Heron their bishop was presiding, but too ill to stand or read. He sat facing the people in what they called “the Bishop’s Throne” But it was only a carved chair. Their respected elder, Joseph, who was presiding, took up the book to do the reading when he saw me, not that I wanted to be looked at, hardly. His eyes were curtained with the white mist that will bring blindness, but yet he could see. He smiled a wise old man’s smile; I saw kindness through his mists. Uneasy I was, and, however disguised, self-conscious. I am so busy thinking of myself my focus is always misdirected so that I misjudge the direction of others’ thoughts. Truth is, no one there could know me. That old Joseph, speaking an almost educated Greek, said to me,
‘Stranger, you are welcome among us, although no one need feel a stranger here. Be at ease. You have the look of man who might once have known his Greek. The passages here are a bit difficult, my own Greek is not that good, I wonder, might you as a favor, look over these pages, see if their reading would please you. The writing is by men who once lived in Antioch, knew our forefathers and the Christ. None of them are strangers, just as you are not. Forgive me, I impose, but our Bishop here, bless him, pray for his health,”
Joseph paused, turned toward the pale thin man seated on the large carved chair, this throne of a dying bishop, then turned toward the congregation, gesturing them to follow. They repeated after Joseph, ‘Bless you, our Bishop, bless you.’ the old man had barely strength enough to nod; yet his look was serene enough. Joseph went on, ‘Our Bishop is the one we relied on for the difficult reading. As you can see most here are without letters, which is why the reading out loud, and the telling of the stories is so important. A singing Homer did the same for his audiences. Truth be told, there is something of an Ulysses about Jesus, some wonderful parallels in the few pages we have from the man who lived her in Antioch, Mark. Luke lived here as well, but as yet we have not found his writings. Off course Jesus lives here in our souls. So then, stranger, will you do us the kindness of looking at these pages, reading them out to us, of course only if you like. Good Greek would be so fine to hear.”
“What could I do? Old Joseph came to me with the texts, encouraged me as a teacher might with a child. It was well written Greek, I am accustomed enough to reading and to speaking. At the moment I felt a welling up of great warmth, indeed as if I were possessed by something not at all myself. As I felt love with Helen, but now different kind warm sentiment suffusing. It was as though I was intended to be here. My voice was buoyant with the marvel of it, although I knew a line or two would be enough, for I leave the great story to others. My eyes fell upon a few lines which stood out asking, compelling me to speak them. Mark had written them. And so I read the binding words, read them out and they were resounding:
“And in the morning, rising up a great while before the day, Jesus went out, departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after. When they had found him, they said unto him, all men seek for thee”
I stopped. I told the people there-- it was the strangest thing I have ever done -- I told them from this that I had read, that I knew that there had come to my solitary place, this Jesus, and that within my solitary place, He was praying for me. I knew we had found one another, that among the men seeking, I was such a one.
Old Joseph murmured, ‘yea, and he doth testify, this man who has come amongst us, this man who seeketh and hath brought Jesus within him”
What he understood was right. I was moved to turn a few pages. I tell you, Balthus, the power in it was not mine. Now, other lines reached out to me, gripped my eyes, demanded they be read, demanded they be spoken out to the assembly:
“And Jesus knew their thoughts, and spake unto them a parable, saying
‘If a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand
And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand
And Satan who is divided against himself, if he riseth he cannot stand,
So he shall have an end
So the spirit of God casts out devils and division, and into that place the kingdom of God is come into you, becoming not one who is against me, but who is for me. ‘
I saw in the margins a scribbled line, added text, which I read,’ and in being for me is with me, and of me, and within me, as I likewise am with, and of, and within you.”
I was much moved. I spoke unto those assembled, such words as were not mine, but were mine, saying,
“I have read as the spirit told me to read, for that Spirit, which has lent itself to be with my spirit, to be in my spirit, , knows I have been divided against myself, just as Rome is divided against itself, that the evil within it shall be cast out. I knoweth the kingdom of God, having come into you here, comes into me here. I knoweth the Kingdom of God will be the kingdom that is Rome, undivided. Nor are we divided from Heaven, for it is also our Kingdom come. Great are these, our kingdoms undivided, great is that God who casts out division, who makes of us whole ”.
There was much writing on these pages, but I had spoken what, by some wonder, had been made outstanding to my own eyes. I bowed my head to the assembly, held it low, humble in prayer and thanks, so great a gratitude. Another Elder, Luke came up to me. He put his hands on my head. They were as fire, a friendly heat coursed through my body. That he was blessing me, I knew. That some force was blessing me, I knew. He said, and so loud all could hear,
‘You are no stranger come amongst us, you have brought the Kingdom in and with you”
To which, his words, the assembly did nod assent, saying all of them, ‘Amen”. But then, low came this one voice, its speaker hidden from me in the assembly, but sharp it was with unwelcome, sharp with anger, this one voice spake to them all saying,
“Strangers coming amongst you may also not be but strangers, but also be gods, or may be Satan. Jesus wore no hood to hide himself, so think not you have any Jesus here, rather, ask why does this stranger come hidden? We are here long divided; the Kingdom is not yet ours. Rome is not of the kingdom of God, but of Satan. This stranger come to speak of Rome as within the Kingdom, he knoweth not the Kingdom, only Rome. If Rome endeth only then will Satan hath an end. Here I say amongst us, listen you to this Roman’s pampered Greek, in him is come Rome and Satan, for they are indivisible.’
There was shame in the air, and anger. The rule of the Assembly is soft and loving speech, but this was not, nor was that of a few of the others contending, oh yes soft enough in sound, but knives’ edges to them, cutting, divided. Their Bishop, Heron, was too weak to speak, nor did he seem to me a man who might ever have been strong in speech. Now, with his whisper, his leadership, whatever it had been, was dying. Joseph, to whom some headship had accrued, whispered to me, “Stranger, forgive them their trespasses whereby they may learn forgiveness. Deliver them from evil, I pray you do, Stranger, who is no stranger, You see us as we are, as men and women are, not all yet certain in the kingdom, but all are here because they strive. We are grateful for your presence, Stranger” He saw that I was leaving, He put his hand on my shoulder, said, “Stranger, you have shown us your heart today, Godly it is. Please return to us. We are in need of one another.
After this I adjusted the hood of my cloak, which was still close about my head. I adjusted it closer about me, and I departed.
Balthus, a gift was bestowed on me there, one now of several recent, and this one, contingent on the others, now of great moment, and of great moments, this old soldier opening himself to gifts and wonders.
Those people whom you also saw, Balthus, I am not of them at all, none noble, none Equestrian, none Italian, most illiterate even those Greek but s obviously plebian. I think they would not like me, clearly a few made that clear. You know it, Balthus; I am Commander, Quaestor, Cornelii and a snob. I know what I now have within. I believe it is God, but I am not yet good enough to return to such as assembly. For the now I will enjoy the glow of the gift that came in the reading and the blessing and the prayer. And so, Balthus, I am confirmed in the Christian God but I am not yet a Christian, for I am awkward about its duties. Having become less divided myself, I am increasingly clear as to how Rome might become one Kingdom. I am too gloriously at peace for the first time to face more battles that the soldier in me sees looming in that lowly but God-blessed assembly. If there is a touch of God within me, Balthus, I tell you he is no God of war, of which wars and divisions I have had a plenty.
I will remain a solitary pilgrim, l am happy, full of the miracle of peace and joy. People will inevitably spoil it, even though I know they are half the duty of the Cross. I am yet doubtful about becoming a public Christian, that beyond the shame of it as a Roman aristocrat betraying his blood and duties. One day, perhaps, one day, when I am ready to face fatigue and fighting again, for I know that is the fate in it, and the responsibility of it, for, if men are brothers then I must not save only myself, but secure that brotherhood. One day, perhaps, I will move on that. In the meantime I am blissful, poised and committed, yet sedulously avoiding pubic commitment and, thereby comment. Religion is my private matter. I will share my joy, but that is all. In this matter I will neither lead nor follow men. God is quite a sufficient companion”.
He smiled at me, “You see now, do you, it is that situation, possibility, and potential which requires honest forewarning to my fellow Romans to whom I must be entirely loyal, yet for their own sake, oppositional”.
I, Balthus, stared at him, my mouth open, an opportunity for birds to nest on my tonsils.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter