"Peter. Verily, verily, I say to you, when you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked where you liked: but when you are old, you will stretch forth your hands, and another will gird you, and take you where you would not like to go."
About 23 years ago I went on a trip to Rome with my wife, who was then three months pregnant with our son. We wanted to make a pilgrimage there, and for her and our unborn son to receive a blessing from the Pope, and to have a little holiday together before life would become a little more circumscribed.
We were staying at a charming little hotel tucked away near the Trevi fountain. While we were there one morning we visited the room in which the English poet John Keats died of consumption, just off to the left going down the Spanish Steps, into the Piazza di Spagna. The year before I had visited the house in Hampstead Heath at which he is said to have written, "Ode to a Nightingale."
Later we visited his gravesite in the Cimitero degli Inglesi, and read the inscription on his tombstone.
This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a Young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.
After a little while on the road we came to a small, simple church, the Chiesa di Santa Maria in Palmis, but commonly known as Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis. We went inside, and to my surprise, this was the place referenced by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his famous book, Quo Vadis which I had read in high school.
The story of this meeting on the Appian Way so many years ago comes from the apocryphal Acts of Peter, thought to have been written in the 2nd century by a companion to John the Apostle. But it was not included in the canon of the Bible.
It is a moving experience, to visit the places where these things occurred. I felt the same way when we toured the Coliseum, the Forum, and the Mamertine Prison which had held both Peter and Paul before their judgement and deaths.
This reminds us that Keats, and Peter, and Nero, and Paul, and so many other figures whom we remember and read about in history were real people, in most ways just like us, making decisions with confusion, worries, concerns, fears, and the rest of the issues that we have today. We think that the calling took place in their day, but we do not see it in ours; but it is there.
As John Newman once said, "every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it... thus much of comfort do we gain from what has been hitherto, not to despond, not to be dismayed, not to be anxious, at the troubles which encompass us. They have ever been; they ever shall be; they are our portion."
Here is the relevant section about this area on the Appian Way from Synkewicz's book.
One of them was Nazarius; the other the Apostle Peter, who was leaving Rome and his martyred co-religionists.
The sky in the east was assuming a light tinge of green, bordered gradually and more distinctly on the lower edge with saffron color. Silver-leafed trees, the white marble of villas, and the arches of aqueducts, stretching through the plain toward the city, were emerging from shade. The greenness of the sky was clearing gradually, and becoming permeated with gold. Then the east began to grow rosy and illuminate the Adban Hills, which seemed marvellously beautiful, lily-colored, as if formed of rays of light alone.
The light was reflected in trembling leaves of trees, in the dew-drops. The haze grew thinner, opening wider and wider views on the plain, on the houses dotting it, on the cemeteries, on the towns, and on groups of trees, among which stood white columns of temples.
The road was empty. The villagers who took vegetables to the city had not succeeded yet, evidently, in harnessing beasts to their vehicles. From the stone blocks with which the road was paved as far as the mountains, there came a low sound from the bark shoes on the feet of the two travellers.
Then the sun appeared over the line of hills; but at once a wonderful vision struck the Apostle's eyes. It seemed to him that the golden circle, instead of rising in the sky, moved down from the heights and was advancing on the road. Peter stopped, and asked, --
"See thou that brightness approaching us?"
"I see nothing," replied Nazarius.
But Peter shaded his eyes with his hand, and said after a while,
"Rabbi. What ails thee?" cried he, with alarm.
The pilgrim's staff fell from Peter's hands to the earth; his eyes were looking forward, motionless; his mouth was open; on his face were depicted astonishment, delight, rapture.
Then he threw himself on his knees, his arms stretched forward; and this cry left his lips, --
"O Lord! O Lord!"
He fell with his face to the earth, as if kissing some one's feet.
The silence continued long; then were heard the words of the aged man, broken by sobs, --
"Quo vadis, Domine?" (Where are you going, Lord?)
Nazarius did not hear the answer; but to Peter's ears came a sad and sweet voice, which said, --
"If you desert my people, I am going to Rome to be crucified a second time."
The Apostle lay on the ground, his face in the dust, without motion or speech. It seemed to Nazarius that he had fainted or was dead; but he rose at last, seized the staff with trembling hands, and turned without a word toward the seven hills of the city.
The boy, seeing this, repeated as an echo, --
"Quo vadis, Domine?"
"To Rome," said the Apostle, in a low voice.
And he returned.
Paul, John, Linus, and all the faithful received him with amazement; and the alarm was the greater, since at daybreak, just after his departure, praetorians had surrounded Miriam's house and searched it for the Apostle. But to every question he answered only with delight and peace, --
"I have seen the Lord!"
And that same evening he went to the Ostian cemetery to teach and baptize those who wished to bathe in the water of life.
And thenceforward he went there daily, and after him went increasing numbers. It seemed that out of every tear of a martyr new confessors were born, and that every groan on the arena found an echo in thousands of breasts. Caesar was swimming in blood, Rome and the whole pagan world was mad.
But those who had had enough of transgression and madness, those who were trampled upon, those whose lives were misery and oppression, all the weighed down, all the sad, all the unfortunate, came to hear the wonderful tidings of God, who out of love for men had given Himself to be crucified and redeem their sins.
When they found a God whom they could love, they had found that which the society of the time could not give any one, -- happiness and love..."
Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz, 1905
It is too bad that it is not read much today, because it is an interesting book. I think it has been made into several movie versions. I especially like the one with Klaus Maria Brandauer, although the earlier epic with Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr is more famous and probably more popular.
The novel was a worldwide best seller in its day from about 1906 to 1930. I remember at the time I read it in 1968 enjoying it because of the portrayal of T. Petronius, Nero's Arbiter Elegantiae, who is said to have written the first western novel, The Satyricon.
The people of the world have always treasured such books and stories. But it seems that they do so especially during times of suffering and troubles, when the great, who would be masters, rise up once again and proclaim their dominion over men and history. Perhaps it, or some things like it, will have a revival when the madness is once again unleashed, and The New Rome falls, and The New Temple is sacked.
And where is the magnificent Emperor Nero now, immortal god and lord of the world, but a memory, returned to the earth as the dirt and dust. Perhaps he is to be found beneath the fingernails of some little child, to be plucked out and discarded, with a 'tut tut' from a doting mother.
The mighty rise and are fallen, but the word and the spirit endure.
Epub: Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz