Lectio Divina – St. Peter in Chains
The most unassuming shrine in Rome is the church dedicated to St. Peter. At the time he was bound in handcuffs and incarcerated by the local monarchy. Peter had been arrested by King Herod in Jerusalem. One night he was visited by an angel in the dark. The angel set Peter free from his double set of chain handcuffs and he walked from the prison without incident. The miracle is most interesting because Peter was surrounded: two side-by-side prison guards and several other outside guards were there. Herod had warned the guards to be on high alert, but they were mystified by the angel and did not see or hear Peter to stop his prison break. The escape infuriated Herod who mandated that on recapture Peter would be put to death.
The clergy of the modern day shrine claim that the iron manacles on display in the church are the original chains from St. Peter’s imprisonment. The church is named the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains.
That said, the truly remarkable sight inside the church was not St. Peter’s original chains, which appeared to be an unusual tangle of metal, but the statue of Moses by Michelangelo.
Staring at the statue of the horned Moses was the most powerful source of awe in the Basilica.
Awakening Before Dawn
Dashing up the steps and through the streets of Rome, I wanted to see the church before our girls awoke. My wife, Tracy, and I had arrived with two of our daughters in Rome the day before. We had packed our schedule solid with day trips and museum tours. This morning was my time to take a quick run and see what I could imbibe to satisfy a hungry soul. The set of stairs up to the church was obscure and steep, though the passersby were unimpressed that anyone was running up it.
Through the archway and out again into the plaza sat the church. Walking inside, I did not know what to expect. St. Peter’s Cathedral is certainly one of the most significant churches I had ever seen in my life, this one, though, was more comfortable.
In the Catholic faith all those who go through confirmation pick a patron saint, who becomes your special protector in times of your life. My confirmation saint is St. Peter. I had heard the story from the Acts of the Apostles about the angel and the miracle, but it did not register with me until today.
The church was cold and nearly dark upon entering. Waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dim morning light, I was slowly able to focus on the inside of the Basilica. Straight ahead, underneath the altar, was the glassed case holding the manacle chains. They did not seem quite real, but who was going to quibble with their authenticity?
The people who were there, early risers as I was, quietly mozzied around the perimeter of the church, taking in the sights and reading their guidebooks. Without my usual guidebook today, and no camera, which was usually ever-present, it was more about communing with the place and the moment than studying history, theology, or miracles through the viewfinder.
Across the church in one of the alcoves was a set of statues, alabaster and significant, which could be made out faintly from a distance. Walking up to them for a closer view, my heart beats started to quicken. Had I carried my guidebook, the story of the statues would have jumped out at me. Instead, I looked, walked up closer, and tried to take in the scene.
I spent most of the next half hour staring at Moses. He was the most lifelike pilgrim I had ever seen. His strong features, his hands, the flowing beard, and that face. What an image! I could not take my eyes off him.
Running swiftly back to our rental apartment, I grabbed Tracy. The girls were still asleep, but I had to get Tracy to go up to the church with me. The work of Michelangelo is stunning, and to have a private audience with a work of art is a rare treat. Arriving quickly and out of breath, “Isn’t that amazing?” I asked, not being able to come up with another word.
We stood in quiet reverence for about 20 minutes, studying the main statue and the others nearby, which seemed an odd collection for an out of the way church like this one. Moses’ horns seemed to have arisen from a misreading of the Hebrew text, which can be tricky for a language without any vowels. Having seen the extra protective security at the Pieta and other works of Michelangelo, I was surprised that this one was so “exposed.”
We took in the walk back to our apartment with a lightness of step, as we felt we had come upon a hidden gem in plain view. With all of the crowds everywhere it is nice that sometimes you can get lucky and stand near to greatness. Hopefully some of the miracles and unshackling can occur for us both.
St. Peter, holding a chain, and St. Paul, reading the bible, El Greco
Acts of the Apostles 12:1-11
In those days, King Herod laid hands upon some members of the Church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword, and when he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter also. –It was the feast of Unleavened Bread.– He had him taken into custody and put in prison under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. He intended to bring him before the people after Passover. Peter thus was being kept in prison, but prayer by the Church was fervently being made to God on his behalf.On the very night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter, secured by double chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while outside the door guards kept watch on the prison. Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood by him and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying, “Get up quickly.” The chains fell from his wrists. The angel said to him, “Put on your belt and your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.”So he followed him out, not realizing that what was happening through the angel was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first guard, then the second, and came to the iron gate leading out to the city, which opened for them by itself. They emerged and made their way down an alley, and suddenly the angel left him.Then Peter recovered his senses and said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people had been expecting.”