Sitting inside the cramped and musty room, I was suddenly overcome with emotion. On the wall in front of me, a small plaque explained the significance of the space we were in. A single lamp seemed to hold the only promise of light in the darkened space. The smell of the confined and damp quarters was enough to make me hold my breath. Yet the emotion I was feeling was not consistent with what I was seeing. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Was it contentment? No, although I was content. Was it relief? Perhaps. As I tried to settle in on what I was feeling, the realization came to me as my eyes adjusted to the dark. The longer I was down there, the better I could make out all the details of the room. The hole overhead where prisoners were either thrown in or lowered down, depending on your status. The divot in the stone where water once collected. The narrow bench carved out of rock, the only reprieve for weary bodies. It was thankfulness that I was feeling.
My husband and I had traveled to Rome for our tenth anniversary. We had visited the Colosseum, learning from an archaeologist and art historian how one of the 7 wonders of the modern world still stood the test of time. We had marveled at the architecture of the Pantheon, how it inspired famous buildings across the globe. We threw our coins into Trevi fountain, stared up at the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, and ate our fill of delicious Italian food. Yet this moment, this quiet still moment, 25 feet under the ground, is the one that I found myself overcome with thankfulness. This room was the room that Paul and Peter were held in while they were awaiting their executions.
Earlier in the day we had visited the home where Paul spent his house arrest. We saw the stone pillar where the apostle had carved the words, “Verbum Dei non est alligatum,” which translates to, “But the word of God is not chained.” (2 Timothy 2: 9b, NIV ) We prayed in the spot where Paul’s body had been laid to rest, his chains on display above. We stopped to learn about the place Paul and Peter were both convicted, mere steps away from where we were standing now. But this place, this quiet, dark place, is the one that brought my heart to a pause. We listened as the story was retold of the final moments of Peter and Paul. Peter was facing execution by crucifixion, upside down. Paul would soon be beheaded. They were in a room of likely 50-60 other men, also waiting execution after their trials. You could almost sense the fear that would have hung in the air, amid the smells of human waste and little ventilation. This room, originally a cistern for city center, had been converted to a holding tank, a dungeon, for the city’s prisoners that were convicted and tried. It’s proximity to the courthouse made it a convenient place to discard those disobedient to the laws of the time. It’s ironic that the crime they were charged with was actually atheism, because they were not pledging allegiance to the emperor as god, or the many false gods of the time. The time between their conviction and their execution would have been short, a few days to a few weeks at most. In these final moments, it is recorded that Paul and Peter not only prayed for and converted their cell mates and some guards, but they baptized them with water that crept in through the floor. Staring at the space where the water would have been, looking around the room, realizing what the final moments would have felt like, left me with a mix of both resolve and wonder. And then thankfulness. These fathers of the faith, the men whose words we read throughout the New Testament, were moments away from being martyred. Their mission and calling remained the same, despite their circumstances. The moments they walked in obedience, regardless of what they were facing, were some of the very moments that sparked the spread of the gospel so many years ago. The very fact that I was standing in this room, holding my Bible, reading words that they spoke, were a direct result of their willingness to share their faith, even up until their final moments. As I looked down at the page I held open, the words suddenly had new meaning, even more so than they had earlier in the day:
“But the word of God is not chained.” 2 Timothy 2:9b NIV
As we enter into a season of thankfulness, let’s take a moment to remember those that were martyred in the faith, laying the foundations for our spiritual freedom. It’s not something I think about often, or at least up until this point of my life. But realizing now the cost that came to the early Christians just to follow Christ, it leaves me with such a sense of thankfulness. Thankfulness for Christ, and thankfulness for their example of obedience, no matter the cost.