damnation to the sinners who will find no mercy!”
The poor Christians are near despair not only because of the fire but because their priest is denying them any comfort or consolation, but is instead fanning their fears by teaching them about a false Christ, a Christ who is lacking in mercy. But then once again Peter comes to their rescue with words of peace and mercy:
“And then a quiet voice spoke from high above the dark, prostrated mass: ‘Peace be with you!’
It was the voice of the apostle Peter, who had stepped into the cavern a few moments earlier. All fear vanished at the sound of his voice, just as a frightened flock is calmed when it sees the shepherd. The people rose everywhere around him. Those who were near him gathered at his knees as if seeking shelter.
‘Lift up your hearts,’ he said, stretching his hands over them. ‘Why are you so troubled? Which of you can guess what will happen at the final hour?Yes, the Lord punished Babylon with fire, but you who are washed clean by baptism and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb will find only mercy, and you will go to him with his name on your lips when your moment comes. Peace be with you!’
After hearing Crispus’ grim and merciless voice of doom, this fell on the gathering like a soothing balm. Instead of cowering in fear, they felt comforted by God’s love for them. This was the Christ they had come to honor and adore: the mild and patient Lamb whose mercy soared a hundrefold above the worst that any man could do, rather than the stern and unforgiving judge. Peace came to them all. Hope and gratitude filled them and lifted their spirits. ‘We are your sheep!’ they cried, ‘Lead us to your pastures!’
Shortly after this scene Vinicius finally asks Peter for baptism. It’s clear that Peter’s discussion of mercy helps to clear away some of those final hurdles. Of course the burning of Rome and all that he goes through during his frantic quest for Ligia in the burning city also makes a huge difference, but in his declaration of faith Vinicius cries out: ‘Because he’s the one and only God! Because he’s the God of mercy and compassion! Even if the whole world should burn down, not just this one city, I’ll still worship him and be a witness to his truth.’ It isn’t Crispus’ God of judgment that finally wins Vinicius to Christ but Peter’s God of love and mercy. Vinicius wants to be baptized because: ‘I love him with all the power of my soul.’
+ + +
Crispus, like Peter, and like Christ, falls three times in the course of the novel. His final fall is in the moments leading up to his death. Those Christians who have not been devoured by wild beasts will be crucified in the arena.But Crispus far from encouraging those who are about to die instead rails at them:
“Nor had his heart changed in him. Just as he hurled threats at his brethren in the holding pens, frightening them with damnation and the wrath of God, so he was thundering against them today instead of giving them hope and consolation.”
But even as he’s yelling about the day of wrath and judgment, Paul arrives in the arena:
“Suddenly a calm and solemn voice called out from the nearest benches.
‘Not wrath but mercy and happiness and salvation, because I say to you that Christ will take you unto him and set you on his right. Trust and believe because Paradise is opening up before you.”
Paul admonishes Crispus:
‘You think they could be damned? But who’ll damn them? Will it be the God who gave his only son for them? Will it be Christ who died for their salvation, as they die for the glory of his name? How can damnation come from the source of love? Who’ll be the accuser of those whom God picked for his own? Whole call this blood accursed?’
‘Master,’ the old priest said, ‘I hated evil.’
‘Christ taught us to love all men even more than to hate wrongdoing, because his creed is love, not hatred.’
‘I’ve sinned in the hour of my death,’ Crispus said as he beat his breast in contrition.”
Crispus goes to his cross with a peaceful sweetness; but the peace of his death is interrupted by one final burst of invective, this time not against his fellow Christians, but against Nero. I’ve found myself wondering about this. The accusations he hurls against Nero are true: matricide, wife-killer, murderer of your own brother. Woe and doom and judgment he rages. “Your time is coming!” He’s not wrong. But is he right? Paul says that truth without love is a clanging gong.
I think Crispus’ end is somewhat tragic. He could have taken Peter’s and Paul’s examples to heart and preached Christ’s love and mercy to Nero from the cross. He could have taken Christ’s words to heart and said something about forgiveness. We are offered no insight as to why Crispus is so hard and unforgiving, why he finds love and mercy so hard to grasp. We know that Christ is merciful and will welcome this harsh old man in love, will heal his wounds. Crispus dies a martyr’s death and if it is imperfect, it’s still much more than most of us will achieve.
+ + +
But there is one scene which is even more profound than the admonition of Crispus in depicting the profundity of Christian mercy and that is the baptism of the traitor Chilon.
Chilon has betrayed Ligia and the Christians to Nero multiple times. Angry that Vinicius had him beaten when he was already starving, he wreaks his vengeance by attempting to destroy not only Ligia but all the Christians. But when he is confronted with their deaths in the arena he is horrified at what he has wrought.
And then when he sees the Christians who have been turned into living torches in the pleasure gardens, Chilon finally breaks. He confronts Glaucus, whom he has betrayed multiple times and about whom he has told countless lies. And he begs Glaucus, as Glaucus is burning to death, a human torch, in Christ’s name, to forgive him. And… Glaucus does. Then Chilon recants and announces to the crowds that the Christians are innocent, that Nero is responsible for the burning of Rome.
Afterwards, he stumbles around in the dark park for hours until finally Paul finds him. “I want to save you,” Paul says. But Chilon insists he is cursed, damned forever. Paul reminds him that Christ forgave the thief, Chilon asks whether Paul knows what he has done. But Paul replies: “I saw your suffering. . . . And I heard you witness to the truth. . . . And if Christ’s servant forgave you in his hour of torment, how can Christ not do so?”
Paul invites Chilon to lean on him and leads him to the fountain in the center of the park where Glaucus died:
He put his arm round him and led him toward the crossroads, guided by the rustle of the fountain, which seemed to weep in the silent night over the martyr’s bodies.
‘Our God,’ he said again, ‘is a God of mercy. If you were to throw stones into the sea, could you ever fill it? I say to you that Christ’s mercy is like the sea, and all the sins and faults of all the people will sink in it like stones. And I say it’s like the sky that covers all the mountains and lands and seas, because it’s everywhere and there’s no end to it. You suffered at Glaucus’ stake and Christ saw your suffering. You said, “He is the man who set Rome on fire,” without fear of what may come tomorrow, and Christ noted that. You’re free of malice. You’ve shed lies and evil. There’s only boundless remorse and sorrow in your heart. . . . Come with me and listen to what I say, because I also once hated him and persecuted those he chose to be his disciples. I neither wanted him not believed in him until he showed himself to me and called me to him. He’s been the source of my love ever since and its only object. He let you suffer heartache, pain, and fear to call you to him. You hated him and he loved you. You sent his worshippers to be tortured, but he wants to forgive and save you.’
A vast sobbing wracked the devastated man as if his soul were ripped in two, and Paul possessed him, took control of him, and led him like a captive. After a while he spoke again.
‘Follow me, and I’ll take you to him. . . Why else would I have come to you? He ordered me to harvest people’s souls, so that’s what I do. You think you’re damned, and I say to you: Believe in him, and you will be saved. You think you’re hated, and I say he loves you. Look at me! Without him all I had was malice in my heart, and now his love is enough to serve as father and mother and all the riches and kingdoms of this world. He is the only refuge. Only he will credit your remorse, take note of your misery, ease your fear and lift you up to him.’
Paul leads him to the fountain, Chilon calls to Christ to forgive him, and then Paul baptizes him.