CHAPTER XIX IGNATIUS
On a Death and Visitation
I, LUKE, report: In late 117 the soldiers came for the Bishop who had been earlier condemned to die in Rome as food for wild beasts, entertainment for the crowd. It was not the case, as many reports claim, that the Emperor Trajan condemned him. That Christian accounting makes Christians seem more important than they were, and Trajan worse than he was. My proof of error is simple. Trajan was dead. Hadrian had been acclaimed Emperor. Nor was it Hadrian who heard this case, for after August he had hurried from Antioch to Rome. Any one who reports otherwise is a careless or dishonest historian, but then, too many of them are just that.
To be condemned, one’s case must be heard by magistrates. these are formal procedures. These can be altered by bribes or influence, but Christians have neither the wealth nor the avenues for these, nor did Ignatius wish it. As you know, however shaken by his immanent death, he had begun exceedingly to glory in it. I say attain, “exceedingly”. If a capital case is politically charged, the Governor should review it , affirming or rejecting the decision. In Ignatius case, no one I have met is sure as to who accused, denounced him, who appeared to testify against him and with what proofs of sedition. Keep in mind that simply being suspected a Christian as such was not by this time penalized, but rather preferably, overlooked unless there was some display of defiance, public disrespect including noisy disavowal of the titular Roman deities and the rituals due them. For any of these and like charges, evidence and witnesses were required. And woe be to the false accusers, they—since most such matters were conspiracies- would suffer severely. Mind you, Christian offenses against Rome were now encouraged to be dealt with by moderated sentences, death was by no the only punishment. I should know what happened. I do not. There is clearly something hidden.
The Bishop’s letters tell of his sailing from Seleucia His letters detail his landing at Smyrna where the Bishop Polycarp, his friend held his holy see. His guard was obviously good-natured, for he visited Polycarp for an unstated period. As long as there was food and wine, I suppose his escort were in no hurry. After all, Smyrna is a pleasant place, no soldier, in this instance ones obviously supplied with monies for the trip, need sleep alone in bed or drink only juice from his cup. It is my understanding that out of some generosity of spirit my Bishop invited to Polycarp to join him at the Coliseum’s gluttonous festivities. I am quite sure that Polycarp; no doubt much honored by this invitation to die gloriously, yet already highly regarded enough notso to deprive his congregation had other more pressing appointments as busy bishops do, and was thereby obliged to decline the honor. I daresay Polycarp heaved a sigh of gratitude once his gracious friend Ignatius again set sail, this time for Troy, this Troy of now no Helen, no Achilles, but now a Greek trading post city of some beauty and more history. One has the sense that the soldiers did not hurry to their coastal sailing vessel arrived at port.
The Letters indicate that Ignatius was a kind of tour leader, walking his obviously agreeable guard to Neopolis, then Phillipi, then by a very long road to Epirus, “by foot” Or so the letters claim, but I know enough the Bishop, believe he finds the best light by which to portray himself, so light indeed as if he sits in the noonday sun. Haloes after all are but that focused illumination. My wager is he, or a friendly wealthier Christian hired horses or carriages. From Epirus then, even the Bishop would not seek to emulate Jesus in everything by walking on water, it was to be a sail around the boot of Italy to Ostia Portus. It had been a leisurely journey, three and one half months. All along the way he seems to have given many God-praising speeches. One speech near Rome appears to have been kind of prayer service which again his guard allowed. Who knows, a guard or two might even have converted there, but for what should be the mighty disincentive of knowing by example of their prisoner, that to be a Christian was to be at risk of being devoured.
They were near Rome. He recorded that he begged his devout listeners not to envy him too much his coming death. There is no record that the evil eye, which is the essence of envy, drew any envious and eager ones with him into the arena. He died, it is said, no witten witness authenticating,, on 20 December. His gnawed bones were, it is said, returned here. I have seen no evidence e of that kind of solicitous care on the part of Romans, nor do I have evidence of access to remains by members of the church in Rome who might have shipped them here. I asure you no bones arrived. I am the one to know since I would be the steward to receive them. For myself, I don’t know whether shreds of a lion’s discarded gnawing would be collectable. I know a wolf will crunch bones to get the marrow. I am not familiar with tigers and lions but would expect the same. I will keep none as pets to find out. I can imagine the skull might be too round to get a grip on. No shards, no skulls arrived here. My truth is I do not know if my Bishop died in Rome or elsewhere. As truths go, there is none available to me. This Assembly prefers the story as told; they would be displeased to hear of my uncertainty.
Members of this assembly held a vigil in honor and adoration of Ignatius. In the garden they built a shrine and engraved on it a memorial. A visitor would easily think it a repository for holy bones, as they indeed were told, and later came to pay to see. I like my job and want no lumps on my head. I kept and do keep respectfully, I would say reverentially, mum.
The new bishop Heron, that dull fellow, presided over the memorial. He wanted to cap it with an interment of the remains in the shrine, those invisible shards by now dubbed holy relics, which he knew did not exist. Heron had an ossuary engraved for this ceremony. It was sealed, a precaution on his part, and would have been put on display. That was too much for me. It is not always possible to differentiate between useful theater and fraud, but with Heron, quite piously pleased with himself, it was not a difficult call. I told him he was going to far. He said to me,
“Deacon Luke, you are the one who is going. As soon as our vigil and service is over, you are out the door!”
I could not afford being fired. Since our disdain was mutual, his leanings to the boot were no surprise. As for myself, I decided on public self-reform. As the members assembled, as Deacon I assisted Heron in the service---some aspects of which we had borrowed from the Mithra priests since they were some centuries more experienced than we in ceremonials- my piety became downright unctuous, my mourning face sepulchral, my tears copious. I was so good at this sham even I could hardly stand myself, like me as much as I do. I toyed with the idea of keening, those noisy laments of the Greek, adding perhaps a bit of the tearing out of hair. No, I decided not. Let the new Bishop Heron make such noise as he might, whereas respecting the tearing of the hair, it would hurt, unless I could fake it entirely which I could not, for I saw no dog or cat nearby to shear. Besides, with some baldness already, it was a thoroughly bad idea. I decided to fall prone in prayer instead.
The room was warm, the candles flickered, and the night grew late. The many dozens of mourners were praying but with a kind of real comfort in one another’s presence, the depletion that comes with tears—and the mourners were genuine in their grief- one by one most fell asleep. Suddenly I awakened,
“He’s there, see him, he’s there standing by the altar, giving us all a benediction. Yes, look at him” she was pointing excitedly. All awakened, all eyes followed her finger as she continued, and “It’s the resurrected Holy Bishop praying with us Oh my, oh my” With that she fainted, a graceful swoon, easing her way to the thick several Persian carpets on the floor.
“Oh how he’s sweating and pale from his ordeal” cried another woman, “And yes, see his eyes, see the Christ rising from his tomb right there as image figuring in his eyes. Oh Bishop, oh Bishop, you are risen and returned. “
Soon others saw him, one excited old man swore he could see phantoms of the wild beasts lunging for him. Another could see the raving mob in the Circus. Another saw one lion stop as it readied to leap, most by now cried out they could see with him as the lion became docile, lay down in front of the yet-to-be touched Bishop, assuming, one person said and the others loudly agreed, an attitude of worship and prayer. A pious lion indeed.
“He has tamed the beasts” several cried out, strophe, then their opposing chorus, antistrophe, “Yes, yes the beasts revere him such is his great and Christian power!
Then strophe, “Look now all of the wild beasts are making a circle, heads outward, they will protect him!
“Oh, how wonderful” was the response of others, all deeply emotional
It was the first woman to have seen him who cried out, now in horror, “No, don’t do it! She screamed her tears, for she saw, now others saw, that with the beasts tamed, lying down with our lamb, the Romans in full battle gear had swarmed on the field, throwing their spears at Ignatius, several of which pierced him through, one to the heart. It was only then in this ghostly reenactment, as the once mourners now rejoicing with this vision given to them, saw in the arena, this circus, their Bishop slump and die. The eyes, one woman reported this particular, that the eyes of the beasts were full of tears. They lay down crying, all of them, for she saw it, all the wild beasts in tears.
For this moment, in this moving vision, their Bishop had triumphed, died, was now in spirit returned. One man, one of the seven Elders of the assembly, warned the members, many now in a tumult of joy, of what he had just heard Ignatius telling them, as did Christ upon his return, “Do not touch me”
Great was the rejoicing among those who saw. Several of them rushed to embrace the Bishop, ignoring the warning not to touch. They embraced instead a pillar of air. As the morning dawned, the assembly prayed, talked, sang, although not all of them. Some had held back, I could see their puzzled looks, worry, even on a few faces, scorn. Those had not seen. The vision was not theirs. I knew from too much experience that the assembly might face another schism, those who had received the Visit remaining, those that had not, departing, whether scoffing or ashamed they had been denied the gift, this gift so much like the apostles received from Jesus, this proof.
I knew the new Bishop Heron was not to be in doubt. He had not seen a thing but knew where his bets were placed. No swift brain, Heron’s hardly, but to preside over such a visitation, resurrection’s epiphany, was momentous, truly momentous. He would ask an amanuensis, a scribe to write letters to all the churches proclaiming what had occurred. And yes, your inference is correct, Heron could not write. Neither could most members of the assembly, but for a bishop it was something of a limitation. He would not ask me to be his scribe, for he believed he could not trust me either to say what he dictated or, if it pleased me, to contradict him. He was entirely right. He had not yet found what he needed, a scribe to keep a confidence. It would be some time, if ever, before a putative Heron’s letters describing this event went out.
Here I, Luke, faced my moral decision. I knew my Bishop well. I had not see one whit of him reappearing, nor smelled what the viewers had said was the sweat of him In the living past, of an early morning, my Bishop could stink mightily of his sweat. I had seen him, smelled him sweating that day under the reproach of Quaestor Cornelius, when the Bishop’s disingenuousness, oily flattery was marked and criticized.
Would I tell the bunch of them they were at best wishing and remembering, or hysterically imaginative, or would I be my careful, calculating self? Honesty is generally the best policy only as the last resort. Here I had other and, I thought, quite fine options. One look at Heron looking intensely at me decided me on practical wisdom. I needed my job, and this was my only chance to retrieve it. All of these thoughts occurred in the all at the reincarnating maybe moment, before the warning not to touch him, while the Bishop was to the receiving ones still there. I could recall it word for word what the members said, how, they said, Ignatius looking at them quietly, asked them to pray with them, they said, in those moments before some of them saw the lions cry, saw the retrospective Roman spears bring him down. I was thinking how best to use this moment for myself.
I said it quite loudly, for there was among the group much by way of murmur and shout. I stood before them at my Deacon’s post, near the altar near to Heron and near to where the Bishop was being sighted. I looked at that quite empty place. I spoke to it, summoning such drama as I could. For a small Luke it was not an insubstantial sum.
“Oh what a blessing, your Excellency, Dominus, “ I spoke it as a simultaneous translator might, ear cocked, my face attentive, indeed an expression as near to rapture as I could imaginatively form “Oh yes, Excellency and Your Grace, I hear you distinctly. In case not all here can hear, let me repeat to them what you are saying, what I, his trusted Deacon, distinctly hear my Bishop say to me. I did repeat it then and there as if translating Bishop Ignatius words to me,
‘Oh my beloved Luke, most faithful of Deacons, deepest in the thoughts of Christ whom now I am with, oh beloved Luke, were I there I would raise thee, oh faithful servant, to Presbyter, of course with a salary commensurate.”
Ignatius obviously had a strong voice, some of the women, even two men heard exactly the same thing. Heron seemed a bit hard of hearing, but new as Bishop I knew he must be led as well as lead. .
I went down on my knees, hands outstretched, pounding the floor, “Oh Bishop, I thank you, we thank you. It is an honor come out of Heaven itself.”
By now, playing the ready crowd, I turned my oily fat face, ever so wide eyed, to Heron, my head sideways in already grateful anticipation, importuning, From the assembly, nods and then murmurs of awe and approval. This virtual Bishop had until now spoken only to me.
Then and there I was raised to Presbyter. Heron looked quite sick to his stomach but, good bishop he was he must become used to travails. As befits a sensitive new presbyter, I hurried, no longer half on my knees as if he were Ignatius, but standing straight, to bring Heron a carminative from the garden. I’m afraid it didn’t help. Heron. Sweating profusely, excused himself directly to the Ignatius of the there and not there, for his own stomach’s necessity’s sake.
Was Ignatius truly returned that night? Yes, to all who saw him and all who didn’t but believed, sadly, or guilty for sins which they knew accounted for it. That is was what occurred in this assembly where the two worlds, this and the Other, spirit and flesh, deity and man were blessed with encounters and joining. In their receiving they were blessed. The new Bishop Heron would acknowledge that with more depth of appreciation, real piety, than he had earlier been capable
As for myself, what I hear or don’t hear, repeat or don’t repeat is my business.
I rather fancy Ignatius was there, After all, for of all in the assembly my Bishop had reason not to bless me with his epiphany of himself, had he returned in spirit. Neither of us were fools, why meet once again and unnecessarily with a fellow you never liked? Why flatter a Luke with that miracle? Nevertheless, I am certainly not the one to be ungrateful for his charity in making me Presbyter. As I have said, no one could challenge Ignatius’ wish to be good, and, as I said, in public he was careful not to be nasty to underlings. When I go home tonight I will, in fact, thank him with a prayer. My wife will too, although the altar in our bedroom is not to Christ but for the mother goddess Cybele. Cybele and the Bishop have both been generous, I have got my promotion.
So endeth this portion of the Chronicle of Ignatius, Bishop, whose vision had it that S. Cornelius would one day be Bishop. I am grateful to Ignatius. I am pleased with Bishop Heron who takes instruction well, appointing such a stupid fellow as me to a post- I trust a sinecure- where I may now, at last, and short as I am, walk tall.
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