19th August 1946.
The rough massif of Jiphthahel dominates to the north concealing the view. But where the steep slopes of this mountainous group begin, and they appear almost sheer to the caravan track running from Ptolemais towards Sephoris and Nazareth, there are many caves among the rocky blocks protruding from the mountain, hanging over the abyss, and placed like roofs and supports to the caverns.
As it is customary near the more important roads, there are some lepers who keep aloof but are sufficiently close to be seen and assisted by wayfarers. It is a small colony of lepers who give their scream of warning and invocation when they see Jesus pass with John and Abel. And Abel looks up at them saying: « This is He of Whom I spoke to you. I am taking Him to the two men you know. Have you nothing to ask the Son of David? »
« What we ask everybody: bread, water, to eat our fill while pilgrims pass by. Later, in winter, we shall be starving... »
« I have no food today. But I have Health with me... »
But the suggestive invitation to have recourse to the Health is not accepted. The lepers turn their backs and withdraw from the cliff; they go round the spur of the mountain to see whether any pilgrims are coming from the other road.
« I think that they are heathen sailors or idolaters. They came a short time ago, driven out of Ptolemais. They came from Africa. I do not know how they were taken ill. I know that they were healthy when they left their country and after a long tour along the African coasts to get ivory, and I believe also pearls to be sold to Latin merchants, they arrived here and were diseased. The harbour officials isolated them and burned even their ship. Some took the roads to Syro-Phoenicia and some came here. These ones are more dangerously ill, because they can hardly walk any more. But their souls are even more diseased. I tried to instill some faith into them... They ask for nothing but food... »
« Perseverance is required in conversions. What does not succeed in one year, may succeed in two or more. One must insist speaking of God, even if they appear to be like the rocks sheltering them. »
« Am I wrong then in providing food for them?... I always brought them some food before the Sabbath, because the Jews do not travel on Sabbaths and no one thinks of them... »
« You did the right thing. You said it yourself: they are heathens, thus more anxious about their bodies and blood than their souls. The loving care you have for their hunger awakes their affection towards the unknown person who sees to them. And when they love you they will listen to you, also when you speak of something which is not food. Love preludes the desire to follow him whom one has learned to love. They will follow you one day in the ways of the spirit. Corporal works of mercy pave the way for spiritual ones, which make it so free and level, that the entry of God in a man prepared in such a way for the divine meeting takes place without the individual knowing it. He finds God within himself and he does not know whence He entered. Whence! At times behind a smile, behind a compassionate word, behind a piece of bread there is the initial opening of the door of a heart closed to Grace and the beginning of God's journey to enter that heart.
Souls! They are the most varied thing there is. No matter, and there are so many matters on the Earth, is so varied in its aspects as souls in their tendencies and reactions. See this mighty terebinth? It is in the middle of a wood of terebinths like it in species. How many are they? Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps a thousand, perhaps more. They cover this rough slope of the mountain, exceeding with their sharp healthy smell of resins every other scent of the valley and mountain. But look. They are a thousand and more but, if you watch carefully, there is not one like any other in thickness, height, power, inclination, disposition. Some are as straight as blades, some face north, some south, some east, some west. Some have grown in deep earth, some on a protrusion and no one knows how it can support the tree and how it can stand up itself, outstretched as it is over the abyss, almost forming a bridge, with the other versant, high above the torrent, which is now dry, but is so stormy in the rainy season. Some are twisted as if a cruel man had tortured them when they were tender plants, some are faultless. Some are leafy almost as far down as the ground, some are bare with just a tuft of leaves on their tops. Some have branches only on the right hand side. Some are leafy below while their tops have been burned by lightning. This one is withered and survives only in an obstinate branch, one only, which has come up almost from the root, sucking the surviving sap which dried up at the top. And this one, the first one I pointed out to you, as beautiful as a tree can be, has it perhaps a branch, a twig, a leaf - what do I say speaking of one leaf out of the thousands which it bears - which is like any other? They seem to be, but they are not. Look at this branch, the lowest one. Look at its top, just at the top of the branch. How many leaves are on that top? Perhaps two hundred thin green needles. And yet see? Is there one like any other in shade, size, freshness, flexibility, bearing, age? There is not.
It is the same with souls. As numerous as they are, as many are their differences in tendencies and reactions. And he who is not capable of understanding them and working on them according to their various tendencies and reactions, is not a good master and doctor of souls. It is not an easy task, My friends. One must study continuously and be accustomed to meditation which enlightens more than reading fixed texts for a long time. The book which a master and doctor of souls must study are the souls themselves. As many pages as souls and in each page many sentiments and passions of past and present times and in the embryo stage. So what is required is continuous, diligent, meditative study, constant patience, endurance, courage, in doctoring the most putrid wounds, to cure them without showing disgust, which disheartens the patient. And one must act without false pity, which in order not to mortify anybody, by uncovering putrefaction and not removing it lest the rotten part might suffer, allows it to become gangrenous, poisoning the whole body. And at the same time prudence is needed to avoid irritating the wounds of hearts with too coarse manners and not to be infected by their contact: one must not be so sure of oneself as to pretend that one is not afraid of being infected when dealing with sinners. And where do all these virtues, necessary to the master and doctor of souls, find light to see and understand? Where do they find patience, which at times is heroical, to persevere although they are requited with indifference and often with insults; and their strength to doctor wisely; their prudence not to injure patients and themselves? In love. Always in love. It throws light on everything. It gives wisdom, strength and prudence. It preserves from the curiosity which causes people to take upon themselves the faults which have been cured.
When one is full of love one cannot have any other desire or science but love. See? Doctors say that when a man has been on the point of dying of a disease, it is most unlikely that he will catch the same disease again, because his blood has already been affected by it and has overcome it. The concept is not perfect, but it is not entirely wrong. But love, which is health and not a disease, does what doctors say and with regard to all bad passions. He who is deeply in love with God and his brothers, does not do anything which may grieve God and his brothers. Consequently even if he approaches people with diseased spirits and he becomes acquainted with matters which love had so far concealed, he is not corrupted by them, because he remains faithful to love and does not commit sin. What do you expect sensuality to be when one has overcome it through charity? What are riches for those who find all treasures in the love of God and of souls? What are gluttony, avarice, incredulity, indolence, pride for those who crave only for God, for those who give themselves, even themselves to serve God, for those who find all their good in His Faith, for those who are urged by the untiring flame of charity and work indefatigably to give joy to God, for those who love God - to love Him is to know Him - and cannot become proud, because they see themselves as they are with regard to God?
One day you will be priests of My Church. You will therefore be the doctors and masters of spirits. Remember these words of Mine. It will not be the name you bear, or your garment, or the duties you perform that will make you priests, that is, ministers of Christ, masters and doctors of souls, but it will be the love which you possess to make you such. It will give you everything you need to be such, and the souls, although different one from another, will acquire one only likeness: that of the Father, if you know how to work on them with love. »
« Oh! what a beautiful lesson, Master! » says John.
« But shall we ever succeed in being such? » asks Abel.
Jesus looks at both of them, He then lays an arm round the neck of each and draws them towards Himself, one on His right, the other on His left hand side and kisses their hair saying: « You will succeed because you have understood love. »
They go on walking for some time, with greater and greater difficulty because of the roughness of the path which is cut almost on the brink of the mountain. Below, in the distance, there is a road and one can see people walking along it.
« Let us stop, Master. See, over there, from that rocky platform the two lepers lower with a rope a basket to passersby, and their grotto is beyond the platform. I will call them now. » And he utters a cry moving forward, while Jesus and John remain behind, hidden among thick shrubs.
After a few moments a face appears... - let us call it a face because it is situated on top of a body, but it could be called also a snout, a monster, a nightmare... - and it looks down from a bush of blackberries.
« Is that you? But did you not leave for the Tabernacles? »
« I found the Master and I came back. He is here! »
If Abel had said: « Jehovah is hovering over your heads » very likely the cry, the gestures, the enthusiasm of the two lepers - because while Abel was speaking also the other one appeared - would not have been so sudden and respectful, in jumping out, onto the platform, in full sunshine, prostrating themselves on the ground and shouting: « Lord, we have sinned. But Your mercy is greater than our sin! » They shout so without even ensuring whether Jesus is really there, or whether He is still afar, on the way towards them. Their faith is such that it makes them see what their eyes - because of the sores on their eyelids and their prompt throwing of themselves on the ground - certainly did not see.
Jesus moves forward while they repeat: « Lord, our sin does not deserve to be forgiven, but You are the Mercy! Lord Jesus, for the sake of Your Name, save us. You are the Love which can overcome Justice. »
« I am the Love. That is true. But above Me is the Father. And He is the Justice. » says Jesus severely, moving forward along the path with John.
The two raise their disfigured faces and look at Him through the tears streaming down their cheeks mingled with rotten matter. How horrible are those faces to be seen! Old? Young? Which is the servant? Which is Aser? It is impossible to say. The disease has assimilated them transforming them into two figures of horror and disgust.
I do not know how Jesus must seem to them, as He stands in the middle of the path, while the sun envelops Him with its beams and inflames his golden hair. I know that they look at Him and then they cover their faces moaning: « Jehovah! The Light! » Then they shout again: « The Father sent You to save. He calls You His Beloved One. He is pleased with You. He will not refuse You to forgive us. »
« Forgiveness or health? »
« Forgiveness » shouts one. And the other: « ... and then health. My mother is dying broken-hearted because of me. »
« If I forgive you, the justice of men will still remain, for you in particular. So of what avail is My forgiveness to make Your mother happy? » says Jesus temptingly, to make him say the words which He is waiting for in order to work the miracle.
« It is of great avail. She is a true Israelite. She wants the bosom of Abraham for me. And the place of expectation for Heaven is not for me because I have sinned too much. »
« Too much. You have said it. »
« Too much!... It is true... But You... Oh! Your Mother was there on that day... Where is Your Mother now? She felt pity for Abel's mother. I noticed that. And if She heard me now, She would have mercy on mine. Jesus, Son of God, in Your Mother's name, have mercy on me!... »
« And what would you do afterwards? »
« Afterwards? » They cast frightened glances at each other. The « afterwards » is the sentence of men, it is contempt, or flight, exile. They tremble before the prospect of recovery as if they were about to lose salvation. How attached are men to life! The two, caught in the dilemma of being cured and then being condemned by the law of men, or having to live as lepers, almost prefer to live as lepers. They admit it saying: « The punishment is dreadful! ». I realise that it is Aser in particular, one of the two homicides, to say so...
« It is dreadful. But at least it is justice. You were going to inflict it on this innocent man, you... with lustful aims, and you... for a handful of coins. »
« That is true! O my God! But he has forgiven us. We beg You to forgive us as well. It means that we shall die. But our souls will be saved. »
« Joel's wife was stoned because she was an adulteress. Her four children are living with her mother and are finding it difficult to make both ends meet, because Joel's brothers drove them out as illegitimate children and they took possession of their brother's property. Did you know that? »
« Abel told us... »
« And who will make amends for their misfortune? » Jesus' voice resounds like thunder, it is really the voice of God Judge and it is frightening. All alone in the sunshine, standing straight, He is the figure of terror. The two look at him with fear. Although the sunshine exacerbates their sores, they do not move, neither does Jesus, Who is completely enveloped in it. Elements lose their power in these hours of souls...
After some time Aser says: « If Abel wants to love me thoroughly, let him go to my mother and tell her that God has forgiven me and... »
« I have not forgiven you yet. »
« But You will, because You can see my heart... And he will tell her that I want everything belonging to me to go to Joel's children. Whether I live or die, I renounce the wealth that made me vicious. »
Jesus smiles. He becomes transfigured in smiling, His countenance from severe becomes pitiful and in a changed voice He says: « I can see your hearts. Stand up. And raise your spirits to God blessing Him. As you are cut off from the world you may go away without the world knowing about you. And the world is waiting for you to give you the possibility to suffer and expiate. »
« Are You saving us, Lord?! Are You forgiving us?! Are You curing us?! »
« Yes, I am. I will let you live because life is painful particularly for those who have recollections like yours. But you cannot get out of here just now. Abel must come with Me, like all Hebrews he must go to Jerusalem. Wait for his return. It will coincide with your recovery. He will take you to the priest and will inform your mother. I will tell Abel what he must do and how to do it. Can you believe My words, even if I go away without curing you? »
« Yes, Lord, we can. But tell us once again that you are forgiving our souls. Do that. Then everything will happen when You wish. »
« I forgive you. May you revive with new spirits and sin no more. Remember that in addition to abstaining from sin, you must accomplish acts of justice directed at the complete cancellation of your debt in the eyes of God, and that consequently your penance is to be continuous, because your debt is a heavy one indeed! Yours in particular concerns all the commandments of the Lord. Think about it and you will see that not one of them is excluded. You forgot about God, you made sensuality your idol, you turned feast days into delirious idleness, you offended and dishonoured your mother, you helped in killing and you wanted to kill, you stole life and you wanted to rob a mother of her son, you deprived four children of their father and mother, you have been lustful, you bore false witness, you lewdly coveted the woman who was faithful to her dead husband, you coveted what belonged to Abel, so much so that you wanted to kill him to take possession of his property. »
Aser moans at each sentence: « It's true, it's true! »
« As you can see, God could have reduced you to ashes without resorting to human punishments. He spared you that I might save another man. But the eyes of God watch you and His Intelligence remembers. Go » and He turns round and goes back to the thicket near Abel and John, who had taken shelter under the trees on the mountain side.
And the two men, still disfigured, perhaps smiling - but who can tell when a leper smiles? - with the typical shrill metallic intermittent voice of lepers intone psalm 114 with sudden tone variations, while Jesus descends the mountain following the dangerous path...
« They are happy! » says John.
« I am happy, too » says Abel.
« I thought that You were going to cure them at once » says John again.
« So did I, as You usually do. »
« They were big sinners. This is a fair expectation for those who have sinned so much. Now listen, Ananias... »
« My name is Abel, Lord » says the surprised young man and he looks at Jesus, as if he were asking himself: « Why is He mistaking? »
Jesus smiles and says: « You are Ananias to Me, because you really seem to be born of the kindness of the Lord. Be so more and more. And listen. On the way back from the Tabernacles you will go to your town and tell Aser's mother what her son decided and that it is to be carried out as soon as possible, giving everything in atonement less one tenth. And that out of pity for the old mother who should leave Bethlehem of Galilee with you and go to Ptolemais, waiting for her son, who will join her and you with his companion. After leaving the woman with some disciple in town, you will go and get what is necessary for the purifications of lepers and you will leave only when everything is over. Make sure that the priest is not one who is aware of their past, and get one from a different town. »
« And then? »
« You will then go back home or join the disciples. And the two men who have been cured, will take the road of expiation. I am saying only what is essential. I leave man free to act afterwards... »
And they continue to go down, without tiring, despite the roughness of the road and the heat of the sun... without tiring and without speaking for a long time.
Then Abel breaks the silence saying: « May I ask a grace of You, Lord? »
« Which? »
« To let me go to my town. I am sorry to leave You. But that mother... »
« Go. But do not be late. You will get to Jerusalem just in time. »
« Thank You, Lord! I shall find but her, poor old soul, ashamed of everything, since Aser sinned. But she will smile once again. What shall I tell her in Your name? »
« That her tears and prayers have achieved grace and that God encourages her to hope more and more and that He blesses her. But before parting, let us stop for an hour. Not more. It is not the time to stop. Then you will go your way, John and I Mine, taking short cuts. And you, John will go ahead of Me, to My Mother. You will take Her this bag containing linen garments and you will come with woollen ones. You will tell Her that I want to see Her and that I shall be waiting for Her in the wood of Mattathias, the one belonging to his wife. You know it. Speak to Her alone and come at once. »
« I know where is the wood. And what about You? Are You remaining alone? »
« I am remaining with My Father. Be not afraid » says Jesus raising His hand and laying it on the head of His beloved disciple, who is sitting on the grass beside Him. And He smiles at him saying: « But we ought to be there by the evening... »
« Master, when I have to make You happy, I do not get tired. You know that. And to go to Mother!... I feel as if angels were carrying me. But it is not very far. »
« What one does with joy is never far... But you will stay for the night at Nazareth. »
« And You? »
« And I... I will stay with My Father after being with My Mother for a short time. And I will set out at dawn, taking the road of the Tabor, without entering Nazareth. You know that I have to be at Jezreel at dawn the day after tomorrow. »
« You will be very tired, Master. You already are. »
« We shall have time to rest in winter. Do not worry. And do not hope to be able to evangelize all the time, in peace, as you do here. We shall meet with many delays... » Jesus lowers His head pensively, nibbling at His piece of bread more to keep the two disciples company - young as they are and happy to be with the Master they are eating with relish - than to satisfy His hunger. In fact He stops eating and becomes absorbed in deep silence, which the two respect resting quietly in the breeze of the mountain, with their bare feet in the cool grass which has grown round the feet of mighty tree-trunks. And they would also doze, but Jesus raises His head and says: « Let us go. We shall part at the cross-roads. »
And after tying their sandals they set out. The shadow in the wood and the wind blowing from the north help them to bear the sultry heat of the warm hour of the day, although it is not so torrid as in full summer months.