I recently read Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz and was drawn deeply into the story. It is set in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero and tells the tale of the beginnings of Christianity. While I enjoy history, I am probably far more uninformed than I should be and thus it took me a bit by surprise to read of the moral depravity found in Rome. Sienkiewicz accomplished the arduous task of transporting the reader into the time period and understanding the tradition of the times. Prior to the revolution of Christianity, Rome was a burgeoning epicenter of vice and immorality. The feasts held by Nero were consumed with gorging oneself on food, drink, praise, lust, and selfish whims.
The Christians are portrayed as being something entirely different from the rest of the Romans. They are set apart and act with never before seen goodness, honesty, and courage. When faced with betrayal and anger, they freely bestow forgiveness. The Christian life is not presented as easy by any means, but it is presented as filled with light and being something beyond human powers. As I read this book I thought about how beautiful it was that the witness of Christians to the truth in word and deed was able to transform a sinful culture.
Think about that: the witness of Christians in their words and deeds consistent with what they profess to believe was able to transform a culture of death and vice.
Nero spread the lie that the Christians were responsible for the great fire in Rome but when the citizens saw the goodness that was at the root of the Christian life, they doubted the words of their emperor. While the martyrdom of the early Christians seemed to provide a set-back for the Church, soon they were inundated with many people who wanted to be Christians. The bloody deaths they endured do not seem to be good advertisement to prospective members, but they were drawn by their courage, love, and the manner in which they died. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. By their faithful witness to Christ and His teachings, they were the compelling force that spoke to the basic dignity of the human person, the freedom found in forgiveness, and the willingness to die for that which one firmly believes.
I found myself thinking that if it happened once, what is to stop it from happening again? We are again facing a culture of death and a world riddled with vice. Yet the Truth is still living and active. What if we became the faithful Christians who lived what Our Lord taught and by this simple witness were able to spark another revolution? To be a Christian is in essence to be a revolutionary. In Quo Vadis the words on the lips of Vinicius, one of the central characters, struck me as something that perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to proclaim today.
“It’s not enough, you see, to honor Christ with rituals and worship. You have to live according to his teaching, and that’s like coming to the edge of an ocean and being told to go across on foot. It’s deeds, not words, that matter to these people….There’s no longer a difference between the conqueror and the conquered, the rich and the poor, the master and the slave. Christianity means the end of all authority, of government, of Caesar, of the laws, and of established order as we know it. Instead there is Christ. There is an instant sense of mercy never found anywhere before. What follows is such superhuman goodness that it overturns everything we know about mankind…I tell you frankly there’s nothing more at odds with my character than this Christian teaching, but I simply can’t tell who I am since I brushed against it. Is this love or magic? I don’t know…I feel as if they’ve changed my soul!”
Our very souls must be changed, must be transformed by the very life of Christ. If we simply go to Mass each Sunday, we are not giving a faithful Christian witness. Our lives must be filled to the brim with the Gospel, it needs to find it’s way into every aspect of our life. We must be the people that others look at and are amazed at our goodness, forgiveness, and zeal. Not because we desire the praise, but because we are witnessing to what a life rooted in Christ actually is. When I think of the early Christian martyrs the last words to come to mind are: mediocrity, comfort, politically correct, and fashionable. If we desire to be like the early Christians, then we must also abandon the hopes of being able to live a mediocre, comfortable, and easy life. When I look within myself, I discover that I am very attached to all of those things. I want to be great and be a saint, but I also don’t want the sacrifice that is necessary.
Sienkiewicz very clearly presents the seeming contradiction found in the truth that the more you surrender to Christ, the more happiness and freedom you gain. Vinicius wonders how he could be happy giving up the life of Roman decadence he has always known, but the happiness he discovers is of a far grander and long-lasting sort. From the witness of the early Christian martyrs to the modern men and women who dedicate their entire lives to Christ in the priesthood or religious life, we see that Christ asks to be Lord of everything. He asks for much but He rewards generously. We may not be popular or comfortable in this world, but He promises to prepare a place for us in Heaven. We may experience ridicule and humiliation, but then we would be simply following in the footsteps of the King of Kings as He was nailed to a cross.
The world will hate us because we are not of this world. But we serve a King who is not of this world and who has already conquered it. The battle has already been decided. Truth prevails, Goodness wins, Love conquers all! Which side will we find ourselves on?
If Rome can be transformed from vice to virtue, can not our world once again become what it ought to be? I do not know what the Lord will ask of me in the future in order to bring about His Kingdom, but I do desire to have the grace and courage to do as He asks. After a radical encounter with Truth, we cannot remain as if we have not changed.
Imagine what the Lord could do with a few souls that do only His will.
Will you be one? Will you say yes to the grace that is trying to flood your soul and pierce every avenue of your life? Will I say yes?
Pray for me, dear reader, and I will pray for you. May the Lord give us the grace to endure whatever may come. The grace to follow Him to Rome to be crucified, to the classroom to be mocked, to the office to be scourged, to the public forum to be humiliated, to our families to be dismissed, and to our world to be belittled. And may the world be transformed by the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that we bear witness to through God’s grace.