13th July 1946.
They must have spent the night at Gamala, because it is now morning, a windy morning. Perhaps the town enjoys the wind, so pleasant in eastern countries, because of its location and terraced construction from the top of the town down to the walls, which are massive and equipped with massive ironshod gates, typical of fortresses. If the town looked beautiful to me yesterday, when it was exposed to the sun, now it seems most beautiful. The houses, arranged as they are, do not obstruct the sight of the vast view, because the terrace of one house is on the same level as the upper street, so that each street looks like a long terrace from which it is possible to admire the horizon. The full circle of the horizon can be seen from the top of the mountain, whereas farther down it is a semicircle, but still vast and very beautiful.
At the foot of the mountain the greenery of the oak-groves and of the country form an emerald setting beyond the deep barren valley surrounding the mountain of Gamala. Then to the east, as far as the eye can see, the cultivations of the tableland, of the plateau. (I think that is the name of the large low elevations of the crust of the earth, but if I am wrong, please correct it in my name because I have no dictionary within reach. In fact I am alone in my room and it is impossible for me to take the dictionary which is on the writing-desk, less than three metres away from me. I am saying this to remind you that she who is writing is crucified to her bed.) Beyond the large plateau are the mountains of Hauran and farther back the highest peaks of Bashan; to the south the fertile strip between the blue Jordan and the continuous compact rising ground which is on the eastern side of the river and is similar to a buttress-like projection of the vast plateau, to the north the remote mountains of the Lebanese chain dominated by the imposing Hermon adorned with countless shades in this early morning. And down, in the near west, the gem of the Sea of Galilee. A real gem fastened to a blue necklace of a different shade of the Jordan flowing into and out of the lake, narrower where it flows in, wider where it resumes flowing southwards, shining in the sun, placid between its green banks, really biblical. The little lake of Merom, instead, is not visible, hidden as it is behind the hills north of Bethsaida, but one can imagine where it is by the luxuriant greenery of the surrounding country, which stretches northwestwards between the Sea of Galilee and the lake of Merom, in the plain where Korazim rises. I think that in the past I have heard the apostles say that it is the plain of Gennesaret.
Jesus takes leave of the citizens, who, proud of their town, are busy showing Him the beautiful sights of the horizon and those of the town provided with aqueducts, thermal baths and beautiful buildings. « It was all done with our work and our money. Because we have learned from the Romans and we have followed their example as far as useful things are concerned, but we are not like the other peoples in the Decapolis! We pay the Romans and they serve us. But that's all! We are faithful. Also our isolation is a sign of faithfulness... »
« Ensure that your faithfulness is not just formal, but real, intimate, just. Otherwise your defence works will be of no avail. I repeat that. See? You have built this aqueduct. It is solid and useful. But if it were not fed by a remote spring, would it give you water for your fountains and thermal baths? »
« No. It would not give us anything. It would be quite useless. »
« You have said it: useless. Likewise natural or artificial defences are useless unless those who build them make them powerful by means of the help of God, and God does not help those who are not His friends. »
« Master, You are speaking as if You knew that we have great need of God... »
« All men are in need of God, and for everything. »
« Yes, Master. But... it seems that we are going to have more need than any other town in Palestine and... »
« Oh!... » a sorrowful exclamation...
The people of Gamala look at Him disconcertedly. The boldest man among them asks: « What do You think? That we shall experience the old horrors once again? »
« Yes, and even more dreadful ones, and lasting longer... longer!... oh! My Fatherland! So much longer... And that will happen if you do not receive the Lord! »
« We have received You. So we are safe! The last time we behaved foolishly, but You have forgiven us... »
« Make sure that you persevere in your present justice towards Me, and that you grow in justice according to the Law. »
« We will do that, Lord. »
They would like to follow Him and keep Him longer, but Jesus wants to join the women who have gone ahead on little donkeys and He tears Himself away from their insistence going quickly down the road by which He came up yesterday. He slows down only when He is where the labourers are working, to raise His hand to bless the unhappy men who look at Him as one looks at God.
At the foot of the mountain the road divides into two branches, one goes towards the lake, the other inland. The four little donkeys are on the latter and they are trotting along raising dust from the road parched by summer, and shaking their long ears. Now and again one of the women turns round to see whether Jesus is joining them, and they would like to stop to wait for Him, but with His hand He beckons them to procede in order to get quickly off the uncovered stretch of the road on which the sun is already blazing down, and thus reach the woods which climb towards Aphek. It is cool in the woods which interlace a green vault over the track. They enter them happily, with exclamations of relief. Aphek is much further inland than Gamala. It is among the mountains and so it is no longer possible to see the lake of Galilee. In actual fact it is not possible to see anything because the road climbs between two ridges which are like screens.
The widow is ahead of them to point out the shortest way, that is, she leaves the track and takes a path which climbs up the mountain and is even cooler and shadier. But I understand the reason for the deviation when, turning round on her saddle, Sarah says: « Look. These woods are mine. Valuable trees. They come from as far as Jerusalem to buy them to make chests for rich people. And these are old trees; but I have also seedling nurseries. Come. See... » and she drives her little donkey down steep slopes, then up crests and then down once again, following a little path through her woods where are in fact zones with old trees, ready to be cut down, and zones with tender plants, at times only a few centimetres off the ground, among green herbs, smelling of all mountain aromas.
« This place is beautiful and well kept. You are a wise woman » says Jesus praising her.
« Oh!... But just for myself... I would take care of everything more willingly, if I had a son... »
Jesus does not reply. They go on. Aphek can now be seen in the middle of apple-orchards and other fruit trees.
« That orchard is mine as well. Too much for me alone!... It was already too much when I had my husband. In the evenings we used to look at each other in the house which was too empty, too large, with too much money and with accounts of crops too plentiful for us and we used to say to each other: “And for whom?” And I say that even more now... » All the sadness of a sterile marriage stands out from the woman's words.
« There are always poor people... » says Jesus.
« Oh! yes! And my house is open to them every day. But afterwards... »
« Do you mean when you are dead? »
« Yes, Lord. It will be painful to leave, to whom?... the things I have taken care of... »
Jesus smiles faintly, a smile full of sympathy. But He replies kindly: « You are wiser with regard to the things of the Earth than you are for those of Heaven, woman. You take care to ensure that your trees grow well and that no glades are left in your woods. You grieve at the thought that afterwards they will not be looked after as they are now. But such thoughts are not very wise, nay they are completely foolish. Do you think that in the next life such poor things as trees, fruits, money, houses will be of any value? And that it will be distressing to see them neglected? Revise your ideas, woman. The ideas of this world do not exist there, in none of the three kingdoms. In Hell hatred and punishment dim minds savagely. In Purgatory the craving for expiation cancels every other thought. In Limbo the blissful expectation of the just is not profaned by any sensuality. The Earth is remote, with its miseries; it is instead close with its supernatural needs, the needs of souls, not with the needs of things. The dead, who are not damned, turn their spirits towards the Earth only out of supernatural love, and they address their prayers to God on behalf of those who are on the Earth, not for any other reason. And when the just will enter the Kingdom of God, what can you expect this miserable prison, this place of exile named: Earth, to be for a soul contemplating God? What, the things left there? Can daytime look back with regret on a smoky lamp, when it is lit up by the sun? »
« Oh! no! »
« So? Why do you sigh for what you will leave? »
« But I would like an heir to continue to... »
« To enjoy earthly riches and be prevented by them from becoming perfect, whereas detachment from wealth is the means to possess the eternal riches? See, woman? The greatest obstacle preventing you from having this innocent boy is not his mother with her rights on her son, but your heart. He is an innocent, a sad innocent, but still an innocent who is dear to God because of his suffering. But if you made him avaricious, greedy, perhaps vicious, through the means which you possess, would you not deprive him of God's predilection? And since I take care of these innocent children, could I be a thoughtless master who allows one of his innocent disciples to go astray? Take care of yourself first, divest yourself of your still exceedingly alive humanity, free your justice from the crust of humanity depressing it, and you will then deserve to be a mother. Because not only who gives birth to a child is a mother, or who loves an adopted son and takes care of him and looks after his needs of animal creature. Also the mother of this boy gave birth to him. But she is not a mother because she does not take care either of his body or of his spirit. A woman is a mother when she takes care above all of what does not die, that is of the spirit, not only of what dies, that is of material things. And believe Me, woman, those who love the spirit, will love also the body, because they possess the right love and therefore they will be just. »
« I see that I have lost the son... »
« Not necessarily. Let your desire urge you to become holy and God will satisfy you. There will always be orphans in the world. »
They are now at the first houses. Aphek is not a town which can compete with Gamala or Hippo. It is more rural than anything else, but perhaps because it is an important road junction, it is not a poor town. As a transit town for caravans travelling from the hinterland to the lake, or from the north southwards, it is bound to be equipped to supply pilgrims with lodgings, clothes, sandals and victuals, and consequently there are many stores and hotels.
The widow's house is near a hotel in the square and the ground floor is a large store with all kinds of goods and is run by an old big-nosed bearded man, who is shrieking like one of the damned at some stingy buyers.
« Samuel! » calls the woman.
« Mistress! » replies the old man bowing as low as the bales of goods piled up in front of him allow him.
« Send Elias or Philip here and meet me in the house » orders the widow and then, addressing the Master, she says: « Come. Come into my house and be my welcome guest. »
They all go in, passing through the warehouse, while the little donkeys are taken I do not where by a tall boy who has come for them. Beyond the warehouse, which does not give the house a very artistic appearance, is a fine yard with porches on two sides. In the middle there is a fountain, or, at least, a basin, because no water is running. Vigorous plane-trees at the sides shade the whitewashed walls. A staircase climbs to the terrace. Doors open into rooms on the porchless sides: the farthest from the warehouse.
« Previously, in the days of my husband, it was full here, and we gave lodgings to merchants overtaken by the night. The porches are for goods, there are stables for animals and the fountain over there to water them. Come into the rooms » and she crosses the yard diagonally going towards the nicest part of the house. She calls: « Mary! Johanna! »
Two maid-servants come, one with her hands soiled with dough, the other with a broom in her hand.
« Mistress! Peace be with you and with us, now that you are back. »
« And with you. Any trouble these past days? »
« Joseph, that light-headed man, broke the rose-bush of which you were so fond. I gave him a good thrashing. You should thrash me for allowing him to go near the plant. »
« It is of no value... » but tears well up in the eyes of Sarah who justifies them saying: « My husband brought me it the last spring that he was healthy... »
« And Elias broke his leg, which has made Samuel furious, because he has no help in these days of busy markets... He fell from the staircase on the other side of the house, while he was hanging out to have the walls whitewashed for you » says the other woman and she concludes: « He is suffering very much and he will remain lame. And you, mistress, did you have a pleasant journey? »
« As I could never have hoped. I have come back with the Rabbi of Galilee. Quick! Make preparations for my guests. Come in, Master! »
They enter the house passing before the two dumbfounded maidservants.
They are received in a large cool room, in dim light, furnished with seats and chests. The widow goes out to give instructions, and Jesus calls the apostles to send them through the town to prepare people for His coming. Samuel comes in, transformed from salesman to butler, followed by maid-servants with amphorae and basins, for the purifications before taking food, which is carried in large trays: bread, fruit, milk.
The mistress comes back: « I told my servant that You are here. He begs You to be merciful to him and I ask You to be merciful to me as well. Many people pass through here for the Feast of the Tabernacles. And the traffic begins immediately after the new moon of Tishri. I do not know how we will manage, if he is not well... »
« Tell him to come here. »
« He cannot. He cannot stand. »
« Tell him that the Rabbi is not going to him, but wants to see him. »
« I will get Samuel and Joseph to bring him. »
« That would be the last straw! I am old and tired » grumbles Samuel.
« Tell Elias to come on his own legs. I want it. »
« A poor rabbi! Not even Gamaliel could do that » mumbles again the old servant.
« Be quiet, Samuel!... Forgive him, Master! He is a faithful servant. He was born here of servants of my husband's family, he is diligent and honest... but stubborn in his ideas of an old Israelite... » explains the widow in a low voice to excuse him.
« I understand his spirit. But the miracle will change him. Go and tell Elias to come and he will come. »
The widow goes and comes back: « I told him. And I ran away at once as I did not want to see him put his black swollen leg on the floor. »
« Do you not believe in a miracle? »
« Yes, I do. But that leg is horrifying... I am afraid that it will become gangrenous and rot completely. It is shiny, so shiny... horrible and... Oh! »
Her interruption and exclamation are due to the fact that she sees Elias run towards them, more nimbly than a healthy man, and throw himself at Jesus' feet saying: « Praised be the King of Israel. »
« Praised be God alone. How did you come? How did you dare? »
« I obeyed. I thought: “The Holy One cannot lie. Neither can He order foolish things. I have faith, I believe” and I moved my leg. It was no longer sore, I could move it. I put my foot on the floor, my leg was firm. I took a step. I was able to walk. I ran here. God does not disappoint those who believe in Him. »
« Stand up, man. I solemnly tell you that few people have faith like this man. From whom did it come to you? »
« From Your disciples who came here preaching You. »
« Were you the only one who heard them? »
« No, everybody heard them, because they were our guests here after Pentecost. »
« And you alone believed... Your spirit is well advanced in the ways of the Lord. Proceed... »
Old Samuel is drawn this way and that by conflicting sentiments... But, like many in Israel, he cannot detach himself from the old mentality for the new one, and he remains firm in his standpoint saying: « Magic! Magic! It is written: “My people shall not be contaminated by magicians and diviners. If a man has recourse to them, I shall set My face against him and destroy him.” Tremble with fear, mistress, lest you should be unfaithful to the laws! » and he goes away with a stern shocked look, as if he had seen the demon installed in the house.
« Do not punish him, Master! He is old! He has always believed thus... »
« Be not afraid. If I had to punish all those who say that I am a demon„ many sepulchres would open to swallow the preys. I can wait... I will speak at sunset... Then I will leave Aphek. I now agree to remain under your roof. »