Saints of Italy – San Rufino

You have often heard how the Roman emperors, blinded by their heathen pride, tried to overcome the Church of Christ, and afflicted His children with cruel pains. Now, at the time when Valerian sat upon the throne of the Caesars, there lived a certain great lord in Rome, named Rufino, who was a Christian. He had one child, a youth so beautiful that all who looked on him loved him. The young gallants of the city vied with one another for his friendship, and unless graced by his fair presence no feast or revel was thought complete. But the boy, instructed by his father in the Christian doctrines, was baptized at the age of fifteen, and thenceforth renounced the pleasures of the world, and gave himself wholly to thoughts of heavenly things. His friends were vexed when he abandoned their company, and their love changed into bitter enmity. They accused him and his father to the persecutors. The two Christians, learning their peril, fled and hid themselves in a secret place beneath the house of a kinsman, in whom they put entire trust; but the demon of avarice overcame their host, so that he took the reward offered by the magistrates for the discovery of Christians, and brought the soldiers to the hiding-place. These cruel men dragged forth Rufino and his son, and drove them roughly into the presence of the Governor, who caused them to be thrown into the terrible dungeon which is called to this day the Mamertine Prison, where, two centuries earlier, the holy Apostle Peter had himself suffered imprisonment. They lay for many days fast bound, within a chamber partly hewn out of the living rock and partly fashioned of that ancient Roman masonry which is adamantine as the mountains themselves. Here no light could enter, neither the sun by day nor the moon by night. Nevertheless, the captives were in no wise cast down, but continually on their knees made orison to God, and sang sweet hymns of praise.

Then the Governor, willing to spare their bodies if only he might destroy their souls, called to him two beautiful singing girls, the most celebrated in that great and gay city. He bade them put on gorgeous raiment, and take their lyres and go to the prison. There, with dancing and merriment and all the arts of the world, they were to charm and allure the captives, till they should forget Christ, and consent to worship the heathen gods. “For peradventure,” said he, “though the father be not moved, the youth, being of a tender age, when the soul loves pleasure and soft living, may be persuaded to obey.”

The women, whose names were Appollinea and Nicea, went forth from the Governor, and bound garlands of roses on their brows, and decked themselves with jewels and bright garments; then, surrounded by a gay and laughing multitude, they went through the streets, singing and jesting on their way to the dark and mournful prison. But when they were come there a strange awe seized them, their songs fell silent on their lips; their fingers slipped from the strings of the lyres, and trembling, they knew not wherefore, they followed the gaoler; while through the damp and horrid passage pierced the faint, clear voice of the child, singing hymns to Christ. They came to the dungeon, and the gaoler threw open the door. Suddenly the nostrils of the two women were filled with an exquisite odour, and their eyes blinded by a great light which illumined all the place, far exceeding the brightness of the sun at noonday; and in the midst thereof knelt the Christians, shining whiter than newly fallen snow, and their faces were like the angels in heaven. Appollinea and Nicea fell to the ground speechless with amazement, and lay there a long time afraid. At length, rising up, they ran to Rufino, and, kneeling down before him, bewailed their sins, and besought him to teach them of truth and salvation, “for henceforth,” they said, “we will be the handmaidens of Christ.” Lifting them up tenderly, Rufino spoke to them words of comfort and hope, and presently bade them return to the Governor, and take no thought of what they should say, but speak fearlessly as the Spirit should move them. They did as he commanded, and God put words into their mouths, so that these two women, standing before the Governor, witnessed boldly of Christ and eternal life, and spoke scorn of the heathen gods, affirming them to be demons and idols, deaf and dumb images of stone.

Now, there were standing there two soldiers, lovers of Appollinea and Nicea, who, hearing the women speak, asked them, saying, ” Can this be true which you say, that there is another life after death? ” and they answered immediately, “Yes, else should we fear to lose this one, who now dare to speak these words before you all.”

The Governor, enraged that the instruments of his cunning should have been thus turned against him, commanded his officers to take AppoUinea and Nicea, and torment them and put them to death. Forthwith they were carried to a place without the city wall, where they endured all their sufferings with joyful countenances, and stretched their necks meekly beneath the sword of the executioner, who cut off their heads. Then the two soldiers, who were called Silo and Allessandro, came and wept sorely over their dead bodies, and, lifting them up, carried them to the dark and secret subterranean passages, known as catacombs, which the Christians had pierced under the city, that they might have a place wherein to hide their dead from the sacrilegious hands of the heathen, and chant over them the sacred rites. There, in two narrow beds cut in the rocky walls, were laid to rest those faithful women, who had offered up their youth and beauty for the glory of Christ. This being accomplished and the funeral hymn sung, Silo and Allessandro hastened to the dungeon and sought out Rufino, that they might ask him concerning the truth, and soon afterwards they were baptized.

Now, the Governor, astonished by the constancy of the women and the faith of the two soldiers, began to inquire within himself what this new religion might be. Then Silo and Allessandro spoke to him of Christ, and of the many signs and wonders whereby His truth was made manifest. In the hall of the Governor’s palace lay a poor man, a paralytic, begging alms of the passers-by. “Look now,” cried the soldiers; “if your gods are able to make this paralytic to rise up and walk, we will believe on them. But if not, then will we call upon our God, and He will show forth His power upon him.” The Governor answered, “So let it be.”

And he summoned all the philosophers and wise men of the heathen, and they came with their long beards and grave robes, and, standing round the poor man, vehemently invoked Apollo, and Jove, and the Sun, and all the deities of their vain worship. Yet the paralytic, looking upon them with piteous eyes, was in no wise the better for their cries and entreaties, but lay there helpless as before. At length their voices failed, and they grew weary. Then Silo and AUessandro stood forth, and called upon the sick man in the name of the Lord to rise up and return to his own home. Immediately the paralytic sprang to his feet, and, leaping and running, went to his house, whilst all the people ran beside him, shouting with wonder and joy, and the philosophers hid themselves, ashamed. Thereupon the Governor, filled with amazement, questioned the soldiers further concerning their faith, and they told him all things gladly. Then he assembled his officers and servants, and, accompanied by a great following of horsemen and foot soldiers, he went through the streets of the city in the sight of all the people to the prison, whence he drew forth Rufino and his son, and brought them with great honour and rejoicing to his palace. And after listening to their words he and all his people were converted and baptized.

These things being reported soon after to the Emperor, he was very wroth and sent and beheaded the governor, who died joyfully for Christ. A new judge was appointed, who was inflamed with fury against the Christians, and oppressed them without pity. Rufino, deeming it idle to remain there, where the Church was like to be utterly destroyed by this wicked man, called his son and friends together, and, girding up their loins, they departed from the city.

They journeyed far, by many a waste place and flowering valley, by mountains and great rivers, through numerous cities and villages, a happy band of pilgrims, sending forth their songs of praise on the summer air, and teaching the people everywhere of Christ. The son remained behind the rest of the company in one of the cities and there converted many to the faith. After a time he was seized by the magistrates, and condemned to be shot to death with arrows. All who beheld him suffer, and marked his radiant countenance, were moved with pity for his marvellous beauty, and wondered greatly at his patience, and many were thereby brought to glorify God.

Meanwhile, Rufino and his disciples came, after much wandering, to a very fair city, called Assisi, which is set like a garland upon the brow of a little hill. Here, where the governor was well-disposed towards the Christians, Rufino resolved to dwell, and becoming quickly beloved of the people, he was ordained their bishop, and ruled over all the faithful of those parts with great wisdom for many years. But, after a time, the good governor died, and there arose a wicked man in his stead, who knew not Christ. He laid hold upon Rufino and commanded that the old man should be cruelly put to death, bidding the officers tie a heavy stone about his neck and cast him into the river, which flows far down beneath the city walls, at the foot of the hill. The soldiers led him away, and all the people followed, lamenting grievously that he was to be taken from them, and though he exhorted them to rejoice in his constancy, they would not be comforted. Then the officers flung him into the river, and with hands uplifted to heaven, he sank immediately beneath the water. His disciples sought long for his body at the bottom of the stream, but in vain, and they returned at length with sorrowful hearts to the city.

Many years after, when the Church had emerged from her tribulations, and the world had embraced the gospel of Christ, it came to pass, that a certain poor man was labouring one day in the vineyards, hard by where Rufino had been martyred, and being overcome by the heat, went down to drink at the river. He was astonished to perceive beneath the water a shining light, and being much perplexed to know what it might be, he went and told the bishop, who immediately rose up and, with a large company of persons curious to behold the wonder, set out in solemn procession to the river.

When they were all come to the place, led by the husbandman, they saw the light and were amazed; and whilst they stood there looking, an object rose up through the shining water and floated slowly towards the surface, which, when they saw more clearly, they perceived to be a head, crowned with a mitre, with a heavy stone tied about its neck, and following the head was a body clothed in episcopal vestments. Marvelling exceedingly, the people began with reverent zeal to bring it to the shore, and soon the long-lost body of the holy Rufino lay upon the ground before their astonished eyes, as beautiful and uncorrupted as on the day when he suffered martyrdom, his garments clean as unspotted snow, his reverend white beard flowing softly along his breast. Then all present, overjoyed at this great wonder which was come to pass, fell down and worshipped God. They kissed the hands and feet of the holy martyr, and any that were afflicted with disease were straightway made whole, while upon every sorrowful heart came the balm of perfect consolation. It was resolved to bear the body to the city, and there bury it with sacred ceremony. So they took two young oxen that had never felt the yoke, very fair beasts, with grave eyes and wide-spreading horns, and harnessed them to a car, whereon they laid the holy body; then, with solemn chant, the long procession of priests and monks and people, carrying torches and scattering incense on the air, set forth with the car in their midst and wound slowly up and up the steep ascent, between the vineyards and olive gardens. Now, when they were come where the road divides in two, and were about to take the path which leads to the city, the oxen suddenly stopped short, and, planting their feet firmly in the ground, would not move. The multitude lifted the car out of the deep ruts, and, putting their shoulders to the wheels, strove to push it forward, whilst others urged the oxen with cries and blows, but all in vain. A great noise and confusion arose, and, amidst the clatter of voices, all at once they became aware that there stood among them a very tall old man, with long white hair, whom none of them had ever looked upon before. He lifted up his hand, and silence fell upon them. Then he spoke, saying, “Your labour is but lost, that seek to move the car. But now ye shall leave the oxen to go whither they will, and there where they stay their feet ye shall lay the saint and build a church over the sepulchre.” When he had finished these words, they saw him no more. Then they did as he had told them, and, ceasing to guide the oxen, they were astounded to see the ignorant and irrational creatures move their slow limbs and, turning away from the direction of the city, set forward on the opposite road. The people followed wondering. The beasts went on some way, and at length stopped in a waste and difficult place on the side of the hill. Now, it seemed impossible to those foolish men of little faith to build a church here, for they said, “How may the foundations be dug on this steep declivity, and the building be hindered from slipping down the hill.” For though they had witnessed great wonders, yet did they still misdoubt the power of the Lord, Who has created the heavens and the earth, and is able to remove the mountains and empty the seas at His will. So they said, “Let us lift the body from the car and carry it ourselves to yonder fair and level place on the top of the hill.” And they did so, and they laid the holy martyr in a coffin of stone, beautifully wrought by the hand of the carver, and began to build the church, according to the word of the old man. Then a strange thing came to pass. For that which the builders accomplished by day, was each night undone, and though a watch was set, the evil-doer might not be apprehended. Whether the watchman fell asleep, overcome by some mysterious heaviness, as often happened, or whether he kept awake with eyes fixed upon the building the livelong night and saw no man come near it was the same, each morning the work was found ruined and the builders wrung their hands in despair.

Now, when this had befallen many days following, the bishop assembled all the people and said, “Brethren, it is manifest that this is the Lord’s doing, and not man’s. We have sinned against Him in that we have disobeyed His will, which He spoke to us by the dumb animals and by the mouth of the old man. Now, therefore, let us subdue the stubbornness of our hearts, and endeavour humbly to build in that place which the oxen pointed out.”

Then they carried back the body of the saint, and having dug out a level space with much toil in the hill-side, laid the coffin there and set anew to the work of building. And here where they had thought to have had such a heavy task by xeason of the inconvenience of the ground their labour was so easily accomplished that the church seemed to spring up, like a flower in the night. When it was finished, it was consecrated with great solemnity, all humbly acknowledging the folly of being daunted by difficulties in performing the will of the Lord and joining with one heart and voice to glorify Him Who is able to subdue all things under His feet.

- from Saints of Italy, by Ella Noyes; J M Dent and Sons, London, 1901