The Flame Iris of Rome

M. Frank © 1991

There are, of course, stories and there are stories. Some stories, being part of the Great Story, carry with them the authority of the Author Himself. Some stories are better not written. But there are some that, though gossamer and not solid, nevertheless reflect the Great Story. The story of a man's life, rightly lived, might in this way qualify.

But enough. To get to the point I want to relate the strange story of Julius the Last. He was called "the Last" because he never married, never fornicated, and thus because he was the only son of an only son he was the last of a line.

Julius never married, never hankered after women in the manner of most men. But this was not because he had been stunted and twisted as a child. It was, instead, because he was gripped by a passion, even as a child: a passion which precluded all others.

Julius' father had been a gardener. He himself did not have a garden, for he was a poor man and owned no land. But he had tended the gardens of many noblemen who lived about Rome. Julius would go with his father on certain days and help to tend the gardens.

Now there was about Rome, in those days, a type of Iris that grew nowhere else in the known world. At the end of April it would send up blossoms the size of one's hand, scarlet in the center of each petal, fringed with the yellow of the sun.

The glory of each bloom was to Julius as the vision of God would be later to Thomas Aquinas. He was seized by joy and all else seemed to him to be as straw. With vigor he would weed, dig and water these plants as the year wore on. And with an anticipation that abstracted him from all other activities he would await the glory--a glory that would lash the landscape for a week and then sink into the soil.

Now these Iris plants were not like the ones we know today. They did not grow without care. They did not promiscuously multiply wherever they were placed. Indigenous though they were to a small area about Rome, they could easily be lost forever.

And, in fact, they almost were. For when artichokes became the epicurean rage throughout the empire, garden after garden was turned over to the production of this strange produce. Iris after Iris was uprooted. For the price a stalk of Iris blossom would fetch was nothing compared to the amount of lucre one could fetch from an artichoke.

Finally, the father of Julius sought out a nobleman who had befriended him and pled for a piece of earth where he could grow the Iris. And thus it was that finally there was in all of the Roman Empire one quarter of an acre of land where the Flame Iris grew. It was tended by Julius himself.

Now Julius worked this plot of land for ten years, from the time he was 11 until the time his father died, when Julius was 21. And because the plot was limited in size Julius was able to prune from the stock those tubers that were weak. And by the time of his twentieth birthday the plot itself at the end of April was as a silent fire, a flame without heat, a flame spread over the entire plot, a flame which for that week's time did not devour. A Jew might have removed his shoes and listened for the voice of God. And had he known God, Julius would have told you that if not the voice, then, nevertheless, the reflection of His goodness was to be found there.

One would have thought that the brilliance of the vision of that place would have secured requests for the flower from other noblemen. But only peasants and children came to see. Even the nobleman who owned the land did not come. He was not impressed and rendered the land only for the love he bore Julius' father.

It did happen that there were those from Caesar's court who chanced by the plot while it was in bloom. But only the youngest of the children stopped. The appetites of the others had been so shaped by the delicacies of intrigue, promiscuity and violence that such a sight seemed to be banal, insipid. Like those who sought Lot's guests, they were stricken blind. The Romans could not distinguish glory from garbage. Julius knew this. And he despised them.

It was in the winter of the next year that Julius' father died. The nobleman who had loaned the land also died. His son succeeded him. And like most children of the privileged rich he was arrogant and self-centered. And he knew not the father of Julius. So it was that the quarter acre was taken from Julius and given to a planter of artichokes.

The Flame Iris, once the true glory of Rome, given to Rome by the Creator Himself, a natural denizen only of that place in all the world, was to be found no more. But in the corner of Julius' house was to be found a large bag of dormant tubers.

Two months after the death of his father, Julius became a slave. Actually, he sold himself into slavery to a Roman Centurion to keep from starving. And he became a tender of artichokes. In one small piece of land near the Centurion's house he placed four tubers, for the joy of the children. And on occasion the Centurion would come also.

For three years Julius tended the artichokes and the four Flame Iris. For three years his master flourished from the profit of artichokes, and for three years on the last week of April, the children would gather with him, early in the morning, and gaze with wonder at the scarlet, golden glory.

But when those years were over Julius went with his Master to tend a garden far from Rome, a garden in a God-forsaken place called Judea. He took with him the bag of tubers.

Julius was three years in Capernaum before the bag disappeared. During this time he had planted several of the tubers. The plant would grow and bloom magnificently. But shortly after the blossoming glory, the tubers would die. And so it was that finally Julius stored the bag of tubers in the deep coolness of a dried-up well. He planted no more.

To say that the bag disappeared is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. There was no mystery as to where the bag or the tubers went. Rats got them.

Julius had not checked the bag for several months. As he was walking one evening near the well he saw something scurry into its mouth. His heart froze in him. For he knew a rat when he saw it. He rushed to the well and shouted into it. The sounds he heard indicated a great company of the beasts.

Now Julius' passion almost overwhelmed him when he pulled up the rope holding the bag. Nothing was at the end. It had been gnawed in two. But Julius was no fool. He ran for both a sword and a torch. Only then did he lower a ladder and descend into the well.

When the light of the torch shown at the bottom of the ladder, Julius thought he was seeing a great earthquake. For the ground quivered and heaved. Only the points of light reflected from the eyes of the rats betrayed the truth. The bottom of the well was filled with rats.

"God of my Master," Julius prayed, "I am going down. Protect me." And with cold sweat belying the heat of the night Julius rushed down.

The rats drew back. Julius held them with the flame and the sword. Packed five deep they circumferenced the floor of the well. And there on the center of the floor Julius saw the last tuber. He sprang at it, his left hand waving in violent motion the torch, his right hand seizing the tuber. The rats held and the gentle gardener, now aroused and violent, mounted the ladder. He knew the rats would hold as long as the flame held out.

Except that one of the rats to his back was blind. And the smell of sweat and the sound of breathing aroused him. And from the top of the mound he sprang and bit the Roman in his left calf.

Julius shook him loose and bounded three rungs at a time up the ladder. When he had carefully placed the tuber in his room he besought his master for oil, poured it in the well and threw in the torch. He returned to his room and slept.

At first he slept the sleep of hard labor, the sleep of escape. But then he fell into a fever and slept the sleep that leads to death.

His master was the one who found him, wet, hot, immobile, breathing irregularly. And it was he who found the Physician. And the Physician had healed him. From a distance. And He had praised the master for a very strange virtue--the virtue of faith.

Julius awoke abruptly-he was weak but no longer fevered. And his breathing was regular. And his joints, once stiff and non-functional, were now working. His master himself was there and gave him food and drink. And then Julius slept. And he dreamed of clouds and evening breeze--and the Flame Iris. And in his dream the glory of that flower filled the whole world. He awoke and carefully put the last tuber into a vase and covered it with a dish. It would stay here with him until he could decide what to do with it.

Now, faith was something Julius knew nothing about. He had prayed, once, to the God of Abraham, when he was in the well. But Julius did not really believe in Him. Instead, he believed in the gods of Rome. He believed in them as he believed in a tree, or an artichoke. They existed. On occasion he propitiated them. But they did not impinge on the center of his life. He did not believe in them as he did the Flame Iris. His master, on the other hand, did not believe in the gods at all. Not anymore.

His master had, instead, come to believe in this stern, ascetic God of Abraham. And to confuse matters, his master spoke of faith, not only in this God, but also in this wandering Rabbi, this--it is true, very potent--Physician, who could heal from a great distance. Perhaps like one of the Roman gods, the God of Abraham had come down for a visit. But no. The God of the Jews was not like the gods of Rome. He was high and lifted up. He was holy. Were He to come down, the very sun must hide its face. Besides, He was certainly not real.

But Julius shrugged off further speculation and turned to his grief and the problem it presented: the survival of the Flame Iris. In all the world, he mused, he held the last tuber.

Three months after he was healed, a rat found its way into the earthen vessel.

Capernaum became for Julius a kind of prison. He did his duties because there was nothing else worth doing. He served his master because he did not want to serve himself. His life lay before him like a vast expanse of salt and sand--bitter, lifeless, without hope. And like some poor animal about to die in the expanse he felt nothing. He was numb and noticed neither kindness nor cruelty. He felt neither gratitude nor hatred. He simply was. Except, perhaps for one thing. He hated the Physician. The One who had healed him. The One who had called him back to this life. And perhaps the God of this land, who, if He existed, had let this happen. Was it not a great and cruel joke? He had been called back to life and given the tuber to care for. And then as a kind of gratuitous act of meanness the tuber had been destroyed.

One day in the spring of the year, on a whim, Julius ran away. He made his way through Samaria to Jerusalem and thence to Joppa. From there he took a boat to Rome.

The voyage proved to be uneventful. Except for an old garrulous Jew from Joppa, who could not stop talking. If it wasn't Jonah it was this new Rabbi--who had been nailed to a cross. ("Good," Julius had thought.) But both stories finally seemed far-fetched. Jonah had come up from the fish's mouth and this Rabbi--(was his name Jesus?)--had come up from the mouth of the tomb.

But Julius had not listened carefully. He was restless. He remembered his home, he remembered the field, and nightly he dreamed of the Flame Iris. But when he awoke his dreams of scarlet and sun only bore him down to a grey abyss and the glory of the blossom bore only the fruit of despair.

Once, early in the morning, at the end of his sleep, when dreams flit between stories and the thread that holds a story together is broken, Julius dreamed of a great fish rising from the depths of the sea. It beached itself and Julius watched as it yawned and from its mouth staggered a man, pale and hideous. He walked from the shore, and to the great city, crying all the time: "Repent, or your glory will be taken from you." And as he spoke his words took shape and became the Flame Iris.

On another morning just before the boat reached Rome he dreamed of a tomb. It was sealed with a great boulder. But as the sun rose the ground shook and the boulder was cast aside. A great light came from the tomb and from the light a great Flame Iris appeared. And in his dream the Flame Iris was lifted up and all men saw it and bowed their knees.

Julius' master had never reported him as a runaway. And so Julius made his way from the port to the place where he had lived as a child. On the quarter acre where once the Flame Iris had confounded his eyes he saw only the wretched artichoke. It stretched far beyond the quarter acre. Indeed, it stretched to the dark cliff of Durin.

This, thought Julius, is the end. There is no glory. There is no point. More wonderful than the gods was the Flame Iris. And now it is gone. And my life is empty. And so he set to cast himself from the cliff.

Now, there are those who like to write about men waiting for God and God does not come. It makes for beautiful melancholy for the young, and it sells books. But those who write such things are fools. One who has not sensed the coming of God to himself is thus because be has fled His rough coming and shut his ears to His rough summons.

God had come for Julius months ago in the strange land and had made Himself known. And although Julius, clinging to the glory of this world, had rejected His coming, now there spoke in the depths of his heart a warning: "Do not do this thing! For if you do you will be cut off forever from all glory."

And Julius listened and repented from his wickedness. The words were not gentle like those of his father. Nor were they suggestive of forgiveness for the deed. They were a command. Final. And they struck in Julius the one thing that could free him from his self-pity: the fear of God.

For three years after that Julius labored as a gardener. He kept, in fact, the field of artichokes that stretched to the cliff of Durin. And during this time he argued and cajoled with the voice that had spoken to his heart.

Cursing the artichokes which he grew better than any other gardener in Rome, he would demand whatever God had spoken to show him glory--glory worth living for. "It isn't in the gold of Rome," he would murmur. "Nor in Rome's cruel power. Nor is it in the faces of the men and women you have surrounded me with. For they are gripped with passions which demean."

At the end of three years Julius met Simon Peter.

Now Simon Peter was not a man with an eye for the blossom of plants. He was, instead, rough hewn, uneducated, and so gripped with a task that he could see nothing else. He could not have counseled Julius. For he could not have empathized.

But that did not matter. For Peter was not called to counsel. He was not a Pastor. Instead, he was an apostle and his burden was a Story, a Story that once told seemed to take wings and carry with it its own power.

Now, the Author and Subject of the Story-He knew Julius' heart. Every nook and cranny. He knew every tear, every shade of grey despair. And so it was that the story, once told, took root in Julius' heart. And he forgot the Flame Iris for awhile. And his despair turned to grief. And the emptiness at the center of his heart turned to longing. And his grief bore the fruit of repentance and in his turning his longing was assuaged. For the One of whom the Story spoke met him and dwelt with him.

Julius remained a gardener. But he no longer despised the artichoke. Instead he was grateful for the means to make money. Not that he hoarded it. But he used it. He used it to raise three infants whom he found lying in garbage dumps, placed there because they were girls and therefore not desired. Julius even bought a small piece of land and planted artichokes in it. So great was the profit that when the famine came to Jerusalem he was able to give abundantly to help the poor of the city.

It was not easy, though, being a Christian in Rome. Indeed, so stern was the task that doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead were not speculated on. Instead, they were counted on. Julius came, in the anvil of his life, to a new way of understanding people. He did not become blind to their pettiness, their wretchedness. But he also saw them as loved by this Giver of all Glory, he saw them loved and lifted up, and invited to a glory he could only imagine in the Incarnate One.

And so he learned to suffer fools and even pray for them. He learned to forgive, as he had been forgiven. He learned to hope for even the meanest wretch. And when his youngest daughter was arrested and thrown to wild animals, when in his dreams he could see the teeth of lions rip her young body, he learned to suffer in a way that he had never imagined. To that loss, the loss of the last Flame Iris seemed as nothing. And he was not comforted until the night he saw her, as in a vision, beside the One who is at the Right Hand. And she was a glory. And in that dream she saw him and smiled. And he saw in her eyes a joy that turned from him to the One and she sang a song of praise. And the song became a field filled with the Flame Iris. And Julius wept, and was comforted. And he suffered her persecutors, and prayed for them.

In the time of Nero, Julius was arrested. A young boy who helped him garden had told his master that Julius belonged to the sect of Nazarenes who were destroying the empire.

And so it was that Julius was taken before the court and given a chance to recant and deny Jesus. But Julius, like an Armenian priest almost 1900 years later, simply said, "I must not deny my Jesus."

And so he was taken to a cell. And that night, with other Christians, he was taken to the Emperor's garden. There they were coated with a kind of pitch and placed in the garden at strategic points. They were set ablaze as living lights in that garden.

Now, Julius had borne a strange peace as they carried him to the garden, a peace deeper than he had ever known, a peace promised and now received as a gift. And so he stood at the corner of the garden and as they lit him his heart was lifted up. And by the light of his own body burning, Julius the Last espied in that garden the Flame Iris. It stood there in full bloom.

It was told afterward that the Emperor himself walked that night in the garden and he walked past Julius before he died.

And Julius nodded toward the Iris as Nero watched and cried out to the Emperor: "Behold, the glory of man is as the glory of the Iris--it is from God and will be taken by Him."

And as the Emperor hastened from that spot Julius cried out: "Behold reflected in the beauty of the Iris the goodness of God. Turn from your wickedness to Him."

And the flames worked up to Julius' face, and as he was dying he cried out: "I see that glory which is forever. And he beckons me. Oh, how beautiful is His love."

And the emperor turned and saw Julius consumed by flames-flames which leapt up, scarlet at the center and all about a golden rim.

And Julius died and was lifted up.

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