28: The Journey to Bethlehem.
5th June 1944.
(Note that the following purple text is not found in the electronic version of the 1986 English edition of Poem of the Man God. The text from the 1986 hardbound edition has been provided.)
I see a main road which is very crowded. Little donkeys, loaded with goods and chattels or with people are going one way. Other little donkeys are going the opposite way. The people are spurring their mounts and those on foot are walking fast because it is cold.
The air is clear and dry. The sky is serene, but everywhere there is the sharp atmosphere common to winter days. The barren country seems vaster, the short grass in the pastures has been nipped by the winter winds; on the grazing ground, the sheep are looking for some grass and they are also looking for some sunshine, as the sun is rising very slowly. They are standing very close together one against the other, because they also are cold, and they bleat, lifting their heads and looking at the sun as if they were saying: « Come quick because it is cold! » The ground is undulating and its undulations are becoming clearer and clearer. It is a real hilly place. There are valleys and slopes covered with grass, and ridges. The road runs through the centre and goes south-east.
Mary is on a little grey donkey. She is all enveloped in a heavy mantle. In front of the saddle there is the fitting already seen in Her journey to Hebron, and on it there is the little trunk with the basic essential things.
Joseph is walking on the side holding the reins. « Are you tired? » he asks Her now and again.
Mary looks at him smiling and replies: "No, I am not." The third time She adds: "You must be tired walking."
"Oh! Me! It's nothing for me. I was only thinking that if I had found another donkey You would have been more comfortable, and we could have traveled faster. But I just could not find another one. Everybody needs a mount nowadays. But take heart. We shall soon be in Bethlehem. Ephrathah is beyond that mountain."
They are both silent. The Virgin, when She does not speak, seems to concentrate on internal prayer. She smiles mildly at one of Her thoughts and if She looks at the crowd, She does not seem to see it for what it is: a man, a woman, an old man, a shepherd, a rich or a poor man, but only for what She sees.
"Are you cold?" asks Joseph when the wind starts blowing.
"No, thank you."
But Joseph is not too happy. He touches Her feet, which are shod in sandals and are hanging down along the side of the donkey and can hardly be seen coming out from under Her long dress, and he must feel them cold, because he shakes his head and takes a blanket which he has across his shoulders and envelops Mary's legs in it and he spreads it also on Her lap, so that Her hands may be kept warm, being covered by the blanket and Her mantle.
They meet a shepherd, who cuts across the road with his herd, moving from the grazing ground on the right-hand side of the road to the one of the left-hand side. Joseph bends down to say something to him. The shepherd nods in assent. Joseph takes the donkey and drags it behind the herd into the grazing ground. The shepherd pulls a coarse bowl out of his knapsack, he milks a big sheep with swollen udders and hands the bowl to Joseph who offers it to Mary.
"May God bless you both" exclaims Mary. "You for your love, and you for your kindness. I will pray for you."
"Are you coming from far?"
"From Nazareth" replies Joseph.
"And where are you going?"
"A long journey for a woman in Her state. Is She your wife?"
"Yes, She is."
"Have you got a place where to go?"
"No, we haven't."
"That's bad! Bethlehem is overcrowded with people who have come from all over to register there, or are on their way to register elsewhere. I don't know whether you will find lodgings. Are you familiar with the place?"
"Well… I will explain it to you… for Her… (and he points to Mary). Find the hotel, but it will be full. But I will tell you just the same, to guide you. It's in the square, in the largest one. This main road will take you to it. You can't miss it. There is a fountain in front of it, it is a long and low building with a very big door. It will be full. But if you do not find room in the hotel, or in any of the houses, go round to the back of the hotel, towards the country. There are some stables in the mountain, which are used sometimes by merchants to keep their animals there, on their way to Jerusalem, when they don't find room in the hotel. They are stables, you know, in the mountain: they are damp and cold and there are no doors. But they are always a shelter, because your wife She can't be left on the road. Perhaps you will find room there and some hay to sleep on and for the donkey. And may God guide you."
"And may God give you joy" answers Mary. Joseph instead replies: "Peace be with you."
They take to the road again. A wider valley can be seen from the crest they have climbed over. In the valley, up and down the soft slopes surrounding it, there are many houses. It is Bethlehem.
"Here we are in David's land, Mary. Now You will be able to rest. You look so tired"
"No. I was thinking I think…" Mary gets hold of Joseph's hand and says to him with a blissful smile: "I really think that the time has come."
"O Lord of mercy! What shall we do?"
"Don't be afraid, Joseph. Be steady. See how calm I am?"
"But You must be suffering a lot."
"Oh! No. I am full of joy. Such a joy, so great, so beautiful, so uncontainable, that My heart is thumping and thumping and it is whispering to Me: “He is coming! He is coming!” It says so at each beat. It is My Child knocking at My heart and saying: “Mother, I am here and I am coming to give You the kiss of God.” Oh! What a joy, My dear Joseph!"
But Joseph is not joyful. He is thinking of the urgent need to find a shelter and he quickens his pace. He goes from door to door asking for a room. Nothing. They are all full. They reach the hotel. Even the rustic porches surrounding the large inner yard are full of campers.
Joseph leaves Mary on the donkey inside the yard and he goes out looking in other houses. He comes back thoroughly disheartened. He has not found anything. The fast winter twilight is beginning to spread its shadows. Joseph implores the hotel-keeper. He implores also some of the travelers. He points out that they are all healthy men, that there is a woman about to give birth to a child. He begs them to have mercy. Nothing.
There is a rich Pharisee who looks at them with obvious contempt and when Mary goes near him, he steps aside as if he had been approached by a leper. Joseph looks at him and his face blushes with disdain. Mary lays Her hand on his wrist to calm him and says: "Don't insist. Let us go. God will provide." They go out and they follow the wall of the hotel. They turn into a little street which runs between the hotel and some poor houses. They then turn behind the hotel. They look for the stables. At last, here are some grottoes, a kind of cellars, I would say, rather than stables, because they are so low and damp. The best have already been taken. Joseph is utterly disheartened.
"Ehi! Galilean!" an old man shouts. "Down there, at the end, under those ruins, there is a den. Perhaps there is nobody in it yet."
They hurry to the "den". It is really a den. Among the ruins of an old building there is a hole, beyond which there is a grotto, an excavation in the mountain, rather than a grotto. It seems to consist of the foundations of the old building, with the roof formed by rubble supported by coarse tree trunks.
There is hardly any light, and to see better Joseph pulls out .tinder and flint and he lights a little lamp that he takes out of the knapsack he is carrying across his shoulders. He goes in and is greeted by a bellow. "Come in, Mary. It is empty. There is only an ox." Joseph smiles. "It's better than nothing!…"
Mary dismounts from Her donkey and goes in.
Joseph has hung the little lamp on a nail of one of the supporting trunks. They see the vault covered with cobwebs, the soil stamped ramshackle earth, with holes, rubbish, excrement – the soil is strewn With straw. In the rear, an ox turns its head round and looks with his large quiet eyes while some hay is hanging from its lips. There is a rough seat and two big stones in a comer near a loophole. The blackness in that comer is a clear sign that a fire is generally lit there.
Mary, goes near the ox. She is cold. She puts Her hands on its neck to feel its warmth. The ox bellows but does not stir. It seems to understand. Also when Joseph pushes it aside to take a large quantity of hay from the manger and make a bed for Mary, the ox remains calm and quiet. The manger is a double one: that is, there is one out of which the ox eats, and above it there is a kind of a shelf, with some spare hay, which Joseph pulls down. The ox makes room also for the little donkey that, tired and hungry as it is, starts eating at once. Joseph discovers also a battered bucket, turned upside down. He goes out, because he saw a little stream outside, and he comes back with some water for the little donkey. He then takes possession of a bunch of twigs in a comer and he tries to sweep the floor with it. He next spreads the hay and makes a bed with it near the ox, in the most sheltered and dry comer. But he realizes that the poor hay is damp, and he sighs. He then lights a fire, and with the patience of Job, he dries the hay, a handful at the time, holding it near the fire.
Mary is sitting on the stool, She is tired, She watches and smiles. The hay is now ready. Mary sits down more comfortably on the soft hay, with Her back leaning against one of the tree trunks. Joseph completes… the furnishings hanging his mantle as a curtain on the hole that serves as a door. It is a makeshift protection. He then offers some bread and cheese to the Virgin, and he gives Her some water out of a flask.
"Sleep now" he says. "I will, sit up and watch that the fire does not go out. There is some wood fortunately, let us hope that it will bum and last. Thus I will be able to save the oil of the lamp."
Mary lies down obediently. Joseph covers Her with Her own mantle and with the blanket that She had round Her feet earlier.
"But you… you will be cold."
"No, Mary. I'll be near the fire. Try and rest now. Things will be better tomorrow."
Mary closes Her eyes without insisting. Joseph creeps into his little comer, sits on the stool, with some dry shoot near him. They are very few. I do not think they will last long.
They are placed as follows: Mary is on the right hand side, with Her back to the… door, half hidden by the tree trunk and the ox which has lain down on the litter. Joseph is on the left side, towards the door, and since he is facing the fire, his back is turned towards Mary. But he turns round now and again to look at Her, and he sees She is lying quietly, as if She were sleeping. He breaks the little sticks as noiselessly as possible and throws them one at a time on to the little fire, so that it may not go out and may give some light and yet make the wood last longer. There is only the dim light of the fire: at times bright at times very faint. The lamp in fact has been put out and in the half light only the whiteness of the ox and of Joseph's hands and face can be seen. All the rest is a confused mass in the dull dim light.
"There is no dictation" says Mary. "The vision speaks by itself. It is for you to understand the lesson of charity, humility and purity emanating from it. Rest. Rest watching, as I used to keep watch waiting for Jesus. He will come to bring you His peace.'"