The third in a series of reflections following a visit to Rome to discover its links with the early Christian church and the church as it is today
I suppose I have a kind of ‘love-hate’ relationship with St Paul… actually hate would be much too strong a word. In my Norfolk ancestor’s parlance, he ‘crazes’ me or even more accurately, he agitates me. Which is actually no bad thing, as it leads me to have to really think about what the reasons were behind what he said and did.
Peter may be predominately remembered within the very centre of the Vatican City State, but it is without the walls of Rome that Paul has his resting place. I wrote in my first reflection about the grandiosity of St Peter’s Basilica, and approaching the Basilica of St Paul Without the Walls after a short train journey, did nothing to dispel my sense that here was yet another ‘cathedral on steroids’, as one member of our group put it.
Even so, the majestic colonnaded entrance, over which glowed the breathtakingly beautiful facade, seemed like a peaceful place to sit in that in-between space; with the world rushing by outside and a promise of something extra special to come on the inside. Even the arrival of a couple of noisy excited school groups couldn’t quite break into the moment; but it was time to move on.
Entering by the newest papal door, of which there are three, we were reminded that Paul is said to have been martyred by having his head struck off – and this was rather graphically portrayed in one of the door panel. Knelt before a Roman executioner; his hands in chains; the person who through his fragmentary unilateral correspondence has possibly done more to shape our understanding of the Early Church was swiftly silenced – although one could imagine that he was probably still evangelising even as the blade swished through the air.
One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent – Acts 18:9
The interior of the church, as the panoramic view above suggests, seemed vast and uncrowded, and yet still conveyed an air of intimacy – although there was some undignified jostling in front of his tomb, where those who knelt in prayer suddenly became aware of cameras by the side of their heads as other desperately tried to ensure they had ‘captured’ the exact record of where his bones lay.
Commercialism was also alive and well, in that for €1 you could light up the apse for a short period of time – enough for all to take advantage of another’s generosity, as evidenced by the rush as the light flicked on to stand as central as you could to it and the flashes and clicks of numerous cameras!
For all its beauty though, it was another place that has become associated with St Paul that had a much more profound effect on me and helped me to reconcile some of my thoughts about Paul’s discipleship.
A simple, now below street level house in the centre of Rome, is said to be the place where Paul was held, in chains, under house arrest. Standing in that bare cell of a room, and listening to Paul speak through the words of what was probably his last recorded letter before his death, the presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable.
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained – 2 Timothy 2:8-9
Here was a man who at every point following his dramatic conversion, tried to emulate to the nth degree the life of Jesus; a man who held stong views on how the Gospel was to be interpreted; a man, who to our 21st century eyes may appear at times misogynistic, fanatical and arrogant; a man who was not afraid to play the Roman citizen trump card from time to time, and yet through his sheer determination, unwavering belief and absolute trust in the Truth, demonstrated powerfully what it means to live and die for Christ.
I suspect that I will continue to wrestle with my views on St Paul, but meeting him in the places where he dared to follow God’s will for his life can only lead to a greater understanding of his place in God’s mission
For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me – 1 Corinthians 15:9-10