(late Summer, a.d. 51)

isthmuth

Summer was not a pleasant time in Corinth.

The heat—cloying and oppressive—wrapped itself around the city like an unwanted embrace, leaving Corinth’s citizens exhausted and irritable. They gasped through the streets, moving from one shady spot to the next or staying, as much as possible, behind closed doors and heavily curtained windows.

But it wasn’t just the sticky, enervating temperatures. The heat was mother to a score of other unpleasantries: stenches and insects, failing water supplies and flaring tempers. Corinthians endured the summer with wrinkled noses, painful bites, unwashed bodies, and a readiness—an eagerness—to be disagreeable.

August, of course, was the worst. The month named for Octavian Augustus had none of his legendary coolness. It was the hottest, driest, most unpleasant month of the calendar. Those who could afford it fled west along the coastline or to the cooler mountain regions to the south. But most Corinthians were not that fortunate. For them, there was no escape.

So they hunkered down during August, holding their noses and counting the days until the heat broke and the fall rains came to wash away the worst of summer’s sins.

Perhaps, in the month of August,  Paul could be forgiven for thinking about moving on from Corinth. He felt the heat as much as anyone, after all.

More.

_________

His back hurt. 

It always hurt, no matter the season. But summer brought a special kind of torture.

In the spring and fall, sudden storms would trigger a deep, throbbing ache that dogged his every movement, until the clouds rained themselves dry and brought a measure of relief. In winter, the cold hammered at his spine.

These were pains he learned to live with, though—the ache in his back and the aches in his heart buried away like a grief always present but studiously ignored.

But in summer, his back itched. The lattice of scars that lay across his shoulders and ribs drank up the sweat that dampened his tunic and spit back irritated twinges. Perhaps it was the salt that leached from his pores. Perhaps it was the rubbing of coarse fabric on already sensitive tissue. For whatever reason, each scar set up a thrumming of prickles and tingles that built through the day until the temptation to scratch could not be resisted … or until evening came, mercifully, to offer a brief respite.

It was in the evenings of August that he first began to feel the other itch.

It started as a kind of echo to the twinges in his back—fainter and delayed until after sunset, as if the tingling of his skin had to lessen before the tingling in his head could be heard. But as August wore on, the inner tingle grew stronger until it nagged at him with all the persistence of his pestering scars.

_________

Is it time to go?

He’d asked the question before, in other places and under different circumstances. Sometimes, of course, he had no option in the matter; it was leave or die. But more often, the choice was his—to decide when and how to make his exit from a city.

The deciding was always an agony. They were never ready for him to leave … the ones whose lives had been turned upside down … the ones who believed him and grew to depend on him and stared with such wounded eyes when he finally told them he must go.  He’d seen that look too often, in too many different places. He would give almost anything to avoid seeing that look again.

But there was the itch to deal with—the quiet, insistent gnawing at the back of his mind that would not be ignored, that prickled and burned until he could stand it no longer. With time, it grew stronger than his fear of their eyes. It swelled larger than his worries for their future.

The itch was not a suggestion; it was a command. It could not be evaded, only obeyed.

In the end, he always obeyed the itch, though he fought the obedience as if it were a sin. In Corinth, he fought hardest of all. For the eyes of the Corinthians haunted him—the eyes and faces and the stories that lay behind them.

He saw them now, imagining their responses, as he scratched his back against a door frame in the evening and tried his best to ignore the insistent crawl in his head. Crispus and Hester would blink at him with questions they could not voice. Stephanas would smile, trying to understand but failing. Claemia would look away, afraid. Cratulus and the others would swallow hard, and the sour tang in their mouths would taste like betrayal.

Only Gaius would extend a hand and wish him a safe journey. Only Gaius would be willing to let Paul go.

He would take their faces with him, of course … when the time came for leaving. He would pack them away near the place where he kept his regrets, a place he could open on occasion without waking the other, darker aches he did not like to disturb. He would take the faces out, one at a time, and remember. He would pray for each, as he did for all the others, and then put them down softly to take up one more. It was how he stayed connected to them. It was how he did penance for leaving them behind.

But leave them he would, to turn towards the horizon.

It was the horizon that beckoned him, that itched in his mind like an infected splinter. The call of other places. The call of other people. Across that narrow sea, over the next rise, they waited for him. Past the far bend, they watched for him. He did not know them. He did not recognize their voices. Often, he wished they would leave him alone. But they called to him, none-the-less, and he could not shut his ears.  God would not let him.

August died in a relentless onslaught of blistering sun. It was the middle of September before the heat broke and the first cooling winds of autumn began to blow from the Gulf. Paul’s back granted him a temporary truce.

But he could not get the voices out of his head.

So when the babble rose to a chorus, when the sound of their calling interrupted his conversations and ruined his sleep, Paul did what he knew all along he would.

He surrendered.

_________

“You can’t leave.” She spoke in the tones a mother reserves for a stubborn child.

Paul smiled at her. “I must,” he said quietly. “It’s time.”

“Time?” She was incredulous. “There couldn’t be a worse time! They’re too fragile. They’re not ready. What are you thinking, Paul?”

He looked down, avoiding her stare. “They’re stronger than you think, Priscilla. They’ll be fine.”

She did not believe it. “Who’ll take your place if you leave? Stephanas?” She blew through her lips, dismissing the idea. “Crispus? Portensus?” A shake of her head, another dismissal. “You know exactly who will step forward! And what a mess that’ll be!”

He kept looking down. “Oh, I think Crispus and the others can hold out. They might even handle him better than I did.”

She stared at the top of his head, trying and failing to see wisdom in this decision. “And the synagogue?” she asked quietly. “Gallio? That fiasco’s not even cold yet. They failed, yes, but they’ll try again.”

Paul looked up then and met her eyes. “Not if I’m gone. I’m the one they want. With me out of the way, they’ll have nothing to push against.”

Now it was Priscilla who looked away. “Tell that to Sosthenes.”

They sat together in silence for a long while, Paul scratching his bald pate from time to time, Priscilla staring off into the future.

“Don’t ask us to hold this together after you’re gone,” she said at last, a note of warning, of fear, in her voice. “We tried that once. We weren’t up to it.”

“You were younger then,” he assured her. “You could do it now.”

“Could we?” she wondered, though she showed no interest in finding out.

“Anyway, you’re coming with me.”

Her eyebrows shot up and she felt the anger starting to rise. “Just like that? Just because you say it?”

He suppressed a chuckle. “Yes, Priscilla. Just like that. I’ve already spoken to Aquila.”

She stood and clenched her fists. “And when was he going to tell me?”

Paul sighed. “That was one of his conditions for leaving.  He wanted me to … ahh … well … he gave me the pleasure of breaking the news.”

_________

Some kinds of faith came hard for Paul.

Not faith in God. Not his convictions about the crucified Messiah. The truths others found difficult he embraced without the slightest doubt.

It was faith in people that troubled him. Especially when the time came to leave. There had been too many disappointments over the years, too many reasons to suspect. He’d seen coworkers burn out and turn away. He’d watched churches sputter and lose heart in his absence. He knew about the men—the ones from Jerusalem—who sniffed at his heels, waiting for him to move on so they could move in.

It was faith in people he found difficult.  And it was this lack of faith that niggled at him in those final days, as the ships of Cenchrea whispered with increasing urgency. He’d responded to Priscilla’s doubts with a confidence he did not feel. They’ll be fine, he told her. But he wondered if they would.

He worried whether they’d have the strength to stand on their own. He worried whether they could swim against Corinth’s currents.

He chided himself for his doubts, as he always did when the time came for leaving. He told himself comforting stories about an untroubled future for this church—stories he tried hard to believe. He recognized that beneath his disappointments and worries lurked larger questions about the way God worked … and a kind of pride that dampened his confidence in others.

But he also knew there was some virtue to his fears. In this, as in so many things, he understood that his strength was a weakness. For the truth of the matter was he loved these people. And the fear he felt was mostly a symptom of that benevolent disease. For eighteen months, he’d shared their lives and touched their wounds and breathed their air. They infected him now beyond recovery.

So Paul paid for his love by sweating out worries in the fever of going away.

The night before he left Corinth, he slept poorly, torn between the sound of distant voices and the faces of people he loved.

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