A Vision of Paul and the Early Martyrs Tullianum Jail, Rome
Upside down cross signifies St. Peter's crucifixion which he asked to be upside down.
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I see a large dark room. I call it a large room just to signify that it is very spacious and constructed with stone. But it is a cellar which the light barely enters through two floor-level slits which also serve for ventilation. It is quite insufficient, however, for the number of people gathered there and because of the moisture oozing from the walls, made of almost square-shaped blocks of stone joined with lime mortar, but with no plaster and beaten earth flooring.
I know it is the Tullianum jail. My counselor tells me. From the same source I also know that the throng packed into such a small space is made up of Christians imprisoned for their faith and waiting to be martyred. It is a time of persecution, and precisely one of the first persecutions, for I hear mention of Peter and Paul and know they have been killed under Nero.
You can't imagine the sharpness of detail with which I "see" this jail and those enclosed herein. I could describe the age, physiognomy, and clothing of each individual. But in that case I would never finish. I shall thus limit myself to stating the things, points, and personages that make the greatest impression on me.
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There are people of every age and social conditon. From the elderly--who, in all mercy, should be left to a natural death--to children only a few years old who should rightfully be left to their innocent games, free and joyous, but who are languishing as poor flowers who will never again see the flowers of the earth, in the unhealthy shadows of this jail.
There are rich people with well cared-for clothing and poor people in poor clothes. And the language also contains variations in pronunciation and style, depending on whether it emerges from the educated lips of gentlemen or the mouths of common people. Mixed together with the Latin of Rome, the foreign words and pronunciations of Greeks, Iberians, Thracians, and many others are also heard. But if the forms of clothing and speech are different, the spirit is the same, guided by charity. They love one another with no distinction based on race or wealth. They love one another and seek to provide mutual assistance.
The strongest give up the driest and most comfortable places--if you can call a few slabs of stone scattered here and there serving as seats and cushions "comfortable"--to the weakest. And they cover them with their clothing, remaining with nothing but their tunics for the sake of modesty, using togas and cloaks to act as mattresses and cushions and blankets for the sick trembling with fever or those wounded by tortures previously undergone. The healthiest help the sickest by lovingly giving them something to drink--a little water poured from a pitcher into a rustic recipient--and soaking some strips of cloth torn from their clothes in it to provide bandages for dislocated or lacerated members and for the brows burning with fever.
And they sing from time to time. A soft song which is certainly a psalm or several psalms, for they alternate...
One of them begins as follows: "I love, for the Lord listens to the voice of my prayer."
Another says:, "O God, my God, I keep watch for You from the first light of day. My soul is thirsty for You, and my flesh, much more. In a desert land, impassable and without water..."
A child moans in the half-darkness. The song halts.
Someone asks, "Who is crying?"
Someone answers, "Its Castulus. The fever and the burn give him no relief. He is thirsty and cannot drink because the water burns his lips, scorched by the fire."
"There is a mother here who can no longer give her milk to her baby," says an imposing matron with a refined appearance. Have Castulus brought to me. Milk burns less than water."
Someone orders, "Castulus to Plautina."
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A person comes forward that, from his clothing, I would deem to be either the servant of a Christian family who is sharing the lot of his masters or a common laborer. He is thickset, dark, and robust, with almost shaven hair and a short dark-colored robe clasped at the waist by a belt. He is certainly carrying a poor child about eight years old in his arms, as if on a stretcher. His clothing, though now covered with earth and stains, is elegant, of pure white wool and with the neck, sleeves, and bottom edge adorned with sumptuous Grecian embroidery. His sandals are also elegant and beautiful.
Plautina sits down on a stone which an old man gives up for her. Plautina is also dressed entirely in white wool. I do not remember the exact names for the Roman clothes, but I think this long robe is called a chiamys, and the cloak, a palla. I cannot guarantee my memory, though. I know Plautina's clothing is very beautiful and ample and envelops her graciously, turning her into a lovely living statue.
She sits down on the block of stone leaning against the wall. I distinctly see the large stones overhanging her, against which she stands out with her slightly olive-colored face, large black eyes, raven-black braids, and snow-white dress.
"Give him to me, Restitutus, and may God reward you," she says to the merciful bearer of the little martyr. And she separates her knees a bit to receive the child, as if upon a bed.
When Restitutus sets him down, I see a ruin which makes me shudder. The poor child's face is one big burn. Perhaps he was handsome. He is now monstrous. No more than a little hair on the back of his head; in front the skin is bare and consumed by fire. There are no longer a brow and cheeks and a nose as we conceive of them, but a bright red swelling, pink from the fierce heat, as if caused by an acid. Instead of lips, another wound which is horrible to look at. It seems they held just his face over the flame, for there is no more burn under his chin.
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Plautina opens her tunic and, speaking with the love of a true mother, squeezes her round breast full of milk and has the drops trickle between the lips of the child, who cannot smile, but who caresses her hand to show his relief. And then, after quenching his thirst, she lets some more milk fall upon the poor face to medicate it with this balm, which is a mother's blood turned into nourishment and the love of a woman left without children for someone left without a mother.
The child no longer moans. With his thirst quenched and his agony soothed, and rocked to sleep by the matron, he falls asleep, breathing with difficulty.
Plautina looks like a mother of sorrows, in view of her pose and expression. She looks at the poor little child and certainly sees her child or children in him, and tears roll down her cheeks, and she thrusts her head backwards to keep them from falling onto the child's wounds.
The song resumes, "I anxiously awaited the Lord, and He turned to me and heeded my cry."
"The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing. He has set me in a grassy meadow. He has led me to refreshing water."
"Fabius is dead," a voice says at the back of the vault. "Let us pray," and they all say the Our Father and another prayer which begins like this: "May the Most High be praised, for He has mercy on His servants and opens His Kingdom to our unworthiness without asking our weakness for anything but patience and good will. May Christ be praised, for He suffered torture for those whom His mercy know to be too weak to undergo it and has asked them only for love and faith. May the Spirit be praised, for He has given His fires for martyrdom to those not called to the consummation of martyrdom and makes them holy with His Holiness. So be it. (Maran atha) (I don't know if I am writing this correctly).
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"How fortunate Fabius is!" and old man exclaims. "He is already seeing Christ!"
"We, too, shall see Him, Felix, and go to Him with the twofold crown of faith and martyrdom. We shall be as if reborn, without a trace of stain, for the sins of our past life will be washed in our blood before being washed in the Blood of the Lamb. We sinned greatly--we who were pagans for long years--and it is a great grace for the jubilee of martyrdom to come to us to make us new, worthy of the Kingdom.
"Peace be with you, my brothers and sisters," thunders a voice which I immediately sense I have previously heard.
"Paul! Paul! Bless us!"
There is a rush of movement in the throng. Only Plautina remains motionless, with the pitiful burden on her lap.
"Peace be with you," the apostle repeats. And he advances up to the center of the entrance hall. "Here I am with Diomedes and Valente to bring you Life."
"What about the Pontiff?" many ask.
"He sends you his greeting and his blessing. He is alive, for the time being, and safe in the catacombs. The fossores (Christians disguised as grave-diggers to bury the martyrs) are guarding him well. He would come, but Alexander and Caius Julius informed us that he is too well known among the jailers. Rufus and the other Christians are not always on guard duty. I--less well known and a Roman citizen--have come. Brothers and sisters, what news do you have for me?"
"Fabius is dead."
"Castulus suffered the first martyrdom."
"Sixta has now been led to torture."
"Linus has been taken with Urbanus and his sons to Mamertinus or to the Circus--we don't know."
"Let us pray for them--whether alive or dead. That Christ may give all of them His Peace.."
And Paul, with his arms opened in the form of a cross, prays (short, rather unattractive, but an impressive man) in the middle of the dungeon. As if he, too, were a servant, he is wearing a short dark robe with a little cloak and a hood which he has thrust back in order to pray. Behind him are the two men he has named, dressed as he is, but much younger.
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When the prayer is over, Paul asks, "Where is Castulus?"
"On Plautina's lap, there, in the back."
Paul cuts through the crowd and approahces the group. He bends over and observes. He blesses. He blesses the child and the matron. The child appears to have awakened at the cries greeting the apostle, for he raises a little hand, trying to touch Paul, who then takes the hand between his own and speaks. "Castulus, do you hear me?"
"Yes," says the child, moving his lips with difficulty.
"Be strong, Castulus. Jesus is with you."
"Oh, why didn't you give Him to me? Now I can't any longer!" And a tear falls to aggravate his wounds.
"Don't cry, Castulus. Can you swallow a single crumb? You can? Well then, I'll give you the Body of the Lord. Then I'll go to your mother and tell her that Castulus is a flower in Heaven. What should I say to your mother?"
"That I am happy. That I have found a mother. That she gives me her milk. That my eyes don't hurt any more. (It's not a lie to say so, is it--to console my mother?) And that I 'see' Paradise and my place and hers better than if these eyes of mine were still alive. Tell her fire doesn't hurt when the angels are with us and that she shouldn't fear either for my sake or for hers. The Savior will give us strength."
"Wonderful, Castulus! I shall tell your mother what you have said. God alway helps, brothers and sisters. And you see this. He is a child. He is at the age when people can't bear the pain of a slight malaise. And you see and hear him. He is in peace. His is ready to suffer everything, after having already suffered so much, provided he can go to the One whom he loves, and he loves Him because he is one of those whom He loved--a child--and he is a hero of the Faith. Take heart from these children, O brothers and sisters. I am returning from having taken Lucina to the cemetery, the daughter of Faustus and Cecilia. She was only fourteen years old, and you know much she was loved by her family and how weak she was in health. And yet she was a giant before the tyrants. You know that with these (clothing disguise) I pass myself off as a fossor (grave digger) so that I can gather as many bodies as possible and lay them in holy ground. I thus live in contact with tribunals and see, as I live in contact with the circuses and observe. And it is a comfort for me to think that I, too, in my hour--if God so pleases--shall be sustainted by Him like the saints who have preceded us. Lucina was tortured with a thousand torments. Beaten, hung, stretched out, and twisted with tongs. And she was always healed by the work of God. And she always withstood all the threats. The final torture, before martyrdom, was aimed at her spirit. The tyrant, on seeing her caught up with the love for Christ, a virgin who had bound herself to the Lord our God, wanted to wound her in this love of hers. And he condemned her to be with a man. But one, two, and ten who approached all perished, struck down by a heavenly thunderbolt. Then, unable to break and destroy the lily of her purity in any way, the tyrant ordered that she be bound and hung in such a fashion that she would remain as if seated and then lowered swiftly onto a pointed wedge, which tore apart her viscera. The barbarian thought he had thus taken away her virginity. But her purity had never flourished so beautifully as in that bloodbath, and from her torn viscera her lily spread forth to be picked up by God's angel. She is now in peace.
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Courage, brothers and sisters. I had fed her yesterday with the Bread of Heaven, and with the taste of that Bread she went to her final martyrdom. I shall now give that Bread to you as well, for tomorrow is a day of superhuman feasting for you. The Circus awaits you. And you do not fear. In the beasts and snakes you will see celestial appearances, for God will work this miracle for you, and the jaws and coils will seem to you to be loving embraces; the roars and hisses, heavenly voices; and, like Castulus, you will see Paradise, which is already descending to welcome you into its blessedness."
The Christians, except for Plautina, are all kneeling and singing: "As the hind longs for the brook, so my soul longs for You. My soul is thirsty for God. For the mighty, living God. When may I come to You, Lord? Why are you sad, my soul? Hope in God, and it will be granted to you to praise Him. By day God sends His grace, and by night He recieves the song of thanksgiving. Prayer to God is my life. I shall say to Him, 'You are my defense'. Come. Let us joyously sing to the Lord. Let us uplift shouts of joy to God our Savior. Let us present ourselves to Him with cries of rejoicing. For the Lord is the great God. Come. Let us prostrate ourselves and worship Him who created us. For He is the Lord our God, and we are the people nourished by Him, the flock guided by Him."
While they were singing, some Roman soldiers and jailers entered; they also mount guard so that unfriendly people will not enter.
Paul prepares for the rite. "You shall be our altar," he says to Castulus. Can you hold the chalice on your chest?"
A linen cloth is spread over the child's little body, and the chalice and bread are set upon it
And I attend the Mass of the martyrs, which is celebrated by Paul, and served by the two priests accompanying him. It is not like today's Mass, though. It seems to me to contain parts now lacking and to lack parts now in use. It lacks the Epistle, for instance, and after the blessing--"May the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit bless you"--there is nothing else. But the parts are the same as now from the Gospel to the Consecration. The Gospel read was that of the Beatitudes.
I see the linen cloth trembling on the chest of Castulus, who as Paul requested, is holding the base of the chalice in his fingers so that it will not fall. I also see that when Paul says, "This consecration of the Body..." the flush of a smile passes over the wounded face of the child, and then the little head suddenly sinks down with a deathly heaviness which constantly grows.
Plautina seems to be jolted, but controls herself. Paul proceeds as if not noticing anything. But when, after breaking the Host, he is about to bend over the little martyr to give him Communion as the first of all with a minuscule fragment, Plautina says, "He's dead." And Paul pauses for an instant and then gives the matron the fragment intended for the child, who has remained with his fingers clasped over the base of the chalice in his final contraction, and they have to disengage them from it in order to take the chalice and give it to the others.
Then, after Communion has been distributed, the Mass ends. Paul takes off his vestments and places them and the linen cloth and the chalice and the receptable for the hosts in a bag he is carrying under his cloak. He then says, "Peace be with Christ's martyr. Peace be with holy Castulus."
And everyone responds, "Peace!"
"I shall now take him to another place. Give me a cloak to wrap him in. I shall take him without waiting for nightfall. Tonight we shall come for Fabius. But I shall take him...as a child who has fallen asleep. Fallen asleep in the Lord."
One of the soldiers offers his red cloak, and they lay the little martyr upon it and wrap him in it, and Paul takes him on his arm (the left arm), as if he is a father who is carrying his sleeping son somewhere else, with his head resting on his father's shoulder
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"Brothers and sisters, may peace be with you, and remember me when you are in the Kingdom." And he goes out, blessing them.
"It is not the Gospel, but I want it to be considered one of the 'gospels of faith' for you that fear.
You also fear persecutions. You no longer have the fiber of old. But I am always Myself, children. You must not think that I can't give you an intrepid heart in the hour of trial. Without My help, no one, even then, could have remained steadfast in the face of so much torture. And yet old men and children, young girls and mothers, and spouses and parents were able to die, encouraging others to die, as if they were going to a celebration. And it was a celebration. An eternal celebration!
They died, and their dying was a breach in the dike of paganism. Like water which goes on eroding and eroding and slowly but inexorably breaks man's sturdiest works, their blood, issuing from thousands and thousands of wounds, gnawed at the pagan wall and, like many brooks, scattered into Caesar's militias, into Caesar's royal palace, into the circuses and spas, and among gladiators and animal keepers, those employed at the public baths, and the cultured and the common folk--everywhere, unstoppable and invincible.
The soil of Rome soaked up this blood, and the city rises--I might say it is cemented--with the blood and dust of my martyrs. The few hundred martyrs you are familia with are nothing compared to the thousands and thousands still buried in the entrails of Rome and the thousands and thousands of others who, having been burned on the stakes in the circuses, became ash scattered by the wind, or, after being torn to pieces and devoured by beasts and reptiles, became excrement which was swept up and flung out as manure.
But if you do not know these unknown heroes of Mine, I know them all, and their complete annihilation, even of their skeletons, has been what has fertilized the savage soil of the pagan world more than any manure and made it become capable of bearing the Heavenly Wheat.
Now this soil of the Christian world is becoming pagan again, and poison germinates, not bread. And that is why you are afraid. You have become too estranged from God to have the fortitude of old in you.
The theological virtues are dying in the places where they are not already dead. And you don't even remember the cardinal virtues. In not having charity, it is only natural for you to be unable to love God to the point of heroism. In not loving Him, you do not hope in Him and do not have faith in Him. In not having faith, hope and charity, you are not strong, prudent, and just. In not being strong, you are not temperate. And in not being temperate, you love the flesh more than the soul and tremble over your flesh.
But I can still work the miracle. Believe, too, that in every persecution the martyrs are able to be such through My aid. The martyrs--that is, those who still love Me. I then take their love to perfection and make them athletes in faith. I come to the aid of those hoping and believing in Me. Always. In any circumstance.
The little martyr remaining with his hand clasping the chalice, even beyond death, teaches you where strength is. In the Eucharist. When someone feeds on Me, as Paul states, he no longer lives through himself, but Jesus lives in him (Galations 2:20). And Jesus was able to endure all torments, without bending. Whoever lives by Me will thus be like Me. Strong.
Written by Maria Valtorta. Taken from THE NOTEBOOKS 1944, February 29.
Copyright 1998, CENTRO EDITORIALE VALTORTIANO, Isola del Liri, Italy. All rights reserved in all countries.
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© 2010 Valtorta Publishing. All rights reserved.