Saturday, August 7, 2010

Locus Focus - San Callistus

This Saturday's Locus Focus is themed: Subterranean Settings. You can link-up with Locus Focus every weekend and write about settings in books, and read about those that others have written about.

"The cardinal went through a doorway at the end of the room, unlocked another door, went through, and disappeared down a long flight of stone steps. The stairway was obviously very ancient, cut through strata of alluvial soil, then a tufa mixture of gravel and earth, and finally at the lowest level, stone. The staircase ended abruptly about fifteen meters beneath the surface, opening onto a narrow, irregularly hewn gallery that drew away from them into indeterminate darkness.

"This is my only luxury", said the cardinal, shaking the key in his hand. "Come, I want to introduce you to my friends."

He led Elijah farther down the concourse and turned right into one of countless underground avenues that branched off the main galleria.

"You know where we are of course?"

"The catacombs."

"Yes. There are miles and miles of them down here. We are in San Callistus, in a little-known side passage. See, from here on no one ever goes. Only the crazy cardinal."

He stopped at a wooden door of great age, unlocked it, and entered. Elijah followed..."

In Michael D. O'Brien's novel, Father Elijah - the title character whose mission is to "infiltrate" the circles of the Antichrist and call him to repentance and salvation - meets at times with the Cardinal Secretary of State in the catacombs to discuss strategies and inform each other of important occurrences, both secret and public; discussing the enemy's plans. They do this underground due to secret surveillance, electronic bugs.

""I like to come here sometimes. I sit among the graves of my brothers and sisters. It gives one perspective, no? When Rome seems especially full of corruption, and the Vatican is a hive of busy bees chewing up paper into honey, ah, then I come down here and pray to the Lord. I say, keep me simple, my Lord. Don't let me become a prince. Don't let me become puffed up with my self-importance. Let me become like these little ones, your true servants."

Elijah glanced around at the shelves set into the walls.

"Look here, Father. Read this; what does it say?"

"Praetextatus, clarissimus."

"Clarissimus. It means he was a senator. We're not far from the grave of Saint Cecilia, the great early martyr of noble birth. This man was possibly a member of her family. Now, look across here. What does this one say?"

"Osimus, servus."

"A slave. You see, these two men were brothers in Christ. They rest side by side, awaiting the Last Day."

"A peaceful place to wait..."

"Yes. It's full of saints, most of them unknown to history. Here are the real foundations of the Church. Many of these died horrible deaths. Torn to pieces in the arena, burnt alive, beheaded. A few even died by crucifixion. Look at this one. She's my favorite. A girl. One of the thousands of unknown martyrs. I think of her as my saint, the little daughter I never had. Do you ask yourself if I am slightly mad?"

"No, Eminence."

"A Christian lives both within time and beyond it. I'm closer to this one than to most of those walking and talking up there on the surface. Yes, she and I know each other well."

"What is her name?"


"Do you know anything about her?"

"Only that she died during a persecution of the third century. She was a martyr. Thirteen years old. She chose to be thrown to the lions rather than submit to sexual seduction. The family selected the words of her eulogy with tact--a martyr for holy virginity, victorious over the lion, it says. Beneath that inscription, there is another. Can you read it, Father?"

"A dove without bitterness. Rest, Severa, and rejoice in the Holy Spirit."

"A little saint."

"Yes. Seventeen hundred years old. Our daughter she is - and our mother.""

Though freed down here from the webs being woven above, at one point when the Cardinal and Elijah meet again in the catacombs, they are assaulted suddenly, by one of those principalities working through men of sin above.

"Both men fell silent. Both men closed their eyes and went deeply into silent prayer.

They remained motionless for a time, until an extraordinary thing happend. In that airless place, the door to the outer gallery slammed violently shut, and the lantern was snuffed out by an unseen force. Both men jumped to their feet. A hideous stench filled the chamber.

"Father, strike a light", the cardinal gasped. "The matches are by the lantern. Quickly!"

Elijah, disoriented and frightened, staggered around in the dark searching for the lantern. The cardinal's voice cried out with a surge of strength: "Vade retro, Satana! Ipse venena bibas!"

Terror filled the chamber. Malice beat against the two priests, hammering against their souls for admission, for possession. A shock ran through Elijah's body, nausea gripped his stomach, his mind reeled with dizziness. He swayed and fell to his knees; he fumbled for the matches. His fingers performed their task only in obedience to a superhuman effort of the will. The cardinal continued to pray loudly in an authoritative voice.

"Vade retro, Draco! Crux sacra sit mihi lux!"

The stench left as quickly as it had come. Elijah lit the lantern, stumbled to the door, and threw it open. All was as before, ominously silent, horribly normal. Not a breath of wind stirred the air of the gallery.

The two men sat down, breathing heavily.

"Well," said the cardinal, "the old dragon still has a few tricks up his sleeve."

These catacombs are, as with most of the settings in this novel, part of a great trajectory of settings along the way - the way to the accomplishment of a dangerous and frightening task, which, as with all tasks but in a special way, is historically momentous; a decisive moment in salvation.


Enbrethiliel said...


Now I wonder whether there is an equivalent of the Catacombs in every Christian's soul.

The Age of Martyrdom used to be more real to us than it is today--which is strange, considering that we just emerged from a century in which there have been more martyrdoms than in all the other centuries combined. (If I have that right . . .)

What is it that makes us so uncomfortable--or at least disinterested--when it comes to the first martyrs and their dark Catacombs?

Sullivan McPig said...

I'd love to visit a place like that. I've been to the catacombs in Paris and it's so weirdly peaceful there.

Birdie said...

Oh wow! this is fascinating. D'oh, now I have another book I must add to my TBR list. I *love* catacombs in books (well, and in real life). There is something so surreal and yet still alive about them.


Oh, I should introduce myself. Hello, I'm Birdie and I wandered over from Shredded Cheddar

Belfry Bat said...

There was something like a gift-shop outside the catacombs I visited; so I don't know how "surreptitiously" the Cardinal and Fr. Elijah could visit them now-a-days, but it's a lovely idea! St. Philip Neri liked to hang out there, for their seclusion and holiness, when he was walking around in the ordinary way.