Lift up your heads! But the kids aren’t watching for the Second Coming; it’s just that delightful and fascinating phenomenon of an uncaged bird indoors. Things aren’t where they’re supposed to be, so the possibility of new arrangements is glimpsed. The interloping bird gives back the built space as something a little wild, a little less planned, something that could elude our control perhaps just enough for something to be revealed. Not to sound like Spinoza or Jefferson or Emerson (well, maybe a little): nature or nature’s God seems to be reclaiming a little ground.
Things out of place, which provoke thought: certainly that’s happening in Revelation 11, which is one of the background texts for my fourteenth sonnet. Two witnesses to Jesus are seen by Saint John in vision: “And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city, which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (vv. 7-8).
One of the themes of the Apocalypse of John, or the Book of Revelation, is the opposition between two great cities: the New Jerusalem and Babylon—the City and the Anti-City, as it were. There is no question the prime historical analogate for the Anti-City is the city of Rome under self-deifying and persecuting emperors. Yet, somehow this “city,” in which the two witnesses are martyred, can be Egypt (a country, not a city) and also Jerusalem, “where their Lord was crucified.” The Anti-City is what Saint Augustine calls the city of man, directed by love of self even to contempt of God. It’s not Jerusalem as such, or Rome as such, etc. It’s wherever human community has become fundamentally poisoned by self-love.
But, again, historical Rome, especially under Nero, is clearly the prime analogate for John’s visions of the Anti-City. It would be wrong to reduce the Apocalypse to historical references, but those references are there and help illuminate what’s being unveiled.
So, I have a pet theory as to who the two witnesses are. Surely there are references to Moses and Elijah, and to the “two olive trees” of Zechariah. But I am convinced that the prime analogate for the two witnesses are Saints Peter and Paul, and that hearers of Saint John’s vision would have understood that.
Anyone who has been to Catholic Rome knows that it is a city built on those two men. They are paired everywhere, in emphatic public representations. There is every reason to believe that Rome’s “primacy in charity” amid the Christian churches was from the beginning inseparable from the, among Christians, universally recognized fact that the greatest apostles were both martyred there.
Also, the prominence of Nero, the emperor who executed Peter and Paul, as a subtext throughout Revelation is crucial here. The number of the beast is easily referable to him. (And this despite the fact that the emperor under which John and the Christians of the time were being persecuted was Domitian. It’s the same spirit of anti-Christ that operates in both emperors.)
Anyway, I trust that my theory is diverting at least. My sonnet depends on this Johannine visionary conflation of all the forces of anti-Christ, of anti-love, into one Anti-City. It is that city we are to leave (“Come out of her,” Revelation 18:4), to suffer with Jesus, as He creates the New Jerusalem from the substance of His total self-sacrificial love: “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:12-14).
The title of my sonnet is the Italian for “outside the walls,” and of course refers to the great basilica of Saint Paul’s outside the Walls, on the Ostian Way. “Let us go down” would be, on the one hand, a reference to the port city of Ostia (which would conjure the vision of Augustine and Monica); on the other, a reference to the beginning of Plato’s Republic (“I went down to the Piraeus”)—making use of that Johannine strategy of conflation. Also, in Plato’s Phaedrus, to discuss love, Socrates is shown just that one time as going “outside the walls.” Etc.
Fuori le Mura
The revolution starts outside the camp,
This empire wide as time to leverage.
As fear patrols the city’s gates and ramps,
All progress follows after hemorrhage.
Two witnesses who fell near Rome still tell
Of glory tabernacling midst our filth.
What does God see from heights of love and hell,
As with a tree He harrows history’s tilth?
Urbane will idyll be upon such toil.
Shall we this cosmopolitan assist?
Then, scapegoat, exile, deadweight, refuse, spoil
Must we be counted, after long false kiss.
There’s desert, there’s garden, there’s kingdom come;
Let us go down, to harbor everyone.
[Also posted on Facebook earlier today.]