253. Syntyche, the Greek Slave.
15th August 1945.
I do not see the town of Dora. The sun is setting and the pilgrims have directed their steps towards Caesarea. But I did not see the stop at Dora. Perhaps it was a simple stop, without anything remarkable to be noted. The sea seems on fire, as in its calm it reflects the red of the sky so much, so deep a red that it looks unreal. Blood seems to have been shed on the vault of heaven. It is still warm notwithstanding the sea air makes the heat bearable. They are walking along the sea all the time, to avoid the fierce heat of the dry earth, and many of them have taken off their sandals and pulled up their garments to paddle in the water. Peter states: "If the women disciples were not here, I would strip myself and go in up to my neck."
But he has to come out even from where he is, because the Magdalene, who was ahead with the other women, comes back and says: "Master, I am familiar with this area. Can You see that yellow strip in the blue sea over there? A river flows into the sea there, also in summer, as it is a perennial one. And one must be careful in crossing it..."
"We have crossed so many. It is surely not the Nile! We will cross this one as well" says Peter.
"It is not the Nile. But in the water and on its banks there are dangerous water animals. You cannot cross it carelessly or barefooted, if you do not want to be wounded."
"Oh! What are they? Leviathans?"
"You are right, Simon. They are in fact crocodiles. Small ones, that is true, but capable of maiming you for a while."
"How did they come to be here?"
"I think they were brought there for religious rites of the Phoenician era. And they have remained there, they have become smaller, but not less aggressive, and from the temples have passed into the sludge of the river. They are now large lizards, with vicious teeth! The Romans come here hunting and to amuse themselves in various ways. I have come with them, too. Everything helps to... occupy the time. Their skin is lovely and is used for many articles. Allow me therefore to be your guide, in view of my experience."
"All right. I would like to see them..." says Peter.
"We may see some, although they have almost all been destroyed, they are hunted so much."
They depart from the shore and turn inland, until they find a main road, half way between the hills and the sea and they soon reach an ogival bridge, thrown across a little river, the bed of which is rather wide, but the scanty water flows only in its centre. Where there is no water there are reeds and bog-grass, now almost parched by the summer heat, but in other seasons they perhaps form tiny islands in the water. The banks instead are covered with thick bushes and trees. Although they look very carefully, they can see no animal, and many of them are disappointed. But when they are near the end of the bridge, the only arch of which is very high, so that it may not be submerged by water in the period of floods – it is a very strong construction probably built by the Romans – Martha gives a very shrill scream and runs back terrified. A very big lizard, that is all it is, but with the typical head of a crocodile, is lying across the road, feigning sleep.
"Don't be afraid!" shouts the Magdalene. "When they are like that, they are not dangerous. The trouble is when they are hidden and you put your foot on them without seeing them."
But Martha remains prudently behind. Susanna also is frightened... Mary of Alphaeus is prudent but more brave and walking close to her sons she advances and looks. The apostles are not afraid and they look making comments on the ugly animal, which deigns to turn round its head slowly, so that its face can be seen. It then moves and seems to be wanting to come towards those who have disturbed it. Another scream from Martha who runs farther back, imitated also by Susanna and Mary Clopas. But Mary of Magdala picks up a stone, throws it at the lizard which, hit on one side, runs down the gravel bed and sinks into the mud.
"Come forward, you fearful woman. It's no longer here" she says to her sister. The women come together.
"It is really ugly" comments Peter.
"Is it true, Master, that once they fed them with human victims?" asks the Iscariot.
"It was considered a sacred animal, it represented a god, and as we offer sacrifices to our God, so the poor idolaters did it in the forms and with the errors becoming their condition."
"But not now?" asks Susanna.
"I think that it is still possible that it might be done in idolatrous countries" says John of Endor.
"My God! But they will give them dead, eh?"
"No. If they give them, they give them alive. Generally girls or boys. The choice of the population. At least that is what I read" replies John once again to the women who look around frightened.
"I would die of fear if I had to go near one" says Martha.
"Really? But these ones are nothing compared with real crocodiles. They are at least three times as long and large."
"And they are famished, too. This one was certainly replete with water snakes or wild rabbits."
"Mercy! Water snakes, too! My Lord, where have You brought us?" moans Martha, who is so frightened that she makes everybody laugh.
Ermasteus, who has always been quiet, says: "Do not be afraid, It is enough to make a lot of noise to make them flee. I know because I have been to low Egypt many times."
They set out clapping their hands or beating tree trunks. And the dangerous spot is left behind.
Martha has gone near Jesus and she often asks Him: "Will there be any more?"
Jesus looks at her, shakes His head, but reassures her: "The Saron plain is nothing but beauty, and we are now there. But the women disciples have really surprised me today. I do not really know why you are so fearful."
"I do not know myself. But anything that creeps terrorises me. I seem to feel on me the cold of their bodies, which are certainly cold and slimy. And I wonder why they exist. Are they necessary?"
"You should ask Him Who made them. But you may be sure that if He made them, it means that they are useful. At least to make Martha's heroism shine" says Jesus, eyes shining wittily.
"Oh! Lord. You are joking and You are right. But I am afraid and I will never be able to control myself."
"We shall see about that... But what is moving in those bushes over there?" says Jesus raising His head and looking straight in front of Him, at a tangled mass of bramble and other plants with long branches climbing towards an embankment of Indian figs, growing farther back with their leaves, which are as rigid as the climbing branches are flexible.
"Another crocodile, Lord?!..." moans Martha, who is terrorised once again. The rustling of the branches increases and the head of a woman appears. She looks. When she sees so many men, she is uncertain whether to flee to the country or withdraw back into the wild tunnel. The former alternative prevails and she runs away screaming.
"A leper?" "A mad woman?" "A woman possessed?" they ask perplexedly. The woman comes back because a Roman wagon is arriving from Caesarea and is already near. The woman looks like a mouse in a trap. She does not know where to go, because Jesus and His group of people are near the thicket where she was sheltered, and thus she cannot go back to it, and she does not want to go towards the Roman wagon... In the evening dusk, as night falls fast after a powerful sunset, it is possible to see that she is young and pretty although her garments are torn and she is unkempt.
"Woman! Come here!" commands Jesus peremptorily.
The woman stretches out her arms imploring: "Do not hurt me!"
"Come here. Who are you? I will do you no harm" and He says so, so kindly that He persuades her.
The woman moves forward with her head lowered and she throws herself on the ground saying: "Whoever You are, have mercy on me. Kill me but do not hand me back to my master. I am a fugitive slave..."
"Who was your master? And where are you from? You are certainly not Hebrew. It is obvious from your way of speaking and from your garments."
"I am Greek. The Greek slave of... Oh! mercy! Hide me! The wagon is about to arrive..."
They all form a group round the poor wretch curled up on the ground. Her dress torn by thorns shows her shoulders streaked with lashes and covered with scratches. The wagon passes by without any of its passengers paying attention to the group standing near the hedge.
"They have gone by, speak now. We will help you if we can" says Jesus laying the tips of His fingers on her ruffled hair.
"I am Syntyche, the Greek slave of a noble Roman of the Proconsul's suite."
"So you are the slave of Valerian!" exclaims Mary of Magdala.
"Ah! Have mercy! Don't denounce me to him" implores the unhappy woman.
"Do not be afraid. I will never speak to Valerian again" replies the Magdalene. And she informs Jesus: "He is one of the richest and filthiest Romans we have here. And he is as cruel as he is filthy."
"Why did you run away?" asks Jesus.
"Because I have a soul. I am not merchandise... (the woman takes heart when she realises she has come across compassionate people). I am not merchandise. He bought me. That is true. But he may have bought my person to embellish his house, that I may brighten up his time by reading for him, that I may serve him. But nothing else. My soul is mine! It cannot be bought. But he wanted also that."
"How do you know there is a soul?"
"I am not illiterate, Lord. I was a prey of war since my youth. But I was not plebeian. This was my third master and a dirty faun. But I remember the words of our philosophers. And I know that we are not made only of flesh. There is something immortal enclosed within us. Something which has no precise name for us. But I recently learned its name. One day a man came from Caesarea, he worked miracles and spoke better than Socrates and Plato. They discussed him very much, in thermal baths, in triclinia, or in gilt peristyles, contaminating his august Name by mentioning it in the halls of foul orgies. And I, just I who already felt I had something immortal that belongs only to God and cannot be purchased as merchandise at slave markets, was ordered by my master to read the works of philosophers to compare them and find out whether this unknown thing, that the Man from Caesarea had called “soul”, was described in them. He made me read that! Me whom he wanted to enslave to his sensuality! I thus found out that this immortal thing is the soul. And while Valerian and his like were listening to my voice, and belching and yawning he endeavoured to understand, compare and discuss, I linked their conversation, referring the words of the Unknown Man, with the words of the philosophers and I kept them here, in my heart, and my dignity became stronger and stronger to reject his lustfulness... Some evenings ago he beat me to death because I rejected him, biting him with my teeth... and I ran away the following day... I have lived in that thicket for five days, picking blackberries and Indian figs at night. But I will end up by being caught. He is certainly looking for me. I cost much money and his sensuality craves too much for me to leave me alone... Have mercy on me! You are an Israelite and you certainly know where he is, I ask you to take me to the Unknown Man who speaks to slaves and speaks of souls. They told me that he is poor. I will starve, but I want to be near him that he may teach me and elevate me. It is brutalising to live with brutes, even if one resists them. I want to possess my moral dignity once again."
"That man, The Unknown One, Whom you are looking for, is in front of you."
"You? O unknown God of the Acropolis, Hail!" and she bows her forehead to the ground.
"You cannot remain here. But I am going to Caesarea..."
"Do not leave me, Lord!"
"I will not leave you... I think..."
"Master, our wagon is certainly at the appointed place, waiting for us. Send for it. She will be as safe in the wagon as she would be in our house" suggests Mary of Magdala.
"Oh! yes, Lord! Send her to us, in the place of old Ishmael. We will teach her Your doctrine. She will be torn from paganism" begs Martha.
"Do you want to come with us?" asks Jesus.
"With any of Your friends, providing I am no longer with that man. But... but a woman here said that she knows him. Will she betray me? Will any Romans go to her house? No..."
"Be not afraid. Romans do not come to Bethany, above all Romans of the kind" replies the Magdalene reassuring her.
"Simon and Simon Peter, go and look for the wagon. We shall wait for you here. We shall go to town afterwards" orders Jesus.
... When the noise of the hooves and of the wheels and the lamp hanging from its roof announce the arrival of the heavy closed wagon, those waiting for it come up from the river bank, where they certainly had their evening meal, and come on to the road. The wagon comes jolting to a stop on the edge of the rough road and Peter and Simon come off it. They are immediately followed by an elderly woman who runs to embrace the Magdalene saying: "I did not want to delay one moment to tell you that I am so happy, to tell you that your mother is rejoicing with me, to tell you that you are once again the fair rose of our house, as when you used to sleep in the cradle after I had suckled you" and she kisses her many times.
Mary weeps in her arms
"Woman, I entrust this young woman to you and I ask you to make the sacrifice of waiting here all night. Tomorrow you will be able to go to the first village on the consular road and wait there. We shall come by the third hour" Jesus says to the nurse.
"Everything as You wish, may You be blessed! Just let me give Mary the clothes I brought her." And she climbs on to the wagon with the Most Holy Virgin, Martha and Mary. When they come out the Magdalene is dressed as we shall always see her in future: a plain dress, a wide thin linen cloth as a veil and a mantle without any ornament.
"You may go peacefully, Syntyche. We shall be coming tomorrow as well. Goodbye" says Jesus greeting her. And He takes to the road again towards Caesarea...
The sea-front is crowded with people walking in the light of torches or lanterns carried by slaves, breathing the air coming from the sea, which is a relief to their lungs tired of the summer sultriness. The ones walking are mainly rich Romans. The Jews are closed in their houses and enjoy the fresh air on their terraces. The sea-front looks like a very long parlour during visits. To pass there means to be examined closely in every detail. And Jesus passes just there... for the whole length of the promenade, ignoring those who watch Him, make comments or deride Him.
"Master, You are here? At this time?" asks Lydia, who is sitting on a kind of armchair, or little bed, which slaves have brought for her to the edge of the road. And she stands up.
"I am coming from Dora and I am late. I am looking for lodgings."
"I would say to You: here is my house" and she points at a beautiful building behind her. "But I do not know whether..."
"No. Thank you. I cannot accept. I have many people with Me and two have already gone ahead of us to inform some people I know. I think they will give us hospitality."
Lydia's eyes rest also on the women and the disciples at whom Jesus pointed, and she immediately recognises the Magdalene.
"Mary? It's you? So it's true?"
Mary's eyes are like those of a surrounded gazelle: she is tortured. And she is justified because Lydia is not the only one she has to face, as many more look at her... But she looks also at Jesus and plucks up courage again.
"It is true."
"So we have lost you!"
"No. You have found me. At least I hope to find you again one day, and in a better friendship, on the road that at long last I have found. Please tell all those who know me. Goodbye, Lydia. Forget all the evil you saw me do, I ask you to forgive me..."
"Mary! Why are you lowering yourself? We have led the same life, the life of rich idle people, and there is no..."
"No. No, my life was worse. But I have come out of it. And forever."
"Goodbye, Lydia" the Lord cuts short and He directs His steps towards His cousin Judas who is coming towards Him with Thomas.
Lydia keeps the Magdalene back for another moment. "Tell me the truth, now that we are alone: are you really convinced?"
"Not convinced: happy to be a disciple. I regret one thing only: that I did not meet the Light before and that I have been feeding on filth instead of being nourished by It. Goodbye, Lydia."
Her reply sounds clear in the silence enveloping the two women. None of the many people present speak any more... Mary turns round and makes haste to reach the Master.
A young man stands on her way: "Is that your last foolish action?" he says, and tries to embrace her. But half drunk as he is, he is not successful, and Mary evades him shouting: "No, it is my only wise one." She reaches her companions who are completely covered with their veils, such is their disgust to be seen by those vicious people.
"Mary" says Martha anxiously "did you suffer much?"
"No, and He is right, I will never suffer again because of that. He is right..."
They all turn into a narrow dark street and enter a large house, certainly a hotel, for the night.