Our guide–an Australian priest– told us that if we tend toward claustrophobia, the Roman catacombs will not be too bad. The ceilings are high even though the tunnels are narrow, and he was right, mostly.
We come out into open rooms often–the mausoleums of would-be saints had their bodies not been stolen and their names forgotten. The crumbling walls are overshadowed by the magnificent arches. We can breathe pretty easily, except when our guide tells us of what it was like back then: the smell of rotting bodies and hundreds of candles and torches sucking the oxygen out of the air, the humidity something like 95%. The air is wet and cool around us now, but we take some deep breaths just to be sure.
We can’t take pictures, and I’m glad for that. It’s hard to really experience a sight when I’m busy trying to get a good picture for later. I struggle to stay up with the group so I can hear the guide’s explanations.
He points us to empty tombs–but not the Jesus kind of empty–the kind that was looted and destroyed by people with no regard for the culture before them (But how could they regard it? They were trying to survive and understand the world as they experienced it, too). The graves are rough and dark–they look like holes in a dirt hut. He shows us markings on the walls and fragmented frescoes. He talks about the smaller statures of the people, and one of the students points out an impossibly small hole in the wall, and he answers, “Infant mortality was high.” Tears sting my eyes. I was expecting to be moved by the catacombs, but not in this way. I am not ready for the dead babies. There have been too many dead babies.
Why are the ruins of these countries the places that move me? Why don’t the Vatican and the Florentine countryside bring me to tears? In the ruins I seem to see myself more clearly than in a Basilica or a market, and I’m not sure what that means.
We gather into our final room, marble on the floor and an obscured fresco on the ceiling, and our guide says we can sing a song. I don’t know what it is about this Church of Christ culture JD and I stumbled into, but they love their songs (sometimes I do, too). I request, as resolutely as I can, “We Shall Assemble.” We sing it solemnly. The notes echo around the room, a group moves behind us, the spirits of old seem to stir up around us. The priest-guide gives us a blessing and we shuffle out into the sun, trying to forget quickly the death we just walked in.
Under the ground we walk,
Fingers chilled, lungs wet, the smell of death just evaporated into time.
Our brothers and sisters of old bound together in life and in sleep;
We shall assemble.
This people who brought unwanted infants into their family,
Infants left to die on the mountains.
We shall assemble on the mountains.
Sisters, will you take care of my babies while you sleep?
Your spirits rest now, catacombed in Christ;
Catastrophe cannot touch you in Christ.
We stumble into your sacred place of rest–
Will you hold a place for us?
Will you hold our babies for us?
We shall assemble.
Come now, assemble us together.
Fill the catacombs of our lives with light and warmth.
Whisper life into the death,
Draw us out of our burials, we plead,
Shivering as death surrounds us.
Brothers, who cannot guard your own tombs, teach us how to be gutted empty with dignity.
Only fragments of your tombs remain–broken bread.
Catacombed Christians, who shared your homes and your hope,
And now you share your death,
So that we may assemble with you.
The dark hushes.
The cold silences.
An incomprehensible breeze blows through–
A song of old, like a breath into our ears:
A song redeemed.
In the catacombs, Roman dominion crumbles with the walls;
Another dominion, one of glory, holds these tombs now.