14th December 1946.
It is a clear but severe winter morning. Frost has covered with its white floury crystals the ground and grass and has turned some dry twigs lying on the ground into precious jewels sprinkled with little pearls.
John is coming out of his grotto. He looks very pale in his dark hazel-brown garment. He must be also very cold or he is not feeling well. I do not know. He is really ghastly pale and he walks like one who is not well. He goes towards the stream and is undecided whether he should dip his hands into it or not. He then makes up his mind and cupping his hands he drinks a drop of the water, which is clear but certainly very cold. He shakes his hands and finishes drying them with the edge of his tunic. He then becomes uncertain... He looks towards the ruins where Jesus is and towards his own cave, and goes back to it slowly. But when he arrives at the opening through which one enters, he has a kind of fit of dizziness and he staggers. He would fall if he did not hold on to the semi-ruined wall. He rests his head on his folded arm, holding tight to the wall for a short while, then he raises his head and looks around... He does not go into his cave. Grazing the wall and supporting himself on the protruding rugged stones devoid of plaster, he walks the few steps separating him from Jesus' stable, and when he is almost at its entrance, he throws himself on his knees and moans: « Jesus, my Lord, have mercy on me! »
Jesus appears at once: « John? What are you doing? What is the matter with you? »
« Oh! my Lord! I am hungry! I have not had any food for almost two days. I am hungry and cold... » he looks very wan and his teeth are chattering.
« Come! Come inside! » says Jesus helping him to stand up.
And John, supported by Jesus' arm, begins to weep, with his head resting on Jesus' shoulder, and he says with a sigh: « Do not punish me, Lord, if I disobeyed You... »
Jesus smiles replying: « You are already punished. You are like one who is breathing his last... Sit down here, on this stone. I will now light the fire and give you something to eat... » and with the tinder Jesus lights some dry branches and makes a good fire in the rustic fireplace near the door.
The smell of burning branches spreads in the poor cave with the cheerful bright flames, near which Jesus holds two slices of bread after forking them with a stick. When He feels that they are warm He spreads them with the cheese left by the shepherds and when the cheese softens and melts on the bread, Jesus holds the slices flat over the flame, just like a plate.
« Eat now and do not weep » He says smiling all the time and handing the bread to John, who is weeping silently like an exhausted boy, and he does not even stop weeping while eating the comforting food avidly.
Jesus goes to the manger and comes back with some apples, He places them among the ashes already warmed by the wood burning between two stones used as andirons.
« Are you feeling better now? » He asks sitting near His apostle, who still weeping nods assent.
Jesus embraces his shoulders with one arm and draws him to Himself, which increases John's tears, as he is too exhausted and too upset, probably, by the fear of being reproached and by the emotion of being treated thus, to be able to do anything but weep.
Jesus holds him close to Himself, without saying anything while he is eating. He then says: « That is enough now. You will have the apples later. I would like to give you some wine, but I have none. The morning of the day before yesterday I found the faggots and food outside the stable. But there was no wine. So I cannot give you any. If it were later I could try to get some milk from the shepherds, who I saw pasturing their flock beyond the stream. But they will not bring their flocks out until the frost melts... »
« I am already better, Lord... Do not worry about me. »
« And what are you worried about, as you look just like a tree whose frost is melting in the sun? » says Jesus smiling even more brightly and kissing John's forehead.
« Because I am full of remorse, Lord... and... Yes! Let me go! I must speak to You on my knees and ask You to forgive me... »
« Poor John! The effort, greater than your capability, has really weakened also your intellect. And do you think that I need your words to judge and absolve you? »
« Yes, You know everything, I know. But I shall have no peace until I confess my sin, nay, my sins to You. Let me go. Let me accuse my sins. »
« All right, speak, if that will give you peace. »
John falls on his knees and raising his tearful face he says: « I have committed a sin of disobedience, of presumption, and of... I do not know whether I am right in saying it: humanity... But that is certainly my most recent and gravest sin, that grieves me most and makes me understand what a useless servant I am, and even more than that: how selfish and vile I am. »
Tears are really washing his face, while Jesus' smile make His face brighter and brighter. Jesus bends a little over His weeping apostle and His divine smile is a caress for John's sorrow. But John is so dejected that he is not consoled even by that smile and he continues: « I disobeyed You. You told us not to separate, whereas I parted at once from my companions and I scandalised them. I answered back to Judas of Kerioth, who pointed out to me that I was committing a sin. I said: “You did it yesterday, I am doing it today. You did it to get news of your mother, I am doing it to be with the Master and watch over Him and defend Him”... I relied too much on myself because I wanted to do that... I, a poor fool, wanted to defend You! I presumed also because I wanted to imitate You. I said: “He will certainly pray and fast. I will do what He does and for the same intention as His.” Instead... » His weeping changes into sobbing while the confession of the misery of man, of matter overwhelming the will of the spirit is uttered by John's lips: « Instead... I slept. I fell asleep at once! And I woke up in broad daylight and I saw You go to the stream, wash Yourself, and come back here, and I realised that they could have captured You without me being ready to defend You. And I wanted to do penance and fast, but I have not been able to do so. Little by little, for fear I should finish it, I ate the little bread I had on the first day. You know that I had nothing else. I was not yet full, and I had finished everything. And the following day I was even more hungry, and last night... Oh! the night before last I slept very little because I was hungry and cold, and last night I did not sleep at all... and this morning I could not resist any longer... and I came because I was afraid of dying of starvation... and that is what hurts me more: that I was not able to keep awake to pray and watch over You, whereas I kept awake because of the pangs of hunger... I am a vile foolish servant. Punish me, Jesus! »
« Poor boy! I wish all the world had to shout such sins! But listen, stand up and listen to Me and your heart will be at peace. Did you disobey also Simon of Jonas? »
« No, Master, I did not. I would never have done that because You said that we were to be subject to him as if he were our elder brother. But when I said to him: “My heart is not happy to see Him go away all alone.”, he replied: “You are right. But I cannot go because I have been ordered to guide you all. You can go, and may God be with you.” The others raised their voices and Judas did so more than the rest. They mentioned obedience and they also reproached Simon Peter. »
« Did they? Be sincere, John. »
« It is true, Master. It was Judas who reproached Simon and maltreated me. The others only said: “The Master ordered us to stay together.” And they were saying that to me, not to our head. But Simon replied: “God is aware of the purpose of the action, and He will forgive. And the Master will also forgive it, because it is done out of love” and he blessed and kissed me and sent me after You, like that day when You went beyond the lake with Chuza. »
« So I do not have to absolve you of that sin... »
« Because it is too grave? »
« No. Because it does not exist. Come back here, John, beside your Master and listen to the lesson. One must know how to carry out orders with justice and discernment, understanding the spirit of the order, not only the words expressing it. I said: “Do not separate.” You parted from them, so you would have sinned. But previously I had said: “Be united physically and spiritually, subject to Peter.” With those words I elected My legitimate representative among you, with full faculty to judge and command you. Therefore whatever Peter has done or will do during My absence, is well done. Because as I invested him with the power of guiding you, the Spirit of the Lord, that is in Me, will be also in him and will advise him in giving those orders required by circumstances and suggested by the Wisdom to the chief Apostle for the welfare of everybody. If Peter had said to you: “Do not go” and you had come just the same, not even the good reason for your action your wish to follow Me out of love to defend Me and be with Me at the moment of danger - would have been sufficient to cancel your sin. Then My forgiveness would have been really necessary. But Peter, your Head, said to you: “Go”. Your dutifulness to him justifies you completely. Are you convinced? »
« Yes, Master. »
« Have I to absolve you of the sin of presumption? Tell Me, without considering that I see your heart. Did you presume to imitate Me out of pride, to be able to say: “Through my own will I overcame the needs of my body because I can do what I want.”? Think about it carefully... »
John ponders. He then says: « No, Lord. If I examine myself carefully, I did not do it for that. I was hoping to be able to do it, because I have understood that penance is painful for the body, but is light for the spirit. I have realised that it is a means of fortifying our weakness and of obtaining so much from God. That is why You do it. That is why I wanted to do it. And I do not think that I am wrong in saying that if You, Who are so powerful and so holy, do so, I, we all, should always do so, if it were always possible, to be less weak and less material. But I was not successful. I am always hungry and so sleepy... » and tears begin to stream down his face again, slowly, humbly, a true confession of the limitation of human capability.
« Well, do you think that also this little misery of the body has been useless? Oh! how you will remember it in future, when you are tempted to be severe and exacting with your disciples and believers! It will appear again in your mind saying to you: “Remember that you also yielded to fatigue and hunger. Do not expect the others to be stronger than you. Be a father to your believers as the Master that morning was a father to you.” You could have kept awake quite well and might not have felt hungry after all. But the Lord allowed you to be subject to such needs of the flesh, to make you humble, more and more humble and compassionate towards your fellow-creatures. Many cannot tell the difference between temptation and accomplished sin. The former is a trial that gives merit and does not deprive one of grace, the latter is a fall that deprives one of merit and grace. Others cannot tell the difference between natural events and sins, and they have scruples about having sinned, whereas, and it is your case, they have only obeyed good natural laws. By saying “good”, I distinguish natural laws from unrestrained instincts. So not everything that we now call “law of nature” is really such and good. All the laws connected with the human nature that God had given the first parents were good: the need for food, rest, for beverage. Then animal instincts, intemperance, all kinds of sensuality replaced through sin the natural laws and mingled with them polluting with their immoderateness what was good. And Satan has kept the fire burning, fostering vices with his temptations. You can now see that it is not a sin to yield to the need for rest and food, whereas debauch, drunkenness and prolonged idleness are sinful. Neither is the need to get married and procreate sinful, on the contrary God gave orders to do so to populate the Earth with men. But the act of copulating only to satisfy one's senses is no longer good. Are you convinced also of that? »
« Yes, Master. But tell me one thing. Those who do not want to procreate... do they sin against God's order? You once said that the condition of virginity is good. »
« It is the most perfect one. As is most perfect the condition of those who, not satisfied with making good use of their wealth, divest themselves completely of it. They are the perfections attainable by a creature. And they will be highly rewarded. Three are the most perfect things: voluntary poverty, perpetual chastity, absolute obedience in what is not sinful. These three things make man like angels. And one is by far the most perfect of them all: to give one's life out of love for God and for one's brothers. That makes the creature like Me, because it raises him to absolute love. And he who loves perfectly is like God, is absorbed in and united with God. So be at peace, My beloved John. There is no sin in you. I am telling you. So why are you weeping even more? »
« Because there is a fault: that I did not come to You when in need, and that I was able to keep awake out of hunger but not out of love. I will never forgive myself. It will never happen to me again. I will not sleep any more when You are suffering. I will not forget You by falling asleep when You are weeping. »
« Do not pledge the future, John. Your spirit is willing, but it could still be overwhelmed by the flesh. And you would be deeply and vainly disheartened if you remembered this promise you made, but you could not keep because of the weakness of the flesh. Look. I will now tell you what you ought to say to be at peace, whatever may happen to you. Say with Me: “I, with the help of God, propose, as far as it will be possible for me, not to yield any more to the heaviness of the flesh.” And remain firmly in that decision. And if one day, even against your will, the tired and dejected flesh should defeat your will, then you will say as you say now: “I acknowledge that I am a poor man like all my brothers and may this help me to mortify my pride.” Oh! John! It is not your innocent sleep that can grieve Me! Take these. They will help you to recover completely. We shall share them together, blessing him who offered them to Me » and He takes the apples that are now cooked and very hot, and He gives three to John keeping three for Himself.
« Who gave You them, Lord? Who came to You? Who knew that You were here? I did not hear voices or steps. And yet, after the first night, I was awake all the time... »
« I went out at daybreak. There were faggots of firewood near the entrance and some bread, cheese and apples on top of them. I did not see anybody. But only certain people could have wished to repeat a pilgrimage and a gesture of love... » says Jesus slowly.
« That's true! The shepherds! They did say: “We shall be going to the land of David... These are days of remembrance... But why did they not stop? »
« Why! They worshipped and... »
« They pitied. They worshipped You and pitied me... They are better than we are. »
« Yes. They have kept their good will, and their will has become better and better. The gift that God gave them, did not become harmful to them... »
Jesus no longer smiles. He ponders and becomes sad. Then He rouses Himself. He looks at John who is looking at Him, and He says: « Well? Shall we go? Are you no longer exhausted? »
« No, Master. I may not be very strong, I think, because my limbs are benumbed. But I think I shall be able to walk. »
« Let us go, then. Go and get your sack, while I put what is left into Mine and let us go. We will take the road that leads us towards the Jordan in order to avoid Jerusalem. »
And when John comes back they set out, retracing the way by which they came and moving away through the country that the mild December sun is warming up.