Fracctico Panis, Catacombs of Priscilla
Below freezing outside, the ground blanketed with new fallen snow, they come in from out of the cold, wet galoshes and heavy down coats dropped by the door. It is Friday morning, mid-winter in Indiana and they bring butter cake, cranberry muffins and clementines; the flames dance in the fireplace, the coffee pot hisses fragrant hot steam and we come together and thaw.
My home, visited by wisdom personified: women, leaders, ministers, seekers, sisters, daughters, mothers, mentors. We sip our coffee and share our lives. There are new babies to brag on, photos of the living dolls to pass around and fawn over, there are stories to tell, ground covered on the journey from last time until this. There are miracles to claim, praise to be given for those angels keeping watch, there are burdens to share, there is pain to confess. We laugh and eat and testify and my mind drifts to a place like this before us.
Far below the centuries of civilizations long come and gone on the Aventine Hill in Rome there lies a chamber beneath the rubble, inside the ancient Catacombs of Priscilla. Beautiful reliefs are painted on the wall throughout, images of women, pillars of the early church, Mary the Virgin, Theodora, Thecla and the Magdalene, their stories of surrender and grace all but lost to us now. Except for this funerary chamber, this cavern in the ground, this shrine for women valiant in the faith, this safe space where it seems they gathered for centuries to worship in Jesus’ name.
It is no secret to any student of Scripture that there was a time in the early days of the community of the baptized when women taught and encouraged, led and gathered the believers into their homes, those safe abodes and first sanctuaries of early Jesus followers. Even in the turmoil of the first centuries, in the midst of the struggle for identity and the battle to sustain what the Spirit had birthed, we find these sacred places hewn in the stones of the earth where holy women gathered to share the Lord’s meal to kneel and pray.
After the sanctuaries of the home had been abandoned, given way to cathedrals, long after women had been silenced in the church, still they gathered and we know some came here, to Priscilla’s Catacombs to this chamber because they believed it to be the resting place of St. Prisca, early church leader and ministry partner of Paul. An ancient fresco is stained into the stone commemorating seven women gathered together to share the Feast of the Lord.
I sample the butter cake and I think about them and us, all women, all called, all struggling to stand and sustain what the Spirit has birthed. I think about how much we all need each other, how grateful I am to have been visited today by my wise companions, those gathered now and those who gathered before us. I raise my hands and I give thanks for women wise and sacred space.