321. From Seleucia to Antioch.
"You will certainly find a cart at the market. If you want mine, I will give it to you, in memory of Theophilus. If I am a happy man, I owe it to him. He defended me because he was a just man. And one cannot forget certain things" says the old hotel-keeper standing before the apostles in the early morning sunshine.
"The trouble is that we would be keeping your cart for several days... And in any case who would drive it? I can manage with a donkey... But a horse..."
"But it's the same, man! I won't give you a fiery colt, but a wise draught horse, as good as a lamb. And you will go in a short time and without any difficulty. You will be at Antioch by the ninth hour, also because the horse is familiar with the road and will go by itself. You will give it back to me when you want, without any interest on my side, as I am interested only in doing something pleasant to Theophilus' son, and you can tell him that I am always indebted to him, that I remember-him and I am his servant."
"What shall we do?" Peter asks his companions. "Whatever you think is better. You decide and we will obey."
"Shall we try with the horse? I am thinking of John... and also to be quick... I feel as if I am taking a man to the scaffold and I am dying to see it all over..."
"You are right" they all say.
"Well, I will take it, man."
"And I am delighted to give it to you. I am going to prepare the vehicle." The hotel-keeper goes away. Peter can now get the load off his chest: "I have lost half of my lifetime in the past few days. How grievous! I wish I had Elijah's chariot, the mantle taken by Elisha, anything that is quick in doing things... And above all, at the cost of suffering death myself, I would have liked to give something that might comfort those poor wretches, making them forget... I don't know!... In a few words, something that would not make them suffer so much...
But if I find out who is the main cause of all this grief, I am no longer Simon of Jonah, if I don't wring his neck like a wet cloth. I don't mean... killing him. No! But I'll squeeze him as h e squeezed joy and life out of those two poor people..."
"You are right. It is very sorrowful. But Jesus says that we must forgive affronts..." says James of Alphaeus.
"Had they given offence to me, I would forgive... And I could. I am strong and sound, and if anybody offends me, I have enough strength to react against grief. But poor John! No, I cannot forget an affront to the man redeemed by the Lord, to a man who is dying broken-hearted..."
"I am thinking of the moment when we shall be saying goodbye to him..." says Andrew with a sigh.
"So do I. It's a fixed idea and it torments me more and more as that moment draws near..." whispers Matthew.
"Let us do it as quickly as possible, for goodness sake" says Peter.
"No, Simon. Forgive me, if I point out to you that you are wrong in wanting that. Your love for your neighbour is becoming devious and that must not happen to you, as you are always righteous" says the Zealot calmly laying a hand on Peter's shoulder.
"Why, Simon? You are learned and kind. Show me where I am wrong, and if I see that I am at fault, I will say to you: “You are right.”"
"Your love is becoming unwholesome because it is changing into selfishness."
"How? I am grieved over them, and I am selfish?"
"Yes, brother, because by excess of love − every excess is disorder and thus leads to sin − you are becoming cowardly. You do not want to suffer seeing other people suffer. That is selfishness, my brother in the name of the Lord."
"That is true! You are right! And I thank you for telling me. That is what should be done among good companions. Well. I will no longer be in a hurry... But tell me the truth, is it not a pitiful situation?"
"It is indeed..." they all say.
"How shall we leave them?"
"I would say that we should leave them after Philip has given them hospitality... we could remain for some time in Antioch, hiding ourselves, calling on Philip to find out how they are adjusting themselves..." suggests Andrew.
"No. Such sudden parting would make them suffer too much" says James of Alphaeus.
"Well, let us take part of Andrew's suggestion. We will remain in Antioch, but in Philip's house. And for a few days we will go and visit them, but less and less frequently, until we stop going" says the other James.
"We would renew their sorrow and disappoint them bitterly. No. It must not be done" says Thaddeus. "What shall we do, Simon?"
"Ah! As far as I am concerned, I would rather be in their position than have to say: “I bid you goodbye”" says Peter who is downhearted.
"I suggest this. Let us go with them to Philip's house and remain there. Then we will all go to Antigonea. It is a pleasant place... And we will stay there. When they have become acclimatised, we will withdraw, in a sorrowful but manly manner. That is what I would say. Unless Simon Peter has received different instructions from the Master" says Simon Zealot.
"Me? No. He said to me: “Do everything well, with love, without being sluggish, but without rushing, in the way which you think is best.” So far I think I have done so. There is only one thing: I said I was a fisherman!... But if I had not said that, he would not have allowed me on the deck."
"Don't have silly scruples, Simon. They are snares of the demon to upset you" says Thaddeus comforting him.
"Yes. Quite right! I think he is around us as never before, creating obstacles and endeavouring to frighten us to drive us to cowardly actions" says the apostle John, and he concludes in a low voice: "I think he wanted to drive those two to despair by keeping them in Palestine... and now that they are avoiding his snares, he is avenging himself on us... I feel that he is around me like a snake hiding in the grass... And I have felt him like that for months... But here is the hotel-keeper coming from one side and John with Syntyche from the other. I will tell you the rest later, when we are alone, if it is of interest to you." In fact a sturdy cart drawn by a strong horse is coming forward on one side of the yard, driven by the host, while the two disciples are coming towards them on the other side.
"Is it time to go?" asks Syntyche.
"Yes, it is. Are you well covered, John. Is your pain improving?"
"Yes. I am enveloped in woollen garments and the ointment has helped me."
"Get on, then, and we shall be with you in a moment."
... And when they have finished loading, and everyone is in the cart, they go out through the wide door, after being repeatedly assured by the host of the docility of the horse. They cross a square as pointed out to them and take a road near the walls until they go out through a gate and they then proceed along a deep canal first and later along the river. It is a fine well kept road, running northeastwards, following the turns of the river. On the other side there are mountains, the slopes, creeks and gorges of which are very green, and in the most sunny spots one can see the swollen gems of many shrubs in the undergrowth thickets.
"How many myrtles!" exclaims Syntyche.
"And laurels!" adds Matthew.
"Near Antioch there is a place sacred to Apollo" says John of Endor. "Perhaps the winds have blown the seeds as far as here..."
"Perhaps. But the whole area here is full of lovely plants" says the Zealot.
"Since you have been here, do you think that we shall pass near Daphne?"
"We must. You will see one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. Apart from the obscene cult, which has degenerated into dirty orgies, it is a valley of earthly paradise, and if Faith enters it, it will become a true paradise. Oh! how much good you will be able to do here! I wish you hearts as fertile as the soil..."
says the Zealot to arouse consoling thoughts in the two disciples. John lowers his head and Syntyche sighs.
The horse trots with a rhythmical step and Peter does not speak, tense as he is in the strain of driving, although the horse proceeds safely without any need of guidance or spur. They travel thus quite fast until they stop at a bridge to eat and let the horse rest. The midday sun is shining and all the beauty of a most beautiful country is visible.
"But... I prefer this to the sea..." says Peter looking around. "What a storm!"
"The Lord prayed for us. I felt that He was near us when we were praying on the deck. As close as if He were among us..." says John smiling.
"I wonder where He is. I have no peace thinking that He has no clothes... And if He gets wet? And what will He eat? He is quite capable of fasting..."
"You may rest assured that He does so to help us" says James of Alphaeus confidently.
"And for other reasons as well. Our brother has been very depressed for some time. I think that He mortifies Himself continuously to defeat the world" says Thaddeus.
"You mean the demon who is in the world" says James of Zebedee.
"It's the same thing."
"But He will not succeed. My heart is weighed down with fear..." says Andrew with a sigh.
"Oh! Now that we are far away, things will improve!" says John of Endor rather bitterly.
"Don't you believe that! You and Syntyche were nothing compared to the “great faults” of the Messiah according to the mighty ones in Israel" says Thaddeus sharply.
"Are you sure? Over and above all my troubles, I have also this aching pain in my heart: that I have harmed Jesus by coming to Him. If I were sure that it is not so, I would not suffer so much" says John of Endor.
"Do you think that I am sincere, John?" asks Thaddeus.
"Yes, I do."
"Then, in the name of God and mine I assure you that you have given Jesus but one sorrow: that of having to send you here on a mission. You have nothing to do with all His past, present and future griefs."
The first smile, after sad days of gloomy melancholy brightens the hollow cheeks of John of Endor, who says: "What a relief you give me! The day seems brighter to me, my disease less troublesome, and my heart is more comforted... Thank you, Judas of Alphaeus, thank you!"
They get into the cart again and after crossing the bridge they go along the other bank of the river, following the road that goes straight to Antioch, through a very fertile area.
"There you are! Daphne is in that poetic valley with its temple and thickets. And over there, in the plain, there is Antioch and its towers on the walls. We will enter the gate near the river. Lazarus' house is not very far from the walls. His most beautiful houses have been sold. This one is left, once it was the place where Theophilus' servants and clients stopped and rested and it has many stables and granaries. Philip lives in it. A good old soul faithful to Lazarus. You will be at home there. And we will go to Antigonea where the house is in which Eucheria lived with her children, who were very young then..."
"This town is well fortified, isn't it?" asks Peter, who is now relaxing, as he has realised that his test as a charioteer has been successful.
"Yes, very. Walls of great height and width, over one hundred towers, which, as you can see, look like giants standing on the walls, with impassable moats at their feet. And mount Silpius has also lent its tops to assist the defence system, as a buttress in the weakest part of the walls... Here is the gate. It is better if you stop and go in holding the horse by the bit. I will guide you as I know the way..."
They go through the gate watched by Romans.
The apostle John says: "I wonder whether the soldier of the Fish Gate is here... Jesus would be happy to know..."
"We will look for him. But go on now" orders Peter, who is obviously worried at the idea of going to an unknown house.
John obeys without speaking; he only looks carefully at every soldier he sees. After a short distance, there is a strongly built but simple house, that is, a high wall with no windows. There is only a large door in the central part of the wall.
"Here we are. Stop" says the Zealot.
"Oh! Simon! Be good! Will you speak now?!"
"Yes, I will, if it is going to make you happy" and the Zealot knocks at the heavy door. He makes himself known as a messenger from Lazarus. He goes in by himself. He comes out with an old dignified man, who bows profusely and orders a servant to open the gate and let the cart go in. And he apologises for letting them all go in there and not through the main door.
The cart stops in a large yard with porches, well kept, with a huge plane-tree in each of the four corners and two in the centre sheltering a well and watering trough for horses.
"Take care of the horse" the steward orders the servant. He then says to the guests: "Please come with me and may the Lord be blessed for sending me His servants and the friends of my master. Your servant is at your disposal, please give me your orders."
Peter blushes because the steward's words and bows are addressed mainly to him, and he does not know what to say... The Zealot comes to his rescue.
"The disciples of the Messiah of Israel, of whom Lazarus of Theophilus speaks to you, and who from now on will live in your house to serve the Lord, need nothing but rest. Will you show them their rooms?"
"Oh? There are rooms always ready for pilgrims, as in the days of my mistress. Come..." And followed by everybody he goes along a corridor into a little yard at the end of which is the real house. He opens the door, goes along a passage, then he turns to the right. There is a staircase. They go upstairs, where there is another corridor with rooms on both sides.
"Here you are. And may your stay be a pleasant one. I am now going to order water and some linen. May God be with you" says the old man and he goes away.
They open the windows of the rooms they choose. The walls and towers of Antioch are opposite the rooms on one side; the peaceful yard adorned with creeping rose-bushes, which are now bare because of the season, can be seen from the rooms on the other side of the corridor.
And at last, after so much travelling, a house, a room, a bed... A resting place for some, the final destination for others...