[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]
“God is the fire my feet are held to.”
—Last line of “Ars Poetica II,” by Charles Wright
It was not with airline or train ticket in hand that Ignatius of Antioch arrived in Rome near the end of the first century. “A soul seething with the divine eros,” is how St. John Chrysostom would describe the sainted bishop and martyr three centuries later in a homily preached on his feast day in Antioch. He did not travel first class, or even coach, on that final visit to the imperial capital. Not in this world, he didn’t. As for the journey home, one can only imagine the rocket ship needed to propel him instantly into the waiting arms of God.
Nor was his subsequent reception in the city of Rome at all warm or welcoming. Despite having the highest episcopal standing in the Church at Antioch, where scarcely a half-century before the seed of faith had been planted by Paul and Barnabas, producing an abundance of good fruit, there was no red-carpet treatment awaiting Peter’s second successor. Indeed, his reception proved to be even more brutal and degrading than the trip itself, which stretched many hundreds of miles along the overland route through Asia Minor, including cities and towns so ancient that their names are no longer remembered. Cilicia? Laodicea? Magnesia? Where are these places?
And God only knows how long the trip took, painfully inching his way across much of Asia Minor, then along the western coast of what is now Turkey, embarking by boat at Troas, site of the ancient city of Troy, before finally reaching Rome. All the while, of course, as befits a condemned prisoner, he is shackled to a squad of Roman soldiers—“ten leopards,” is how he described them—frog-marching him from one end of the empire to the other. Not exactly a happy camper, was he?
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So, why did he come to Rome in the first place? Was there imperial business to transact that couldn’t wait another day? There was. In fact, the emperor himself had gone to Antioch to transact it, there overseeing a swift and brutal persecution. In the course of that persecution, Ignatius was arrested and shipped off to Rome where, like an animal tied to a stake, wild dogs would devour him for the delectation of the mob. The latter taking place pretty much on schedule, in the year A.D. 107, under the reign of Trajan, that fierce and ruthless emperor who personally signed his death warrant.
A grim story, to be sure, but one mustn’t be too gloomy in recounting it. That’s because it all turned out exactly as Ignatius, along with the Holy Ghost, had scripted it. He longed for martyrdom, you see, orchestrating in advance all the details of a drama that could end only in the triumph of death. “Let me be fodder for wild beasts,” he told the Church in Rome, whose members he enjoined from doing anything whatsoever to interfere with the culminating scene of his life. “That is how I can get to God,” he confided. “I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ.” Ignatius longed for martyrdom, you see, orchestrating in advance all the details of a drama that could end only in the triumph of death.Tweet This
It was not in defense of any sort of abstract principle, in other words, that drove Ignatius to such an extremity as to choose death, despising even the most cruel and pitiless of its torments. He knew all that awaited him at the other end, amid the blood and the cries of the Colosseum, yet he did not shrink from so awful a prospect. He embraced it, rather, and with all the eagerness of an ardent young suitor going to meet his bride. It was the love of Christ, the Person of the God-Man, who had come to possess his very soul, that moved him to make so complete and final a gesture of self-giving.
“To share in His Passion I go through everything,” he declared. No other writer of the early Church has expressed with such passion, such blazing intensity, the desire for union with Christ, for unending life in Christ. “It is better for me,” he insisted, “to die on behalf of Jesus Christ than to reign over all the ends of the earth…. Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake…. Permit me,” he will repeatedly implore the Christians of Rome, “to be an imitator of the Passion of my God!”
Now is the moment I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—only let me get to Jesus Christ!
This is fairly strong stuff, is it not? Here is conviction both rare and resolute, altogether consuming even, which leaves no room for either deflections of the will or distractions of the mind in getting back to Christ. No creature in Heaven, or on earth, or under the earth, will Ignatius suffer to come between him and Christ.
How far this is from the usual soft soap and sentimentality of those who put on faith as if it were an electric blanket or warm fuzzy. This is not the bourgeois Christianity so many of us have grown accustomed to, with its sniveling insistence on not disturbing the least comfort zone we’ve constructed to keep out God. Minimizing the demands of discipleship lest they prove too onerous to bear is not an option for Christians. As if the Cross of Christ were to remain as soft and as smooth as silk and never a splinter along the way.
It is not to Calvary that we aim to go but to the nearest Country Club, where the gin and the golf are on offer. God may have intended us to reach for the stars, but our trajectories are far less lofty, and they do not require that we leave planet earth where the air is always at room temperature. Having so domesticated our dreams that we needn’t settle for more, what we long for is the mediocrity of those who are always at their best.
“Any Christian who is not a hero,” writes Leon Bloy, that great Pilgrim of the Absolute, “is a pig.” Ignatius was no pig. Where, then, does that leave us?