Silence of The Catacombs

Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Catacombe di San Callisto, Italy

Filtered light refracted
Earthly catacombs descend
Martyrs and popes and babes.
Barely brushing the cobwebs
Parched dirt, moist air
Dank rendering pressing on my soul.
Airless brushes of tendrils
Caress upon my nape.
Epitaphs of human drama
Sofronia dulcis, simper vives in Deo
(O sweet Sophronia, you will live forever in God)
Death and mourning melted together
With passionate expression
Of the consoling faith.
A life beyond death,
A life among the loved ones,
An eternal life,
A life in God.

Silence of speech, of imagination,
Of spirit, fundamental to
Our dimension.
Belongs to our essence,
Guardian of our interior world.
The preliminary condition to listening
The necessary prelude of any
Human communication.

Silence of an ancient cemetery,
But not the silence of death, oh no!
It is a silence of fullness,
Filled with the voice of martyrs
Who have lived our life,
Courageously, perseveringly,
Witnessed their faith
In peace and persecution.
Silence of peace,
Of hope in a future,
A better life,
In the light of Christ’s resurrection.

A communicating silence
Speaks to the hearts and minds,
Dear pilgrims, reveals an unknown world.
We cannot quench this silence,
It speaks by itself,
Or rather shouts overbearingly.
Strepitus silentii
(The uproar of silence),
Evocative of life and sacrifice,
A privileged place.
The silence of the catacombs.

This atmosphere of silence, evocative of the life and sacrifice of the early Christians, constitutes a privileged place of spiritual meditation, of the review of one’s life, of the renewal of faith. Their courageous and faithful witness questions us personally: What is “our” answer to God’s love to-day, in a society which perhaps is not so hostile as theirs, but which is mostly indifferent to religious values?

The catacombs leave us a silent, yet clear message of faith, all the more necessary, as our age is affected with noise, outward appearance and superficiality. Words are here unnecessary, for the catacombs speak by themselves. In the footsteps of the martyrs and the early Christians, the spirituality of the catacombs will help us to celebrate the Jubilee with a true and deep renewal of our faith, in order “to live by the fullness of life in God” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente,n.6).

The catacombs are the ancient underground cemeteries, used by the Christian and the Jewish communities, above all at Rome. The Christian catacombs, which are the most numerous, began in the second century and the excavating continued until the first half of the fifth.

In the beginning they were only burial places. Here the Christians gathered to celebrate their funeral rites, the anniversaries of the martyrs and of the dead. During the persecutions, in exceptional cases, the catacombs were used as places of momentary refuge for the celebration of the Eucharist. They were not used as secret hiding places of the early Christians. This is only a fiction taken from novels or movies.

After the persecutions, especially in the time of pope Saint Damasus (366 – 384) they became real shrines of the martyrs, centers of devotion and of pilgrimage for Christians from every part of the empire.

I visited the these catacombs in the photo several years ago during a trip to Italy. I was haunted by the presence of spirits and thrum of vibrancy. The tunnels were small, confining, and dark. It was silent, but a loud silence. I was spooked and couldn’t wait to escape. I didn’t understand the singing silence until later as I realized it wasn’t a dark silence, but a silence of joy and celebration. Of a live well lived and loved. While I will never venture into the dark underground again, it’s presence has remained with me all these years. The catacombs and its silence has left its mark.

~ Kat

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