The Mamertine prison—not a prison cells and iron bars as we imagine. This prison was literally
a rock encased hole in the ground. A repurposed cistern where confinement would have been a hell on earth. It is also the place where Peter, and possibly Paul, were held before being executed by Nero.
And it was on our list of top things we wanted to see while in Rome. It is not, however, a much mentioned or well-advertised sightseeing attraction. Go figure.
Finding it turned out to be a challenge. We read the map forwards and backwards. We studied translations trying to understand the street names. The good news is we far exceeded our Fitbit step count goal for that day. If you’ve never been to Rome and want to understand their street system, dump a bowl of spaghetti noodles on the table, pick one, and try to follow it all the way to the end. The good news is there is a gelato store on every corner, so if nothing else, you shouldn’t starve.
Finally, we had no choice. We could only eat so much gelato in a day while we looked. Rome just wasn’t the easiest place to decipher. I mean, the place is a ruin.
The map appeared to be indicating it was somewhere close to the Forum, a section of ruins that is fenced off and requires a paid admission. We thought maybe it’s there, and if its’ not, maybe they can tell us how to find it.
Language isn’t a complete barrier there thanks to the Romans doing a better job of learning a second language than we seem to do with our first. So I approached the young woman in the ticket booth and explained to her—I thought—that we were trying to find the Mamertine prison. From there the conversation went like this:
Her: You want to see the Mamertine prison? You should go there.
Me: *Blink * Blink *
Computer repair people and website designers have often received the same kind of look from me.
In her defense, I don’t believe she wasn’t trying to be a flippant. And I really couldn’t argue with her logic. What she said was the spot-on truth. Not one tiny bit helpful, but true.
It made me wonder how often we do that to the people who come to us for help. I’m thinking specifically of new believers.
We tell them to “get in their Word,” “read the Bible,” and “pray.” But what if the Word is confusing? What if they don’t know where to start in the Bible? And for goodness sake, what does one say to make sure their prayer is done right?
I thought about three keys to giving good directions:
1. L = Listen to understand what they are asking. But don’t just listen with your ears. Listen with your eyes and with your mind, and sometimes even with your heart. What about us might have told the young lady “going there” was the part we were having a problem with? Have you ever known someone who was struggling with the feeling they didn’t know how to pray? What was your response? For example, common advice concerning how to pray says to just talk to God like you would your Daddy. If that person had or has an unhappy relationship with their earthly father, that advice may be a stumbling block to them until they are ready.
2. U = Understand what the real question or issue is (this relies on a successful completion of the step above). Especially with those who are new to the faith, they may not even know which question they are trying to ask or should be asking. It’s okay to ask them questions for clarity.
3. V = Verbalize your response in a way that communicates to them in their own language. Okay, I know when we’re talking about new believers, yes you probably already speak the same language. I speak the same language as the IT people mentioned above, but we definitely use it differently. If someone asks you how to read the Bible for wisdom, telling them to start with the wisdom literature might not be as helpful as telling them to go to Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Maybe even show them where those books are located.
It would have been cool if I could have formed an actual acronym with the word love since God’s Word tells us if we have not love we are nothing but a clanging symbol. This applies to the big things like helping new believers grow in their faith and little things like giving directions to confused tourist. Do it all in love—or LUV.
The apostle Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:18-19 NKJV)
How powerful and effective would our communications—and indeed, our relationships—be if speaking five words with our understanding was our goal each time we opened our mouth to give directions.
We did eventually find the prison. Experiencing the inside of it was educational, moving, and humbling in ways I can’t put into words.
But I can give you good directions to it if you want to experience it for yourself.
I'd love to hear from you. When have you been given directions that only confused you more and how did you respond?