286. From Ramoth to Gerasa.
26th September 1945.
The peculiarity of this village lying on a raised rocky platform in the middle of a crown of mountain tops, some of which are higher, some lower than it, appears in all its typical beauty in the rather hard light of a somewhat windy morning. It looks like a huge granite tray with buildings, little houses, bridges, fountains lying on it, for the amusement of a gigantic child.
The houses seem to be engraved in calcareous rock which is the basic matter in the area. They are square shaped and built with blocks laid one upon another, some are not plastered, the blocks of some are still in their rough natural state, they really look like the little houses decorating a Christmas crib built with cubes by a big clever boy.
And around the little village one can contemplate its fertile country, covered with trees, variously cultivated, so that from above it looks like a carpet of squares, trapezia, triangles, some of which are brown owing to the recently hoed earth, some emerald green because of the grass grown after autumn rain, some reddish because of the last leaves of vineyards and orchards, some grey-green because of poplars or willows, or enamel green because of oaks and carobs, or bronze-green owing to cypresses and conifers. Beautiful, really beautiful! And one can see roads which, like ribbons parting from a knot, run from the village to the remote plain, or towards the high mountains and dive under woods or divide with a grey line the green meadows or brown ploughed fields. And there is a pleasant stream of water, which is silvery beyond the village towards its spring, and blue fading to jade on the other side, where it flows down to the valley between gorges and slopes, and it appears and disappears playfully, and it grows stronger and stronger and bluer and bluer as its water increases, thus preventing the reeds and grass, which have grown in its bed during the droughty months, from tinging it green and it thus reflects the sky, after burying the stalks in its deep water.
The sky is unreal blue: a precious scale of deep enamel blue, without the least impure flaw in its wonderful texture.
And the caravan sets off again, with the women still on horseback, because, as the merchant says, the road is very difficult after the village and it is necessary to walk fast in order to get to Gerasa before night. They are all muffled up and they proceed swiftly, as they are well rested, along a road which climbs up through wonderful woods, skimming the highest slopes of a solitary mountain, which rises like a huge block resting on the shoulders of the other mountains under it. A real giant as one can see in the highest parts of our Apennines.
"Galaad" says the merchant, pointing at it; he has remained near Jesus Who is leading the Virgin's little mule holding its reins. And the merchant adds: "After this the road is much better. Have You ever been here?"
"No, never. I wanted to come here in springtime. But I was rejected at Galgala."
"You rejected? How dreadful!"
Jesus looks at him and is silent.
The merchant has taken Marjiam up on his saddle, as the boy with his short legs was finding it difficult to keep up with the quick pace of the horses. And Peter is well aware that it is a quick pace! He is plodding along with all his might, imitated by the others, but he is always outdistanced by the caravan. He is perspiring, but is happy because he can hear Marjiam laugh, he sees that Our Lady is resting and the Lord is happy. He puffs and blows while speaking to Matthew and his brother Andrew, who are left behind with him, and he makes them laugh saying that if in addition to his legs, he had wings, he would be happy that morning. He got rid of all loads, like the rest, tying the bags to the saddles of the women's mounts, but the road is really frightful, the stone being slippery with dew. The two Jameses with John and Thaddeus are more clever as they are keeping up with the pace of the women's mules. Simon Zealot is speaking to John of Endor. Timoneus and Ermasteus are also leading mules.
At last the worst of the road is over and an entirely different scenery is displayed to their amazed eyes. The Jordan valley has definitely disappeared. To the east one's eyes rove over an imposingly wide tableland, where only a ripple of hills attempt to rise in order to interrupt the evenness of the landscape. I would never have thought there could be any such thing in Palestine. It seems that after the rocky storm of mountains, the storm itself has calmed down and become petrified in a huge billow which has been left hanging between the bottom level and the sky, with only one remembrance of its original fury in the tiny lines of hills, the foam of the crests solidified here and there, whilst the water of the billow has spread out over a wonderful and magnificent plain surface. And one reaches this bright peaceful area through a last gorge, as wild as the abyss between two clashing billows, the last two waves of a sea-storm, in the depths of which there is a fresh foaming torrent flowing westwards and coming from the east, in a tormented enraged way between rocks and waterfalls in dire contrast with the remote peace of the huge tableland.
"The road will be good now. If You do not mind I will give the order to stop" says the merchant.
"I am being guided by you, man. You know that."
They all dismount and spread out along the slopes in search of wood to cook the food, and of water for their tired feet and parched throats. The animals, once relieved of their loads, graze the thick grass or go down to the limpid torrent to water. The smell of resins and roast meat rises from the little fires lit to cook some lambs.
The apostles have lit a fire of their own on which they heat some salt fish after washing it in the cool water of the torrent. But the merchant sees them and he comes bringing a little skinned lamb, or a little kid, whichever it may be, and makes them accept it. And Peter gets ready to roast it after stuffing it with fresh mint.
The meal is soon prepared and is soon over. And under the perpendicular midday sunshine they resume marching along a better road, which follows the torrent north-eastwards in a wonderfully fertile and well cultivated area, rich in sheep and swine herds, which run away grunting before the caravan.
"That walled town is Gerasa, my Lord. A town with a great future. It is now developing, and I don't think I am wrong in saying that it will soon be competing with Joppa, Ashkelon, with Tyre and many more towns, in beauty, trade and wealth. The Romans have realised its importance, on this road which from the Red Sea, that is, from Egypt goes to the Euxine Sea through Damascus. And they are helping the Gerasenes to build... They are sharpsighted and have a good nose. For the time being it only has a very good trade, but later!... Oh! It will be beautiful and rich! A little Rome, with temples, piscinae, circuses, thermal baths. I only traded with them. But now I have bought much ground, to build emporia, which I will sell later at a high price, and perhaps I will build a real gentleman's house there, where I can stay in my old days, when Balthazar, Nabor, Felix and Sydmia will be able to look after and manage respectively the emporia at Sinope, Tyre, Joppa and Alexandria on the mouth of the Nile. In the meantime the other three boys will grow up and I will give them the emporia at Gerasa, Ashkelon and perhaps at Jerusalem. And the rich and beautiful girls will be sought-after and they will make very good matches and give me many grandchildren..." the merchant has golden and rosy day-dreams for the future. Jesus asks him calmly: "And then?"
The merchant rouses himself, looks at Him perplexedly and then says: "And then? That is all. Then death will come... It is sad. But that is it."
"And will you leave all business? Your emporia? Your affections?"
"My Lord! I would not like to. But as I was born I must also die. And I shall have to leave everything" and he heaves such a long sigh as to push the caravan forward with it...
"But who told you that once you are dead you leave everything?"
"Who? The facts of life! Once you are dead... that is all. You have no hands, no eyes, no ears..."
"You are not only hands, eyes and ears."
"I am a man. I know. I have other things. But they all end with death. It is like the setting of the sun. Its setting destroys it..."
"But dawn creates it once more, or rather it presents it again. You are a man, you said so. You are not an animal like the one you are riding. An animal, once it is dead, is really finished. Not you. You have a soul. Do you not know? Do you not even know that any more?"
The merchant hears the sad reproach, a sad but kind reproach, and he lowers his head whispering: "I still know that..."
"So? Do you not know that the soul survives?"
"Well, then? Do you not know that it still has an activity in the next life? A holy activity if it is holy. A wicked one if it is wicked. And it has its sentiments. Oh! It has them indeed! Loving ones, if it is holy. Hateful ones, if it is damned. Hateful against whom? Against the causes of its damnation. In your case: your business, the emporia, your exclusively human affections. Loving affections for whom? For the same things. And what blessings can a soul bring upon its children and their activity when it is in the peace of the Lord!"
The man is pensive. He says: "It is late. I am old, now." And he stops his mule. Jesus smiles and replies: "I will not force you. I advise you" and He turns round to look at the apostles, who in the halt before entering the town are helping the women to dismount and are picking up their bags.
The caravan sets out again and soon enters the busy town through the gate watched over by towers.
The merchant goes back to Jesus: "Do You want to remain with me?"
"If you do not drive Me away, why should I not want to?"
"Because of what I said to You. I must make You, the Holy One, sick."
"Oh! no! I have come for people like you, whom I love because you are the most needy. You do not know Me as yet. But I am the Love who passes by begging for love."
"So You do not hate me?"
"I love you."
Tears shine in the man's deep eyes. But he says smiling: "In that case we shall stay together. I am stopping at Gerasa on business for three days. I leave the mules here and take camels. I have a caravan stage in the major halting places and a servant looks after the animals I leave in each place. And what will You do?"
"I will evangelize on the Sabbath. I would have left you, if you had not stopped, because the Sabbath is sacred to the Lord."
The man knits his brows, is pensive and with some difficulty he agrees: "...Of course... It is true. It is sacred to the God of Israel. It is sacred... it is indeed..."
He looks at Jesus: "If You allow me, I will consecrate it to You."
"To God. Not to His Servant."
"To God and to You, by listening to You. I will do my business today and tomorrow morning. And then I will listen to You. Are You coming to the hotel now?"
"I have no option. I have the women and I am not known here."
"Here it is, it is mine. It is mine because my stables are here year after year. I have large rooms for the goods. If You wish..."
"May God reward you. Let us go."